The History and Future of Reading

This is a provisional description of a graduate course I’ll offer in the Department of English in Spring 2018. For details and updates, contact me.

The history of reading begins with the invention of written language and culminates, like all histories, in the present — in the seminar room of this course, among other places. Here we will study that history and the theorizations of reading practices, and consider how cultural and material circumstances have influenced historical readers. And we will see the present and future of reading as equally subject to our own intellectual habits and technologies. But we will also examine our practices of reading two novels in 18 — novels from the 1760s and the 1990s. Both are “thick with the presence of other books” (in A.S. Byatt’s words), and with an awareness of their own status as books, of both the limits and potential of written language.

We read today in an age of abundance, when Google Books offers searchable access to 12 million books in 300 languages (so far). Digital tools help us navigate and analyze these texts quickly, but human expertise must apply qualitative judgement to all of this quantitative data. This course will explore the possibilities and limitations of what Stephen Ramsay calls “algorithmic criticism,” or the use of computers to ask empirical questions of texts, and to visualize their linguistic features using word trees, heat maps, and other deformations. Ramsay has addressed the limitations of this criticism, which aims “not to constrain meaning, but to guarantee its multiplicity.” To this end, the course aims primarily to teach and to theorize a critical toolkit, and to understand how it originates in or differs from past reading and interpretive practices.

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Ten Ways to Teach without Lecture Notes

(Prefatory note: I’m writing this as a university professor of literature, but most of my observations should apply to other subjects at other levels.)

In a hypothetical alternate universe, imagine that you have to teach a class in ten minutes and just finished reading the book. You favour “just-in-time” teaching methods – out of habit, if not principle – so you tend to lecture from a list of ideas, quotations, questions, and classroom exercises, accompanied by a good slideshow. But today, as I said, you just finished the reading and teach in ten (now seven) minutes. What do you do?

First, let’s drop the alternate-universe fiction. Over the years my lecture notes have thinned considerably. I used to go in with every word scripted, in mortal fear that I would run out of material. But I’ve come to realize two things: students retain far more from interative knowledge-creation than from knowledge-delivery; and each class gives you an opportunity to make knowledge together, in ways you can only do together. In your limited time, in this room, with these minds, what knowledge will you produce?

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The Cure for Death by Powerpoint

This is an edited version of the talk I gave in the Faculty of Arts Teaching and Leaning Workshop series at the University of Calgary on 20 October 2016.

I delivered it for university faculty, but I think it could apply equally to all classrooms — maybe even beyond.

UPDATE (28 November 2016): I’ll give another version of this talk to the wider university community on 20 January 2017. Click here for details

Here’s the abstract:

Most of us use slideshows like Powerpoint or Keynote to accompany our lectures and illuminate our points. But what principles and habits are we following when we write our slideshows? Are we showing students the right information, in the right way, at the right time?

In this workshop, you’ll design slideshows to match your teaching goals to students’ learning needs. You’ll critique some slideshows that just don’t work. You’ll learn about some features of these two programs, like text animations and embedded media. And you’ll learn how slides can tell stories and provoke conversations, not just deliver information.

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Film Diary: Branagh’s *Hamlet* (1996)

For my English 311 course this term, I’ve been watching Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 full-text of Hamlet while I read the play in Robert Miola’s Norton edition.


That edition includes an excerpt (176-82) from Kenneth Branagh’s introduction to the play, in which he describes the full text as offering more contextual richness than typically abridged performance versions: the background story of Polonius and his agent Reynaldo, and the plotting scene between Claudius and Laertes that sets the stage for his climactic duel with the prince.

The latter is an intense, whispered, conspiratorial conversation in which the grief-stricken Laertes (Michael Maloney) delivers the line “Thus didst thou” (4.7.55) as “Thus diest thou” — through gritted teeth, and with steely resolve. And when Claudius (Derek Jacobi) ruminates on their backup plan to kill Hamlet, it’s his upraised glass that makes him think of the poisoned chalice (4.7.155-61).

In short, this scene in the film made me appreciate how choices of text, of setting, of props, and of performance can influence my interpretation of a line like this one.


Teaching Shakespeare in the Screen Age

Shakespeare is hard

Reading Shakespeare is hard, especially if it’s your first time. It’s hard because Shakespeare writes plays and poems in unfamiliar language, making unfamiliar cultural references – and because his meanings are buried beneath two layers, of historical distance and of poetic style. So readers in 2016 need to excavate Shakespeare’s meaning from beneath his idiom and his syntax.

But reading Shakespeare in 2016 is hard for a third reason: because reading anything in print in 2016 is hard. It’s hard even for seasoned academics, but it’s particularly hard for each new generation of our students. I mean the difficulty of focusing on one thing in the era of distraction, of concentrating our mental resources to read books in the era of screens.

This is the paper I delivered on Monday June 30th at Congress 2016, so there are references to the particularities of that conference. It describes some of the design principles behind “Shakespeare and the Screen,” a course that I’m teaching.
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Model Close-Reading Essay

This is a Model Close-Reading Essay (~500-600 words) for students in my English 311: Shakespeare. For details, see the course homepage. 

Henry V, 1.2.260-98: A Close Reading

This passage consists of thirty-eight pentameter lines, unrhymed except for two couplets (ll.288-89 and 296-97). King Henry addresses an ambassador from the Dauphin, who has sent a gift of tennis-balls and a rebuke of Henry’s claim to the French crown.

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Student Projects in the Digital Humanities

This is a brief post, to highlight the work of my students this past term in a directed-study course in the digital humanities. Aaron Ellsworth and Will Best have each undertaken research projects, and have published a series of blog posts on their processes and their results. (Click on each name for each series.)

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20 Minutes Smarter: Using Stations for Critical Thinking

Like others, I use a template to put together my course outline. It saves time, and it has a nice design (or so I think). It also has standard language about submission policies and academic integrity and laptops and mobile phones in the classroom.

The technology policy usually says something stern about how you don’t need an internet-connected computer for any purpose, and shouldn’t use one for anything in class beyond note-taking. Stay focused, be mindful, eat your proverbial vegetables.

But this time it’s different:

You will make frequent and extensive use of your laptop computer and mobile phone in this class, to annotate texts and pose questions and make preliminary research inquiries — particularly when we are watching films and clips together. But you must at all times be willing to share your screen with others in your groups, and often with the whole class. Please keep your Facebook trolling and Buzzfeed fixes to designated stations and/or break times. You owe it to yourself, and your colleagues, to stay focused on the material at hand.

(I had to add the last part, which says, “Look, I know there are a thousand temptations out there – but let’s agree to concentrate on the task at hand.”)

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Empathy and the Novel

[This is my provisional course description for English 201 L13 in Fall 2016.]

What are novels good for? Conventional wisdom says that when we read novels, we allocate scarce resources of time to a leisure activity. But economic calculations of productivity or escapism are too reductive. Novels expand our narrow views of the world by making us empathize with characters who are overtly unlike us. The novels we read in this course will unsettle our conventional thinking. Negotiating between human desires and social mores, their characters transport us from our circumstances into rapturous loves, geopolitical crises, sun-dappled landscapes, and sterile sanitoriums.

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Engaging Large Classes: Notes from a Workshop

These are my notes from a recent Teaching + Learning Workshop on engaging large classes, with Patrick Finn (R, Drama) and David Dick (L, Philosophy).

I’m posting these notes here because far too often, events of this kind aren’t documented for those who had the misfortune to miss them.

This isn’t a transcript of everything that happened in the workshop; merely a cluster of impressions and ideas that David and Patrick raised today. (For the most part, I’m paraphrasing their words. My interjections are in italics.)

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