English 503: The History of Reading (W2013)

Faculty of Arts  ::  University of Calgary 

Instructor: Dr Michael Ullyot   Office: Social Sciences 1106   Office hours: Wednesdays, 12-1   Email: ullyot[at]ucalgary[dot]ca  Google+: my profile   Twitter: @ullyot (i.e. twitter.com/ullyot)   ~ Course blog ~

Description and Goals

“People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.”    ~ Logan Pearsall Smith

The history of reading begins with the invention of written language and culminates, like all histories, in the present — in the seminar room of English 503, among other places. In this course 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 2013 — 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.


I’ve included links to the Book Depository to order them online, though of course they’re also going to be at the University of Calgary Bookstore. You can also compare all prices for new & used copies through BookFinder, but be careful to buy the required editions (e.g. the 2003 Penguin Classics of Sterne).

Course Schedule

ENGL503 Schedule


Topical Presentation: Summary 10%
Topical Presentation: Delivery 10%
Blog post: Close Reading 10%
Blog post: Resource 10%
Participation (includes Twitter assignment) 10%
Research Paper 50%

All components are compulsory. No student can achieve a passing grade in the course without completing and submitting both blog posts and the Research Paper.

Each component is graded out of 10 or 100 marks. Here are the percentage equivalents in the English Department’s standardized grading system.

0 + % A+ 4.0
85 – 89 % A 4.0
80 – 84 % A- 3.7
77 – 79 % B+ 3.3
74 – 76 % B 3.0
70 – 73 % B- 2.7
67 – 69 % C+ 2.3
64 – 66 % C 2.0
60 – 63 % C- 1.7
55 – 59 % D+ 1.3
50 – 54 % D 1.0
0 – 49 % F 0

Topical Presentation (10 + 10%)

The Topical Presentation is an oral presentation on any topic pertaining to the texts we are reading that day. Think of it as an introductory lecture to intelligent non-specialists.

Its aim is to interpret the readings and other resources. That means your presentation will normally quote the readings at least twice. Be provocative and interesting, and use this textual evidence to make your case convincing.

For full marks, you will:

  • Deliver a thoughtful and well-prepared presentation.
  • Do not simply tell a story: develop an argument about any aspect of your assigned text or text section. (In the cases of Sterne and Byatt, you must concentrate on certain sections of the novel; for instance, on February 4th the speaker must focus on Tristram Shandy, volumes VII – IX).
  • Do not exceed your time limit; it is a strict maximum.

Here is my rubric for the 10% presentation; the written summary is marked separately.

Here is the schedule of presenters.

Presentation Format

Your presentation can take one of two forms: either a PetchaKucha (6 minutes, 40 seconds) or a more traditional 8-minute presentation without any visual slides. (So if you plan to use visual images, you must opt for the PetchaKulcha format.) Both will pertain to one of the written texts we are reading in the course. I will circulate a sign-up sheet in advance.

  • For the PetchaKucha, follow my instructions here.
  • For the 8-minute presentation, deliver a thoughtful and well-prepared presentation.

Written Summary (10%)

48 hours before your presentation, post a written summary (about 500 words) to the course blog for your fellow students to read in advance. Remember that you are making an argument, not simply discussing a topic. Categorize your post as a “Presentation Summary.” This summary is worth 10% of your grade in the course. End with a question or two for your audience, to provoke discussion.

This document is not a contract, but it should frame some of the key claimsyou’ll make in your argument, and serve as a frame for discussion. The summary should tell us a few things:

  • the core concepts on which you’ll focus, and how they arise in your text/resource;
  • the format (PechaKucha or traditional) you’ll follow;
  • any outside resources you’ll use to make your argument;
  • one or more provocative discussion questions you’ll raise.


After your presentation, there will be 10 minutes for discussion. Conclude your presentation with one or two questions for this discussion.

Each presentation will have a designated respondent. This person’s job has two parts:

  1. to respond to your summary on the blog, in the comments field; and
  2. to join you in leading the 10-minute discussion of your presentation. (I will not speak first.)

Blog Posts (10 + 10%)

You will write at least two 300-word posts on the English 503 blog in this course. Here are the instructions you need to get started.

There are two types of required blog posts:

  1. Close readings are of any passage you choose from the sections of Sterne or Byatt that we are reading in a given week. There’s an advantage to writing these posts early, because you’re not allowed to repeat the selections of any of your fellow students. Start by choosing a short passage — about 10 lines of prose, or 20 lines of poetry. (Don’t transcribe the passage; just give us the page number.) Which passage seems the most interesting, the most complex, the most beautiful? Your choice can be any passage we haven’t discussed in class, or haven’t discussed enough. Then discuss the passage in detail, including a lot of questions. The best close readings shift between commenting on a text’s details and using those details to hypothesize a pattern or a reading of a larger structure (e.g., what the narrator is like) or the text as a whole. For more resources on close reading, see this guide, or this one — or these four lists of terms, prepared for my Shakespeare students.
  2. Responses are less prescriptive. Respond either to the “History + Theory” text we’re reading that week, or to any other material you find that would enrich our understanding of anything we’re reading that week. These can be other supplementary material like articles, podcasts, videos, Wikipedia entries, reading blogs, tweets, art exhibitions — anything that will provoke new thinking and discussion about the history and future of books and reading. Start by identifying what you’re responding to, and give us your thoughts and questions about it. If you’ve gone outside of the course texts, provide a rationale for your choice — and a link so we can find it!

Always categorize your posts as either a Close Reading or a Response.

My policies and my rubric for grading your close reading post are here. I’ll grade your response by how well it fulfils the terms of the assignment.

Timing of Blog Posts

I have randomly assigned you to one of 11 groups, G1 to G11. Each group will write one post of each type. Here is a table of assigned groups.

Your group assignment also determines the timing of your two posts. In the course schedule, you can see the dates when your posts are due: e.g. Group 1/{G1} must post a close reading of a passage from Sterne (vols. I-II) by Monday, January 14th. We’ll discuss the posts in the following class — in this case, on Wednesday the 16th.

Participation (10%)

Your participation grade depends on three things:

  1. Your active and regular attendance in our seminars; and your informed and engaged participation in those seminars. That means you come to the seminar regularly, always prepared to discuss the day’s reading(s) with your peers. You have impressions and questions about the texts. If you don’t have a chance to share them in class, you post them to the course blog (category: “Followup”).
  2. When you serve as a (formal) Respondent to a presentation, you comment on the presentation summary on the blog, and you actively lead the 10-minute discussion, along with the speaker who has presented.
  3. Your participation in the Twitter assignment. (Click for full details.)

The success of this seminar depends on your willingness to offer ideas, and to build on your colleagues’ ideas (including mine). Some students will inevitably speak more often than others, while others will prefer to hold back and offer comments less frequently. However, do some self-examination to avoid the opposing poles of anxious observer and dominating talker. If you find yourself veering in either direction, try to do more speaking or listening.

Persistently silent students are often highly intelligent and perceptive, but simply prefer not to speak in class. To avoid my presuming any less of you, you have a few alternate means of communication:

  1. Post entries and comments on the course blog (i.e. beyond the required minimum). These can be about anything related to the course, or topics we discuss in class.
  2. Tweet more often, using the #engl503 hashtag. See “More Options” in the assignment description for ideas.
  3. E-mail me directly with your thoughts and questions about anything course-related.

Don’t wait for the final week of the course, when panic about your participation grade sets in. (Of course, you can contact me about anything to do with the course, no matter how often you speak in class or tutorial.)

Research Paper (50%)

Your Research Paper will address one of the following questions:

  1. How are historical reading practices like or unlike the present experience of reading either Sterne or Byatt in English 503? Use one or more of the following historians to define these past practices: Manguel, Gilmont, Sherman, and/or Johns.
  2. How does either Sterne’s or Byatt’s novel resist or encourage the digital forms and methods of future reading? Use Ramsay and/or Eco and Carrière to define this future.

We will treat your scholarly writing as a work-in-progress. The final Research Paper you submit will be the culmination of successive drafts. There are a couple of important dates to keep you moving forward with this assignment:

  • On February 15th I’ll discuss both the research questions and best practices for your methods to address them.
  • On or before March 11th you’ll send me an e-mail proposing which question and novel you will address. Tell me how you will interpret and address the terms of the question. Your proposal will also explicitly justify your choice of Sterne or Byatt–i.e. why your choice is better suited to the question than the other.
  • You will then post a more formal Prospectus (about 750 words) to the blog on or before March 22nd. It will offer a few paragraphs detailing your questions and the texts you will use to investigate them; it will also include an annotated bibliography of 3-5 scholarly books or journal articles beyond those on the English 503 syllabus. (The proposal and prospectus are together worth 10% of the 50% paper grade.)
  • On March 15th, I’ll discuss how to find and use these scholarly resources, beginning with the MLA International Bibliography. Throughout this course, I’ll discuss the elements of scholarly writing, including ways to engage with literary criticism and cultural historiography. That means we will always read secondary texts with attention to their methods as much as their arguments: what works, what doesn’t, and why? What can we learn from them beyond transferrable insights? How can we develop our own critical methods and voices?
  • Then on April 1st and 10th we will hold two Research Paper Consultations. These are your chance to bring questions about your research methods and ideas to the class at large, and for us to help you resolve them.
  • The final draft of your Research Paper is due on Monday, April 15th. The length of this paper should be at least 3000 words.


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