“Go be smart. Don’t forget to wash your hands.” These two pieces of wisdom, spoken by RBS Director Michael Suarez, marked the end of daily mid-morning or mid-afternoon breaks during my week at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. This thirty-year-old program encompasses the love and care of books from a myriad of different angles: collecting, cataloging, reading/transcribing/interpreting, identifying and describing, even binding and printing. The list goes on, all courses focused on developing the skills of librarians, collectors, editors, booksellers, conservators, and scholars through the historical study of books and how we make them accessible. One course, five days, 6+ hours per day of non-stop book-talk. No water, unwashed hands, or writing utensils other than pencils allowed in any of the classrooms: a classroom treated like an archive, or an archive treated like a classroom. In other words, heaven for book lovers like me. Continue reading Summer Camp for Library Types: A Week at Rare Book School
Last month, word began to spread that Edinburgh University will be offering anatomy lessons. This does not sound all that unusual: it’s one of the oldest and most prestigious medical schools in the world, of course the study of anatomy should be at the forefront of the curriculum. What makes this exciting, however, is that the university is offering anatomy lessons using real cadavers, and the lessons will be open to the public. The first mention I saw of this boasted that this is the “First public anatomy lectures planned in the UK since Burke and Hare,” referring to the infamous 1828 case in which William Burke and William Hare delivered over a dozen bodies through the back door of Dr. Robert Knox’s dissection theater for use in teaching anatomy, bodies that were killed for that very purpose (and for the meager sum it paid). Continue reading Bring Out Yer Dead: Why Edinburgh’s “Public” Dissections are Important
I love conferences; I might even call myself a conference junkie. I’ve been to about a dozen of them in my academic life, and I’ve enjoyed pretty much every single one: visiting new places, staying in hotels, meeting the same people over and over, getting conference food and coffee and drinks and swag… not to mention attending panels and getting feedback on my work. It’s all my favorite part of being an academic.
But, I will never look at a conference the same way again after co-organizing our department’s first Annual Literature and Social Justice Grad Conference. I have a new appreciation for all of the stuff I love about conferences, which is painstakingly planned by people behind the scenes, people who usually don’t even get to participate in much of the conference once it happens. After almost two semesters of planning and a successful final product last weekend, here is my guide to organizing a conference.
I know the beginning of the semester (or really any time during the semester) is not the best time for a book recommendation. But, I think you’ll forgive me because this is a fun one and packed with your favorite “literary characters.” Andrew McConnell Stott’s The Poet and the Vampyre was released late in 2014 and is a biographical amble through the events great and small surrounding the fateful weekend in Diodati that produced the monsters we have come to love. Yet, it also self-consciously dances around that stormy night—one that we can all agree fascinates scholars but has been written about to (un)death—in favor of an in-depth look at the relationships amongst these young poets and poetesses that brought them together and split them apart, primarily focused on Byron’s influence (and curse) upon his young doctor, John Polidori. For years, I have been an apologist for Polidori and his novella, The Vampyre, both of which often get shoved to the side for being important but not necessary or enjoyable. Here is finally an attempt to bring Polidori to life, not just as the spiteful tag-along of more successful poets but as the sympathetic victim of other people’s celebrity. Continue reading The Poet and the Vampyre: Caught in the “Byron Vortex”
“‘Man of the worldly mind!” replied the Ghost, ‘Do you believe in me or not?’
‘I do,’ said Scrooge. ‘I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?’” (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol 1843).
Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol; A Ghost Story of Christmas has permeated each year’s cultural interpretation of the Christmas spirit, from adaptations like A Muppet Christmas Carol to commercials for the newest gadgets. It’s by far the most recognizable Christmas ghost story. Though we often think of Halloween as the most obvious time for telling ghost stories, Christmas used to hold that office. The Paris Review did an article about this tradition this month, with five recommendations for Christmas ghost stories. The days get shorter, the darkness rolls in and stays there, bringing the cold with it and inviting gatherings around the fireplace with warm drinks, warm company, but chilling tales. I recently became a ghost guide for my town’s ghost walks through its eighteenth-century historic downtown. We mostly run through October, but we’ve started to embrace the traditionally haunting winter evenings (well, not me, with my low tolerance for PA winter temps). In doing the tours, I’ve seen first-hand how the atmosphere created by a small group of people, gathered close in the darkness around flickering candlelight, can produce a belief in ghosts. And it was in this spirit that Dickens drew on a long history of communal ghost stories. Continue reading ‘Tis the Season for Haunting: The Ghosts of Christmas Past
We came from France and England, Scotland and Italy. We came from South Africa and America, Mexico and Denmark. We came from New Zealand and Australia and Poland and, of course, from Ireland. Gothic scholars from all corners of the globe, relocating themselves for the Locating the Gothic Conference and Festival, October 22-25, in Limerick, Ireland. I debated whether or not to blog about this conference, not because it wasn’t a great event (it was), but because it focused more on contemporary Gothic than Romantic. That being said, the format of the conference expanded beyond simply panels and keynotes, and is worth discussing as a conference experience in itself. So I will spend half of this post giving it a brief review. In the second half, I want to broaden out into the topic of international conferences and the dos and don’ts that will help you survive them, especially considering our next NASSR will be more international for many (not for our Canadian readers, of course!). Much of this advice could apply to any conference to which you would have to do significant travel. Continue reading On Locating the Gothic and International Conference Travel
Late eighteenth century physicians (for the most part) increasingly embraced the wisdom of learning anatomy directly from a dissected corpse. Feeling the textures and depths of the body’s interior and seeing it all firsthand became an invaluable tool for beginning physicians. However, this method of teaching ultimately relied on the advancements in medical thought demonstrated in the sixteenth century by one man: Andreas Vesalius. The brief version of his contribution to this field is that he turned a system in which the physician dictated dissection from a space removed from the actual body, and a surgeon performed what he was told on the body. Physicians, in this system, rarely encountered the actual interior of the body. Vesalius changed all that. Not only did he dissect his own corpses, but, by doing so, he corrected many of the errors in previous anatomical texts based on an assumed closeness between human and animal anatomies. His most famous work is the beautiful, fully illustrated De Humani Corporis Fabrica (often referred to as just the Fabrica). You probably recognize the frontispiece pictured here. Continue reading The Body on Display: A Day at the NYAM Medical History Festival
In my composition class this semester, we’ve been talking a lot about education: teaching methods, evaluation, structure, etc. There’s a new documentary out called Ivory Tower, and, though I haven’t seen it yet, we read a few articles about it in class, like “The Hi-Tech Mess of Higher Education,” which links panic over the value of education to increasing emphasis on technology. It’s not new or surprising to say that online education is on the rise. More instructors are offering online classes, and more students are electing to take them. Not only will they allow you to pursue your education from anywhere with an internet connection, but many of them will allow you to have a flexible schedule as well. Personally, I will probably always prefer the traditional classroom setting (and my current students told me they would, too), but there are undeniable benefits to an online course, alongside many challenges for those of used to the face-to-face interaction with students and/or teachers. Continue reading Online and Off Kilter: Navigating the Online Classroom
We bookish types are worried about our books. Articles, conferences, discussions, podcasts and references in all the social media about the future of libraries and of reading have become common and seemingly endless. Physical books versus internet sources, libraries versus digital texts, bookstores versus ebook orders, even letters versus emails. It seems that, when we talk about the increasing popularity of the digital humanities, the word “versus” inevitably comes into use, despite our best intentions. But, should it, and why? That’s one of the many questions that came up throughout a one-day conference at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia on December 6th in celebration the astounding 225th anniversary of its library. The conference was titled, “Emerging Roles for Historical Medical Libraries: Value in the Digital Age,” and was comprised of five speakers from different perspectives, all dealing with historical medical libraries in some capacity and highlighting what they considered to be the values and stakes of this “versus” debate. Below, I’ve gathered some of the points made during each scholar’s talk, points that I found relevant for anyone invested in libraries and research. For more detail about the conference program, visit the library website.
Jacalyn Duffin on the archive as treasure hunt:
Dr. Duffin presented her experiences with texts that had been reprinted through several editions across many libraries as she stumbled across other texts and historical figures through library exploration: she spoke to archivists and librarians, poked around shelves, and paid close attention to marginalia and illustrations. Sounds like the typical book-loving-researcher’s story: reassuring to hear and gratifying with which to agree. She also discussed the cost of knowledge, however: how does digitization affect cost, and is this effect positive or negative? Editions of the books she was researching went from expensive, to print on demand, to digitized on ECCO (though only for a university audience). Despite these changes, she reiterated that space and place are still incredibly important in understanding the book and its contexts. Duffin ended by posing a familiar question, with a haunting response: “Why libraries? Maybe we won’t know why we need them until they’re gone.”
Jeffrey Reznick on methods of assessing libraries from a national perspective:
Dr. Reznick brought the perspective of the National Library of Medicine and discussed methods of assessing libraries as well as his own experiences as a reader. Much of his talk referenced other books and sources on the topic, showing a myriad of different perspectives. Some of the many I found myself furiously copying into my notes include: IndexCat, Library 2020, and Circulating Now.
Nancy Cervetti on the library as place of creative power:
Dr. Cervetti brought perhaps the strongest literary perspective to the conversation, providing a list of exciting texts about literary depictions of archives and written materials, peppering her talk with quotes from Foucault and Derrida. She herself had begun as a scholar of literature who, through archival digging, started leaning towards history of medicine, particularly related to Weir Mitchell (who famously invented the “rest cure”). As Duffin did, Cervetti stressed the importance of being present in the archive in order to interact with librarians and to make discoveries through exploration, creating a multidimensional understanding of a subject rather than simply gathering information.
Mary Fissell on books as records of readers and readership:
Dr. Fissell shared her experiences using the College of Physicians Library collections in order to trace the readership of books through marginalia, looking at the book as an artifact that has its own subtext hidden in individual detail. Her work with recipe books showed readers interacting with the text and using it to keep track of experiences. She reiterated previously-made points about respecting and valuing the physical book for its differences among editions and the information its size, texture, and material can bring to our understanding of it. At the same time, she could not have pursued her project without the aid of digital archives and resources. The digital can help us use the archive and vice versa. They should be seen as tools to aid each other.
Simon Chaplin on rebuilding the library:
Dr. Chaplin is the head of the Wellcome Library in London, a “free library for the incurably curious,” its strength in the medical humanities. The Wellcome is in the process of remodeling its library and museum space, and Chaplin discussed the techniques of the library to boost its readership to match its museum patronage. The library will intertwine the library with the museum, making it easier for visitors to stumble upon (a key phrase throughout the conference) and make discovers by whim, according to a thematic organization. This new design speaks to a re-prioritization of the library to include more things. Accessibility and applicability will make it a place visitors want to explore. “Libraries don’t have to die!” he claims. They simply need to be willing to change and help people recognize what they already do so well: to “create questions where none existed previously.”
While all five speakers lauded the advantages and the joys of archival research, celebrating the place, space, contacts, and objects of books, some of the questions posed by the audience spoke to the dangers of denying the practicalities and the benefits of digitization in favor of over-romanticizing the rare book archive. I have heard sessions at conferences and by visiting speakers, either in vague praise of ever-changing technological advances in the humanities or full of anxious or romanticized defense of libraries: however, it seems both more useful and more difficult to discuss how these two archival methods complement each other. When questions arose pleading the necessity of digitization and online research, the speakers were very eager to admit that, of course, they never could have done their research without preliminary or follow-up investigation.
Yet, why does this feel like a concession? We’re worried about our books and their disappearance. Yes, libraries are in danger, for many reasons that I will not go into here, but perhaps it’s time to ease back from the admirable and protective tributes to libraries and focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the two types of research as they work together. This topic would be extremely complicated and (perhaps) contentious but would perhaps also help us to cement an inseparable relationship between the two and to achieve a vocabulary for talking about that bond that can support libraries better than a spirited defense. We don’t need libraries or online archives. What we need is both.
Dr. Brandy Schillace has also covered this event on her excellent blog, The Daily Dose!
This is a post about an issue near and dear to our hearts as bloggers and blog-readers: digital authorship, authority, and recognition. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, author of Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, spent two days at Lehigh University. September 12th, she gave a presentation called “The Future of Authorship: Scholarly Writing in the Digital Age” and September 13th, she spoke informally with grad students and faculty. Here’s some food for thought based on her visit.
Fitzpatrick started out with the basics: what kinds of authorship do we as academics value, and why? We value work that is done on an individual basis, thus making it simpler to claim ownership and award credit for the work produced in a final, polished product: I wrote this journal article, did all the research and drafts myself, gave credit through proper citations, and went through the process of revision and peer review and, finally, publication. Lots of people are involved in this process, from the other authors cited in the article, to the editorial board and anonymous peer-reviewers. But we don’t see those names on the by-line.
And this is Fitzpatrick’s point. With so many people involved, we recognize that an article is not published by the author alone, even if we pretend this is the case in our C.V.s and tenure reviews and job applications. Fitzpatrick argues that reading and writing are social activities and are continuing to become even more social through digital media forums like online journals, blogs, social media, twitter, etc. She claims that we need to rethink the ways that we share information through technology, how we reach and interact with an audience, how we control (if, indeed, we should) quality and authority, and how we give credit for all the labor that goes into commitment to an online community. We need to consider the process as much as the final product, if not more so, in order to benefit from the development of an idea through over time, which is what makes online work so exciting. One of the last points with which she ended her talk was the emphasis on the spread of knowledge for its own sake, in order to let it grow and expand into different forms and fields. Make it as accessible as you can. Certainly, none of us are in it for the money, after all.
I don’t consider myself to be hugely involved with all the newest technologies associated with digital information, and things like “open access” are still mysterious to me (and, I’ll admit, I’m still trying to figure out how to best use Twitter, both personally and professionally). Yet, I am involved with blogging (obviously), as we all are and, like many grad students, have been published more online than in print. I love the idea of sharing my thoughts and knowledge with others without worrying so much about polishing them into full-blown articles. Fitzpatrick’s idea of watching a project develop over time is an appealing notion because it gives you a more three-dimensional sense of a scholar and allows you to see the different angles of his or her interests. I also think the immediacy of the internet can be an incredible benefit if used with caution. Sometimes the process of conventional publication takes so long that the information can be all but obsolete by the time it reaches the people who need it. I also like that I don’t feel like I have to make any ground-breaking claims when I share this information. Many of my fellow bloggers have written on very similar topics in the last year, and many other forums of all different kinds have discussed the idea of digital authorship. But we don’t all read every blog out there (couldn’t, in fact), so ideas of absolute originality are a little more fluid. I will not claim to be saying anything completely new here. And that’s okay! I love reading blogs as well as contributing to them for all of these reasons.
Two important questions pertaining to grad students came up during Fitzpatrick’s informal seminar. The first engages with the amount of prestige required to take risks like digital publishing in academics and to convince a conventional academy that such online contributions count towards anything. As we all know, grad students have no prestige. Should we be taking these risks in such a tenuous job market? Should we be putting energy and time into online projects and collaborations if it could be spent on more conventional types of publication? All the “self-help” books on grad school, academics, and writing for publication that I’ve read have either ignored the possibilities of the online world altogether or advised young academics to stay away from them because they don’t “count.” Certainly, there are many problems with being able to publish anything instantly, the least of all being plagiarism, quality control, and authority. It’s refreshing and comforting to hear an established academic say that, yes, blogs and online publications can count and count for quite a lot at that. As Fitzpatrick says, reading, commenting, and keeping up with blogs and other online forums is also time-consuming and a lot of work, but these communities couldn’t exist without the interactive, conscientious, “peer” participant. We all, even by the act of sharing and commenting on online work, claim some part in its continued existence. Such activities create a new kind of credit for work by helping to get a writer’s name out there and recognizable, which can open up so many other opportunities. These kinds of activities should be taken seriously because they are serious! That being said, they are still not taken seriously on a job application, which, as I understand it, still credits conventional print publication (in addition to many other things, of course) and will do for quite some time. Fitzpatrick’s advice is to work towards a balance of traditional and more innovative publications and academic activities: online exposure can lead to name recognition, but it all comes down to that C.V.
One of the online authorship issues that grad students in my department have been worried about is the potential complications caused by publishing dissertations online, and this was our second question. Our university automatically publishes all dissertations (and theses) in an online, open access depository, with the option of a one-year embargo. We’ve been concerned about the possibility of being denied publication because our work would already be available through this open access forum, and we have heard horror stories of this happening. One year is certainly not long enough to get something published. However, Fitzpatrick posits this as another positive opportunity to get your name out in order to lead to other publications. I, myself, have cautious, mixed feelings about this related again to prestige qualifiers. I’d be interested to hear what others think about the idea of mandatory open access and what discussions have occurred in your departments about it.
The relationship between academics and digital possibilities is a huge and ongoing conversation, and I’ve really only summarized the ideas Fitzpatrick shared with us and added a (very) few of my own anxieties about online academic networks and forums. I’d like to end by inviting you to participate in this conversation with me. What have you heard about the pros and cons of online publications, blogs, and forums? How much do you value your own participation in such forums as either readers or participants? And the big question: how do we get such activities to “count,” IF we think they should count, in our current positions as grad students? What other issues complicate this question for you?