In mid-August, I had the great fortune of attending NASSR 2012 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland and presenting on a Romanticism and New Media panel with Andrew Burkett, Assistant Professor at Union College. Following our panel, I wrote a fairly brief blog post that introduced a DH project for which Burkett is co-creator and co-editor, with Jessica Richard (Associate Professor of English, Wake Forest University): The 18th Century Common: A Public Humanities Website for Enthusiasts of 18th-Century Studies.
For blog two of this three-post series on The 18th-Century Common (a series that I am writing for HASTAC), I am happy to provide some details about this project that its co-editors have shared with me before the website launch on October 1. This is the trailer, if you will. (The third blog will be a tour of the website after its launch.) Here we go!
The Mission of The 18th-Century Common:
According to co-editors Burkett and Richard, the mission of The 18th-Century Common website is to “provide a medium for eighteenth-century scholars to communicate with an eager public non-academic readership,” and Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Knopf, 2009) provides the perfect vehicle for a project like this. More specifically, the success of Holmes’ award-winning popular science book inspired the co-editors, along with student and faculty collaborators at Union and Wake Forest, to create a website that would continue to captivate and cultivate a broad audience of readers interested in 18th-century studies—like those that are so drawn to Holmes’ bestseller—and explore new possibilities for digital public humanities scholarship that reaches beyond the Academy.
In The Age of Wonder, Holmes tells the stories of several 18th-century scientists and explorers and their landmark discoveries, including Sir William and Caroline Herschel’s discoveries of comets and the planet Uranus as well as the creation of the forty-foot telescope, James Cook and Joseph Banks’ epic nautical expeditions, and Humphry Davy’s contributions to chemistry and the invention of a “safety lamp” for miners. Holmes’ compelling and accessible prose, coupled with glossy color image spreads, were so popular with non-academic readers that the book could be purchased at Costco for $11.
A Short History of the Project:
Since Fall 2009, Richard has convened an interdisciplinary faculty seminar at Wake Forest on the subject of “Science and the Arts in the Eighteenth Century.” In 2010-11, the faculty seminar used Holmes’ book as a case study for investigating possible platforms on which popular and scholarly discourses on science studies can meet and, furthermore, what could be gained from such a discussion. The faculty seminar received a Ventures seed grant from the Humanities Institute at WFU—a grant funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities—in order to explore these questions. The study resulted in The 18th-Century Common website, which is set to launch this fall.
What’s in the Common?
While the website is still “incunabulum” and being polished and augmented before its launch, the demo site reveals the skeleton of a robust and exciting project. The homepage and “about” page deliver requisite introductions to the project and a place to subscribe to a list for updates as well as share and follow the website on Twitter, Google+, and Facebook—crucial social networking platforms that reach through and beyond the Academy to a wider audience. There is also a “Forums” page that will serve as a suggestion box and collect website feedback and content ideas once the site is officially up and running.
At this very early stage, it appears that the primary content pages will be the “Explore” page and the blog. The “Explore” section contains a collection of short essays from authors ranging from undergraduates to associate professors in a series entitled “The Age of Wonder: Science and the Arts in the Long-18th Century.” For example, Trista Johnson, an undergraduate at Union College, authored an essay in this collection that calls for a reconsideration of Holmes’ treatment of Caroline Herschel as merely an aide to her brother’s astronomical endeavors. She reveals a fascinating gap in Holmes’ research on the correspondence between Caroline and physicist Mary Somerville, even linking to Mary’s letter in Google Books, and suggests that more needs to be published on Caroline’s work not as a collaborator with her brother but as an astronomer working on her own. The blog section features pieces written only by professors, at present, who share intriguing short essays, such as Jake Ruddiman’s piece on soldiers’ amicable and amorous relationships with civilians during the Revolutionary War.
Call for Contributions:
While the project aims to increase the amount of popular science writing for a public readership that is hungry for this material, it also offers publishing opportunities to the scholarly community that will provide the material. With the launch of this website, scholars of eighteenth-century literature and culture that usually publish their research in books and journals addressed to other researchers within their discipline and in neighboring fields will have a new free, public digital venue for sharing their work with an enthusiastic public audience that is potentially larger than their academic audience. Furthermore, sections like the “Explore” page will offer opportunities for students to learn how to research and publish short essays on interdisciplinary topics that are in vogue with both scholars and the general public.
Specifically, in order to create a site of “public humanities scholarship” that communicates the results of research to an audience not limited to the Academy, The 18th-Century Common will seek a variety of contributions that include:
- responses by scholars and students that contextualize and enrich Holmes’ work;
- short articles, media, and other content aimed at a wide audience of readers; and
- content solicited from academic contributors written specifically for a lay audience, including descriptions of recently published scholarly work in 18th-century studies, interesting holdings in library archives and museum collections, and critical controversies or research problems in the field.
For more information on the call-for-papers or if you have questions or comments about this project, please contact the editors. To subscribe to the website and receive updates on its launch, enter your information here. I’m looking forward to the launch and to the scholarly and pedagogical opportunities that this website will offer for outreach beyond the Academy.
Are you participating in a DH project that is under construction or published and underway with similar aims? I think it will be important to consider the relationship between The 18th-Century Common and other literary DH literary and related projects that share the goal of public humanities scholarship. How can these projects learn from one another to achieve the best possible results? Furthermore, what does “success” for a project like this mean or look like?
Author’s note: This blog post was originally written for and published on the HASTAC website on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012. Find the identical original post here.