New seminar explores literary technologies

English professors Jessica Brantley and Jessica Pressman explore the evolution of reading technology in their seminar.
English professors Jessica Brantley and Jessica Pressman explore the evolution of reading technology in their seminar. Photo by Zoe Gorman.

From scrolling through a Kindle to poring over a manuscript from the 1300s, students in a new interdisciplinary English class this semester are experiencing the evolution of literary technology firsthand.

“Medieval Manuscripts to New Media: Studies in the History of the Book” is a 12-student seminar taught by English professors Jessica Brantley and Jessica Pressman. Brantley and Pressman collaborate with the Instructional Technology Group (ITG) — which helps faculty select and use technology — the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Bass Library and Sterling Memorial Library to explore how the technology of reading and writing has developed from the Middle Ages to the present.

“The only way you can make an argument for novelty [in technology] is really understanding what came before,” Brantley said.

Students in the class study medieval manuscripts and write blog posts about their observations each week. By studying how manuscripts evolve, students can have different experiences with the same literary material, Pressman said.

She said designing the course involved several meetings with the English department, ITG and the three libraries.

“I think it’s fair to say I’ve spent more time preparing this class than any other class I’ve ever taught,” Pressman said.

The collaboration has led to an extensive course Web site with links to graphics, videos and student blogs. The Beinecke purchased Amazon Kindles — which allow users to read books electronically — to be lent out to each student for the semester. The class also took a trip to the conservation lab in Sterling Memorial Library to do forensic research on manuscripts, in addition to examining ink and parchment.

One technological and historical gem the class has encountered, Pressman said, was a girdle book worn by medieval monks and nobles. Because the book had a long “tail” that could be tucked into a belt, people could read while walking. When students asked Pressman who would use such an invention, Pressman replied that today’s students “read while they walk all the time,” whether talking or texting on their cell phones or listening to their iPods.

Pressman said the technology and class trips the course offers have allowed the students to study literature with perspectives that are different from those in regular English classes. But the class also studies how technology affects the way students study, she added.

On the first day of the class, Brantley and Pressman showed a reenactment on YouTube of a Swedish monk who was not sure how to open and read a book. In the movie, the monk appeared concerned that the words would disappear once he closed the book or turned its pages. Brantley said she and Pressman showed the video to help students open their minds to a broader definition what technology is.

Brantley said the course will also challenge students’ perceptions about basic concepts in literature, such as what an author is. In both the Middle Ages, when people collaborated with scribes and storytellers, and modern times, when many people produce digital books, the author of a book may not be just one person, but may represent the efforts of a group of people, Brantley said.

Art major Alice Buttrick ’10 said she has most enjoyed working with medieval manuscripts in the class because the experience has provided her with a chance to see the technology of the year 1340. She added that she thinks the class is well-executed.

“It’s difficult to do something cutting edge in a serious matter,” Buttrick said.

English major Ben Lasman ’10, whose senior essay with Pressman focused on technology in writing, said he enjoys that the class allows him to explore multiple technologies critically. Lasman, who had never been to the Beinecke before taking the class, said that without the class, he never would have used a Kindle.

Pressman said she, Brantley and the English Department support continuing the course, although Pressman was unsure when it would be offered again.

The class meets in Beinecke on Wednesday afternoons from 2:30 p.m. to 4:20 p.m.

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