What is a Book? – a question of course design

In spring 2015 I’m going to teach a brand new course: “What is a Book?” This question, still tantalizing for me and hopefully engaging for my (future) students, is one the Peter Stallybrass and Roger Chartier ask in their co-taught undergraduate course and their graduate courses at the University of Pennsylvania where I completed my PhD. But my course is not only a rigorous, upper-level seminar, it is also designed to culminate in a symposium I’m organizing as part of my Rare Book School-Mellon Fellowship in Critical Bibliography. At this symposium, all students in my course and a group of invited scholars and librarians will present research on archival materials and participate in a day-long dialogue about the perils and delights of bibliographic pursuits. In the coming months I’ll be writing more about the symposium, but today I want to write a bit about course design.

It’s a tall-order to train even the most talented and committed undergraduate students in the methods of bibliography and book history in a mere semester, let alone prepare them to present their research in public. To this end I’ve divided my course into three units: a review of theory and scholarship about materiality, reading, and selling books; a set of case-studies from the history of printing; a research unit that allows for ample peer-review and will allow me to mentor my students one-on-one during class time as they develop  their final projects. The first two units on my syllabus are skewed towards the analysis of printed materials from the invention of printing to the present because this is the heart of my own training and best reflects campus library holdings. I’m also planning to hold most class meetings in one of the two special collections reading rooms on campus so that discussions of our readings will be directly linked to material objects.

I’d love to hear what you think. I’m committed to this general course design, but I’m still working out quite a few details.

I’ve copied my draft syllabus below. Feel free to borrow elements from this syllabus as you like, but please credit me, if appropriate, (I’ll credit any of your suggestions) and let me know if you’ve used something that works (so I can track impact and reuse.)


What is a Book? Spring 2015

Course Description & Objectives:

The study of literature requires the study of books. In this course we will trace the history of the book as a material object with special emphasis on the period from the invention of the printing press to the present. To this end, we will frequently meet for class in Scripps College’s Denison Library and Honnold-Mudd Special Collections to develop a vocabulary for describing and analyzing books, manuscripts, and archival objects. Students will also complete hands-on labs about the operations of the printing press during visits to the Scripps College Press and Dean Grove’s collection of historical presses. After we pursue three case studies together –William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass – students will develop their own original research projects. Students will present these projects, receive feedback from experts in the field, and attend presentations by leading scholars at a special one-day symposium planned for mid-April 2015, “What is a Book?: A Symposium on Bibliographic Research.”

Required Books

William Shakespeare, Hamlet: The Texts of 1603 and 1623, Arden

Samuel Richardson, Pamela, Oxford

Eliza Heywood and Henry Fielding, Anti-Pamela and Shamela, Broadview

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass and other Writings, Norton

All other readings will be posted on our course Sakai site.


Assignments & Requirements

Participation 20%

Discussion Leader 10%

Each student will lead the discussion of one piece of secondary scholarship during Unit 1

Midterm Paper 10%

A five-page essay practicing bibliographic description and analysis.

Research Project 60%

All students will develop an original research project around an item (or set of items)         held in Denison or Honnold Mudd’s Special Collections.

Components include: bibliographic description, research proposal with bibliography, a       formal presentation at the symposium, a final research paper of 15 pages.


Unit 1: Reading Books (visits to Denison, Honnold Mudd, Scripps College Press TBD)

Week 1Media and Materiality

Marshall McLuhan, from Understanding Media (1964)

Margreta de Grazia & Peter Stallybrass, “The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text” (1993)

Michael Mandiberg, “Introduction” The Social Media Reader (2012)

Jay Rosen, “The People Formerly Known as the Audience” The Social Media Reader (2012)

Week 2 – Books and Readers

Benedict Anderson, from Imagined Communities (1983)

Michel de Certeau, “Reading as Poaching,” The Practice of Everyday Life (1984)

William Sherman, from Used Books (2007)

Ann Blair, from Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (2010)

Week 3 – Selling Books

Pierre Bourdieu, from The Field of Cultural Production (1983)

Michael Winship, “The Rise of a National Book Trade System in the United States, 1865-1916,”  The History of the Book in the West: 1800-1914 (2010)

James A. Secord, “Marketing Speculation,” The History of the Book in the West: 1800-1914          (2010)

Adam G. Hooks, “Book Trade” Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare (2012)

Unit 2: Case Studies

Weeks 4 & 5 William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Lost and Found

Weeks 6 & 7 Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and the “Pamela craze”

Eliza Heywood’s Anti-Pamela

                        Henry Fielding’s Pamela

Weeks 8 & 9 Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass Perpetually Revised

The Walt Whitman Archive [http://www.whitmanarchive.org/]

Unit 3: Research Workshop

Weeks 10 Peer workshops of research proposals

Weeks 11 & 12 Practice conference presentations and peer feedback

Week 13 Symposium “What is a Book?” (mid-April conference)

Weeks 14 & 15 Peer writing workshops


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