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Canon-Busting, the Sequel: Reflections on an Experimental Fusion of Pedagogy and Research The Corvey Project at
Sheffield Hallam University

E.J. Clery, CCUE Conference: Difference and Diversity, University of Loughborough 8-10 September 1998

 

Iím currently a research fellow at Sheffield Hallam University, engaged in a four-year group project on womenís writing of the romantic era. The brief is full-time research, with the ambitious aim of Ďmappingí womenís writing from 1790-1840, using the unique collection of more than 1,000 female-authored texts in the belles-lettres section of the Corvey Library, of which more in a moment. But Iím beginning to wonder if one of the most productive outcomes of the project will in fact be a pedagogic offshoot, involving undergraduates in the processes of fact-finding, analysis and generation of material for our database. The scheme, which we jauntily titled ĎAdopt an Authorí, has I think taken those of us involved in running it by surprise, and has certainly become a learning experience for me. Iím still trying to get a grasp of its implications.

Chris RingroseĎs invitation to me to write something about the scheme for the research issue of the CCUE newsletter, which came out last month, was very helpful in spurring me to try and give some coherence to my thoughts. But in fact I realize now the short piece reveals a shift in emphasis. I titled it Ďcanon-bustingí, and began with a standard rallying-cry versus romantic studies of the Ďbig sixí variety. Iíve implied a continuity of that focus in the title of this paper, but is this the main point? Yes, we asked to students to examine non-canonical texts, and this is in part what gives their work its particular value and sense of purpose. However, this work depends on the contingency of possessing the Corvey Microfiche Edition. Difficult to hold it up as a model of good teaching practice when it is so clearly hinges on what is at present a very rare resource.

Iím beginning to think that the true significance of the experiment lies elsewhere, not so much in its ability to bring into play this or that lost text or forgotten author, but rather in the fusion of undergraduate study and real research. By this I mean a genuine fusion, involving research that matters. Iíve been familiar with what I believe is a fairly standard pattern in English BA degrees, where in the final year tutors offer an assortment of specialised courses based on their own research. Often students find this stimulating, the most rewarding part of their university experience; but in terms of the research / teaching binary, what it offers most of them, momentarily, is a window on the tutorís research, and on the research culture of the institution. They remain outsiders, looking in. Soon, most will leave, and begin Ďreal lifeí, and this brief contact with the world of scholarship will fade without a trace.

A scheme like ĎAdopt an Authorí represents an alternative to this pattern, and may contain a certain potential. What makes the difference, I believe, is that the studentís work constitutes real research. This is what enthused those involved: there is a real purpose, leading to real results, which are made public as any worthwhile scholarship would be. This is a factor which breaks down the research / teaching binary, and makes undergraduates insiders in the research culture of the university. And since the results of their investigations will be permanent and freely accessible, they have a permanent stake in academic scholarship, and, even if they donít proceed to postgraduate level, may perhaps be encouraged in future to do more.

I realise some of what Iíve said must appear cryptic, given that I havenít yet explained much about the scheme. But I did want to get across at the outset this sense of potential. So now begins the paper proper. First, Iíll outline briefly the nature of the Corvey Project. Then Iíll identify what I see as the three key elements which together create the value of the ĎAdopt an Authorí scheme: (1) the studentís acquisition of traditional research skills; (2) the production by the student of a portfolio, involving a range of disciplines of scholarly writing, descriptive, bibliographical, and critical; (3) the use of digital technology, both for research and for the publication of results. Technophobe though I am, I have to admit that this latter is probably the most vital of all the elements, and Iím sorry that my colleague and fellow Research Fellow Glenn Dibert-Himes, who deals in a hands-on way with the IT side of the project, is unwell and wasnít able to join me here today for this presentation.

So first, a brief account of the Corvey Project. The library at SHU acquired the belles-lettres section of the Corvey Microfiche Edition (CME) in 1995: this included fascimiles of more than 9000 volumes from the Corvey Library. The collection dates from the early 19th century, is located in Germany, and contains in total [] volumes in German, French and English, mainly from the period 1790 to 1840. The belles-lettres section, which was published in facsimile on microfiche by the German publisher Belser, includes poetry, drama, some periodicals and above all, fiction. As well as male-authored and anonymous works, it is particularly impressive for the number of works attributed to women writers. Indeed, Peter Garside of University of Wales, Cardiff, has used Corvey to ascertain that female writers of fiction outnumbered males between 1800 and c.1820. The Sheffield Hallam Corvey Project on womenís writing was launched in 1996. Itís a pleasure to have here in this session Judy Simons, who was then the leading light in the English Department at SHU, and prepared the successful application to the British Academy for project funding. The aim of the Project was, in the most general terms, as Iíve said, to create a fuller picture of womenís literary production during the romantic era. It was also to involve crucially an interaction of traditional scholarship and digital technology. The final product will be in digital form, and plans for an online database have been the focus of our work from the start.

What we have at the moment is a website on the World Wide Web which explains the history and contents of the collection, outlines the project, and contains catalogues of various sections of the library. The core is a carefully verified catalogue of the womenís belles-lettres writing, which is being expanded progressively as a hypertext database. Hypertext is a system of interconnected documents; for instance, weíve set things up so that by clicking on the name of an author, you can bring up a menu of options which include biographies, bibliographies, critical and contextual material, portraits and other images, contemporary reviews and so on. If you click on a title in the catalogue, you can look at a synopsis, or a facsimile title page. We are also working at providing keyword descriptions of individual texts, which would allow users to search the catalogue thematically. Incorporated within this database is the material produced by students in the first year of the ĎAdopt an Authorí scheme, 97/98.

The normal form for the third year special study unit is for students to work independently over two semesters and produce a critical dissertation on texts of their choice, or a piece of creative writing. The Corvey option offers something more structured. Last year, it began with a series of three group orientation sessions. Students were helped to choose their author and texts (usually two), given an extensive list of reference and critical books, and encouraged to use the Internet to find other material. After that they were essentially let loose on their on, but had allotted supervisors, and were welcome to visit the Project Research Fellows whenever they wished.

In the first couple of months, up until around Christmas, they found their feet in the libraries of Sheffield, and exercised research skills, searching for anything that could be found on the author or the chosen works by her. Understandably, they were strongly motivated by a sense of ownership: this was their author, and it was up to them to uncover and compile information that was readily available nowhere else. As a result, biography was the first line of attack. There were a range of biographical dictionaries of women writers which were more or less useful: the most inclusive is the Feminist Companion to English Literature. Some found it relatively easy to begin compiling a reading list from standard reference works; a few students had chosen authors who led well-documented lives, such as the Countess of Blessington, Catherine Gore and Mary Mitford. Another specialised resource we had available, was the Royal Literary Fund Archives on microfilm, a deposit of case histories of needy authors who applied to the fund from the 1790s onwards. One student, working on Selina Davenport, a prolific novelist, hit the jackpot with this. Elizabeth Gaskell was the referee for one of Davenportís appeals to the Fund, and a search through Gaskellís published letters revealed an extensive account of Davenportís history. Furthermore, the estranged husband of Davenport had also applied to the Fund, firing off vitriolic accusations at his wife. Pieced together, the story emerged as a lurid domestic melodrama, to rival the plot of any of the sensational novels at the time. But this was something of a one-off. Other students could find little in the way of concrete facts, and sensibly chose instead to look at milieu in relation to their writings: Elizabeth Bonhoteís roots in Suffolk, for instance, or Alicia Palmerís setting in fashionable Bath. One or two could get no biographical material at all; the identity of Medora Gordon Byron remains a mystery, but the student opted to look at the authorical persona, and the resonances of this assumed name.

I was impressed by the studentsí tenacity in tackling the libraries, using them in ways which were quite new to them. They were given short shrift a few times by overworked librarians; their questions could be naive. But on the whole they were very effective researchers. Three of them got together and met for a research session at a selected venue each fortnight. Eventually they went to the Brotherton Library at University of Leeds, to look at reviews in the 19th century periodical collection there. Others visited local history archives, checking genealogies and places of residence. One contacted the National Library of Scotland for information about Anne Bannerman and other Scottish writers, and received a detailed response. Another discovered through the Internet that a work by her chosen author, Charlotte Nooth, which we didnít have, was available as a transcript through the Brown Women Writers Project in the States, and managed to obtain it.

By Christmas, all the students had received print-outs of the fascimile edition of their first text; the second arrived in March, delayed by short-staffing in the library. They then buckled down to a variety of tasks. In addition to writing a short biography, they were asked to produce a synopsis of each narrative work, a keyword description (mainly thematic), an account of contemporary reception where possible, a critical essay, and an annotated bibliography. The factual and descriptive elements might be seen as a soft option compared to a full length dissertation, but in fact they require analytical intelligence and selective judgement of a kind which is not often exercised in the British system of literature teaching. The essays were also a challenge: no safety net of received critical opinion. But this vacuum was often handled very resourcefully; for instance, a poem addressed by Charlotte Nooth to Mme de Stael was made the basis for an investigation of their contrasting attitudes to femininity, romanticism and the moral function of literature; with critical writing on the better-known author bolstering the points.

Partly because the requirements were sometimes unfamiliar, and the context lacking, the performance of each student could be quite variable. All of the students completed some of the sections with proficiency, to publishable standards; only a few succeeded right across the board. We may need to improve guidelines, but the fact that we now have work viewable on the website will help next yearís students enormously. The students were aware from the start that each element of their portfolio could be a valuable addition to the database. If the work was up to scratch, it would be included with acknowledgement. When they handed in their folders, they included a computer disk version for us to work from, and a release form allowing us to edit and publish it on the internet. This incentive undoubtably lifted their standards, and many of them received by far their best grade for this unit.

Glenn is currently setting up ĎAdopt an Authorí sites and Iím sifting through the portfolios, and converting the material into HTML - and I can tell you itís no picnic. Apart from the spelling and grammatical errors, we didnít manage to establish a standard editorial style this year, and some of the students had bad habits, like pressing hard return after each line. Conversion into HTML wipes out footnotes, which have to be painstakingly restored, as so on. But weíre convinced the trouble is worth it. The material will be online as an example and an inspiration for future students (and hopefully make our task less onerous next summer). And beyond that, the whole point of the exercise is to give the students a public platform, to make available their contribution to a major research project. Itís become possible through the development of digital technology. Although far from misty-eyed about the internet in general, I have to say in this respect the possibilities seem tremendous, towards a university not only without the strict division between producers and consumers of printed knowledge, but even without walls...

One colleague, after marking a number of the portfolios, said in an offhand way, ĎYou know, whatever the mark, for the first time I feel like Iím learning something from each of the studentsí. And that to me is precisely the potential that has emerged from the scheme. Undergraduates are able to make themselves experts in a specialised field, instructors in their own right. Their contributions are substantial and may even be influential. The ĎAdopt an Authorí web pages will contain the first commentary of any substance for more than a century and a half on the work of Charlotte Nooth, Alicia Palmer, Anna Maria Bennett, Elizabeth Helme and Amelia Beauclerc.

This fusion of teaching and learning has arisen almost accidentally, through a desire to utilise more thoroughly a rare archival resource, and to extend an existing research project; perhaps similar initiatives already exist elsewhere. The benefits its brought us in its first year lead me to wonder whether every collective research endeavour should contain this kind of pedagogic dimension as a matter of course; or even whether research projects should be established with the involvement of BA students in mind. The benefits work both ways, for students and for staff. For the students, the research experience is empowering; they learn to seek information, to use reference tools, to comb through archives, to fully inhabit a library (if I may use that old-fashioned term) in a way which must help them deal with a variety of situations in the future. Then thereís the pleasure of research. Surely no student should graduate without having the opportunity to experience the thrill of the chase: the great satisfaction of defining a project, gathering evidence, overcoming obstacles, with concrete results.

And for us, apart from the useful results provided by student researchers, there would be a growing body of graduates with an insider appreciation of the methods, value and purpose of research. There would also be an opportunity to challenge the persistent and damaging notion of a clerisy: the scholarly minority, guardians of culture. This Leavisite credo seems if anything to have been reinforced by such recent measures as the TQA, RAE and even the introduction of tuition fees. How are we to avoid an ever more entrenched siege mentality in the profession? One answer may lie in a rethink of the relation between teaching and research, and skilful exploitation of new technology.

© Copyright 1998 E J Clery / Sheffield Hallam University