About the Project

The goal of the Novels in Context project is to provide curated, scholarly, and critically-annotated resources about the 18th-century English novel for scholars, teachers, and students in a way that is conscious of the material practices of making knowledge. You can read more about the project below, and at Eighteenth-Century Common.

The Fate of Reading in Print

In the humanities, having access, as a class, to a good edition of a poem or a novel or a play is essential for deep reading; this must be something we can interact with, go back to, annotate, and so on. Additionally, that edition must be common to all, as every teacher knows. How do you point to a line or a page if everyone has a different edition? The digital world exacerbates this basic problem. Print, it seems, is the best solution in the humanities; however, it is also unlikely that we will ever read more in print than we currently do. As many scholars and commentators have pointed out, we need to think carefully and critically about the fate of long-form reading in a digital environment. The question is, how can we make enable deep reading in digital platforms?

Not textbooks, but full-text

An additional problem faces small colleges and universities that lack access to the variety of proprietary electronic materials or physical special collections that enhance active learning and inquiry, the kind of pedagogy that is increasingly demanded of faculty. ECCO, NCCO, Burney Collections, and similar repositories are typically not available at community colleges and smaller universities, nor are they available at schools focusing on professional degrees. Textual annotating tools differ dramatically from user to user, computer to computer; similarly, instutitions experience great difficulty keeping up with the variety of platforms and tools that individual students or faculty might use. While MIT's Annotation Studio project is working to rectify this problem for students, the problem persists in the textbook industry, primarily because of its for-profit nature.

Teaching Textual Production and Knowledge-Making

The goal of the Novels in Context project is to provide curated, scholarly, and critically-annotated resources about the 18th-century English novel for teachers, scholars, and students. However, beyond merely providing these resources on the web, NiC also seeks to incorporate student- and faculty-authored resources in reliable and persistent forms.

As a teaching tool, NiC will grow into a model for creating coursepacks with curated and annotated digital objects, with headnotes and reading questions, that have a digital home but which can also easily be exported into organized print documents for student use. Further, NiC will offer teachers interested in collaborating on the project a way to introduce students to digital humanities in a highly structured manner that will become useful beyond the classroom and to other teachers, scholars, and students. And finally, as a collection of resources particularly focused on the material life of the printed object as it is reproduced both in print and in the digital realm, NiC hopes to make transparent the limits of textual fungibility, especially problematic in contemporary reading experiences. How can we attend to the differences, in purpose, nature, and quality, between online texts, modern print editions, early printed editions, and so on? While this version of the project focuses on the 18th-century English novel, it can contain any combination of content; as such, it may provide a useful alternative to costly print anthologies that sustain traditional models of canonicity, scholarship, and authorship.

Several scholars have shown that active learning--especially the new concept of critical making--is essential to create the sense of student ownership that enables both retention and invested engagement with the material. NiC seeks to create a model whereby student labor in a digitally-enhanced classroom environment, and even student labor in digital humanities writ large, can become a full part of the public intellectual project, on par with the work done by faculty and scholars who produce new print editions of stand-alone or anthologized works. The challenge here, however, lies in providing a framework that allows student intellectual activity to become both an intellectual exercise in pursuit of subject knowledge or skills and more than an educational exercise limited to this classroom and this semester. NiC will address this problem by providing a narrow framework focused on descriptive interventions rather than interpretive intervention: students work to learn about and render transparent the historical, material specificity of the object; to make educated choices about selecting content; and to identify and describe references to people, places, and things. Student-faculty research can become publicly productive through this new bibliographic mode.

The eighteenth century English-speaking world was characterized, broadly, by rising literacy rates and a vibrant, growing marketplace of print that supported the development of a public sphere accessible to more people, if not everyone. This is a crucial historical framework for our current educational moment. We face a significant challenge, as teachers and scholars, of making distant material relevant for students raised in an environment of standardized, workforce-oriented learning. This challenge is amplified by the rising costs of tuition, skepticism about the value of humanities-driven education, and the proliferation of digital materials of questionable provenance and editorial quality. NiC seeks to address each of these challenges in a way that strives for transparency in the act of conscious, public, deliberative making.