On Seminars and Book History Reading

In a few weeks, I will be participating in a summer seminar on “Tudor Books and Readers, 1485-1603.”  I’m terribly excited about it, and not only because I’m going to be exploring the vast world of archival research for the first time, or because I will get to go back to Oxford, or will go to Belgium for the first time (though these are all awesome and amazing things). I’m excited because I have been feeling desperately envious of my friends who are still in course work. There’s something rather marvelous about sitting in a room with a lot of other really smart people talking about a common set of readings. As a teacher, you get a bit of this, but it’s not quite the same when you’re in charge: no matter how much I want my students to be the ones directing conversation and developing their own thinking, there’s only so much I can do to keep myself from feeling like I have to take an authoritative stance. (And, if I’m honest, I usually end up wanting to.)  When you are in a graduate seminar, if you have a good cohort, and if you can get over the fear that comes from impostor’s syndrome, there’s a lot more freedom to ask questions instead of know the answers. You can try out different intellectual positions. I’m hoping that this seminar will be the same.

The other thing I like about seminars is that there’s assigned reading.  When I’m working on my dissertation, or another project, it’s easy to get myopic about what to read. I don’t tend to read widely; I read narrowly. Every so often I need to have a push (not always external, sometimes it’s internal) to read a different set of materials.  Just as I probably would never have read Shakespeare when I was in high school (or, if I’m honest, even in College) unless it was assigned, I often find I love the things that are assigned, either intellectually or personally. For this seminar, I’m being immersed in book history in its myriad forms. And–the best part–is that sometimes you find really amazing, amusing bits in the things you read that inspire whimsy as well as serious thought. Here are a few sentences that amused me enough to send me to the blog to post:

The history of books began to acquire its own journals, research centers, conferences, and lecture circuits. It accumulated tribal elders as well as Young turks. And although it has not yet developed passwords or secret handshakes or its own population of Ph.D.’s, its adherents can recognize one another by the glint in their eyes.

 — Robert Darnton, “What is Book History?” Daedelus (1982): 65.

I think we now need passwords, secret handshakes, and a book identifying the different subsets of glints. Then we’ll have a REAL field of study.


I just got back from Kalamazoo last night. I’ve been once before, my very first year of graduate school. I didn’t give a paper that year, but went because I was planning on being a medievalist and I’d been hearing about the wonders of Kalamazoo ever since my first year of undergrad, when a professor who went every year extolled its virtues. I had a blast that time because I learned so much and went to so many different panels and got to go to the (in)famous dance. This year was even better, largely because this time I functionally went to a mini-conference within Kalamazoo that focused on the Renaissance.

I responded to a call for papers from the Sidney Society to present a piece of my dissertation on Sidney. My paper wasn’t accepted for that session, so that was the end of it, I thought. But occasionally there is also a general Renaissance literature session, and my paper ended up being accepted for that. I was surprised, but pleased. My panel had a small number of people attending, but they were a fabulous and very interactive audience. I got a lot of excellent questions and really useful feedback. My fellow presenter (two other presenters both dropped out last minute, more pity them) also gave a really interesting paper on Spenser.

But where things got really interesting was the Spenser and Sidney “official” sessions on Friday and Saturday. These sessions had amazing papers. Sidney starts his Defense of Poesy with an amusing story about how listening to a master of horse extoll the virtues of horses almost makes him wish himself a horse; on Friday, listening to the Spenser papers almost persuaded me I wanted to be a Spenserian. It was the heat of the moment, and like Sidney, ultimately I returned to my senses and realized that it was a foolish thought. The stand-outs were Roger Kuin’s paper on the marginalia in a 1611 edition of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and James Nohrnberg’s lecture on the theme of the kidnapped epic-romance.

But it was really the Sidney papers on Saturday that bowled me over. Every single one introduced me to something new I hadn’t thought about before and that I wanted to think about more: Sidney’s depiction of gender in the Defense, Sidney’s thoughts about writing technologies, and even the relationship between Sidney and Milton. I’m fairly certain that listening to the nine Sidney papers, I had developed three separate ideas for papers involving Sidney but that didn’t impinge on the projects that were presented; a cursory search through MLA and Google Books suggests that at least one of them hasn’t been done before, and I may need to make it my fall project. That’s a pretty amazing ratio for any conference.

The Q&A sessions after each session also really fit the papers, both in terms of brilliance and drawing out productive discussion among the participants and the audience. Since the Sidney and Spenser societies only have one session in each time slot, pretty much the same 20-30 people were in the audience at each session. That meant that over the course of each day, the conversations built and developed real depth. I’ve not seen anything like it before. (Maybe I just need to go to more conferences on really focused topics?)

And, on top of it all, the Sidney and Spenser societies proved to be full of very generous, open people with great senses of humor. I not only met and had conversations with several of the scholars whose work populates my bibliography, they were generous and invited me (and the other new people interested in Spenser and Sidney) to their dinners and events. They had semi-secret-space where they met for their own little wine hour (they called it the Elizabeth Boyles Room, after Spenser’s wife). They introduced me to the Interational Porlock Society (the person from Porlock, if you’ll remember, was the one who interrupted Coleridge while he was writing Kubla Khan, thus saving us from or denying us the rest of the poem). Essentially, this is the alternative to the Medieval “Pseudo-Society,” only having attended both, the Porlock Society is far funnier. There were papers spoofing the Sidney/Spenser panels, interactive skits, a hilarious dialogue between a scholar and the evil mattress that populates the Valley dorm-rooms most people stayed in, and so on.

The other highlights of the trip to Kalamazoo:

  • David Bevington’s lecture on Shakespeare and Religion
  • Seeing and talking with all sorts of UConn alumni, many of whom I knew before but also a few I knew by reputation only and finally got to meet
  • Being packed five to a tiny Honda Civic for the sixteen-hour drive home (I was very lucky that I was with four other very good-natured individuals who happened to have good taste in music)
  • The Blogger meet-up where I met Vaulting and Vellum, Dame Eleanor Hull, Another Damned Medievalist, and several others.

Wordle and Paradise Lost

A few days ago, I created a Wordle of my dissertation. I’ve done this before for individual chapters, but I think this is the first time I’ve put the whole thing together. It seems to reflect the things I think are most important in my dissertation, which is good, but it’s weird that Wordle was able to intuit that a black letter font might be appropriate here! (Seriously, it was not my choice, but I thought it appropriate, so I left it.)


I’ve almost always used wordle in order to analyze my own writing, though usually in smaller chunks.  I have a tendency, especially when writing very quickly, to overuse certain words. There’s no consistency to which words I overuse.  One of my advisors has noted a different such word in each of my chapters, usually in just a few paragraphs that I didn’t revise enough before sending it to her. Wordle helps me see these words because I often can’t otherwise.

But today I started thinking about using it with literary texts. I’d seen a post on ProfHacker a few months ago about using Wordle as a tool to help teach students different forms of literary analysis, and recently the Early Modern Online Bibliography blog posted reviews of a whole slew of other digital teaching and research tools, including one from Wine Dark Sea called LATtice that can be used to visualize linguistic variation.

One of LATtice’s data sets is for Paradise Lost, and while I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the results from that sort of visualization, I thought I would see what would happen if I ran each book of Paradise Lost through Wordle.  The results are really cool, and not just because it means I have pretty pictures of my favorite poem now:


The first thing that popped out for me is how prominent Heaven is over either Earth or Hell. The second thing is how much Milton uses of “thou,” “thee,” and “thy” in every book. The third is how important “thus” is to Milton. These are things I haven’t consciously noted before, and I don’t know why they are important yet, but I expect I’ll bring an awareness of them to the next time I read the poem, and the next time I teach it. I’m looking forward to seeing what my students might do with this sort of tool as well.