Online editions in the classroom

April 12, 2012

Authored by: Lisa Rodensky, Barbara Morris Caspersen Associate Professor in the Humanities, Wellesley College

Every year I teach a research seminar for English majors at Wellesley College. One of those seminars — “The Victorian Novel: Text and Context” — makes literary research its topic. For this course, the students choose one Victorian novel and that novel is the focus of the papers they produce on biography, transmission, editions, sources, and reception. I also pick a novel (by an author that no other student has picked) and we work together on research questions related to that novel. One year, for instance, I chose Tess of the D’Urbervilles because no one was researching Hardy. So far, so good — but, actually, it was difficult to do classroom research work. Juliet Grindle and Simon Gattrell’s Oxford World’s Classics edition (which I assigned) is first-rate (and uses the text established by the Clarendon, which they also edited), but it isn’t the Clarendon (nor was it meant to be). I could not copy the whole of the Clarendon Tess, nor could I ask them to purchase it (used copies — if you can find them — start at about $500), but doing classwork with the extensive textual material I imagined using was a struggle and often impossible. I’d copy particular pages of the Clarendon for a session, but inevitably a student would raise a question that would take us to some other part of the text. We were interested in the differences between the 1891, 1892, and 1912 editions, and though I had provided the pages on the infamous rape/seduction scene (the 1891 edition has Alec drugging Tess before the event), I hadn’t copied the description of Tess’s post-marital confession to Angel, which a student asked about. So we did the best we could with what we had. The questions they raised were the basic questions that undergraduates should raise as they start to learn how to do literary research. The process was all the more challenging without online resources.

I was also committed to helping them make good use of Hardy’s Collected Letters and was bringing in copies of the letters to show them how to follow leads. Undergraduates don’t usually think about researching letters and instead simply rely on the quotations that other scholars call to their attention. That’s unfortunate. I aimed to teach them how helpful a good index is and how to follow leads that an editor’s notes might create — basic skills that good researchers have. But the task of bringing in the seven volumes of Hardy’s letters and then doing index work with them was, shall we say, awkward. What I needed was an online scholarly edition of the letters that I could use during class. I didn’t have that, so we accepted the limitations and we did the best we could with one set of the Hardy letters to share.

The course is also designed to teach undergraduates about editions. My experience is that when our students are deciding what edition to use (if such a choice is left up to them), the question they ask themselves is pretty straightforward: “Which is the cheapest?” Our classroom work involved discussing how the texts they chose had been edited. They brought the scholarly edition of their text to class, but it was often hard to do comparative work since each student had a different novel. If, during the session, a question arose that I knew might be addressed by having the whole class look at a particular section of the text (“Did Dickens’s punctuation change over the course of his career? Can we compare sample pages from Oliver Twist and Great Expectations?”), I knew that we couldn’t really look at the pages together. It was hard enough to figure out how to share the library resources that they all wanted to use at the same time.

At this point, readers of this blog entry can tell where I’m headed. Let’s just say that I am eager to have scholarly editions of texts online. As I imagine into a future with these online texts, I am rethinking what will be possible in and out of class. At the most basic level all my students will be able to access the same edition at the same time without needing to purchase personal copies or negotiate inter-library loans. Comparisons with antecedent or contemporary literature will be much easier, as will the opportunities to introduce material from letters or other sources (where available). Because OSEO will offer editorial notes alongside a text, students will hone their research skills by getting into the habit of following ideas in the secondary literature. In short, the number of editions available through OSEO will present them with new ways to explore old texts.

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