Learning to Speak Gently

Pre-Show Talk on Love’s Labour’s Lost, given at the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival in July 2017.

You are in for a “great feast of language tonight” – for this play is primarily an exercise in playing with words. Normally, a plot is always animated by conflict of some kind. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, nobody’s life is threatened.  No shipwrecks separate families. No parental figures forbid a marriage. In fact, there aren’t any parents on stage in this play. The young people seem remarkably free to conduct their own romances. The only parent-like figure, a man named Boyet, is more of a messenger and co-conspirator than a chaperone. No one flees to the woods.  A nominal conflict between the King of France and the King of Navarre over a loan and a piece of land serves mainly to get the Princess of France to Navarre.

The real conflict is created by the King himself when, in pursuit of “fame,” he decides to undertake a gruelling course of study. In the opening scene, the King pressures his three friends to forego food, sleep, and women for three years. One of those friends, the voluble and contrarian Berowne, complains that these are “barren tasks, too hard to keep!” But they all sign up anyway. Who is going to say “no” to the King?!

Before I talk about the consequences of that oath, let me give you a few pointers about how the play works. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, there’s a main plot with aristocratic characters, and a secondary plot with a motley crew of characters lower down the social hierarchy. The two plots alternate throughout the play, and the two sets of characters interact sporadically, until the final scene when the secondary characters perform a pageant for the higher characters. 

The higher characters are divided into two courts. The action is set in the court of the King of Navarre, which is represented by four men: the king himself, Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville.  The Princess of France comes to Navarre on a diplomatic mission. Her court is represented by four women: the princess, Rosaline, Katherine, and Maria. (You can probably guess where this is going already!) Not only do things happen in fours, but we get mirror image scenes, where men and women trade roles and power. And of course everyone falls in love.

The secondary characters tend to be humorous – in the sense that they exemplify some character trait or “humour.” And so we have the Clown, Costard, who has street smarts but a poor vocabulary. We have a Spanish visitor, Don Adriano de Armado, who fancies himself a much better master of English rhetoric than he actually is. We have his witty boyservant, Moth or Mote, who is as witty as Don Adriano is obtuse. We have Constable Dull, whose name says it all. And Holofernes the school master, and Nathaniel the Curate, who have “stolen the scraps” from the great feast of language. We also have Jaquenetta, the dairy woman, who doesn’t say much but is central to the plot.

 The arrival of the Princess and her ladies, Rosaline, Katharine, and Maria, precipitates a crisis. How can the Princess be housed and entertained under the terms of the king’s decree? The ambassadorial mission begins with a witty dispute over the rightness of lodging the Princess “in the field, / Like one that comes here to besiege his court.” The military simile is apt. We are about to embark on a war of wit.

The rest of the play is preoccupied with increasingly elaborate courtship games, as the King, Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville predictably fall in love with the four women. Overcoming their initial shame in a hilarious scene of mutual discovery, the men resolve to win the women. Poetry, gifts, elaborate disguises, and games ensue. At every turn, the women best the men at their own game, until the men admit defeat and promise to woo honestly and humbly.

They have one more lesson to learn, however. The Pageant of the Nine Worthies—a play within a play performed by the characters from the secondary plot—reveals the four lords’ patronizing attitude towards their verbally inept social inferiors. The four defeated suitors, relieved to have “one show worse than the King’s,” mock and humiliate the amateur actors, until poor Holofernes departs from his script to complain that “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.” The Princess and her ladies models better audience behaviour, expressing appreciation for the show, which resumes at her bidding.

The plot has one final twist, a surprise ending that prevents the four couples from moving swiftly towards the marriages we expect from a comedy. The four men are told to wait a year before they resume their amorous addresses. In that twelvemonth period, they are to perform charitable service. Berowne is tasked with amusing the “speechless sick.” He must reform his “wounding flouts” and “mocks” to be worthy of Rosaline. In short, he must learn true gentility, which lies not in rhetorical victories but in humility.

Much of the pleasure of the play lies in its linguistic games. To really enjoy the play, imagine the verbal play as a kind of tennis match. Who is serving first? Who is in control of the volley? Who loses the “set of wit”? Listen for the rhetorical devices that early modern English playgoers loved. There were no lighting effects or car chases in early modern – but a few lines of stichomythia was sure exciting! Stichomythia is rapid-fire dialogue where each speaker has one line. Plays on words are especially frequent in this play. Listen for those moments when one character willfully misunderstands what another character has said, turning his or her meaning on its head and using the word in a different way. Pay attention to who gets to supply the second rhyme in a rhyming couplet. Listen for the repeated words – called anaphora. Listen for the repeated sounds – called alliteration. Listen for the repeated phrases and parallel sentence structures – called isocolon. Whoever masters these linguistic tricks has the upper hand in the dialogue.

Welcome to this great feast of language, and enjoy the show!

2018 Reading

Nobody ever asks me what I’m reading. Instead, people tell me what they’re reading and assume not just that I’ve already read it but that I’ve read everything. There was a time when I spent the better part of a year reading “everything” in order to prepare for comprehensive exams, “everything” meaning the Norton Anthology of English Literature, vols. 1 and 2, plus a set list of texts. But, no, I haven’t read everything. In fact, the neighbours on my street have likely read far more contemporary literature than I have. The sad truth is that, for many years after taking up my first tenure-track position, I didn’t read at all — not for pleasure, at least. Having become an English professor because I spent my childhood either lost in a book or looking for new books in the local library, I found myself with no time to read!

What do English professors read? In my case, the answer was: student essays and theses, texts I was teaching, plays I went to see, journal articles under review/copyediting/proofing, journal issues, documentation, parts of new books in my field (rarely an entire monograph), The Guardian (for news), and a smattering of children’s books. The latter I read aloud, which is an enjoyable but slow way to read.

In 2018, I made a resolution to begin reading again, without a pencil in hand and with my literary critical faculties turned to “low.” I would read for the diversion of plot, for the sheer pleasure of language, and for the low-carbon-footprint imaginary journeys. The resolution was inspired partly by a planned surgery in early January, which would require a good five to six weeks of post-surgical distraction. I’d also never forgotten a statement by a graduate student colleague, Laura Moss (now at UBC), who once said that she couldn’t imagine living without an imaginary book world to dip into. And finally, Sarah Werner’s annual published reading list reminded me that I too used to keep lengthy lists of books read each year.

The 2018 list is not long. It’s also incomplete; the local library is surprisingly good at buying collections of new poetry, and I know that several dozen came home. The low point was Elena Ferrante, highly rated but deathly dull (in my opinion). The high points were Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven, and Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, both of which deal with personal redemption and pivot on the accidents and choices of war. Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach was The Book I’d Been Meaning To Read for a long time; my students always talk about it because half my colleagues seem to teach it. Let’s just say it was a long-overdue and sobering read. Silas Marner is an old favourite, well deserving of a third or possibly fourth reading. Louise Penny was a delicious discovery and year-long indulgence; I began in medias res, with the only book in the Three Pines series that doesn’t visit Three Pines. I doubt Penny will ever again achieve the poetic heights of The Beautiful Mystery, but I remain an admirer of what she can do with the detective novel form.

The Bookwurms still like to have books read aloud to them. We read three classics (my choice) and the first four Harry Potter books (their choice, but I like them too). Halfway through 2019, we finally finished our third complete reading of the series.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven


Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend. 2012. 

Alexander McCall Smith, Chance Developments. 2015.

Chris Cleave, Everyone Brave is Forgiven. 2016.

Kate Atkinson, Life after Life. 2013.

Jane Urquhart, The Whirlpool. 1986.

Eden Robinson, Monkey Beach. 2000.

Willa Cather, My Antonia. 1918.

Louise Penny, The Beautiful Mystery. 2012.

David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars. 1994.

Louise Penny, Still Life. 2005.

Louise Penny, The Brutal Telling. 2009.

Louise Penny, Bury Your Dead. 2010.

George Eliot, Silas Marner. 1861.

Phoebe Wang, Admission Requirements. 2017. 9780771005572

Maeve Binchy, Whitehorn Woods. 2006.

Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink. 2017.

Louise Penny, Glass Houses. 2017.

Louise Penny, A Fatal Grace. 2007.

Annabel Lyon, The Golden Mean. 2009.

Reading with/to the Young Readers

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden. 1910.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 1997.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. 1998.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. 1999.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. 2000.

Michael Morpurgo, War Horse. 1982.

E. B. White. Charlotte’s Web. 1952.


I knew the day of reckoning was coming. As my son’s math homework became more complex and we had to add columns and rows to the multiplication tables we used for finding mnemonic patterns, long division loomed on the horizon. I’m not arithmophobic. I aced second-year Probability and Statistics, got through Calculus 201 (albeit barely), enjoyed Analytical Chemistry, and researched early modern account books and reckoners for part of my dissertation. Even in my career as an English/DH professor, I happily populate spreadsheets, devise complex formulas for norming and analyzing grades, and crunch through encoding whenever I get the chance. But I missed the unit on manual long division in grade 5, and never did master that dark art. Not until yesterday, that is.

I skipped an entire year of the BC elementary school curriculum. My school’s solution to a bored kid in Grade 5 was to move her abruptly to Grade 6 after Christmas. Whether or not the academic benefits outweighed the dire social consequences remains an open question. But one thing is certain: I was hopelessly confused by this process that all my new peers seemed to have mastered, ignorant of its purpose, and too shy to ask for help. Somehow I compensated—first by working out the answer laboriously in my head and then by resorting to a calculator as soon as we were allowed to bring one to school—and got all the way to my late 40s without needing the skill. But now my 10-year-old son is halfway through the very bit of the curriculum I skipped.

When he asked for help with his math homework on Tuesday, I scanned the page and saw the symbol I’d been dreading: that alarming combination of closing parenthesis with a long bar. (Apparently, ⟌ has no name. No wonder I’ve been filled with nameless dread for nearly forty years! It’s some consolation that Unicode thought to include it. Look up U+27CC if you ever need to insert the glyph into a document.)

Geeky asides aside, I had to confront my fear of long division (a phobia that, like U+27CC, lacks a name). My first move, though, was avoidance: “Hey, honey, how about if I cook supper tonight and you help with homework?” I thought my son would be happy with this arrangement, but it transpired that he prefers my partner’s cooking. So I had to confess my true motives.  With my phobia outed and my culinary skills in question, humility was really the only option.

I listened in on the lesson and heard my own confusion and resistance in my son’s voice. “What is this arrow for? Why can’t I just do it my head? The answer is obvious! What’s the point of all these lines and remainders?” The homework coach patiently explained that the learning outcome was mastery of the process, not production of the right answer. We have to learn the process on simple problems so that we can scale it up to less tractable problems, he said. How many times have I said similar things as a professor? So there was no excuse for not mastering the process of manual long division by remainders, despite the ubiquity of devices that calculate a million times faster than I ever could.

The next night we moved the white board into the kitchen and I became the student. Within three minutes, I was wielding the dry-erase marker myself, reckoning quotients from random numerators and denominators. The cleverness of the method—essentially an algorithm that breaks down long division into a series of shorter divisions—is deeply satisfying.


My first thought after performing two or three divisions in rapid succession was “This is genius! Who invented this technique?” And then of course I had to ask the question in a more formal way in the library today. English mathematician Henry Briggs (1561-1631; see ODNB or Wikipedia) usually gets the credit for teaching the long division algorithm in this particular way.

In 1597, Briggs was appointed the first professor of Geometry at Gresham College in London, endowed by Sir Thomas Gresham who built the Royal Exchange in London. In 1616, Briggs wrote the preface to the English translation of John Napier’s Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio (1614). The printer of A description of the admirable table o[f] logarithmes with a declaration of the most plentiful, easy, and speedy use thereof in both kindes of trigonometrie, as also in all mathematicall calculations (STC 18351) was Nicholas Okes, best known to Shakespeareans as the printer of the Pied Bull Quarto of King Lear but best known to MoEML and much admired by me as the printer of most of the mayoral pageant books. Long division has been hovering, unseen, on the periphery of my research life for a long time.

Inventor of logarithms, Napier recognized the impediment that complex calculation presents to mathematical investigation. “There is nothing,” he wrote, “that is so troublesome to Matheticall practise, nor that doth more molest and hinder Calculators [people performing calculations], then the Multiplications, Divisions, square, and cubical Extractions of great numbers” (STC 18351; Sig. A5r).

Briggs seems to have been a good teacher. At “Gresham house,” he “publickly taught the meaning & use of this [Napier’s] booke.” Given that not everyone could attend his classes, he aimed in his preface to “give some taste of the excellent use” of the book. He wanted to make clear that the techniques described in the book had an application. This particular book wasn’t ultimately about long division, which was merely a technique for performing the calculations necessary to produce logarithmic tables, but the message is pedagogically valuable.

When my son needs help with long division again, I will try to historicize the method and explain that it is simply a way of breaking down and rendering on paper something he understands quite well in the abstract. There are other algorithms that predate Brigg’s long division, and perhaps my son would find one of them more appealing. I will try to explain that the technique is not an end in itself, even though his math textbook presents a culturally and historically specific method as a universal law. And I will happily draw arrows and divide with him.

Catch, Tag, and Release: Coordinating our Efforts to Build the Early Modern Corpus

My revised abstract for the SAA 2016 Plenary Roundtable, “The Great Work Begins: EEBO-TCP in the Wild.” See all abstracts at Wine Dark Sea.

The work of correcting EEBO-TCP texts is formidable. MoEML‘s work with EEBO-TCP’s XML files shows that transcribers need to supply gaps, capture forme work, correct mis-transcriptions, and restore early modern typographical habits and idiosyncracies.  Only with many partners working in coordination will we be able to establish an accurate corpus suitable for text mining, copy-text editing, and critical editions. We might think of such work in terms of a “catch-tag-release” model, whereby various entities “catch” EEBO-TCP texts from the data stream, “tag” them in TEI Simple (developed by Mueller), correct both tagging and transcriptions through teams of emerging scholars, and then “release” the texts back into the scholarly wilds. Mueller has already described how a corrective tagging process might work, and the Folger’s Digital Anthology project prototypes a repository environment that will allows us to release texts back into the wild. We also need to capture corrective work that has already been done, such as the ISE‘s transcriptions of the quarto and folio transcriptions of Shakespeare’s plays. These transcriptions are highly accurate, having been double-keyed by research assistants, carefully checked by the play editors, and peer reviewed. Their markup predates the development of XML or TEI, but can be dynamically converted (with some effort) into TEI Simple for general “release” alongside other EEBO-TCP transcriptions. From this stage, we can use various XSLT scenarios to convert the TEI Simple both into the plaintext suitable for corpus-wide analyses and into a variety of XML forms suitable for web publication and further editorial work.  The limitations of EEBO-TCP transcriptions and the effort required to correct them should make us mindful of the effect of “unevenness” across the corpus. The ISE proposes to replace reasonably good EEBO-TCP transcriptions of Shakespeare’s play with excellent transcriptions. But what of the texts in which SAA members are less invested? Some of them have error rates of two or more errors per line. Which will we correct first? Will we bestow as much care and time on them as we have on Shakespeare? How will our answers to those questions affect the results of distant reading and data mining exercises?

The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child

The Gruffalo, Front CoverWe have read this wonderful pair of books by Julia Donaldson countless times. What’s not to love about a tiny mouse who preys upon the fears of his predators with a bit of imagination and consistently catchy couplets? When it turns out that there is such a thing as a Gruffalo, the mouse has to think fast! In the sequel, the “Big Bad Mouse” is the bogeyman conjured up to keep the Gruffalo’s daughter away from the “deep dark Wood.” When the Gruffalo’s Child sneaks out to see for herself, the mouse has to think fast … again! Axel Scheffler’s illustrations offer additional details that my young readers love (cavewall drawings of Snake, Owl, Fox, and Mouse, for example). For the adult reader, the exquisite politeness of Mouse, Fox, Owl, Snake, and Gruffalo point to familiar social menaces and solutions more than to “nature red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson 57.15). What grown-up hasn’t wanted to conjure up a gruffalo of an excuse to escape an unwanted lunch invitation at least once in her or his life?

But I keep coming back to Donaldson for her note-perfect poetic meter, which is an integral part of the storytelling. Good poetry lays down a beat and then varies it in meaningful ways. The Gruffalo is mainly iambic and dactylic, invoking patterns children know well. (An iamb is one unstressed beat followed by a stressed beat: da DA. A dactyl is a stressed beat followed by two unstressed beats: DA da da.) Say these two dialogic couplets out loud to hear the dactyls tripping along decorously:

[Fox] Where are you going to, little brown mouse?
Come and have lunch in my underground house.
[Mouse] It’s terribly kind of you Fox, but no —
I’m going to have lunch with a gruffalo.

All very polite and light, until the mouse brings up his imaginary pre-arranged lunch date. The mouse forces Fox off the social script.

[Fox] A gruffalo? What’s a gruf-fa-lo?

With the two interrogatives (the first one a non-sequitur or non-sentence), the meter abruptly shifts to spondees (two stressed syllables), which I’ve marked in bold. There are many ways to read this line (and I’ve tried them all over the course of reading this book aloud several hundred times), but the words seem to come out best as querulous spondees. To me, the change of meter signals an irruption into the normal flow of social dialogue. The mouse inserts a surprising piece of information. The Fox can’t help but ask — just as Owl and Snake will do in the subsequent pages.

The mouse is in control of the social dialogue from this point on. First, he gets to complete Fox’s incomplete half-line:

A gruffalo! Why, didn’t you know?

In studies of Shakespeare’s verse by theatre practitioners, there’s general consensus that shared half-lines indicate haste, with the second speaker jumping in to finish the line (Rokison). In this case, the mouse feigns exclamatory surprise (“A gruffalo!”) and shames his interlocutor with the implication that Fox is outside a knowledge community (“Why, didn’t you know?”). Without much time to think, the mouse resorts to a repeated adjective rather than specifics of the gruffalo’s appearance:

He has terrible tusks, and terrible claws,
And terrible teeth in his terrible jaws.

The mouse will elaborate these details in his next encounters (with Owl and Snake), when he’s had more time to conjure up the vision of the Gruffalo. But this moment, when the mouse is only beginning to imagine his Gruffalo, always makes me laugh. “Terrible” is the best he can do — four times! Technically, the repetition of “terrible” is an instance of “diacope.” Silva Rhetoricae defines diacope as “Repetition of a word with one or more between, usually to express deep feeling.” The mouse is certainly feeling something deep: fear of being eaten by Fox! And so he is both in control of the exchange and not entirely in control of the image … yet. When he does fully master the idea of a gruffalo, the Gruffalo (now with an uppercase G) materializes in front of him, a new terror to be managed.

The mouse’s bravado and quick thinking are deeply pleasurable precisely because they come from a place of vulnerability. He is vulnerable to things bigger than he is, to veiled threats that seem like kindness (“tea,” “lunch,” “a feast”), and, finally, to his own imagination. To a child trying to parse a world full of bigger people, mysterious requests, and nameless fears, the mouse is an achievable heroic model.

This exchange in The Gruffalo should remind you of another question-and-answer nursery rhyme, also in alternating dactylic lines:

Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
Pussycat, pussycat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under her chair.

I like to think of The Gruffalo as the mouse’s revenge. Ultimately, The Gruffalo is an instance of the “world turned upside down” motif, where normal hierarchies are inverted.

Image from the British Library © The British Library Board.
Image from the British Library © The British Library Board.

In the lower left-hand corner, you can see a crudely drawn mouse or rat chasing a cat — part of a series of inversions (fish swimming in the air, a man’s hands where his feet should be, a horse pushing a cart). Such images, popular in Renaissance Europe long before their appearance on this 1646 title page, often include children instructing their teachers or blessing their parents. The mouse’s triumph over Fox, Owl, Snake, and, ultimately, the most terrible thing he can imagine, is the triumph of the child. And it all plays out in mutually supporting ways at the level of narrative, image, and verse.


Burton, Gideon. Silva Rhetoricae. http://rhetoric.byu.edu/.

Donaldson, Julia. The Gruffalo. Ill. Axel Scheffler. London: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0333710937.

Donaldson, Julia. The Gruffalo’s Child. Ill. Axel Scheffler. London: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2005. ISBN 978-1405020466.

J., T. The World Turn’d upside down: or, A briefe description of the ridiculous Fashions of these distracted Times. London, 1646.

Rokison, Abigail. “Shakespeare’s Dramatic Verse Line.” The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare’s Poetry. Ed. Jonathan Post. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. 285-305. DOI 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199607747.013.0024. See section 16.2, “Shared Lines.”

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. In Memoriam A. H. H. OBIIT MDCCCXXXIII. 1850. Text from Alfred Lord Tennyson, Poems, ed. Hallam Lord Tennyson and annotated by Alfred Lord Tennyson. London: Macmillan, 1908. Available in digital diplomatic transcription at Representative Poetry Online. Ed. Ian Lancashire. Toronto: University of Toronto Libraries, 1998.

New Scholars Roundtable — Treasures and Tea @UVicLib

The UVic Special Collections “Treasures and Tea” series gave me the opportunity to convene a “New Scholars Roundtable.” Today, I had the privilege of moderating a session highlighting the work of emerging scholars with material from Special Collections. The speakers were: Michelle Spelay on Thomas Heywood’s Gynaikaeion, Emily Hector on The Wrongs of Woman, Alyssa Currie on William Blake prints, Nadia Timperio on the Pocket Books phenomenon, and Elyse Mitchell on the fortunes of Sono Nis Press. I reproduce below the text of my introduction to the event and my introductions of each presenter. We’ll be posting their work to the new Special Collections blog in due course.


I’m very pleased to be showcasing the work of new scholars today, all of whom took English 500 in Fall 2014. English 500, or “Textual Studies and Methods of Research,” is the only course in our graduate program that all students must take. The challenge of the course is to turn obligation into opportunity. Holding the class meetings right here, in this room, means that we are surrounded by the wonderful opportunities afforded by our Special Collections and University Archives.

My colleague, Dr. Erin Kelly, says that she feels like a matchmaker when she teaches English 500. She does a wonderful speed-dating exercise where students get to spend a few minutes meeting a series of rare books and materials from our literary archives. Students rank their books and arrange a second date if they wish. This year, with the fortuitous appointment of Heather Dean as Associate Director of SCUA, I felt that we could be more ambitious. To extend the metaphor, we hoped to spark a love affair between books and graduate students that would lead to a long-term relationship with the material forms of literary transmission.

Setting aside the potential jokes about getting into bed with a book – which is one of the many things not allowed in SCUA – we did have two additional objectives. The first was to provide students with opportunities to make new discoveries that might lead to original research projects. The second was to learn more about our collections. And so Heather and I matched each one of the 26 students with manuscripts, rare books, prints, archival holdings, and other SCUA materials that spoke directly to their research interests. Each student had a unique assignment, which the student and I co-created in the SCUA Reading Room with the materials in front of us. The one requirement common to all the assignments was that the student contribute something back to the library – in the form of a finding aid, an update to the catalogue metadata, a complete signature collation, a blog post, a conservation proposal, or an acquisition proposal.

The results were wonderful … and this work is now filtering into the Library system. For several students, the bibliographic love affair is bearing fruit in the form of the Master’s Essay. For others, it will be a valuable line on their CVs. For the library and future users, we now have several more invaluable finding aids, including a list of poems and stories in an important journal in the Transgender Archive, which makes visible a hitherto hidden collection.

So why these five new scholars today? Certainly, their presentations in December were excellent. To be fair to the other members of the class, I must say that there were many excellent presentations – which tends to be the outcome when students get excited about a project. But these particular five presentations, taken together, will give us a good sense both of the range of materials in SCUA and of the kinds of questions that new scholars can ask – and answer – within the limited time frame of English 500. As you’ll hear and see, our speakers today have done first-rate scholarly work. They truly are “scholars.”


Michelle Spelay

Michelle recently graduated from the English Honours program at UVic where she pursued research interests in early English drama and book history. This led her to the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia where she is working towards a dual degree in both library and archival studies. At UBC, Michelle is combining her interests in rare books and digital librarianship by working at the UBC Library’s Digitization Centre. Her current project is digitizing the Uno Langmann BC Historical Photograph Collection that features photographs dating back to the 1850s. Michelle’s discussion today will focus on Thomas Heywood’s Gynaikeion, a 17th century encyclopedia of women.-

Emily Hector

Emily Hector is a first-year Masters student in UVic’s English department. She graduated with a BA Honours in English from the University of Manitoba and is a 2014 SSHRC recipient. Emily’s research interests lie in Victorian literature, with special focus on working-class women, literacy, and Christianity. Today, she will be presenting on Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, a Victorian Evangelical who wrote to improve safety conditions for factory workers.

Alyssa Currie

Alyssa completed her undergraduate degree from the University of Northern British Columbia with a joint English and History Major. She is currently completing her Masters of English, studying the works of William Blake and other Romantic Era artists. Alyssa serves on the board of the English Graduate Student Society and recently presented at University of Victoria Ideafest. Today, she will be discussing how things are not always what they seem in Special Collections.

Nadia Timperio

Nadia Timperio is a Masters student in the English department at the University of Victoria. She completed a Bachelor of Arts and Science in English and Biology in 2014 at the University of Windsor. There, she co-authored the piece, “Narrative and Numbers: Tony Judt, Edward Bellamy, and the Problem of Inequality,” which was presented at the Canadian Association for American Studies annual conference and is currently under review. Her research interests lie in American drama and the construction of identity through social and cultural spaces. Today, her presentation looks at an early publication of American playwright Edward Albee’s most notable work, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Elyse Mitchell

Elyse attended UVic for her undergrad, where her research interests led her to focus on modernist poetry and contemporary Canadian gothic fiction. After spending several years as a high school English teacher in Vancouver, she has returned to academia, where she is focusing on the changing face of Canadian publishing and how Canadian literature reflects and constructs Canadian identity. Her Masters essay examines Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach and considers the limits of Gothic narrative tropes for critical examinations of literature from a postcolonial perspective. Her discussion today focuses on the changing face of publication in Canada.

Versioning John Stow’s A Survey of London, or, What’s New in 1618 and 1633?

In June, I’ll be attending the conference of the Bibliographical Society of Canada for the first time. It’s here in Victoria, as part of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, an umbrella under which many learned societies shelter.

As a semi-regular instructor of our graduate-level Textual Studies course (English 500), I’m looking forward to learning about books from a wide range of periods and regions. This panel features a paper on American poet Walt Whitman (given in French) and a paper on Canadian poet bpNichol (yes, that is how the late bp signed his name).

One of the odd facts about English departments is that the medieval and early modern scholars inevitably teach the bibliography courses … to students who are overwhelmingly interested in contemporary poetry. I’m going to this conference with every intention and hope of returning to my office with a new set of bibliographical puzzles for my modern students.

When and Where
Monday, 3 June 2013
10:45 – 12:15 Editions and Revisions
Room: Cornett A-129
Chair: Éric Leroux (l’Université de Montréal)
Janelle Jenstad (University of Victoria), “Versioning John Stow’s A Survey of London, or, What’s New in 1618 and 1633?”
Pierre Hébert (Université de Sherbrooke), “Traduire le poète américain Walt Whitman pour ‘l’âime canadienne’ : ‘comme ce petit saut lui ferait du bien!’”
Katherine Wooler (Dalhousie University), “evolve: Editing the poetry of bpNichol”

Sneak Preview of my Paper

Versioning John Stow’s A Survey of London, or, What’s New in 1618 and 1633?

John Stow’s A Survey of London is best known in its 1598 first edition and its 1603 second edition. John Strype’s 1720 magisterial post-fire revision of A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster is likewise well known as “the standard and invaluable work of reference for historians of the capital.” Much less attention has been given to the intervening editions, notably the 1618 and 1633 editions. These posthumous editions were crucial to the development of the tradition that I call accretive revision, whereby Stow’s perambulation of the city was retained as the core of a text that was “furthered” interstitially with commentary on new developments since Stow had surveyed that part of London. The 1618 edition established the tradition of editorial revision. Anthony Munday “continued, corrected and much enlarged” Stow’s text, but fashioned himself as an editor in his “Epistle Dedicatorie.” This edition also changed the title from A Survey to The Survey, signalling the authority and canonicity of the work. In 1633, The Survey was finally deemed “completely finished.” Published in folio for the first time, the text is marked as an official utterance of the city. The Corporation of London’s coat of arms faces the title page. Stow is credited with having “begunne” The Survey, but the corporate authorship of “A.M. H.D and others” frames Stow’s words. Just as the size of the book is materially increased by publication in folio, the boundaries of London are increased by the addition of a verbal “perambulation foure miles about London,” attesting to the outward growth of London’s urbs (buildings). At the same time, the London livery companies, whose jurisdiction lay mostly within the old walled city, put their stamp on the book with full page woodcuts of their arms (for the 12 great companies) and half-page woodcuts for the lesser companies. At The Map of Early Modern London, we are preparing a versioned edition of the 1598, 1603, 1618, and 1633 texts of A/The Survey. Versioning, a form of electronic collation, allows us to see at a glance that the nature of the revisions to Stow are accretive rather than corrective, added to the edges of Stow’s text rather than replacing it. We are also digitizing my copy of the 1633 Survey so that the many newly added woodcuts are accessible to readers who wish to read the visual dimensions of the work. My paper concludes with a demonstration of our versioned edition and a hands-on exploration of the 1633 book.

Fifty Special Books at UVic

[This post was first published on the Fifty Special Books blog created by the Department of English to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the University of Victoria. Contributors were asked to name a book that had special significance to them, provide a photo of the book or a photo of themselves reading the book, quote a passage from the book, and explain why it was meaningful to them.]

Image from Amazon.ca

Janelle Jenstad

Associate Professor, English

Affiliation with UVic English: Faculty; Alumni, B.A. Hons. 1992

Special Book: Possession, A. S. Byatt

When did you first read this book: July 1993

Which sentence from this book has special significance for you?

“There are things which happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of, though it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been.”

What does the sentence mean to you?

I first read Possession in the summer between my M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Queen’s University. I loved the way this literary detective story unfolded through archival discoveries, semi-autobiographical Victorian poetry, transcriptions of letters and journals, and historical fiction. I became an early modernist, not a Victorianist, but, in retrospect, I can see that the story of a number of modern-day scholars competing and collaborating to discover the truth about nineteenth-century literary figures had a profound influence on my research practices. My training did not cover archival research or paleography … but I was determined to study records and letters. Eventually, I set off for England armed with a basic knowledge of Elizabethan Secretary and a romantic notion that I would change literary history by digging in the archives, just as Roland Michell and Maud Bailey did in Possession. Of course, I discovered very quickly that the records of early modern England are richer than I’d ever dreamed, and partial in ways that are both fascinating and frustrating. Finding out why people and institutions record certain things in certain ways became an obsession. It was the very partiality of literary history that ultimately interested me. Every record seemed haunted by “the things which happen and leave no discernible trace.” I wondered constantly about the unrecorded lives and events that changed the course of history, the books that have disappeared from our cultural history, the irretrievable responses of readers and playgoers, the complex lives of individuals whose dreams and desperation survive only in a line recorded by a clerk. These lines from _Possession_ came back to me as I worked; they reminded me that the past humbles the scholar, but they also legitimated a certain conjecture and imagination. Without an omniscient narrator to tell us of that profound encounter, we have to dream it ourselves even if we can never prove it. And perhaps it’s that desire for an omniscient narrator that makes me a literary critic rather than a historian.

Mobilizing Student Scholarship for The Map of Early Modern London

I like the recent trend, particularly noticeable in the DH world, of posting revised versions of conference papers to our websites and blogs.  Too much scholarship goes back into the electronic filing cabinet after a conference, never again to see the light of day.  Yet it does filter into academic discourse via those people who attended the session.  As a conference-goer, I always want something to cite when I share the intellectual bounty with my students and colleagues back home.   But as conference participant, I don’t always want to turn my conference papers into articles.  Sometimes the argument isn’t weighty enough; sometimes triggering dialogue is the main point of the paper.  In any case, my conference “papers” these days consist of speaking notes, or, occasionally, something carefully scripted for oral performance.  (Thank goodness we don’t read our papers aloud to each other as often as we used to!)  The idea has been shared, we had a good discussion, and I have other things to do.

So, in the spirit of sharing my ideas freely (the Sample Reality principle), here’s a slightly revised version of the five-minute paper I gave at “Building Digital Humanities in the Undergraduate Classroom” at MLA 2012 in Seattle.  Brian Croxall (co-organizer with Kathi Inman Berens) created a website for the “Hands-On Show-and-Tell” session, where you can read the session proposal (which responds to Stephen Ramsay), panelist bio-bibliographical notes, project abstracts, and assignments created by panelists for their courses.   The session was well attended (over 100 conferees, I believe); I hope the MLA will offer more sessions of this nature.  Thanks to Brian and Kathi for organizing and presiding over a wonderfully stimulating exchange of ideas and projects.


Mobilizing Student Scholarship for The Map of Early Modern London

I tell two stories about the building of The Map of Early Modern London.  One is the grant-application version in which I frame the project as a contribution to the new discipline of spatial humanities or geohumanities.   I explain that our project builds an understanding of the literature of London by mapping its references to streets and sites.   I talk about Franco Moretti, distant readings, and space as a signifier.  This is a “why” story in which I explain why we need to map texts.

The second story is the messier history of the project.  Three students needed something to BUILD because they were in a course on building websites, way back in 1999.  This is the “how” story of how the project came to be.  Some of the chapters in that story are the painful chapters of turning HTML into XML, pages into databases, WYSIWYG into TEI tags, and formatting into stylesheets.  These chapters constitute the fits-and-starts growth curve of many first-generation digital projects.

The “what” has changed over the years; in fact, we still struggle with the “what” question.  What IS this project?  Originally, it was a digital atlas of a historical map of 1560s London, drawn at a time when the genre of civic maps was being developed.  Our work was to annotate the map in this new and cool digital way.  Increasingly, the map became more of a platform – the background rather than the foreground.  These days, many parts of the site function without needing the map at all.  We’ve built geotags into every file in the database, so we could, in theory, attach our work to any georeferenced map of London.  

Along the way, I have learned just as much from my students as they have learned from me (and perhaps more).  It’s been profoundly humbling and exciting, and I like to think that this is pedagogy at its best, not least because well over half of the students who have been part of the project now work in the fields of literary studies, digital humanities, or IT.

Kathi and Brian challenged us to describe how we build DH projects in the undergraduate classroom.  I would like to think more deeply about what building entails, and what it is that we ask our students to build.  “Build” is a verb.  I therefore offer a set of verbs that describe what students DO when they BUILD the SITE, the CONTENT, and the PAGES.  Then I’d like to reframe the question and ask what we as teachers do to BUILD the student.  Finally, I’d like to offer a refinement on the noun, “student.”  When we have our students build projects, and when we invest in building their skillsets, we offer opportunities for students to inhabit professional roles.

What do students do when they build the SITE?  They…

plan (the steps)

digitize (a printed map in this case)

scan (the textual artefact)

design (the menus and TOCs)

choose (the keywords and terms)

identify (each place)

regularize (each name)

assign (XML:ids)

structure (the database)

encode (the articles)

activate (the links)

What do students do when they build the CONTENT?  They…

prioritize (the places to be described)

flag (places of literary significance)

determine (the “thickness” of the description)

research (the history of)

        • people, events, buildings
        • street name etymology

research (the literature by)

        • place of printing and dissemination
        • construction of place within literature

differentiate (present from past and future)

find (other web resources and open-source articles)

What do students do when they build the descriptive or argumentative PAGES?  They…

integrate (the historical, geographical, and literary)

write (the encyclopedia-style entry)

respond (to feedback)

revise (their writing, their ideas, their presentation thereof)

co-edit (with the general editor)

identify (each site by its XML:id)

justify (site identifications)

cross-referee (all linking pages)

respond (to future cross-referees)

What do teachers do when we build the STUDENTS?  We…

provide (a high-impact opportunity) [MoEML receives over 400,000 page requests per month, with over 20% of visitors requesting more than ten pages]

invite (them to contribute)

teach (skills)

share (tools, resources)

expect (high standards)

coach (through co-editing sessions)

appreciate (their contributions)

learn (from them)

include (their work alongside that of senior scholars)

follow (their careers)

What do students BECOME by doing these things?


Information architect





Test user




Transcription checker






Project manager

No doubt, each of us here today could add other verbs to refine what it means “to build DH,” and other nouns to describe our students’ roles.  Let’s build a capacious definition of building, large enough to house the many things we do with DH in the undergraduate classroom.

A Day in the Life of One Academic

Time to stop tinkering with fonts and templates and WRITE something.  I was going to launch this blog with an explanation of the multiple meanings of “Occasional Drama” (consider it “forthcoming”) but “The Day of Higher Ed” calls me to a different reckoning.  Lee Bessette has challenged us to “record, in minutia, what we do as professors from the moment we wake up to the minute we fall asleep.  All the work we do that contributes to our job as educators.”  And maybe a blow-by-blow summary of Monday, April 2, is as good an introduction to “Occasional Drama” as any other.

04h00.  Today, my occasional pre-dawn research and writing time was wholly given over to the creation of the final examination for English 147:  Literary Traditions and Transformations.   The exam has to be done today so that I can head off to the Shakespeare Association of America conference in Boston at 5:45 a.m. on Wednesday with a clear conscience.  I remind myself of the course objectives and learning outcomes, look through my own notes and slides, pick passages, write essay topics, and finally try to imagine being a student writing this exam.  Student assessment is a tricky business; after fifteen years of setting exams, I still worry and second-guess throughout the process.

06h30.  The Bookworms awake early, cranky and incapable of effective communication.  The next two hours are a blur:  make nutritious breakfasts, negotiate the complexities of dressing rituals and the morning melodrama of favourite shirts being mired in the laundry system, admire Lego structures, rescue aforesaid Lego structures from dinosaur attacks, resolve several disputes, and look for Waldo with a magnifying glass while teaching the G-Worm about alliteration (Waldo, Wenda, Wizard, Wag).  While drinking tea, I brush up on Jungian Psychology 101 in preparation for my lecture later in the day.  I owe my morning shower to Miss Frizzle and The Magic School Bus.  Gathering boots, coats, hats, knapsacks, security blankets, and raingear makes me grateful that I teach adults and doubly appreciative of childcare providers and elementary school teachers.  Every venture outside our door is a variation on Thomas’ Snowsuit.  Once in the car, we listen to stories on CD or deal with the usual questions about the Big Bang, where babies come from, how electricity stays inside the wires, or why the digger/truck/car/bike/machine/tree/dog/stoplight/pedestrian is doing whatever it’s doing.  True inter-disciplinarity happens in the preschool years.  I’m grateful for all those courses in Physics, Chemistry, and Math in my B.Sc. days.  By the time I drop the Bookworms at daycare, I’ve already done a day’s worth of problem-solving.

09h00. Daycare drop-off accomplished, I can turn my thoughts to my work.    On Friday afternoon, I mapped out the month of April in yellow flags stuck to the  portrait of Elizabeth I on my office wall.  Like me, Elizabeth is up to her ears in tasks.  I begin Monday by gazing at Elizabeth and contemplating the tasks she has for me.

09h30.  Weekly check-in with my research and writing buddy.  These meetings get shorter and shorter as the term progresses.  Come summer, we’ll start reading and discussing each other’s work again.  Meanwhile, we remind each other that research really is 40% of our job, even if 100% of today is devoted to Service and Teaching.

09h45.  I take my laptop over to Special Collections Reading Room in the Library.  I’m co-curating an exhibit of rare books donated to the McPherson Library by the late Dr. Patricia Koster (more about this in a later post) and we (doctoral candidate Sandra Friesen, a team of students, and I) are at the stage of placing books in the display cases and writing up the bibliographical descriptions for the 180 books we’ve selected.  It’s a peaceful place to work, even though we’re rushing to finish up the analytical work.  Handling the tooled leather bindings, turning old linen-rag pages, looking for watermarks, reading the marginal inscriptions of past readers, transcribing the title pages:  these activities have a meditative quality for the bibliographer.  I even get to do an exciting bit of bibliographical forensic work:  a signature collation to determine that we do indeed have first editions of Dryden’s Fables (1700) and Pope’s Works (1717).  I’ve been typing so much lately that I have shooting pains in my right hand, wrist, and forearm.  When the pain gets unbearable, I stop to read some of these wonderful old books.  The lack of critical apparatus and editorial footnotes lets me read guiltlessly.  I soak up rhyming couplets, Restoration playtexts, gossipy prose, hilarious dedications “To the best judge of this book, Myself.”  It’s a rare reminder of what first excited me about literary study.

12h45.  Lunch.  The line-up is too long at the upscale Bibliocafe, so I walk across the heart of campus to the University Centre for a sandwich, where I bump into a colleague in History whom I haven’t seen all year.  We talk for five minutes on our way back to our offices, the only collegial interaction I’ll have this afternoon.  We talk campus politics, which revolve around workload and pay at the moment.

12h55.  I eat at my desk while reading the 37 emails delivered to my inbox while I was shielded from the internet down in Special Collections.  Only two can be dispatched with a simple “thank you.”  The rest require more thought, but I have to turn my attention to the last lecture of the term.

13h05.  My classes never go well if I reuse an old set of notes.  I have to reread the primary text, rework my notes, and tinker with my powerpoint slides every single time.  Reworking the notes is how I think through an argument and figure out how I want to approach the text or problem.  Once made, the notes have served their purpose; I often don’t need to look at them at all while teaching.  I’m teaching the final lecture on Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) — and the final lecture of the course — at 3:30.  I copy part of an old set of notes into a new file, rework them, and then add a new section on how MacDonald traces a Jungian path of individuation for the main character, Constance Ledbelly.  I plan a 5-minute introduction to Jung’s conception of the Self, Shadow, Archeyptes, and Individuation, just enough to make sense of MacDonald’s use of these concepts and maybe to whet the students’ appetite for more information.

15h15.  Off to the classroom, a cavernous room with no windows.  Set up laptop, Clicker base station, slide show, video data projectors, wireless microphone.  There’s good energy in the room today, students are taking notes, and, when I thank them at the end of the lecture for their attention over the term, they are generous enough to applaud.  For a huge course (two lecture sections of 180 students each, with twenty tutorials and twenty TAs), it’s gone remarkably well.   I’ll repeat the same lecture tomorrow to the other section … but I’ll probably tweak it again before I do.

16h20.  Field a couple of questions from exiting students, unhook all the cables, shut down computer, and pack up.  Meet briefly with the TA Coordinator and discuss strategies for managing any problems that might arise while I’m away in Boston.

17h00.  I’ve gone home early today.  The Bookworms will be picked up by their dad while I put some time into the family finances.  All UVic employees had their banking information compromised by a break-in.  Many of us are still sorting out new accounts, transfers of automatic debits, and credit monitoring.  Somehow I feel I ought to be able to do this business on my employer’s time, but then I’d just end up prepping a lecture or marking in the evening on “my time.”  The concept of “my time” and “the employer’s time” is nearly absurd in academia.

17h40.  The Bookworms return, chattering of beach adventures, books read, plans for the evening.  In the blur of hand-washing, table-setting, discussing the importance of vegetables, bathing, and tooth-brushing, reading stories is always a highlight.  Like every English professor who is also a parent, I’m fascinated by the structure and style of children’s books, but even more fascinated by the opportunity to study reader response, or at least the responses of two small readers who are learning the narrative ropes, so to speak.  In an hour, we range across old favourites that we own, new library books, fiction, science books,  picture books, and chapter books.  Our new book for tonight is Henry and the Kite Dragon (Bruce Edward Hall; illustrated by William Low).  There’s a dark moment right in the middle of the book where the Chinese-American children and the Italian-American children are “ready to start swinging” at each other.  The Bookworms are on the edge of the couch, absolutely still (for once), waiting for violence to erupt.  Then the story shifts abruptly, and the two warring neighbourhood groups unite in a shared bid to protect a pet pigeon from the frightening titular dragon kite.  “Ah,” I think, “That was the augenblick.”  Only a few hours earlier, I was talking about the augenblick in Othello and Romeo and Juliet.  And in this moment, the two halves of my life click neatly together.  I’m a better teacher because I’m a parent, and a better parent because I’m a teacher.

23h00.  The Bookworms are asleep, their dad is out in the garage building sections of a new fence, and I have just put the finishing touches on the final exam.  I’ve worked a normal workday (9-4:45), spent a good five hours with my children, and given an extra 3 1/2 hours to my job at the beginning and end of the day.