I'm not sure if this is something about which one should boast, but I am an advanced user of the Early English Books Online (EEBO) platform. My scholarly work depends, to a rather drastic extent, on the 130,000ish scanned books and 66,000ish transcribed image sets that make up the EEBO and EEBO-TCP. I have given entire papers (and, you could argue, written entire books) based on what I found while screwing around on EEBO.
Recently, ProQuest, the owner/manager of EEBO, has moved away from the longstanding EEBO interface (with all its frustrating charms and deceptively powerful search capabilities) and has implemented the corpus/images into the standard ProQuest interface. There are some good things about this change, which I won't dwell on here. Instead, I want to illustrate one enormous, cataclysmic, frankly awful limitation to the new interface: you cannot easily browse particular results.
The old (and soon to be abandoned) EEBO interface involved rather Byzantine search protocols with major virtues. Let's say I wanted to look for the word "love," which in early modern English could be spelled various ways, including "loue," "looue," and "lufe." I'd simply search with Variant spellings and forms selected:
Then I scroll through the results until I see something I want to explore further. In this case, I chose Fedele and Fortunio:
So far, so good. I now click on the little "full text" icon, and find the blue link for "First Hit"--that is, the first instance of "love" (IN ANY SPELLING) in the text.
I can then scroll through all the instances of "love" (in whatever spelling or form) in this text.
It's extremely clumsy, and awkward, and a bit web 1.0, but it's also very powerful. In my own research, this feature has allowed me to scroll across thousands of instances of particular words, phrases, and forms. The new ProQuest interface, by contrast, does not allow this kind of scrolling. Or rather, it makes it much more difficult. (I acknowledge the possibility that I've simply missed some feature of the search tool, despite spending hours reading the documentation and test searching.)
Let's say, again, that I want to search all the forms of "love." ProQuest searches those variants by default, and allows you to "show additional terms," though you aren't allowed to see the variant spellings, which I find odd. The third image below shows the list of variants searched with "love." (I pause to observe that ProQuest's one-size-fits-all interface also seems to think it can tell me which document is most "relevant" to my search for "love.")
OK, ProQuest, fine. FINE. Setting aside that this searching actually lacks the very granularity and precision that made the old EEBO interface so useful for my purposes, I'll accept this so far. But then, once I locate Fedele and Forunio (ranked #29 in relevance??!!), I want to scroll through the results for "love." Clicking on the promised "full text," I arrive at a page with highlighted search results.
I can, it seems, hide the highlighting. And I can, it seems, scroll through the full text looking for highlighted results. ProQuest seems to think this will suffice, and that if users want to scroll through all the search hits, they can simply use a "search" command in their browser (command + f). But what term do I search for? My original search was for "love." If I search this full-text for "love," I get no hits on this page, BECAUSE "LOVE" WASN'T SPELLED THAT WAY IN 1585.
If you too are a frequent searcher of EEBO, then you'll know why this is a major problem. Rather than a system that aligns the indexical nature of a full-text resource with the variation endemic to early modern English (as the old EEBO interface offered), we have a new system that, in its algorithmic concealment of variation, actually limits the usefulness of the database. To read across instances of words, phrases, or linguistic forms (what Dan Shore calls "plural reading" and what I have called "computational philology"), users must now actually scroll through entire EEBO texts looking for highlighted terms.
Moreover, I have done a detailed comparison of the two interfaces to highlight just how much time the new one will cost (a great irony, considering ProQuest's rhetoric of efficiency). Myself, I have spent the last 18 months collecting thousands of examples from EEBO for my book project. I shudder to think how long it would have taken me to find the same number of examples if I'd had to scroll through one full text at a time looking for highlighted hits.
There are lots of compelling answers to the question, "Why book history?" Most of them would quote Don McKenzie, I'm sure. His stuff about how the medium effects [with an 'e'] the message and about how we have to concern ourselves with the relation between form, function, and symbolic meaning (Bibliography and the Soc of Texts, page 10). Maybe his claims about how documents bear the evidence of their own making (Making Meaning, amplified by McGann's recent New Republic of Letters). McKenzie is now the patron saint of bibliography.
Today, the New York Times's David Brooks offered a more urgent but presumably unconscious answer to "Why book history?"--unconscious in the sense that he's thinking about media and culture but not books in particular. Writing about an event that, given the pace of things, may be swallowed up within a few days' time, Brooks observed that "the crucial thing is that the nation’s culture is now enmeshed in a new technology that we don’t yet know how to control."
This is exactly why book history, for at least two reasons. First, Brooks's claim about the effects of social media on a culture (however accurate) suggest the ongoing relevance of book history. Some grasp on how people in early modern England reacted to and exploited the proliferation of printed documents is not merely instructive but necessary to comprehending the shift Brooks describes. Plenty of folks have written about this, of course, but it's worth saying again. Second, Brooks's claim--expressed with a combination of capaciousness (THE nation's culture!), urgency (NOW! NEW!), and determinism (YET!)--falls into a long tradition of people trying to make sense of the media transformations of their time. I'm reminded of the 1637 proclamation, A Decree of Starre-Chamber, Concerning Printing (STC 7757), which shows the Star Chamber, in its attempts to regulate the press, try to make sense of the social effects of a media transformation. Didn't work out so well for the Star Chamber.
A fun find in my research for Bookish Words. Multiple writers speaking of the flood as the defacing of the book of nature. Here's Samuel Clarke in 1642: "As Noah, when the deluge of waters had defaced the great booke of nature, had a coppy of every kind of creature in that famous Library of the Arke, out of which all were reprinted to the world: so he that hath God hath the original coppy of all blessings, out of which if all were perished, all might easily bee restored."
Then there's a 1647 pamphlet titled A Word to Lieut. Gen. Cromwel: "Let not us therefore indeed fear any thing, but this only, least God should be our Enemy; For as Noah, when the deluge of waters had defaced the great Book of Nature, had a Copy of every kind of Creature in that famous Liberary of the Ark, out of which all were reprinted to the world; so we, that have God, have the Original Copy of all blessings, out of which, if by this generation of monsters, I mean those that have put the Army into this distemper, all were perished, all might easily be restored again, for God is the best store house a people can have; The Name of the Lord is a strong tower, and the righteous flie unto it and are safe."
This pamphlet riffs on Clarke's words to make a political claim. It's a bit awkward. Several other writers in the later seventeenth century reuse the same phrasing Clarke uses. I haven't yet tracked down whether Clarke was the first, though he is the earliest I've seen so far. My initial response to this bookish metaphor is that it's a messy one, bibliographically.
The academic job season is upon us. Graduate students, postdocs, faculty members, and others are poring over job ads for this or that academic position. Some are excited to see a dream job listed. Perhaps others are wondering whether they should modify their materials to suit a job outside their field. No one I know isn't at least a little anxious.
In my neck of the woods (early modern English), there are about a dozen job ads so far. To provide a sense of scale, there are forty or so in rhetoric and composition. This discrepancy is not new, but it does have me thinking about the shifts that have occurred in the humanities, and in English departments, in the last ten years or so. I am wondering whether three trends are closely, even causally, related. The three trends are:
Moreover, to return to the subject of this year's job market, it seems obvious to me that shift #3 has abetted shift #1. Without curricular mandates such as a Shakespeare requirement, students tend to avoid courses in medieval and early modern English. (Which is a bummer for them, because it's really great stuff.) And, in a higher ed culture that constitutionally obeys market imperatives, a perceived (or real but manufactured) lack of demand among students means fewer faculty hires to supply. Here again, the choices leading to #3 above have closed a pipeline for future (and present) scholars of medieval and early modern English.
I should say: it's also the case that the conditions underlying #3 directly affect 1 and 2. For example, the shift in English studies from a "knowledge base" model, wherein students must acquire a basic knowledge of the field before moving to advanced work, to a "capacity base" model, wherein students acquire certain critical and technical (in the best sense) capacities as they study mostly what they please, makes it easy to see texts written and published before 1800 as undesirable and unnecessary. It also makes hiring someone who studies those earlier cultures much less urgent. That said, I think there's evidence for the relationship between curricular changes and the other two changes, especially at institutions where urgency is a function of student credit hour demand.
It seems we are working in a new economics. The curricular constraints that used to guarantee a certain level of "demand" from students for pre-1800 courses have been mostly abandoned. (This is a miniaturized version of the way many of the curricular constraints that used to help university students "find" English and humanities have been abandoned in the new regimes of higher ed.) I'm not sure if this means we have moved from an "unfree" market (in which student choice is constrained by curriculum) to a "free" one (in which student demand determines everything from curriculum on up to, I'm arguing, graduate cohorts and faculty hires). In some ways this seems like just as unfree a market as the previous one, because it ultimately reduces choice to a different set of material factors: time of day courses are offered, whatever the most recent generation of students determined was valuable, whatever is most expedient for completing a degree, whatever sounds easy or cool (how many students avoid Shakespeare because it's difficult!), or simply other curricular factors. This is the danger of some kinds of curricular reform: they offer merely an appearance of freedom. Other thumbs are always on the scale.
So what's to be done? Maybe this deserves a separate post. It seems unlikely (and would be unwise) that departments will reinstitute requirements they set aside for many reasons, most of them good. But it also seems a bit disingenuous to suggest that all we pre-modernists need is better marketing. (For the record, I think we do need better marketing, but I don't think it's a sufficient answer to this problem. This goes for the humanities more broadly.)
One thing I think we need to do is recognize and act upon what I've hinted at several times here: that the problem of pre-modern English is a more specific version of problems in the humanities more broadly. The new economics taking students and faculty away from medieval and early modern studies is the same economics taking energy and resources away from the humanities.
This year, I was promoted with tenure at my university. Many tenured colleagues had warned me that "a change" would occur around this time. I remember one medievalist at another institution proclaiming, "the summer you receive tenure, you will enter a deep, dark depression." I don't know if that's happened (can any sadness be traced to a single source in 2018?), but I can say for sure that this milestone has caused me to do a lot of thinking about the state of the university, the state of my field, and the next few years of my own research work. All this thinking left me wondering, what am I about as a scholar?
I phrase it this way because I know lots of people who leave little uncertainty about what they are about. I think of Claire Bourne, for instance, or Adam Hooks. I think of Erika Lin and Whitney Trettien and Brett Greatley-Hirsch. I'm constantly impressed at the way these great scholars and friends have established a clear sense of what they are about. I'm not sure I have the same kind of focus. So, for whatever they're worth, here are some thoughts I recently composed as I thought over this question:
What am I about as a scholar?
In terms of theory and literary critical methodology, what am I about?
What do I want to accomplish in the next five years?