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Focus on Research: Rachel Buurma F’12 and Laura Heffernan F’12 on Exploring the History of a Discipline through Classroom Records


ACLS asked its fellows to describe their research: the knowledge it creates and how this knowledge benefits our understanding of the world. This response comes from Rachel Sagner Buurma (below left), assistant professor of English literature at Swarthmore College, and Laura Heffernan (below right), assistant professor of English at the University of North Florida. Buurma and Heffernan are recipients of an ACLS Collaborative Research Fellowship, which provides support to teams of scholars who will collaborate intensively on a single, significant project that will lead to a joint publication. 

Rachel_Buurmalaura heffernanWhat would the twentieth-century history of English studies look like if we had thought to preserve the records of our teaching? How could that history be different if we had institutional archives of syllabi, student notes, lecture drafts, handouts and seminar papers, just as we have archives of journal articles, drafts of novels, recordings of performances, and committee meeting minutes? What if universities had collected classroom documents alongside other records and traces of the knowledge they create and culture that they value?  

Writing such a counterfactual disciplinary history has required us not just to visit collections at all kinds of institutions, but to virtually reconstruct an archive of teaching materials—paging through scholars’ archives piece by piece to discover uncatalogued teaching materials, retrieving them from attics, finding them preserved as scrap paper, discovering them interleaved within other correspondence. Working side-by-side in these archives, we took turns sorting quickly through large masses of papers; when we’d gathered our documents together, we’d spend time later digitizing, reorganizing, and contextualizing before we could finally interpret their import and find each piece a place in the history we were slowly constructing. Over the course of this process, we began to believe in the possibility of an archive that valued teaching even against what sometimes seemed like the complete absence of any evidence of its existence; together we could keep that imaginary, beautifully-ordered set of documents tracing the long history of teaching English before our eyes even in the face of yet another empty folder or restricted-access gradebook. 

ACLS Collaborative Fellows Heffernan and Buurma in front of the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library

We became so accustomed to the difficulty of this intractable work, its slow and often unrewarding nature, that we were completely unprepared for what we found on a late, almost accidental research trip to visit the papers of a scholar whose work we knew incidentally but whose teaching we had never thought about: Caroline Spurgeon. Spurgeon was known as the first female university professor in London, a Ruskin enthusiast, a statistical reader of Shakespeare, an extension school tutor, and the co-founder of International Federation of University Women. We became interested in her after reading a single lecturers’ report she submitted to the University of London’s Board to Promote the Extension of University Teaching about the “Age of Johnson” course she taught to working class students in 1915-16. We had read many other bureaucratic summaries of class attendance and student performance in these extension courses. After the war began in 1914, these somewhat cursory reports tended to become even briefer. (Reporting on his “Shakespeare and England” course, held in Walworth Road in the same term as Spurgeon’s “Age of Johnson” course, Mordaunt Shairp tersely noted that the “attendance at this course has been small, and for this, the zeppelin raid of October 13th, was largely responsible.” [1])

Spurgeon’s report, by contrast, filled the whole of the allotted blank form, her signature squished in at the very bottom. She began by describing the unusually intense, project-driven organization of her course.  “The system,” she wrote, “is not that of lectures + paperwork, but the more advanced one of close individual research on the parts of each student in a comparatively limited field.” During class gatherings, her working-class students presented “specially prepared papers” describing their original research on manuscripts from the British Museum. The only nod to the war comes when Spurgeon notes that while students have “much appreciated” the experience of working first-hand with manuscripts at the British Museum, this archival “side of the work has not been developed as much as desk work, as owing to the war, many MSs have been inaccessible.” Spurgeon’s teaching of advanced literary-historical methods to her students stands out even within what was in general a very ambitious and rigorous set of extension school courses. (She did note that “at first the seminar was very uphill work” because when asked to undertake original research using primary sources her students “were somewhat puzzled at first and perhaps in some cases discouraged.” And yet, she recounts, “by the second term they began to get a grip on the method.” [2])

What kind of teacher sends her students to the British Museum to do original research while World War I was being fought across the channel—and occasionally in the London skies? In addition to her reverence for the importance of original research in everyday extension school teaching, Spurgeon turned out to be unusual in a number of other ways. Most fortunate and inspiring for us, she also turned out to be a person who carefully preserved both her own notes for lectures she gave as a professor and the notes she took on lectures she attended during her student days. Indeed, the collection of Spurgeon’s papers that archivist Annabel Valentine laid out for us that day hardly looked like “papers” at all.  Instead, there were elegant leather-bound volumes with marbled covers and, in most cases, course titles embossed with gilt lettering on the spines.

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Caroline Spurgeon, book spines of notebooks for “The Art of Reading” and “Style,” PP7/19 and PP7/20, Papers of Professor Caroline Spurgeon, Royal Holloway Archives and Special Collections, Royal Holloway University of London.

Honoring Spurgeon’s own careful organization, the collection has recently been beautifully and extensively cataloged

Most teaching materials in archives of scholars of literature look nothing like this. When they are preserved at all, syllabi, lecture notes, and handouts tend to be accidentally archived along with more valued materials—drafts of scholarly essays, review clippings, correspondence. Piecing together the teaching materials of famous New Critic Cleanth Brooks and mid-century man of letters Edmund Wilson in earlier research, we discovered some of Wilson’s lecture notes scribbled down on the verso of a typescript draft of his article, “The Historical Interpretation of Literature.”

Wilson’s lecture notes for "Varieties of Nineteenth Century Criticism"

Revision notes for Wilson essay “The Historical Interpretation of Literature”

Both images: Wilson, Edmund.  English 356A: "Varieties of Nineteenth Century Criticism" lecture notes. Summer 1939. Edmund Wilson Papers, YCAL MSS 187, Box 163 Folder 4045. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

The accident of a document’s material form can assist its survival—bound gradebooks, for example, tend to stick around. Other teaching materials survive because they are intended for publication. For example, Cleanth Brooks’s lectures for English 71 appear in his archive in Yale’s Beinecke library in multiple neatly organized typescript drafts, audio recorded and then transcribed by a typist at Bantam books in anticipation of their (never realized) publication as a book.  

Whereas Brooks’s and Wilson’s teaching materials survive through accidents and contingencies, Spurgeon’s endure because she viewed them as worthy of preservation, organization, and even decoration quite apart from their possible afterlives as publications. Indeed, reading through Spurgeon’s lecture notes, we found none of the grand pronouncements or magisterial interpretations that one might expect to find between the covers of such expensive-looking volumes. Spurgeon does not seem to have preserved her teaching materials because she viewed herself as a charismatic lecturer. (So little devoted to originality and the cult of personality was she that many of her lectures reuse material drawn from her notes on lectures she heard as a student—lectures she preserves with same careful system of bound notebooks.) Spurgeon did occasionally fill a teaching hour with a polished lecture on a topic like Tennyson’s early work or Johnson and his era. But more typical was her “Art of Reading” class, in which she spent her time giving her students minute instructions on how to take effective reading notes. For handouts in this class, she sometimes offered students printed reproductions of her own research notes—revealing rather than hiding the preparatory stages of finished scholarship.

Studying Spurgeon’s teaching notebooks, we were struck less by her luminous interpretations or striking insights—though there are some—than by the way she invites students to join an existing scholarly community by taking into their own hands the incremental, methodical, and slow practices of reading, note-taking, indexing, referring, researching, interpreting, evaluating, and sharing. Spurgeon’s vision of the importance of this kind of work, through which students learnt to make comparisons and connections, inductions and deductions, places her in a long tradition of scholars and teachers thinking about the nature of liberal knowledge. In the first lecture for her Art of Reading course, she moves seamlessly from a practical lesson on note-taking to John Henry Newman’s Idea of the University. Quoting from Newman’s account of university education as a time when students moved beyond grade-school fact accumulation in order to process, connect, assimilate, abstract from, organize, and interpret knowledge, she explained to her students Newman’s idea that “we feel our minds to be growing and expanding then, we not only learn, but refer what we learn to what we know already.”

Spurgeon was interested in the way Newman saw the university as a place for “teaching universal knowledge”; not the domain of the solitary researcher but a place where students—learning from tutors and from each other—began a lifelong work of assimilating newly-acquired knowledge to their existing understanding of the world. Not the rote dissemination of a fixed body of knowledge created elsewhere and by others, university teaching for Spurgeon involved the refinement, assimilation, and what Newman called the “extension” of knowledge. Hence her careful curation of her archive. The preservation and organization of her own teaching notebooks—with tables of contents and indexes, with standardized marginal notes and title pages—has the intended effect of making them available not just to her future self, but to other scholars and students. Like her plan to open to other scholars the extensive dataset she compiled in order to write Shakespeare’s Imagery, her organization of her teaching notebooks also points outward. Using the familiar apparatus of scholarly research, she makes her lecture notes and their many references to other works and lectures as legible as possible so they may be repurposed by later generations. 

Marvelling at Spurgeon’s collection, we began to imagine how different the history of English literary studies would look if the materials of everyone’s teaching were so carefully organized and lovingly preserved. This would give us back a history of English in which the daily, ongoing practices of teaching were as valued—and valued for similar reasons—as the making of knowledge in research. This would build for us a history that cherished the ways scholars, teachers, students, and others have enriched their knowledge by making it available to others in its nascent and growing stages. This counterfactual history of teaching as a kind of research is the history we are writing. By organizing, cataloging, indexing, and reference-tracing the more dispersed and fragmentary archives of figures like Edith Rickert, David Nichol Smith, Cleanth Brooks, J. Saunders Redding, John Livingston Lowes, and Elizabeth Drew, we can begin to recover, reorganize, and memorialize the undervalued but enduring traces of the collective, accretive production of knowledge through teaching that forms the sinews of our discipline.

1. Mordaunt Shairp, Lecturer’s Report for “Shakespeare and England.” University Extension and Tutorial Classes Council, Lecturers and Examiners Reports, Session 1915-16. EM/2/23/78, Archives of the University of London, Senate House Library, University of London. back to text
2. Caroline Spurgeon, Lecturer’s Report for “The Age of Johnson.” Lecturers and Examiners Reports, session 1915-16. EM/2/23/79, Archives of the University of London, Senate House Library, University of London. back to text

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