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Teaching Victorian Poetry and Print Culture
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Currently, in my undergraduate Victorian poetry class, students are beginning to devise research essays based on print holdings in the library. And by research essay I really mean research. Students are required to devise a research question based on the syllabus, and then conduct library research that relates to the contemporary print publication of the poem.

At the University of Victoria, students are lucky to have wonderful examples of a variety of nineteenth-century print: first editions of poetry books and Victorian anthologies, as well as many full runs of annuals, magazines, and other periodicals. The richness of the library’s holdings is what inspired the Database of Victorian Periodical Poetry, which is based on indexing print copies where possible; in fact, it was during a class in Special Collections, on periodical poetry, where the germ of the idea for the Database emerged. There are now a variety of digital platforms with which to discover Victorian primary print: databases, indexes, digitized serials and books. But it makes a huge difference to the students when they see, handle, and read poems in primary print, when they compare different kinds of publications side by side, and notice aspects of the book that a digitized version would not tell. Digitized poems are wonderful in many ways, not least the search-and-find function that allows quick discoverability and comparison. But the digital it not a substitute for print. I want my students to go to the library and look at books. And, when they do, magic happens.

Our classes in Special Collections always begin with an “audit” of the poem in print, as a way to notice, describe, and examine the book as a material object (I owe this term to Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, by way of a TEI class given by her former colleague Constance Crompton). We train students as critical thinkers, and so they are quick to interpret and close read material. But I like my students to back up a little first when they meet poems in print, and to think first about describing the material object in front of them (this is an exercise that my student-authored wikispaces project also encourages) before engaging in analysis. I notice a dramatic shift in student engagement when they work with primary print, an engagement which builds into their research projects as the students become producers of knowledge.

One of the best kinds of projects for a research essay in my class is periodical poetry. Examining the poem in its original Victorian print context is a focused and yet complex task, and my students thrive with this kind of challenge. In seminars I try to spark ideas by talking about primary print culture contexts for poems we study; today, for example, the class examined Thomas Hood’s “The Song of the Shirt” as a periodical poem deeply engaged in print debate about labour and especially the seamstress (see a student wiki post about the contexts here). How, we wondered, did the magazine publication complicate the poem’s class affiliations? Did the Punch publication make the poem more effective as a class critique and as a performative poem? What did it mean that the poem was unsigned? And hope does the poem work in terms of the Christmas seasonal resonances of this Punch issue for 16 December 1843?

As a follow-up to the seminar, students researching Hood’s “Song of the Shirt” could trace the poem’s affiliations with other forms of journalism on the seamstress (for example in The Times), or compare other periodical poems from the same month to examine how the print culture of poetry is intrinsically networked, topical, and dialogic (the Database of Victorian Periodical Poetry allows for this kind of search). As I say frequently to my students, as wonderful as our teaching anthologies of Victorian poetry are, the experience of the Victorian reader was very different. I find making that distinction is a good first step to hooking the student into the exciting potential of print culture. Although they are now indispensable resources, no scholarly anthology or digital index can replicate it.

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Teaching Victorian Poetry and Print Culture by Alison Chapman, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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