on the uses of newspapers, in and out of the classroom (updated)

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I found this post from Rachel at  A Historian’s Craft (via Carnivalesque 52) a while back, and thought it would be a useful way to discuss the Burney collection and its potential for the classroom.  Frankly, since I had already spent part of the summer reading Scottish newspapers in Edinburgh, I was very interested in what Rachel had to say about the best ways to plow through such materials.

I think the best advice in Rachel’s post is to prepare a list of themes or events to use while browsing, since it’s so easy to get lost in the columns and columns of details.  This would be expecially important for students, if you expected them to find anything relevant to a particular novel.

I also agree with Rachel that the letters and advertisements in newspapers are probably the most interesting to us as researchers, because they are the most human, least standardized elements of a very standardized medium.  They provide a period flavor to readers that other parts of the paper do not, largely because they contain such a concentration of “everyday life” and its unspoken/barely spoken assumptions.  I suspect that for a novel class, these would often be the most important parts.

Since I got access to the Burney, I’ve been playing around with the keyword searching, figuring out the types of assignments that would work best for my Austen and her Predecessors novel course, and this is what I’m thinking:

  • keyword searching in newspapers works really well for author/work information, since it is mostly contained in advertisements.  I’d pair this up wth the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, to see if students could compare the publication information they find in the newspapers with what they find in the bio.
  • advertisements also yield good contextual clues for everyday products or practices unlikely to be fully glossed.  So, for example, I found some good ads for “masquerades” and “masquerade-makers” that would be useful for readers of Fantomina.  Students are probably best off getting these kinds of keywords assigned to them, at least initially.  I’d pair this exercise with a period dictionary, to see if the terms coincide or diverge.
  • I think historical events, if they could be named with some precision, could be usefully glossed using the Burney.  Unfortunately, many of the novels that we’re reading (Haywood and Davys, for example) are less interested in such “realism,” though that of course makes for another point of entry into a discussion of such issues as realism.  And I’d endorse prefacing any use of the Burney with a discussion of realism and the critical debates surrounding its “rise,” including the Campbell article, I suppose.
  • A more general way to approach this kind of historicization, though, would be to assign students the task of finding the first advertisement of the assigned novel, then browsing the issue of the newspaper in which it occurred, to see what historical events, political debates, etc. are occurring at the moment of its first appearance.  If you were doing this, you would be facing a “stump the prof” style exercise unless you were fully prepared before they undertook their researches (not a bad thing, actually).  It would be interesting to compare their newspapers’ versions of that year with a typical scholarly chronology, and discuss the differences.
  • It would also be useful to see if you could get students to find real-world analogues to situations in the novels, but this would take some experience and direction, I think.  It might also work better if teachers found such an analogue ahead of time, and used it for discussion.
  • Overall, the effect of the Burney searches is pointillistic: you get details, very much embedded in local contexts, without much explanation of their significance.  So the kind of general question that a student might have, like, “why doesn’t Fantomina get married at the end?” will not get addressed by this kind of research activity.  But it would be interesting to see how one could use this resource to investigat the multifactedness of eighteenth-century marriages, for example.  This would require a series of directed prompts, I think.
  • As I read over my bullet-points, I’m noticing that the best uses of Burney would entail pairing it up with other kinds of resources (ODNB, dictionaries, chronlogies, etc.) so that students could follow up on what they found in Burney with additional information.

So these are some of my initial reactions.  What do the rest of you think?

DM

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