On Thursday December 1st the English Department was pleased to host Rachel Sagner Buurma (Swarthmore College) and Laura Heffernan (University of North Florida), who presented “What Was Distant Reading?: Critical Counting and Poetic Making in Caroline Spurgeon’s ’The Art of Reading’ and Shakespeare’s Imagery."
Buurma and Heffernan wrote:
This talk is drawn from our book project “The Teaching Archive: A New History of Literary Study.” “The Teaching Archive” offers a new archive for disciplinary history: the twentieth-century English literature classroom’s syllabi, lecture notes, exams, and assignments. Our presentation turns to the teaching and research of Caroline Spurgeon, the first female professor in the UK and author of Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us (1935). Shakespeare’s Imagery, we argue, is important early work of distant reading. To prepare it, Spurgeon and her research team spent more than a decade combing through Shakespeare’s corpus in order to index the vehicles of the plays’ metaphors -- the stars, jewels, and seas that seem to exist only to lend their properties to lovers’ eyes or enemies’ ambitions. Spurgeon used this literary data in order to trace connections between the plays and the material objects of Shakespeare’s everyday life. Literary critics have long disparaged Spurgeon’s masterwork for literalizing literary devices. Yet when we restore the context of her teaching, the critical force and sophisticated conceptual claims behind her work’s interest in reference and indexing snap into focus. Turning to the introductory “Art of Reading” course Spurgeon taught at Bedford Women’s College in 1913, we describe how Spurgeon guided her beginning students through the process of academic research, teaching them to browse library shelves, take notes, and create polished personal indexes. In Spurgeon’s classroom, we see that the seemingly specialized work of indexing actually models John Henry Newman’s ideal of liberal education as the “extension” of knowledge; indexes not only show students how a work was made, but also suggest how they might make it differently. By returning to these scenes of early critical-maker culture, we both restore to the history of distant reading one of the many women mainstream accounts have forgotten, and consider the challenge that Spurgeon’s liberal-educational vision of counting holds for thinking about distant reading and digital humanities today.
To prepare for the talk and the conversation, our own Dr. Mary Mullen hosted an informal reading with graduate students to discuss Buurma and Heffernan's previous article, "Notation After the “Reality Effect”: Remaking Reference with Roland Barthes and Sheila Heti."