Using Eighteenth-Century Collections Online as a learning and teaching resource
Bath Spa University
This reports on my experience in building the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO) database into a first-year undergraduate module. The aim was to enable students to experience directing their own research using eighteenth-century editions. The report also considers how the problems of assessment and the nature of a very large database of diverse texts from an unfamiliar period were addressed.
My university having recently invested in ECCO, I was keen to look into its potential as a teaching resource (being already familiar with it as a research tool):
- Could it be something other than merely a download-type resource to supply a module with a 'set' text?
- Could students begin to use it as a research tool for themselves?
- Could it provide a unique (and scholarly) learning experience for students?
- Could it be a way of building an interest in the eighteenth century that might be sustained throughout their undergraduate (and postgraduate) experience?
My first opportunity was a first-year eighteenth-century survey module called 'Eighteenth-Century Studies'. This twelve week module included a non-assessed presentation so this was used an opportunity for students to use ECCO material. Aware that non-assessed assignments - especially with something new and unfamiliar - do not always attract full participation, the presentation was tied to an assessment: it would be a formative 'dry run' for an essay which would be a more focussed and written-up version of the presentation. It was made clear that the object of this project was not to present an academically rigorous paper of literary analysis, but rather an opportunity for students to dip their toes into a diverse range of eighteenth-century topics, explore what might pique their interest, and begin to widen their knowledge of this period. The presentations were described in the module handbook as 'a talk (of 5-10 minutes) which successfully engages the interest of our group: a mixture of informing and - hopefully! - entertaining the class.' One of the problems was going to be how to convert this into an essay: the danger was the potential for students to treat the essay as a project of description rather than analysis. To this end, students were advised to write an essay title/question in consultation with me that would help them organise their analysis when it come to writing their essays.
One of the other main problems was in guiding students in their use of this massive database of thousands of titles: the sheer breadth of material on ECCO would pose a challenge to a first year student's understandably limited search techniques and their lack of familiarity with the eighteenth century. This problem was solved using ECCO's 'Marked List' function. Rather than merely let the students loose on this huge database, the scope of the project was given some boundaries by my compiling lists of texts (approximately 6-12) under a variety of topics (which were: Bath; How to be a (Gentle)man; How to be a Lady; Slavers and Abolitionists; Slave voices; Women poets; Feminisms; The South Seas; Voyagers and Shipwrecks; The Plague). After I had compiled each Marked List, the URL for the list was cut and pasted into the module's Virtual Learning Environment (Blackboard VLE). Students were then able to access individual texts from ECCO under each topic list on or off campus. The use of these directed lists enabled students to still direct their own learning and research: they were free to choose their topics and had to search and organise the material themselves.
Guidance on the use of ECCO was given in weeks three and six (presentations were to be given in weeks ten and eleven). The nature of the actual texts varied enormously: from collections of poems, short prose pieces, plays, sermons, to very large narratives of voyages, historical surveys, and political tracts. Given this, students were not expected to read everything under each topic, or even, if it was a particularly long text, all of a single text. To this end, they were guided (through example searches) on the use of the 'Search this work' and the 'eTable of Contents' functions to navigate the longer texts and select quotations. I was also aware that students would be presented with texts that actually looked strange - to this end I summarised the main features and significance (or lack of) eighteenth-century typography. The 'ECCO projects', as they came to be called, were worked on over the Easter break (a lucky chance of timetabling, otherwise extra time would have had to found, possibly by replacing seminars set aside for 'set' texts).
The results of the ECCO projects were encouraging. The presentations, allowing for differences in presentational skills, revealed that the material had piqued students' curiosity. While the best ones demonstrated an ability to range confidently across a breadth of material from their chosen topic, even the less assured students engaged reasonably well with their chosen texts; again, this was encouraging given the unfamiliar terrain they were asked to explore.
Some examples of the texts examined: one presentation focussed on the contrasting shipwreck narratives of Woodes Rogers (on Selkirk), and the 'Nottingham' disaster. A number of students were interested in women: some looked at 'Feminisms' and quoted usefully from Mary Astell's Serious Proposal, Mary Hays' Appeal to the Men of Great Britain, Mary Robinson's Thoughts on the Condition of Woman, and Mary Wollstonecraft's Thoughts on the Education of Daughters; others were intrigued by the conduct manuals for women, quoting liberally from Halifax's The Lady's New-year Gift and John Gregory's A Father's Legacy to his Daughter. One presentation displayed an impressive breadth of reading by illustrating the different styles of masculinity on show in texts as varied as John Brown's Estimate of the Manners and Times, Chesterfield's Letters, Nathaniel Lancaster's The Pretty Gentleman, and Timothy Greated's An Essay on Friendship. The other main area that generated interest was slavery (understandably, given the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade): one student discussed 'Slavers and Abolitionists' quoting usefully from Antony Benezet, James Ramsay, Ottobah Cuguano, and John Newton, while a number chose to examine slave voices and centred their discussions on the narratives of Ukawsaw Gronnisaw, Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cuguano.
The quality of the resulting essays, however, was rather varied and not only reflected individual ability but also the extent to which they had consulted with me: the most successful ones had a focussed title/ question and demonstrated an ability organise their material into an argument; weaker essays tended to be less focussed, overly descriptive and lacking in analysis.
At the end of the module I handed out a questionnaire (11 respondents out of 17) focussing on the ECCO projects, divided into three sections: 'Using ECCO', 'The Material', 'Assessment'. Everyone found it easy to use ECCO, and felt the guidance offered was helpful. About half preferred to use the 'Search this work' function, suggesting that they could locate their material precisely this way. The other half (approximately) preferred to use the 'eTable of Contents' as their main way of searching, especially for navigating long texts and where chapter headings clearly announced their topics (although it was pointed out that this varied hugely with some texts having no chapter headings at all). A small few used both functions in parallel.
On the material, everyone found something to interest them, either because it followed up an existing interest (e.g. the role of women or black voices) or because it revealed the otherness of this period's ideas. A number commented on the otherness of the texts themselves, finding that reading a text in the 'original format' in itself interesting. Some felt that so much material (even with these lists) was 'quite daunting', but even then felt this to be a positive aspect. Most respondents felt there were enough topics, though a few felt that there might have been more (suggestions included 'the American War of Independence', 'Hanoverian rule', 'Satire').
On the assessment, a number agreed that it was appropriately assessed. On the presentation opinion was mixed: a few remarked on how the presentation was a useful preparation for the essay, and a number felt it was useful for oral delivery skills. However, a large number of respondents felt that the presentation should have attracted an assessment weighting to reflect the effort spent on them.
Reflecting on this survey and the essay results, in future the ECCO topics will be assessed purely by presentation. The essay format does not easily lend itself to the diversity of material and the modest aims of the ECCO project (the essay will be used to assess other aims of the module). Indeed, in the context of a first-year module introducing the eighteenth century the presentation is potentially a far more suitable and sensitive mode of assessment.
Overall, I was encouraged by this experiment and the willingness of students to jump in and engage with what is for most of us still a resource for academic research. By using ECCO at first year level, I hope to plant the seeds of a scholarly attitude towards research - and the eighteenth century - that students can then develop in subsequent years.