The Structure and Aims of the Course, by Michelle Levy and Tara Solem

Introduction to the course, by Michelle Levy

This work on Upcott’s album came out of a course taught at Simon Fraser University in the fall 2021. English 320 is a third-year undergraduate English course in which 29 students enrolled. In this course, students engaged with the album through a digital facsimile and conversations with the curator at the New York Public Library, where the album is held. Early in the term, we met (via zoom) with Elizabeth Denlinger, curator of the Pforzheimer Collection at the NYPL, to enable students to gain a better understanding of the album and its physical makeup, as well as the conditions of collecting and archiving in the early nineteenth century. Also at the beginning of term, students selected an individual woman from the album, and they were responsible for transcribing the letter(s) by the woman as found in the album and contextualizing it through research. To support this work, we discussed the practices of letter-writing and its importance to women. Students also completed a biographical assignment, where they reported on their woman’s life, and a bibliographical assignment, that looked either at a publication they wrote or, if they were artists, their artwork, or some other important aspect of their public careers. They also completed a final project on their chosen woman as a culmination of their work in the course. Some wrote essays, others complied exhibits and a few produced podcasts.

The course was experimental in a number of regards. The syllabus notes:

This will be an interactive and project-based course. Students will be expected to share their research and writing with their classmates and to work together as a team. This course may feel different than other English courses for a few reasons: 

  •   we are studying more writers/texts (though the selections will be shorter, to approximate the reading within a more traditional third-year class); 
  •   we will not always be reading the identical excerpts from the selected texts; 
  •   we are reading many authors who are not canonical and not well known; 
  •   we will be reading a very broad range of genres;
  •   we will be investigating some women who did not write (artists, activists); 
  •   we will be learning as we go; many of the authors are unknown, and we will be collectively working together to learn more about them;
  •   we will be engaged in academic writing in genres that may be new to you.

The assignments in this course have been designed to foster a collaborative working environment as we collectively engage in this discovery research together. The purpose of this course is to extend our knowledge of women in the period; if you are looking for a course that engages with canonical writers, even canonical women writers, I suggest you consider taking another course.

Students were told that all assignments were to be posted in a public-facing web-based exhibit platform called OMEKA (first drafts were submitted to me, privately, for feedback, with revised versions being posted online). For the assignments, students were encouraged to present their findings in an accessible and engaging form, using stories and images in an effort to draw readers into the narrative, with the intended audience not being solely the instructor or even their classmates, but potentially a wider audience of those interested in learning more about the album and the women featured in it. Students were given models of this kind of writing, and they learned from each other once the first assignments were posted. The outcome of this group project was a website exhibit, featuring all of the student work, which is viewable here:

All of the women from the album were well-known in their day, but many are obscure now, and learning about them required that the students pursue original research. For their first assignment, every student did a diplomatic transcription of the letter(s) as found in the Upcott album and contextualized it as best they could with the information given. As we have seen, the list includes some canonical authors, including Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte Smith and Helen Maria Williams, but many others who are not well known today, even among scholars of the period, as well as women who were important figures in other ways, such as the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry and the wool artist Mary Linwood, or the culturally prominent Ladies of Llangollen (Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby). After they had worked on their letters, transcribing and contextualizing them for their first assignments, the students were given the option of changing the women they worked on. Every single student, however, decided to stick with the woman they had begun to work on for the remaining coursework. 

The second assignment was a biographical one, where they researched the woman’s life. The third assignment had them read and discuss a work written or otherwise made by the woman in question, and the final assignment involved a final project involving another avenue of research on their chosen women. Each assignment involved the students using different research sources and tools. As many of the women were obscure, research involved combing through catalogues and archives (such as the Royal Literary Fund), reaching out to archives for material that was not digitized, and contacting other scholars working on the woman in question. In doing so, students engaged in real investigative research, and most became very attached to their chosen woman and learning more about them. As students worked through their individual research assignments, we collectively read short pieces or excerpts from as many women from the album as we could. This often meant reading writing in a range of genres, far beyond what they might normally read in a literature course. The syllabus groupd reading generically, and included weeks on travel writing, educational writing, philanthropy and science, in addition to reading poetry and fiction. The course syllabus is available for viewing here.

The students’ work in the course was both impressive and inspiring; impressive because of the original research they carried out, and inspiring because of the enthusiasm they showed for uncovering the lives and cultural productions of the women in question. Structuring the course around the album—and the forty-eight women it contained—offered an opportunity to think about the Romantic period in much broader terms than we often do in an undergraduate classroom, moving far beyond canonical authors and canonical works. Thinking about what made these women eminent opened up multidisciplinary possibilities, as students saw the wide range of women’s cultural work in the period, including literary contributions but also the central role women played in art, education, political reform and social life. 

Because many of the students were keen to continue work on this project, and because some additional work was needed to bring the project to completion after the end of the 13 week semester, I obtained funding from my department to pay students to continue to transcribe, research and polish the public-facing project. A team of eight students completed all outstanding transcriptions for the letters, checked all of the transcriptions, and polished the work they had done on their own assignments; three students, Cassandra McLean, Cassandra Reeves and Tara Solem drafted the introduction with input from me. I also applied for and was awarded a Teaching and Learning Development Grant, from my University, to support the review of the materials the students created and to conduct interviews with them, to better understand the impact of integrating student-directed research, and implementing the “students as partners” paradigm. I am particularly invested in understanding what motivated students in the course, which emphasized original, student-directed research, and public-facing research outputs. Working on lesser or unknown women, some of whom I had never encountered before, meant that as the course unfolded, I felt that I wasn’t engaged in the usual pedagogical role of imparting knowledge, though I was providing historical, literary and social context and also research strategies and tools. Learning from the students is key to thinking about how to design similar courses; I have a strong sense that many of the students felt enthusiasm, excitement and connection to the course work, but further discussions with them will help to illuminate why this was the case and help me better understand how providing undergraduate students with meaningful opportunities to engage in research shifts what is traditionally done in an undergraduate classroom in the discipline in compelling ways.

Student perspectives of the course, by Tara Solem

With this course’s content being unconventional in comparison to other English courses offered at Simon Fraser University, many students were initially apprehensive about carrying out the work required for English 320. While eager to uncover more information on the women in Upcott’s album, many students were unfamiliar with the practice of transcription and unsure how to research women who are not well-known. However, under the guidance of Professor Michelle Levy, students were quickly acquainted with transcription as well as biographical and bibliographical research. English 320 offered a number of new opportunities for students enrolled in the course. After students selected an individual woman and transcribed one of her letters, they were required to carry out independent research. This research introduced students to new ways of learning much different than the usual academic essay writing common in most English courses at SFU. For the final assignment of the course, students were given the opportunity to work creatively, choosing their own topic to research. 

While many of the student’s final assignments focused on the individual woman they selected early on in the course, some of their work took a much different direction. As an example, Emily Mikkola’s adaptation of the coursework describes a personal collection of historical postcards. Through the exploration of her personal collection of historical postcards, Mikkola points to the significance of conserving such artifacts of social history. Similarly, Garin Falmon’s podcast, Upcott and the Legacy of Conservation highlights the importance of conservation. In an interview with Mylène Leroux a conservator at Archives Canada who provides her knowledge on the practice of conservation, Falmon closely examines Upcott’s collection of autographic material. Another assignment that takes a different approach is Rachel Sargent’s notable essay on the publishers of Sarah Burney. In the essay, Sargent provides historical context of the publishing process that many authors in Upcott’s album underwent, such as Sarah Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Anna Seward, and Lady Caroline Lamb. Sargent also provides information on three of the most widely known publishers of the eighteenth century— George Robinson, Henry Colburn, and Minerva Press to whom some of the women in Upcott's album were writing their letters. 

Other noteworthy final assignments that dive deep into the works of an individual woman include Belle Eist’s catalogues of Mary Pilkington’s anonymous and unattributed contributions to the Ladies Monthly Museum and Magazine and the Ladies Magazine. Scott Postulo’s exhibit on Lady Caroline Lamb’s visual art provides an excellent depiction of Lamb’s talent outside of her literary skills as an author. And, Angela Wachowich’s essay, Romantic Friendships: Eminent Women and the Ladies of Llangollen, illustrates the connections between the women in the album. More specifically, Wachowich explores the connections between the Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, and a number of other women in Upcott’s album (Benger, Bowdler, Burney, and Sydney). 

Some other notable assignments completed by students throughout the course include Lauren Nicolle’s transcriptions of letters by Elizabeth Macauley to the Royal Literary Fund, Cassandra Reeves’ detailed biography of Anne Seymour Damer, and Christine Cruz’s bibliographical assignment on Elizabeth Benger’s Poems on The Abolition of Slave Trade, a book she found and examined in SFU’s Special Collections. 

This course introduced students to the notable literary works of many non-canonical eighteenth-century women who are rarely discussed in other English courses. Many of the students appreciated learning about how these women contributed to social change during this period of change for women. For instance, women such as Elizabeth Fry who sought to improve conditions for imprisoned women; Margaret Bryan and Elizabeth Appleton, who contributed to the expansion of girls and women’s education; and, other women who transformed traditional domestic practices into successful careers such as the embroiderer Mary Linwood. The course also offered students the opportunity to engage in collaborative work where they were able to build connections with their peers. Some of these connections were especially meaningful to students during times when social interaction had been limited as a result of the COVID-19 virus. Many of the students in English 320 felt particularly devoted to the coursework as they grew attached to researching the woman whose letters they selected to transcribe at the beginning of the course.