Thursday, October 05, 2006

Textbookish

My role as respondent in a panel on textbooks in the Education and the Culture of Print in Modern America conference (28-30 September, 2006) forced my mind into pleasant musings on the nature of textbooks as print culture, the world of textbooks as miscellanies, and as index of historical knowledge about knowledge. I find it liberating to think in free style about other scholars' research from the point of view of my own. A recent article published by two Indian linguists on chemistry textbooks, points to the dominant place of the speech act of definition in textbooks. I would like to think more about this. But now, to the panel and my response which I promised to post to two of its participants - Jean Ferguson Carr and Stephen L. Carr (both of the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh). The corpus of textbooks they work with is a digital archival collection, Nietz 19th Century Schoolbooks.

The title of the panel was, "But What Does It Say in Your Textbook?": Locating Education Through Textbook Editions" and here is the commentary I read and the questions I presented for discussion:

This research demonstrates the importance of studying practices of recirculation of texts:
  • A body of derivative textbooks provides an insight to interpretive frameworks of their creators who aimed to instruct and educate readers from peripheral cultures of instruction in the paper presented by Jean Ferguson Carr.
  • Bianca Falbo has shown how the idea of authorship is constructed through literacy practices at the point of recirculation of texts rather than in acts of self-disclosure of authors or the constructions of literary property through trade relations.
  • Stephen Carr demonstrated the importance of studying the formation of literary traditions within the context of the “vernacular and extra-literary projects.” He traces the emerging uses of the literary vernacular represented in a sampling of literary textbooks between the 1830s and 1850s, showing movement from low to high culture, from the vernacular realms to the literary profession.
In the papers presented here, the emergence of the cultures of circulation is connected to specific acts of writing and reading and to the specific archives of texts that can serve as interface to institutional process. Here, an archive is constituted from a range of literacy instructional materials – and from diverse educational contexts.

Extracted from a historical realm in which these papers contribute to the historiography of literary education of the long nineteenth century (shaped by the power dynamics of the industrialized societies and the focus on education, growth of literacy and the constitution of the market for books) these papers contribute to an understanding of meta-processes by which literacy and materiality of print are involved in the circulation of culture. This is the point I would like to highlight in this response. Therefore, instead of discussing each of these papers separately, I have decided to find a common thread by which to see how they fit in the recently published work that includes William St. Clair’s influential study of the political economy of reading, a recent thematic issue of Critical Inquiry – titled, The Arts of Transmission (2004), and 2006 thematic issue of the PMLA (Papers of the Modern Language Association) that explores the relevance of book history for literary studies. The work of scholars such as Joe Lowenstein, Jody Greene, and Paula McDowell - on the construction of authorship through the acts of print, inertial circulation of the romantic idea of authorship and the significance of studying vernacular literacy - can provide another context for locating this work within broader arguments of book history field today.

In that light, the common focus of this research is on the cultures of circulation as meta-context in which we can study print culture and literacy practices. Implicit in this work is what I call the methodology of the borderlands approach to highlight phenomena of the peripheral and hybrid nature in order to understand the processes at the center. This concept, although not new in literary study, should be revisited by historians of print as practitioners of literary history to study forms that challenge the dominant interpretations of print culture; such studies become tools for the critique of scholarly formations.

In a recently published edited collection of book history scholarship on print culture in Croatia, I have shown how one can use the borderlands concept to highlight phenomena outside of the hegemonic organization of the archive (as corpus) defined along literary formations that exclude the vernaculars and non-standard practices, and through the culture of periphery tell new tellings about the center.

This leads to focus on adaptativeness, on derivation rather than originality in order to contribute to an overall argument about the nature of literacy and reading. Anomalies that highlight the emergence of literacy forms and remediation are the primary source for such study. As a result, old arguments about canonical literacy and monolithic literary culture can be revisited in light of their relationship to power and dominant cultures. We have seen a model empirical approach for that agenda in the papers we heard today.

Circulation embedded in particular documentary practices (such as those revealed in the genre of textbooks and a range of instructional materials) are interpreted as an archive revealing new formations, as acts of becoming.

“Arts of Transmission” is the title of the thematic issue of Critical Inquiry (Autumn 2004). In the introduction to this volume - James Chandler, Arnold Davidson and Adrian Johns - chose to point to the productivity of translation. The meaning of transmission as conscious translation is inherent in the term which originates from Francis Bacon’s “ars tradendi,” closer to “arts of tradition” or “handing down to posterity” (p. 7). They explain: “Not exactly an original nor yet exactly an imposition, the phrase nicely exemplifies a point that Bacon himself was making in coining it: that what we know depends on the practices of communication by which the knowledge comes to us” (p. 7).

Deconstruction of such practices is the work of historiography of print culture. In my view, the papers presented at this panel contribute to an understanding of the processes of the “arts of tradition” at play and lead to critical understanding of the constructions and invention. Print culture research is the study of the objects of knowledge as they engage documentary practice.

At the end, I would like to present a series of questions, addressing one to each of the speakers (I distributed slips of paper with questions for each - I am so nerdy that I surprise myself!):

Question for Stephen Carr:

• The late 19th century is a key moment or rather a transformative period for the professional cultures because of its association with the emergence of the modern discipline of literary study. How are they institutionalized in the form of curricula and what is the status of curricular record as an archive for tracing that process, as opposed to the materials you highlighted here?

Question for Jane Carr:

• How are textbooks part of a larger context in which instructional culture is formed? How do they connect to audiences explicitly. How is this process revealed through evidence of self-reflection of the readers and teachers: how would further work on autobiographical genres and record of experience of literacy practices in personal realms proceed?

Question for Bianca Falbo:

• I was particularly interested in the circulation of the “moral” of the Ancient Mariner as an object of knowledge. This points to me that process of cultural selection is at play in any circulation of culture, and that the issue of inertial forces by which romantic assumptions about reading and writing then, and now (in the popular imagination at least), are preserving the trope of romantic literary property and authorship. Could you briefly comment on that?

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