New Scholarship, New Pedagogies: Views from the 'EEBO Generation'

Stefania Crowther (University of London), Ethan Jordan (Michigan Technological University), Jacqueline Wernimont (Brown University), and Hillary Nunn (University of Akron)

Stefania Crowther, Ethan Jordan, Jacqueline Wernimont and Hillary Nunn. "New Scholarship, New Pedagogies: Views from the 'EEBO Generation'.". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 3.1-30 <URL:>.


  1. Students and scholars today are faced with a pleasant sort of problem – how to manage our new avenues of access to primary documents. One element of this problem is the difficulty in transforming all of this new information into insight regarding texts, textual practices, and historical contexts. This question is particularly acute for literary scholars working on the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, for whom the landscape of texts has been dramatically altered by the developments in digital imaging projects and in electronic text production. Digital resources like EEBO (Early English Books Online), Evans Early American Imprints, ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online), and SCETI (Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image) serve an immediate and much needed pragmatic function, making early printed texts accessible to a broader range of readers.  The implications this new availability will have on scholarship and pedagogy, however, have only recently begun to be explored.[1]

  2. These issues prove especially significant for academics just entering the field, ourselves among them.  As young scholars, we each began research projects that simply would not have been possible without Early English Books Online, the digital resource that will serve as our focus in this essay.  While the early modern texts to which EEBO provides access are also available on microfilm, our projects relied heavily on the electronic resource's increased search capabilities for their success.[2]  Supplying downloadable .PDF versions of almost one hundred thousand texts, EEBO, simply put, made our literary and historical work possible, and it no doubt continues to do so for many undergraduates for whom extensive research in a distant archive makes little sense without digital resources.[3] Further, EEBO gave some of us the flexibility to work around full-time work schedules that made the traditional brick and mortar library, especially the rare book collection, difficult to access. While these experiences represent the positive elements of digital text archives, we have also found our own subsequent access to these archives limited by lack of institutional subscription or by independent scholar status. It has become quite obvious to us that, as students with good access and adequate technology, we were working from within a position of privilege. Not every undergraduate classroom has technological capability, not every institution can afford to subscribe to digital archives, and, despite the commonplace that all students are technophiles, we realize as newer teachers that not every student owns a computer, nor is every student at home in the digital world. Finally, those of us who are currently looking toward our careers as professional scholars have noted that faculty familiarity with digital archives and new research technologies can be surprisingly scant.

  3. The predicaments of access, along with the academy's still-evolving stance toward the role of electronic resources in scholarship and teaching, have a particularly strong impact on younger scholars like ourselves.[4]  As members of the first generation to have enjoyed the use of electronic archives and texts as students, we now find ourselves engaging with these digital tools as we enter into new roles as teachers in our own classrooms.  Our largely positive experiences with EEBO – a resource first introduced in 1998[5] – leave us eager to introduce our students to the exciting research possibilities digital tools bring to the undergraduate classroom.  It is significant, too, that three of the four of us never encountered EEBO in classroom settings during our years as students; while we all have found the easy electronic access it offers to early modern books invaluable to our own research, we lack models for incorporating the collection in our teaching.[6]  Just as importantly, the sheer amount of information about the early modern period that a tool like EEBO offers our students can seem a challenge to our evolving notions of ourselves as classroom instructors.  Not only do we suddenly find ourselves guiding students through the steps of using unfamiliar (and constantly changing) online resources; we also put our own sense of the field to the test by inviting these students to confront us, in a public setting no less, with the often unfamiliar texts that their research yields. As we work with students and peers to develop the technological expertise needed to utilize these resources in the classroom and in our research, we are also confronting the implications of these new archival forms for our own theoretical positions, both as teachers and as scholars.  In short, we find that a new conceptual vocabulary – one that strives to pinpoint the contributions and limitations of digital resources within the field – is being created as we work.

  4. The unpredictability that research in EEBO might bring, both to the classroom and to our research more broadly, ultimately brings about new insight not just into the early modern period, but also into the nature of literary scholarship. The conversations that EEBO and other digital resources provoke can provide a valuable means of exploring the ways that four hundred years worth of scholars have engaged with texts, allowing users a deeper understanding of what generations of academics have considered worthy of study.  This conversation in turn helps students – and beginning faculty – to see room for their own work within the wider discipline.[7]  Just as importantly, digital resources like EEBO allow students and teachers alike to see how earlier generations of scholars have found new things to say about an old, but still evolving, body of literature. 

    Scholarly Approaches and Classroom Practice: EEBO and the Expanding Reading List

  5. The multiplicity of methodologies practiced today in early modern literary scholarship offer a variety of patterns for using electronic resources in scholarship and teaching, often presenting a bewildering number of avenues for those seeking to find meaningful ways of using – and even scrutinizing – such tools in their work. The manner in which our methodologies interact with digital tools, when they either provide us with objects of study (in the form of the archive) or serve as research tools (blogs, wikis, and digital collaboration, for example), can be radically different. These differences make it impossible to say that digital text resources like EEBO function in any single way to advance the field.  Scholars of varying dispositions and methodologies value the electronic source's ability to manipulate our view of literary history, if not of time itself. A brief and limited survey of some differences will illuminate this point. For those working to theorize and understand the "morphospace" of literary history, discussed at length below, the digital archive makes possible a manipulation of vast arrays of texts, on a scale simply not possible prior to text encoding.[8] This reduction in the sheer scale of labor needed to survey a broad spectrum of texts has enabled scholars like Franco Moretti and Martin Mueller to recognize (and visualize) trends spanning decades that were not visible to earlier generations. As we will discuss later in this paper, this new capability has enabled both scholars and students to interrogate previously held assumptions regarding changes within literary genres.

  6. For the historicist critic, the digital archive makes available the artefacts of a more complete discursive system, bringing broadsides, ballads, royal decrees, poetry, short fiction, and prose narratives of all sorts into the critical purview in ways that modern print publication has failed to accomplish. Similarly, the presence of a much wider range of authors within the digital archive continues the work of making the marginalized and underrepresented more visible – a project which may be a corrective both to historical directed exclusion and to our own predilection for familiar forms and the vernacular languages. In many ways this makes the digital archive a more democratic space, no longer restricting the scholar – and more particularly, the student – to the boundaries of the canonical works more easily found in print. It opens up the possibility of serendipitous discovery and the return of a more eclectic analytic method, one that harkens back to its early modern predecessor, the commonplace book.[9] In this way digital archives foster intellectual curiosity and offer deepening insights through emerging research paradigms.

  7. For many scholars and students of a more formalist mode of analysis, though, the digital archive does not initially appear to hold much excitement beyond the pragmatic benefits.  From this methodological perspective the digital archive facilitates access to the primary documents, but seems to offer little in terms of theoretical insight. However, research methods are shaped by training, and, within the post-secondary classroom, the digital archive serves an important pedagogical tool for the formalist scholar. When students see images of early modern texts, their surprise regarding early modern printing practices is itself instructive.  Here the digital archive, in particular those composed of electronic facsimiles, constitute more than just the dispensary of early modern texts, an informational source; it also functions as the site where students can encounter regularly the distance between the language and print culture of the early modern writer and the modern reader. This is not just an issue of pragmatics – the alienation, if you will, that results from the student's encounter with primary texts is itself a way of producing new insight while also making a formalist intervention into modern literary practices. EEBO underscores that the early modern texts within it are indeed products of a different time, and that as much as we might want to identify with its people, fundamental differences exists between their society and ours.  As students engage in fruitful struggles with challenging blackletter typeface, unfamiliar spellings, and strange formatting conventions, they are constantly reminded of these historical differences. [10]  While the same benefits can be gained through encounters with the primary documents themselves, classroom use of the digital archive makes this effect a regular and consistent element of the scholarly encounter.[11] 

  8. As we have noted, our own positive experiences with EEBO convince us of its worth as a teaching tool.  Unlike microfilm or even the rare books library, its electronic format allows every student to access and read a single document at once; just as importantly, EEBO presents these texts in online facsimile form, thereby requiring students to read works in their often challenging original formatting.[12]  The few models that exist for incorporating these texts into classroom teaching, however, often leave instructors insecure in their own authority (not to mention technical prowess) in the classroom.  Yet simply accessing the page images of works already on the syllabus can help students understand the differences between early printings of, say, Webster's plays and their modern anthologized versions.  Other instructors who emphasize the importance of a broader historical context often view EEBO as a way to "let loose" their students in the electronic archive to conduct their own research projects.  Using EEBO in this manner, however, creates a number of pedagogical challenges in the literature classroom, effectively adding new material to the class reading list for both the student and instructor.

  9. Despite these risks in bringing EEBO to the classroom, the payoffs for students can be remarkable and even liberating.  The database provides students, to a certain degree, an opportunity to create something "new" in academia.  Many of the valuable early modern texts EEBO contains are not anthologized, discussed in criticism, or found to be worthy of note by scholars.  When students have the opportunity to work with these lesser known texts, they often feel less burdened by the weight of already-existing scholarship.  All too often, students in literature feel as though they have nothing new to say, that any research project they undertake will simply be rehashing or unknowingly plagiarizing some earlier work in the long line of criticism surrounding a text.  Students dealing with early modern works are especially prone to such feelings of inadequacy, and even speechlessness.  By using EEBO, students of literature may be able to undertake fresh research, either in terms of texts or the methodologies.  In addition to allowing students to make productive observations about early publications of foundational and often-studied works of literature by providing ready access to facsimile page images, digital archives facilitate student inquiry into neglected primary texts that allow new insight into the historical context surrounding canonical pieces. At the same time, in using the digital archives, students are experimenting with emerging methodologies that have the potential to invigorate the field of literary history; as a result, they are active participants in the evolution of literary practices that digital archives have helped spur.

  10. As instructors, however, it is important for us to realize that, despite the easy access computers provide, significant barriers still face our students when dealing with early modern texts.  The rapid access that EEBO allows can challenge both students and instructors to make responsible use of unfamiliar primary texts.  The use of EEBO encourages students to incorporate primary texts into their own term papers, but the limited time that school calendars allow for such activities can lead to rushed, and sometimes sloppy, scholarship.  We feel it is important to remember, though, that while the unfamiliar nature of the texts and typefaces (not to mention historical contexts) may lead to misconstrued meanings, the experience of deciphering these materials generally improves a student's subsequent reading of primary documents.  At the same time, we must remain aware that these misreadings may occasionally result in larger mistakes, ones that ironically stem from a student's adherence to established, and often ambitious, scholarly practices while striving to connect unfamiliar texts to their early modern contexts. A student's mistakes are inevitably compounded by his or her lack of thorough contextual framework for studying the early modern period.

  11. To illustrate our point here we would like to share the particular experience of one of our authors to show how a student's willingess to make daring – and not entirely inappropriate – scholarly leaps can result in errors unlikely to have occurred before EEBO's arrival on the scene.  As an undergraduate, Stefania Crowther wrote an essay that drew on a miscellany celebrating the Restoration, published in 1661, Stella Meridiana Caroli Secundi Regis,[13] which took as its key theme the alleged star seen shining during daylight hours on the day of the birth of the future Charles II.   She linked this to astrological pamphlets of the period, and in particular those written by William Lilly (1602-1681), the parliamentarian astrologer, who wrote that the star was meaningless, and not, as Stella Meridiana would have it, an affirmation of Charles II's right to the English throne. By using EEBO's search tool she was able to quickly discover other texts by William Lilly, and other texts sold at the same location – St. Dunstan's churchyard – as the miscellany in question. William Lilly had published three Latin grammar texts[14], and in her further explorations in EEBO, she found a surprising number of Latin textbooks sold at St Dunstan's, with titles including:

    The latine grammar fitted for the use in schools, wherin the words of Lillie's Grammar are (as much as might be) retained; many errors thereof amended, many needless things left out, and many necessaries that were wanting supplied.[15]

    Seeing this title, Crowther took it to be a deliberate attempt to besmirch William Lilly's intellectual credentials. Having also discovered in a biography of Lilly a reference to Lilly being offended by Dr Donne, a preacher at St Dunstan's, [16] she formed the conclusion that St Dunstan's was an active royalist hub of opposition to William Lilly, and made this suggestion in her essay.[17]  

  12. In drawing these conclusions, Crowther followed the precedent of many historicist scholars.  Situating the information gleaned from careful, even close, readings of title pages within her knowledge of the historical context, she arrived at a conclusion about the religious culture and book trade of London.  Her moves, that is, reveal the very sort of thinking about books and their consequences that scholars value, and she deployed her argument with the confidence that teachers yearn to see in student papers.  Crowther's paper did more than report on a significant discovery; it also showed the comfort and assurance of an early modern scholar making strides in the process of finding her voice.

  13. In a matter of weeks after handing in the essay, however, Crowther came across more references to ‘Lillies Grammar’, in publications dating back to 1567, decades earlier than the three William Lily grammars she had previously seen, and using another EEBO search she discovered another William Lily, who lived from the late 1460s to 1522, and published several grammar texts in both Latin and English.  It quickly became clear that her St Dunstan's conspiracy theory was completely unfounded.  She attributes her mistake to the combination of her lack of background knowledge (having never encountered the earlier William Lily before, or seen references to ‘Lillies Grammar’) and the accelerated pace of research which electronic resources allow.  She reports that her discovery of the St Dunstan's Latin grammar texts came just a few days before the deadline, and she included the material in the essay, albeit tentatively, without probing any further into the issue. In fact, she had noticed a discrepancy in the dates – the earliest Latin grammar by William Lily she found on EEBO was published in 1673, long after the texts of the 1659 book sold at St Dunstan's which she was claiming were a response to Lily's.[18] However, she assumed that Lily had published another Latin grammar, some years earlier, of which there is no surviving copy.  While she claims to have done so "for convenience," Crowther followed the lead of many established scholars in this move as well, having seen many arguments that admitted – and relied – on such speculation to make their cases.

  14. Crowther's research led her far afield from the more traditional texts found on her class syllabus, which is no doubt a partial explanation for her inaccurate claim.  In the traditional model of pedagogy, the instructor is there to supply a framework of background knowledge, guiding students away from such false conclusions while encouraging their explorative drive to find historical connections.  Yet students inevitably make such mistakes while grappling with unfamiliar texts and literary figures, let alone when reading unfamiliar typefaces. However, in the new, faster paced academic environment, with student research effectively adding texts onto the syllabus at an exponential rate, the instructor can no longer be expected to possess all of the answers or to spot the misperceptions and misinterpretations. This raises an important challenge for a revised critical pedagogy:  how can we reinstate the quality control measures and guide students towards successful and accurate scholarship, and thus towards real contributions to the field, without taking away the sense of freedom and the excitement of exploring uncharted academic territory? 

    Teachers, Students, and Alien Texts

  15. As the above story shows, students' new access to primary texts also requires instructors to reassess their own authority in the literature classroom. The practice of what Paulo Freire and others have come to call "critical pedagogy" may provide a way to undertake such research involving EEBO and new primary texts.  This approach, which is increasingly emphasized in training graduate students, encourages instructors to create a dialogue in the classroom that will foster investigation – in this case, investigation beyond the canon and into new methods of scholarship and even into new realms of literary theory. In this way, the EEBO database allows students to become fellow participants in the learning process, creating a critical dialogue with their texts and with the field of early modern literature itself. 

  16. Critical pedagogy asks instructors to relinquish some authority to students, and it is founded upon some of the pioneering work of Freire, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed created the impetus for many following him, such as Ira Shor and Patricia Bizzell. A key element of Freire's ideas is his denunciation of the "banking method" of education, which posits a model of instruction where the student is empty, a bank to be filled by the instructor, who has all of the knowledge that is to be transplanted to students. In opposition to this view, Freire offers the notion of dialogue between student and instructor, one where knowledge is created by the exchange between them, the interstitial space in which different ideas come into contact and change: "this dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person's 'depositing' ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be 'consumed' by the discussants" (Freire 89). As the tropes of deposit and consumption suggest, such a practice presupposes the unquestioned delivery of information to students without any re-evaluation of that material. Despite growing enthusiasm for critical pedagogy, many instructors still assume a degree of authority over students, who are still seen as knowledge-less, always sitting in supplication to the higher knowledge of the instructor. The use of resources like EEBO render it difficult for instructors and students to fall into this unproductive rhythm, one that leaves students feeling as though the only knowledge of any value (the only "truth" to be discovered) comes from the work or scholarship that is valued by the instructor. EEBO necessitates the exchange between students and instructors, as the students deal with pieces that may be unfamiliar to their instructors. As instructors, then, we must step out of the comfort zone of familiar texts into a new perspective, as does the student.

  17. The fear with this model of instruction is that it may be unpredictable. How can instructors adequately prepare to help students with material that is as unfamiliar to us as it is to the students? The content of a course using EEBO as part of its syllabus can seem daunting, especially when compared to one dealing with the standard authors in the canon, where there are set paths and methods that must be discussed. Critical pedagogy, however, takes its cues from student needs. If each student in a classroom using EEBO is analyzing a specific text, the content of the classroom may change dramatically. This is especially true when the instructor no longer controls course content. Stepping outside the banking model, we as instructors can deploy digital archives like EEBO as tools to actively invite student participation in determining course content.  Freire's "banking educator" approaches the question of the syllabus by seeing it as a "program about which he will discourse to his students; and he answers his own question, by organizing his own program" (93). In essence, the instructor dictates how the course will look by constructing it as he or she sees fit, and the syllabus determines, rather than guides, content.  In contrast, Freire discusses the way in which content is created in the dialogue-focused classroom: "For the dialogical, problem-posing teacher-student, the program content of education is neither a gift nor an imposition—bits of information to be deposited by students—but rather the organized, systematized, and developed 're-presentation' to individuals of the things about which they want to know more" (93). In a sense, this notion of the "teacher-student" position of the instructor can be used as an example of the possibilities of EEBO in the literature classroom, where the instructor guides students in their own research and also learns from that research. The authority of the classroom is shared, and students decide "about which they would like to know more."

  18. Implicit in this discussion of critical pedagogy and its relation to the EEBO database is the idea that not only does EEBO place the instructor and student as fellow creators of critical insight, it also makes them fellow investigators of that insight, questioning the way we read and discuss texts in relation to the literary canon. This approach is particularly fruitful for us as young academics who are constantly re-evaluating our own notions of literary studies because it allows us to bring our own sense of scholarly exploration into our teaching.  Ira Shor, building on Freire's work, sees that the "empowering teacher does not talk knowledge at students but talks with them. In a critical classroom, the teacher does not fill students unilaterally with information but rather encourages them to reflect mutually on the meaning of any subject matter before them" (85). This reflection is key, and both the instructor and student "reflect" on their perceptions of the text, in what Shor describes as a "'horizontal' relationship where people talk mutually" (86). In doing so, both the instructor and the teacher take an active part in investigating – and even reshaping – the theoretical underpinnings of early modern studies.  Another way to delineate this notion of reflecting is that of questioning. As Shor notes, "dialogue is a mutually created discourse which questions existing canons of knowledge and challenges power relations in the classroom" (87). Questioning the existing "canon" of literary criticism, including its texts, provides a way for students to enter into academic research while helping us as scholars to further articulate our own understandings of the field.

  19. The critical classroom invites both new challenges and opportunities for students faced with the unfamiliar texts they find in EEBO. Just as importantly, the unpredictability that EEBO brings to classroom dynamics enables students and instructors to share authority over texts and their interpretation.  Together, students and instructors must "codevelop a joint learning process" in order to come to an understanding of how texts fit into and re-evaluate literary traditions (Shor 90).  Students encountering a new discourse, in this case, the discourse of literary scholarship, will often make mistakes, simply due to the fact that endeavoring to appropriate the language and convention of a discourse is not the same as mastering that discourse. In undertaking original research on a text that is neglected in scholarship, the fear of doing too much may create uneasiness in both instructors and students. As instructors, we may indeed hesitate to encourage students to explore new frontiers out of concern that their projects may stray, may be too large in scope, or may fail to address issues important to mainstream scholarship. Needless to say, our students may feel the same or worse, especially given the risks inherent in attempting to place one's own findings into the larger critical conversation.

  20. However, as noted earlier, these mistakes need not make either scholars or students overly cautious in analyzing texts and producing interpretations of those texts—the so-called "mistakes" instead prove a part of the critical process. As Mina Shaughnessy notes, instructors must become students as well in order to see their own students' "difficulties and their incipient excellence" (317). In this way, the mistakes illustrate the notion that both instructors and students learn in the critical classroom. At the same time, students who recognize their own failings and shortcomings become better writers, better critics, and better students for it. Likewise, these students will become more critical of not only their own texts, but those produced by other scholars as well.

  21. The unfamiliar nature of this process – one that many instructors might also consider unstable – makes it is all too easy for the potential of in-class research using EEBO not to be realised. The undergraduate essay is generally filed away immediately after the grades are seen, never to be looked at again, and the undergraduate moves on to something completely different. If the instructor is unfamiliar with the early modern texts that the student "unearths" in EEBO, the mistakes in the student's argument may go unnoticed, and the student may never realise the error and therefore never learn from it. While critical pedagogy strives to revolutionize the student-teacher relationship, we also hope to begin a discussion of how we can change the system for assessing student work. This process too demands a closer relationship between instructor and student, and it also should reflect a dialogue regarding a project's end results.  Ideally, the student's essay should not be written in isolation from the rest of her academic career, handed in at the deadline and returned with a grade.  We argue that it is worth working toward a system that considers the essay as a part of the conversation, a perpetual work in progress that functions as an occasion for the kind of exploratory research facilitated by resources like EEBO.  In this system, students would be assessed instead on their progress in mastering scholarly dialogue, not on the end results of their one essay's outcome.

    Close and Distant Readings:  EEBO and Scholarly Trends

  22. As much as EEBO has increased the speed of access to primary works – and as valuable as it had proven in bringing early modern texts into the classroom efficiently – it is also vital to note that the resource also has the power to slow us down in productive ways. Much of the training done in the last twenty years has focused on thematic criticism of literary texts, and some argue that the urge to quickly boil down the significance of a text to a few key concerns has led to inaccurate conclusions. [19]  The digital early modern primary text can act as abarrier to over-easy thematic reduction by requiring the reader to attend to the formal elements of the text in order to understand its meanings. The irregular and unfamiliar early modern primary text presents a number of difficulties that require a slower, more attentive reading practice. This is true most particularly for the undergraduate scholar-in-training who is often learning literary interpretive practice for the first time, and who therefore learns the most from productive mistakes. This deliberate, more difficult encounter with the text offers the occasion for the reinvigoration of a more formalist interpretive practice. As the reader labors to decipher the script, the visual conventions, and the spelling variants present in the digital primary text, his or her attention is drawn to the variability of early modern language use. Rather than the more conventionally accessible modern edition, where language variance and print conventions are present as footnotes (if at all), EEBO and sources like it require an attention to form just at the level of comprehension, and as a result form again becomes a visible and regular element of readerly comprehension. In this way, the early modern primary text reminds the reader that meaning is contingent upon the structures and relations of language.

  23. By presenting difference in the shape of literary form, and by prompting fruitful misreadings, mistakes, and, hence, discovery, EEBO forces the modern reader to attend to the importance of form and structure in all linguistic discourse. This practical aspect of the tool is significant, but it is not the only place where the archive represents the possibility of an intervention into a formalist literary practice. As briefly suggested earlier, digital text resources like EEBO also intervene by facilitating a mode of analysis that emerges from the synthesis of one of our current critical binaries, that of close reading and distant reading. According to Franco Moretti, distance is "a specific form of knowledge," [20] one that accounts for the large percentage of texts ignored by traditional literary history (Moretti, Graphs 1).[21] For Moretti, interpreting from a distance is a practice that offers "knowledge" rather than "readings," a distinction that situates both pleasure and formal analysis as something other or secondary to the "knowledge" produced by literary historiography. Thus distinguishing between literary history and literary criticism, Moretti's work has attempted to write a new history of the novel in the nineteenth century, as well as to write new histories of a number of other literary forms. His focus is on the "temporary structures within the historical flow," a project which can illuminate what he has called the "morphospace" of literary history (Graphs 14, 70). In order to make these arguments Moretti has banished close reading from his critical practice.  But we need not sequester reading (and pleasure) off from knowledge about literary history. Rather than restricting ourselves, as Moretti does, to a dualism where (close) "readings" provide information, while distance offers the only key to "knowledge," it is possible to generate insight for both ourselves and our students through a methodology that integrates close and distant reading practices. The digital archive, while not making this possible, does go a long way to facilitate such an otherwise unmanageable methodology.[22]

  24. Moretti's form of knowledge is cartographic, diagramatic, and quantitative, and his critical perspective is decidedly diachronic.  His texts include novel maps – including those that illustrate authorship trends by charting quantity over time, and others that represent the distribution and duration of British novelistic genres in bar graph form.  For some, in taking the long view of the large field, Moretti's scholarship "often turns out to be banal" or is tautological in each of its modes (Guy 402). According to this critique, Moretti finds what he is looking for – his data reveals only what good close readers already know.  For others, the interpretation of his work is very different.  The volume of data allows Moretti to tell "a substantial story," opening up "a fascinating territory for discussion" (Maxwell 696, 699).  For these readers, Moretti's work is a first step in positing a new mode of inquiry, of articulating a new form of literary knowledge (Maxwell 696, 699).

  25. Rather than wade into the debate regarding Moretti's results, in particular those of The Atlas of the Novel, 1800-1900, to which the above critiques refer, we offer these perspectives as a way into evaluating Moretti's theoretical statements regarding the inherent opposition between close and distant reading. The oppositional nature of contemporary assessment of Moretti's model is engendered by his own bifurcation of critical reading. For those practicing close reading, Moretti's conclusions seem trite, while for those interested in the long view of distant reading Moretti offers exciting new vistas.  We think it is more fruitful to argue that distant reading does offer exciting new interpretive horizons but that these horizons are visible only through movement between close reading and distant reading – and it is precisely this movement that digital archives allow.  In making the argument that close reading and distant reading need not be oppositional modes of scholarship (a claim which recovers the scholarly role of "reading"), we will be pointing to a second way in which the digital archive facilitates a synthetic formalist approach. As Thomas Rommel has noted, digital humanities research, which can utilize digital archives like EEBO, allows for a highly detailed form of distant interpretation that is "based on procedures of close reading" (92).[23]  The value of this approach is that it neither dismisses historical, social, and political contexts nor devalues the essential role that reading, in the sense that Rooney and others have worked to recover, plays in writing literary histories.

  26. The synthesis of close and distant reading practices is not entirely new, nor is it dependent upon a digital archive. Erich Auerbach's Mimesis is perhaps the best example of a synthetic approach to literary history. Written as a theory of representation in the Western literary canon from antiquity to the early twentieth century, Mimesis utilizes careful and elegant close readings of primary texts to generate a number of arguments regarding historically specific modes of representation. His approach, however, differs from Moretti's in that Auerbach begins with the particular to move to the general. Auerbach begins with a series of careful readings of the formal structure of various works and in so doing develops his theory of representation. Through analysis of strategies such as lineal location or grammatical constructions – in other words, careful analysis of the linguistic and formal strategies deployed within texts – Auerbach produces insight into the operations of language in a text while also marshalling this evidence to make the more abstract, or general claims regarding literary representation. In eschewing the large chunk of text that has come to signal a close reading, Auerbach is perhaps more elegant, but it is close reading all the same.  As Ato Quayson has observed, "Auerbach consistently attempts to move from the close reading of literary fragments to an abstraction about reality and its representation" (125). Auerbach himself recognized that his work was historical (Moretti's term would be "explanatory," that is, productive of knowledge), but Quayson's trope of motion suggests that the text crosses critical modalities – that it can be read as exemplary of a close reading/distant reading synthesis.[24]  Quayson's recognition of Auerbach's use of "literary fragments," along with the motive trope, suggests that in moving between textual selections the critic is able to generate new "abstractions," which incidentally are exactly what constitute new knowledge for Moretti.

  27. Moretti has asserted that there is an "either/or choice" between interpretation (that tends to make a close reading of a single text) and explanation (that works with abstract models on a large group of texts) (Moretti Responds II). Auerbach's text seems to suggest otherwise. With its movement between literary fragments, Mimesis shows that an approach that focuses on both "the very small, and the very large" need not exclude close reading, so long as we do not define close reading as the exegesis of a whole text (Moretti, Graphs 76). Or alternatively, close reading remains valid in this system so long as we do not define close reading as only concerned with only the single text. It could be argued after all that if close reading is teaching rather than telling, that the close reading analysis need not explicate how all of the structures function within a text. Rather, it can, as Auerbach's readings do, offer insight into how a structure functions within a particular narratological moment, leaving the scholar-teacher and her students to work through the implications of this structure (and its variants) elsewhere in the text. 

  28. Close reading is not inimical to distant reading; on the contrary, it is part of it. Or rather, they are both a part of a synthetic mode of analysis that moves between the diachronic and the synchronic view in order to render an image of the dynamic play of discourse and its genres and forms.  True, this mode does not highlight the exposition of a single text, selecting instead to consider the fragment both within the text and as a structure across time. It is not better than a mode that focuses on the single text or set of texts, but it is different and as such it will offer different critical horizons. Perhaps what is most exciting about this synthetic mode is that it greatly facilitated by the large-scale digitization of primary texts. This is true both in the scholar's study and in the classroom.  With digitally encoded texts, keyword searches and proximity searches, search-directed reading can now be accomplished by the student with limited research time and, on a larger scale, by the researcher.  Student and scholar alike (or more accurately all student-scholars) can draw insight from a critical view that moves between the small and the large, between discrete forms in particular texts and changes in the use of such forms in the longue duree.  Such methods are perhaps more intimidating than using electronic facsimiles as resources in the classroom, yet they nonetheless under gird productive, approachable pedagogical uses of EEBO.  Even for those whose access allows only the searching of EEBO's bibliographic records, such inquiries can still allow students to see how genres evolve on the larger scale across the collection's centuries.  While the digital text approached as a unified whole offers the opportunity for a formal emphasis in pedagogy by slowing down the student/scholar, digital archives like EEBO offer the ability to fragment texts, an amazing number of texts, along structural lines.


  29. Discussing data demonstrating that clusters of British novelistic genres 'die' every twenty-five or thirty years during the period 1740-1900, Moretti claims that "the causal mechanism must thus be external to the genres, and common to all: like a sudden, total change of their ecosystem…. when an entire generic system vanishes at once, the likeliest explanation is that its readers vanished at once. This, then, is where those 25-30 years come from: generations."[25]   While we would never argue – and certainly never advocate – that the arrival of EEBO and other digital primary text tools should lead to the "death" of rare book libraries or the research conducted in them, such electronic resources will undoubtedly reshape literary scholarship – and indeed, they already have.  Our entry into the academy coincides with the development of these sources, marking us as a new generation of scholars with a new generation of tools at our disposal.  The significance of EEBO and similar resources to our careers, however, remains largely uncertain, even as the research and pedagogical approaches they enable become more and more influential in our field.  The expenses and technological issues involved in accessing EEBO add an element of instability to our scholarly work, and, for those of us who use the resource in our teaching, into our daily lives as well.   Not only are we perpetually experimenting with the new activities sources like EEBO allow, we experience a great deal of insecurity as to how the results of our efforts will be valued within the academy.

  30. We are, in short, members a generation of new early modern scholars who increasingly find ourselves in dialogue with sources like EEBO.   The place of such electronic resources continues to evolve within the academy, and the relationships we forge with them reflect – and, to some extent, define – our theoretical positions as both scholars and teachers.  Digital archives offer tremendous opportunities for our own research, allowing us to take up projects that would never have been possible fifteen years earlier; at the same time, sources like EEBO confront us with questions about the value of long-established and newly-arrived modes of inquiry and interpretation.  We find ourselves in need of new ways to define our work both to colleagues who did not have access to digital tools early in their careers, and to students who strive to create a firm foundation for their own academic work.  The digital resources themselves continue to change, too, in ways that both respond to and shape our scholarship and teaching.  Yet, as new as these electronic tools may prove, we find that they enrich traditional approaches to literature as well as newer ones, and that the academic conversations sources like EEBO provoke flow naturally from those occurring outside (or even before the existence of) the digital realm.  In that sense, it is important to modify Moretti's notions of generations, since EEBO's arrival does not mark a sudden and total change in our discipline; it has, however, begun a radically new conversation that has the power to reshape the scholarship – and scholars – to come.[26]


Stefania Crowther is an MA student in Renaissance Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London. She began using EEBO in 2004 while an undergraduate at the University of Warwick. 

Ethan T. Jordan is a Ph.D. student in Rhetoric and Technical Communication at Michigan Technological University. He has used EEBO in a number of conference presentations and research projects since 2005.

Jacqueline Wernimont is a doctoral candidate in the department of English at Brown University. She extensively utilizes digital archives such as EEBO for her teaching and research on early modern poetics and mathematics. She is also working to understand the possible relationships of the digital archives and text encoding practices to mainstream scholarly methodologies. 

Hillary Nunn is Associate Professor of English at The University of Akron.  She has been using EEBO in her own research and teaching since 1998.       

 Works Cited


[1] While scholars like Jerome McGann, among others, have published foundational work on the significance of electronic archives and texts, academic publication on the use of digital archives in the classroom has been slow to appear; when has appeared, it has often focused on American literature.  For example, Christopher Hanlon discusses his students' use of texts from sources like The Making of America and the Library of Congress, and Scott Ellis outlines the pedagogical possibilities presented by the Emory Women Writers Resource Project.  Julia Flanders is one of the few venturing into print discussion of earlier online material in her article regarding the Brown University Women's Writers Project in the classroom.  See Christopher Hanlon, "History on the Cheap: Using the Online Archive to Make Historicists out of Undergrads," Pedagogy 5 (2005): 97-115; Scott Ellis, "Digitizing the Past: Using Electronic Texts in Scholarship and the Classroom," Legacy 19 (2002): 115-120; and Julia Flanders, "Learning, Reading, and the Problem of Scale: Using Women Writers Online," Pedagogy 2 (2002): 49-60.

 [2] It is worth noting that, like many university libraries, Bierce Library at The University of Akron – one of our home institutions – owns only a portion of the Early English Books microfilm collection.  The library's subscription to EEBO thus not only made finding early modern works easier; it allowed students to access thousands of additional early modern books in their research.

[3] For more on the contents and capabilities of EEBO, see the database's description at  

[4] The Modern Language Association has had guidelines in place since May 2000 for evaluating scholarly work with digital media, and the group's president, Marjorie Perloff, has written about teaching with electronic resources in the group's newsletter.  See "Guidelines for Evaluating Work with Digital Media in the Modern Languages" at and Marjorie Perloff, "Teaching in the Wired Classroom," MLA Newsletter Winter 2006 3-5.  Scholarly publication on the use of electronic archives in the classroom, however, has been slow to appear and often focuses on American literature.  For example, Christopher Hanlon discusses his student's use of texts from sources like The Making of America and the Library of Congress, and Scott Ellis outlines the pedagogical possibilities presented by the Emory Women Writers Resource Project.  Julia Flanders is one of the few venturing in print into discussion of earlier online material in her article regarding the Brown University Women's Writers Project in the classroom.   See Christopher Hanlon, "History on the Cheap: Using the Online Archive to Make Historicists out of Undergrads," Pedagogy 5 (2005): 97-115; Scott Ellis, "Digitizing the Past: Using Electronic Texts in Scholarship and the Classroom," Legacy 19 (2002): 115-120; and Julia Flanders, "Learning, Reading, and the Problem of Scale: Using Women Writers Online," Pedagogy 2 (2002): 49-60.

 [5] For an early history of the EEBO project, see Thomas Pack, "Bringing Literature Alive," EContent 22.6 (1999): 26-29.  A number of significant changes have taken place since then to improve download speeds. Chadwyck-Healey (the current overseer of EEBO) continues to add documents to the online collection; in particular, they plan to "begin scanning the Tract Supplement collection and work on STC I Units 74-78 and Wing Units 125-127" in 2007.  See

[6] Some of us, and our students, even lack access to EEBO itself, either because we have moved on to institutions that do not subscribe, or because the technology to support its use proves a barrier on our campuses

[7] As Kevin Curran recently noted in his discussion of the World Wide Web in early modern studies, the purpose of using electronic tools in the discipline "is about finding constructive continuities between traditional and technologically more progressive forms of scholarship; it involves building upon already-existent foundations of intellectual enquiry rather than obliterating or revolutionizing those foundations" (par. 22). 

[8] For more on "morphospace" see Franco Moretti,Graphs, Maps, and Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (New York: Verso, 2005).

[9] Patricia Fumerton made this comparison in her talk, "Remembering by Dismembering Broadside Ballads," at the Bringing Text Alive: The Future of Scholarship, Pedagogy, and Electronic Publication conference in Ann Arbor this past fall. See

[10] Institutions that belong to the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP), however, may well offer students access to online, encoded transcriptions of these texts in addition to the page images.  For more on the EEBO-TCP, see

[11] Tracey Hill and Jonathan Gibson vividly illustrate the students' difficulty with these facsimile texts in their paper, "EEBO in the Seminar Room:  A Case Study from Bath Spa University," presented at the Bringing Text Alive: The Future of Scholarship, Pedagogy, and Electronic Publication conference.

[12] Of course, there are difficulties to reading the facsimiles on a computer screen as well that some might argue compound the challenges EEBO poses to its users.

[13] James Shirley, 1661, printed in London for T. Basset [Wing/ S5401] Copy from Henry E Huntington Library and Art Gallery.

[14]  See the 1673, 1681, and 1691 versions of Lilly's A Short Introduction of Grammar Generally to be Used.

[15] Charles Hoole, 1659.  Wing  H2685A.

[16] Derek Parker, Familiar to All, William Lilly and Astrology in the Seventeenth Century (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975) 38-9.

[17] In a further irony, the essay went on to win a top prize in the 2005 Early English Books Online/ EEBO-TCP Undergraduate Essay Competition.  Entitled "Never Was King So Like to God Before:" Stella Meridiana and the Restoration Panegyric," the essay is available online at

[18] See Hoole, and Basset Jones, Herm’aelogium, London, 1659.  Wing  J925.

[19] See Ellen Rooney, "Form and Contentment," Modern Language Quarterly 61 (2000): 17-40.

[20] Moretti's model of distant reading is not based exclusively on the use of digital archives – in Graphs, Maps, and Trees he depends on prior book history scholarship – nor does it directly engage with the use of EEBO. Nevertheless, we believe that for early modern scholars the model of distant reading, and especially that of a synthesized distant/close reading, is facilitated in particular ways by EEBO and other archives like it. 

[21] John Burrows has noted, as Moretti and others have as well, that traditional literary criticism depends on a limited textual selection; "It is a truth not generally acknowledged that, in most discussions of works of English fiction, we proceed as if a third, two-fifths, a half of our material were not really there." For more on this practice and the ability of digital humanities work to do otherwise see John Burrows, A Computation into Criticism. A Study of Jane Austen's Novels and an Experiment in Method (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987); also, Thomas Rommel "Literary Studies," A Companion to Digital Humanities (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004): 88-96. 

[22] Here it is important to note that our point is that digital archives facilitate in unique ways, not that they make possible methodologies which have a clear tradition prior to the advent of the computer. As our later discussion of Erich Auerbach is meant to suggest, we find that the digital archives can uniquely foster a form of scholarship which has a tradition that pre-dates computing technologies.

[23] Rommel himself does not discuss the work of Moretti in this article. Nevertheless, his discussion of the mapping and quantification of literary structures clearly relates his discussion of literary criticism, and its manifestations as digital humanities research, to the distant reading model.

[24] Though Auerbach would not have articulated his method as a synthesis of distant and close reading, those terms were not part of the disciplinary parlance of the early to mid-twentieth century, his philological approach to the study of literature can be construed in just this way.

[25] Franco Moretti, Graphs, 20-21.

[26] The authors would like to thank the organizers of the 2006 Text Creation Partnership Conference, Bringing Text Alive:  The Future of Scholarship, Pedagogy, and Electronic Publication.  In particular, we thank Shawn Martin for his efforts, as well as Irina A. Dumitrescu, who also presented her work as part of our panel, "From Student to Teacher: Electronic Resources in the Classroom."

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).