GENED 1034: Texts in Transition

GENED 1034: Texts in Transition






Prof Blair

Prof Whittington

Head TF David Nee


Histories, Societies, Individuals icon with text Aesthetics & Culture icon with text



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Syllabus (pdf)

Choosing a Text to Adopt

Texts in Transition News Feed


Gen Ed 1034: Texts in Transition

Fall 2019

Lectures: MW 3-4:15pm, Sever 210  (*note new course location!*)

Sections: W 4:30-5:30pm (Robinson 107, Sever 104) and Th 3-4pm (Barker 316)



Ann Blair

Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor

CGIS S437; 617-495-0752

Office hours: M 4:30-6:10pm; T 1:30-2:50pm. PLEASE SIGN UP HERE

Leah Whittington

Professor of English

Barker 275; 617-496-0291

Office hours: W 1-3PM


Teaching Fellows

David Nee, (Head TF)

Office hours: multiple days and times, sign up online here, meetings held in Gato Rojo (basement of Dudley Hall)


Hudson Vincent,

Office hours: Thurs 4-6, Barker Center Café


Course Description

We live in a moment of rapid changes in the ways we communicate. As our writing becomes ever more digital—and paradoxically both more ephemeral and more durable—the attitudes and tools we have for preserving our culture seem more complex and fluid. This course studies how written language—text— travels through time and across media. We will ask: how good are texts for capturing, transmitting, and preserving human experience? How have texts come down to us from the distant past? How do we ensure that what we write today will survive into the future? As we investigate contemporary approaches to cultural preservation, we will consider how pre-modern European cultures transmitted and transformed texts, and created institutions that we still rely on today, including museums, libraries, and archives. Each week you will observe or apply methods of preservation, restoration, destruction, translation, and transmission in an attempt to preserve a personal artifact. We will also read works of literature that reflect on questions of durability, ephemerality, and written memory. By the end of the course, you should be a more thoughtful curator of your own textual presence and media ecology around you.


Course Objectives

As a student in this course, you will:

  • Develop long-term thinking about the transmission of written culture.
  • Use past examples to illuminate our current media ecology.
  • Appreciate the effect of technologies, institutions, and individuals in making texts durable or ephemeral.
  • Prepare to make decisions that will affect the preservation of the texts we write today


General Education Requirements

This course fulfills the General Education requirement in Histories, Societies, Individuals or Aesthetics & Culture. Students seeking to fulfill their Gen Ed distribution requirement (Arts and Humanities or Social Sciences) and freshmen are welcome. This course counts for the “pre-modern” distribution requirement for History concentrators. No prior college level background is expected.


Course Books (on order at the COOP and on reserve in Lamont)

Amaranth Borsuk, The Book (MIT Press, 2018); $12.95 on amazon. ISBN: 978-0262535410

Michel de Montaigne, The Essays: A Selection (Penguin, 1994); $13.80 on amazon. ISBN: 978-0140446029

(recommended) Ted Chiang, Exhalation (Knopf, 2019); $17.71 on amazon; ISBN 978-1101947883

Other readings will be supplied on a fair use basis in paper copies in class or in pdfs on the Canvas site.


Course Requirements

  • Attendance at lectures and sections, including participation in at least one of the arranged outings (options and dates below).
  • 10 short assignments as per syllabus (at most 500 words each)
  • Capstone Project comprising
    • Presentation in class on your capstone project on Wed Dec 4 from 3-5:30pm—please reserve this time—no section that week
    • Submission of an essay version of your capstone project (1500 words) plus a short reflection paper discussing your decisions along the way and what you felt you learned in the process (500 words).


Capstone Project Description

For this project, please select a text you care about and that you would like to see transmitted to the future. This could be something you or someone you know has written or something that has come down in your family; or a text you admire but that you feel has been underappreciated or is in need of attention. We will offer a list of suggestions and are happy to hear your ideas before you settle (with the approval of an instructor) on your topic in Week 4.


Many of the short weekly assignments are designed to help you curate this text; you can draw on these short assignments in preparing the capstone presentation to the class and the final submission of the capstone project and reflection paper.

  • In week 4: select your text and create a label for it
  • In week 5-6 compose some paratexts for your text
  • In week 7 use your text to create another text, e.g. parody, imitation, extension.
  • In week 8 consider what kind of institutional collection would be a good fit for your text
  • In week 9 post your digitization of your text (or part of it) and comment online on the posts of two other students
  • In week 11 ponder the pros and cons of different media options for transmission (at least one digital and one “legacy” option).


Choose your outing: choose one of these four options (no written assignment, but attendance will be taken)

  • Option A: Attend Stallybrass-Chuong talk at Harvard’s Humanities Center (Wed Oct 23, 5:30pm, Barker 133)
  • Option B: View “Ex-Libris,” a documentary about the New York Public Library (3hr17mn)— a screening will be held in Week 8 (Sunday Oct 27, 6PM, Lowell House Screening Room: Lowell House WS02)
  • Option C: Guided visit to Harvard MetaLAB in Week 9 (Fri Nov 8, 2pm,  Dana Palmer House seminar room--just across from Barker Center)
  • Option D: Visit Boston Antiquarian Book Fair on Sat Nov 16 (details TBA)


View Course Policies (Separate Page)


Course Schedule


Week 0: What is transmission?

 Wednesday September 4: [video available] Introduction: what is a text? What is transmission? How and why do texts travel through time? How and why do we preserve texts for the future?

(Lecture 1 slides and handouts here)

No section

ASSIGNMENT 0: find some text on the Harvard campus or nearby Cambridge (for reporting in next class—nothing written required).




Week 1: texts in physical forms

Monday September 9: physical remains from antiquity and the texts that come with them; Sappho’s poems, Pompeii graffiti, Horace.

Wednesday September 11: visit to Harvard Art Museums to sample various textual remains: coins, stamps, clay tablets, inscriptions.

Sections meet Wed/Thurs: introductions; discuss poems.

Readings for Week 1:

Amaranth Borsuk, ch. 1: “The Book as Object”

Classical writers on texts and posterity: Plato, Phaedrus 274e-277a; Sappho, Fragments 2, 16, and 58; Catullus 95; Horace, Odes 3.30; Ovid, Metamorphoses 15.871-879; Martial, Epigrams 1.1, 1.2, 3.2, 4.72, 6.61, 7.51, 13.1; Excerpt from "Life of Adam and Eve"; Shakespeare, Sonnet 55 (DOWNLOAD PDF HERE)

ASSIGNMENT 1 DUE Friday 5pm: compose a label describing the text and the medium of one object of your choice in the Museum bay/or related galleries—focus on the relationship between the text and its material form. (150-250 words) (Download Object List here)


Week 2: preservation and loss of ancient texts in the Middle Ages

Monday September 16: medieval manuscripts, paths of transmission for ancient literature.

Wednesday September 18: Visit to Houghton Library—manuscripts and early printed books.

Sections meet Wed/Thurs: discuss Chaucer

Readings for Week 2

Geoffrey Chaucer, The House of Fame, and “Adam Scriveyn

ASSIGNMENT 2 DUE Friday 5pm: close reading of a text that has been assigned in weeks 1 or 2 (of your choice) on the theme of durability/ ephemerality (500 words).


Week 3: impacts of the Renaissance: finding and printing texts

Please come to office hours this week or next to discuss your choice of text for the final project

Monday September 23: humanism, recovering lost texts, how to preserve damaged and fragmentary works

Wednesday Sept 25: invention of printing, reactions to printing (redundancy, distribution, overload, loss of value).

Sections meet Wed/Thurs: discuss Petrarch

Readings for Week 3

Amaranth Borsuk, ch. 2: “The Book as Content”

Francis Petrarch, Letters to his Friends: 3.18 (to Giovanni dell’Incisa on searching for manuscripts), 18.2 (to Nicholas Sigeros on receiving a copy of Homer); Letters to the Ancients 24.3-4 (to Cicero), 24.7 (to Quintilian), 24.8 (to Livy), 24.12 (to Homer)

Johan Gerritsen, “Printing at Froben’s: An Eye Witness Account,” Studies in Bibliography 44 (1991): 144-63.

 ASSIGNMENT 3 DUE Friday 5pm: in the year 1500 you have discovered a long lost ancient text. Discuss the pros and cons of manuscript versus print as the best of preserving and disseminating the text in both the long term and the short term. (500 words)


Week 4: impacts of the Renaissance: repairing and correcting texts

Please come to office hours this week to discuss your choice of text for the final project

Monday September 30: [video available] humanists and the editing of texts.

Wednesday October 2: Erasmus and textual interpretation in the era of the Reformation

Sections meet Wed/Thurs: discuss Erasmus

Readings for Week 4

Desiderius Erasmus, New Testament Scholarship (selections)

 ASSIGNMENT 4 DUE Friday 5pm: choose the text that will be the object of your final project; write a label for it (iterating assignment 1: 250 words).




Weeks 5: paratexts and interpretation—managing transmission (part 1)

Monday October 7: types and functions of paratexts; inside the book, alongside the book; preface, dedication, index, errata, title page with image, commendatory odes, self-presentation; mediating texts for readers.

Wednesday October 9: no class (Yom Kippur)

No section this week; no reading; work ahead for Week 6


Week 6: paratexts and interpretation—managing transmission (part 2)

Monday October 14: no class (University Holiday)

Wednesday Oct 16: Shakespeare and the First Folio--how do monumentalize an author

Sections meet Wed/Thurs: discuss Shakespeare paratexts

Readings for Week 5 and 6

William Shakespeare, front matter to The First Folio (1623) [+ Oxford Critical Edition + Folger First Folio DIY], preface to the Sonnets (1609), preface to Troilus and Cressida (1609)

Commonplacing of Shakespeare: The Beauties of Shakespeare (1752), ed. Rev. William Dodd

ASSIGNMENT 5-6 DUE Friday midnight: compose paratexts for your text; a commentary plus 2-3 others of your choice: e.g. preface, dedication, index, errata, title page with image, commendatory ode, florilegium, prayer or other of your invention (500 words).


Week 7: transmission by transforming: imitation, invention, adaptation, forgery

Monday Oct 21—Montaigne and commonplacing.

Wednesday Oct 23: Visit to Weissman Preservation Center—practices and ideals of repair. Meet at 90 Mount Auburn St at 3pm.

Sections meet Wed/Thurs: discuss Montaigne.

Choose your outing, option A: Wed Oct 23, 5:30pm in Barker Center 133 an academic talk by Jennifer Chuong on printer’s waste found in marbled end papers from the 18th century: “The Fluid Surface: Marbling and Overmarbling in Early America,” with comment by Peter Stallybrass.

Readings for Week 7

Michel de Montaigne, Essays: “To the Reader” (p. 3), “We reach the same end by discrepant means”(pp. 5-8), “On fear” (pp. 13-16), “On educating children” (pp. 37-73), “On the cannibals” (pp. 79-92), “Of giving the lie” (pdf)

John Florio, The Essayes or Morall, Politike, and Militarie Discourses of Montaigne (front matter to 1603 edition, “To the courteous reader,” dedicatory poem by Samuel Daniel)

ASSIGNMENT 7 DUE Friday midnight : just as Montaigne made old texts new by writing his Essays, use your text to create another text: e.g. a parody, an extension, an imitation, a reply (e.g. to a letter). (500 words)




Week 8: institutions of transmission

Choose your outing, option B: Sunday Oct 27, evening: viewing of the movie Ex-libris (Lowell House screening room, WS02)

 Monday Oct 28: the role of book markets and book collecting.

Wed Oct 30: multiple functions of libraries—some history of Harvard libraries

Sections meet Wed/Thurs: discuss Borges; introduction to Omeka


Readings for Week 8

Jorge Francisco Borges, “The Library of Babel”

Eric Lindquist, “Books and the Iniquitie or Wearing of Time,” in Yvonne Carignan ed. Who Wants Yesterday’s Books? (2005), pp. 5-34.

Matthew Battles, “Books for All” in The Library: An Unquiet History

ASSIGNMENT 8 DUE Friday midnight: Imagine, and describe a rationale for, a special collection, or specialized library, that would include the text you've chosen; discuss the role of the book market and library policies needed to build such a collection and acquire your text in particular. (250-500 words) see the list of specific funded collections in the Harvard Libraries by clicking here.


Week 9: the promise of new technologies

Monday Nov 4: presenting Omeka and its durability; problems of storing physical books.

ASSIGNMENT 9 part 1 DUE before Thurs Nov 7 midnight: post something from your final project to Omeka.  

 Wednesday Nov 6: back story to the digital era

Sections meet Wed/Thurs: discuss “Cold Storage” + omeka posting

ASSIGNMENT 9 part 2 DUE Friday midnight: comment on the digitized texts of two other students in your section as per your TF's instructions.

Readings for Week 9

Amaranth Borsuk, ch. 4 : “The Book as Interface”

Nicholas Basbanes, “Deep Sleep,” in Patience and Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places and Book Culture (New York: 2001)

View "Cold Storage" film about the Harvard Depository (30 mins); further film materials about HD are available at the MetaLAB's site "The Library Beyond the Book"

You can also watch the film that inspired "Cold Storage," Alain Resnais' classic 1956 film about the  All the World's Memory

Choose your outing, option C: Fri Nov 8, 2pm, Dana Palmer House seminar room: visit MetaLAB on Harvard campus


Week 10: the economics of preserving texts today

 Monday Nov 11: The expenses of libraries; choices librarians make in preserving texts for the future.

Mon-Tues ASSIGNMENT 10 DUE Tuesday midnight: please record your text consumption and library use on Monday-Tuesday. List what you read, in what format or medium, and where, as per this spreadsheet.

Wednesday Nov 13: panel with Harvard librarians—copyright and open access, e-resources contracts, collective collecting, library ethnography

Sections meet Wed/Thurs: visit to Widener + discuss log of text and library use

Readings for Week 10

Steve Batt, “Inflation-adjusted expenditures of Academic Libraries, 1963-present”

Laura Newton Miller, David Sharp, and Wayne Jones, “70% and Climbing: E-Resources, Books, and Library Restructuring”

Tony Harava, “What is the State of the Big Deal?”

Lindsay McKenzie, “University of California cancels deal with Elsevier” (20 March 2019)

Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz, “The Promise and Perils of Digital Libraries,” in The End of Ownership

Choose your outing, option D: Saturday Nov 16: Visit the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair. Meet at Harvard Square T at 11:30am.


Week 11: archives

 Monday Nov 18: how do we preserve and transmit texts that are not in libraries?

Wednesday Nov 20: Visit to the Harvard University Archives. accessioning, arranging materials, uses of archives, choosing what to keep and what to give away.

Sections meet Wed/Thurs: discuss Ted Chiang

Readings for Week 11

Ted Chiang, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” in Exhalation, pp. 185-212. May also be available here:

Roy Rosenzweig, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” American

Historical Review 108:3 (2003), 735-62.

ASSIGNMENT 11 DUE Friday midnight: discuss the pros and cons of choosing among the media options currently available for preserving and disseminating your text for both the short and the long term. Consider at least one digital technology and at least one “legacy” technology (i.e. manuscript or print) in weighing two or three options. This is an iteration of the assignment in week 3 comparing the virtues of manuscript versus print ca 1500.


Week 12: summing up

 Monday November 25. Final lecture

Wednesday November 27. no class (Thanksgiving)

No section; no reading. Work toward final project


Week 13—showcasing student projects

 LAST CLASS Monday December 2. last day of class in Science Center 418D: showcase of final projects.

Wednesday Dec 4 --reading period--no class

No section; no reading this week.

 DUE on Wednesday December 11, midnight: final project and reflection paper

Course Summary:

Date Details Due