Monthly Archives

December 2015

Graduate English, Master's Essay, Student Research

The Construction of Utopia: More, Columbus, and Ever Since

CClog680My research for this capstone project began in one serendipitous moment: an oversized book in the library stacks caught hold of my elbow as I walked by. The protruding offender was The Log of Christopher Columbus (1492-93), a text that documents Columbus’s first voyage to the New World. Columbus carefully recorded in the ship’s log, among other things, detailed observations of the geographical formations and spectacular social interactions with the Arawak (Taino) Indians he encountered in the Caribbean islands in 1492. Intrigued, I sat on the floor and read it cover to cover and placed it back on the shelf.  It wasn’t until the following semester in Dr. MacKenzie’s Renaissance class that I noticed echoes of the ship’s log in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516).

More, who coined the word utopia from the Greek “ou” (“not) and “topos” (“place”), created within the human imagination a place or state of things in which everything is perfect and yet, because it is perfect, ultimately unattainable. Utopia, meaning nowhere, stands contrary to Columbus’s somewhere; and yet, placed side-by-side the two texts show uncanny similarities on many levels.

Generally, the two texts align in style, form, content, and function. However, even certain puzzling ambiguities in Utopia, ones that have been swirling around in critical circles for the last 500 years—the abundance of glass; cloaks and bird feathers; incubation of poultry; two doors to each house; and so on—can be linked to the writings of Columbus. This perspective suggests that Columbus’s ship’s log acts as the impetus for More’s masterpiece. In short, I explore More’s Utopia as a text through which history becomes recognizable.

britishlibrarysign320In January 2015, I was lucky to be in London where a first edition of Utopia, published in 1516, is located. But first, in order to see the rare copy at the British Library, I had to jump through a few administrative hoops: apply in advance for a Reader Pass; provide a special letter of intent from our Graduate Program Director; reserve a Reading Room; reserve the text for a specific day and time. The whole process was fascinating and worth it! I sat at the designated Rare Book table (under the watchful eyes of a librarian) staring at Utopia—literally staring, since the original was written in Latin. Nevertheless, it made me wonder about the life of the text and more urgently, perhaps, how we understand the term utopia today.

In my research, as the spirit of More’s Utopia emerges from Columbus’s descriptions in 1492, utopia (the concept) proves trickier to trace. The utopian concept develops through five centuries of utopian/dystopian literature, art, ideologies, and so on, arriving in its current role as something of a touchstone we refer to when we describe the perfect setting, people, or society we know can never be, paradoxically filling both a hopeful and melancholy space in our lives. It represents conditions and ideas that may complicate our natural way of thinking, frustrating our views of current society and governance.

In the English lexicon, utopia (the concept) shifts easily into a socio-political safe haven protected by virtue of its non-existence.  For if we believe the concept always to be impracticable and unattainable (brought only to our attention through More’s imagination) then what viable thought spaces allow for us to radically confront our present social structures, governing methods, and ideologies? In other words, what matrices allow for imaging a possible alternative existence if the very paradigm itself is inherently self-defeating? Somewhere along its history, utopia (the concept) possesses the ability to constrain, or even shackle, our boundary-less imaginations and, more importantly, our propensity to act on them.

What emerges from my interrogation is a distorted understanding of a concept that began as a reproduction of the real. To clarify this interpretation, I implement Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacra to illuminate an evolution of the concept of utopia that has seemingly detached itself from history. Perhaps “perfection,” I argue in my essay, in the utopian sense today should be simply eliciting the latent realization of illimitable possibilities. 


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After graduation, Lindy Hensley is relocating to Denver, Colorado where she plans to pursue teaching opportunities. Beyond academia, her continued interests revolve around theater production.

 

 

Faculty Research, Faculty Teaching

Entering the World of Digital Humanities

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The Parliament Buildings at night (Victoria, BC)

The problem was, they didn’t offer “Digital Humanities for Dummies.”  I’m not a technology-savvy person.  Okay, let’s face it, sometimes my toaster is too complicated for me (revelation:  it won’t toast unless you actually plug it in). So why did I sign up to join three digital-sophisticated colleagues—professors Alexis Easley, Emily James, and Sal Pane—to travel to Victoria, British Columbia, to attend the annual Digital Humanties Summer Institute (DHSI)? I had discovered in my graduate classes that students were tackling compelling computer-assisted projects, having mastered some of the DH platforms and tools in their other classes.  I wanted to learn more about this brave new world and had two wonderful opportunities to do so during this past summer, 2015:  the first at DHSI in Victoria and the second in a Faculty Development Summer Seminar here at UST.

What is Digital Humanities?  It appears to be one of those fields where, if you lay all the specialists end-to-end, they won’t reach an agreement.  But the definition provided by Dr. Annie Swafford (SUNY New Paltz, one of the leaders of the on-campus DH seminar) is helpful.  DigitalHumHeader-Blog640She writes, “The field of Digital Humanities is an umbrella term for a wide range of activities that study the human record with computers and digital tools.  The goals are to (1) ask new questions; (2) answer traditional questions in new ways, e.g. ‘using quantification to prompt interpretation’; (3) share data/resources with the larger academic community and citizen scholars; (4) build new tools to ask/answer questions; and (5) augment/challenge print culture (i.e. challenge students to rethink in ways they might not otherwise when completing more traditional assignments).”  Side note:  coming to us from New York, Annie asked for a tour of the Twin Cities.  I took her to visit Minnehaha Falls (pretty, but dinky—I’m from Niagara Falls), the Guthrie Theater, the Walker sculpture garden (must-see “Spoonbridge and Cherry”), and ended with dinner at Nye’s Polonaise.  Annie’s ability to appreciate naugahyde booths and polka music (or at least her ability to appear to appreciate these things) was endearing.

agas_fragment640Back on topic:  DHSI ran from 8-12 June 2015 and, as I started to say, did not precisely offer an entry-level course.  Most of those gathered for the workshops were already adept in the field; I, the neophyte, joined the popular course, “Digital Pedagogy Integration in the Curriculum” taught by Diane Jakacki and Mary Galvin.  Since everyone (besides me) had fairly extensive experience using digital platforms and tools, instructors and guest lecturers coming to visit (in person or by Skype) focused on how to orchestrate DH assignments into a coherent project or full course structure.  For instance, we heard about Janelle Jenstad’s work on the Map of Early Modern London project (see sample above).  This is a collaboration between UVic students and students at other universities to create an interactive map of London circa 1561.  Janelle said that the most exciting thing about the project is that “students will make original contributions to the research” and that “faculty learn from students as students are learning from faculty.”  Along with hearing about this valuable online project, we explored Diane’s work with students to digitize and annotate Civil War archives at Bucknell University, and Mary’s efforts to use digital tools to improve the everyday lives of Alzheimer patients.

Butchart Gardens at Night

Butchart Gardens at Night

After the day-long workshops ended, I spent a couple evenings renting a bike and heading along the “Galloping Goose” trail into the spruce, fir, and cedar forests of Victoria.  Sampling the wonderful restaurants and tourist-spot shopping (where my tasteful selections for friends and family included moose boxer shorts, moose t-shirts, moose earrings, moose…well, you get the idea) was also fun.  Butchart Gardens, which I had to see before leaving town, fully lived up to its reputation as one of the best public floral gardens in North America.

Still, despite the manifest delights of the course and the area, as an unknowing newbie, I found myself longing for instruction in some of the basics.

And that’s where the next seminar, “Fostering the Digital Humanities at St. Thomas” (22-25 June 2015) came in handy.  Guest instructors Annie Swafford and Chris Wells (Macalester College) led hands-on sessions for beginners in Digital Humanities.  Chris addressed the question, “how can adding computers to the mix create new opportunities?”  He demonstrated the ways in which computers, in their ability to process huge amounts of data, open up new analytic possibilities:  they allow us to find patterns and relationships that are otherwise difficult to see.  Together, Chris and Annie introduced UST faculty to data visualization tools like Voyant and Google Ngrams; archival platforms like Omeka; GIS (Geographic Information System) and mapping tools from Google Maps, Neatline, and Mapbox.  Several of these tools and additional information on Digital Humanities can be found in the St. Thomas Library Research Guide for DH (http://libguides.stthomas.edu/digital_humanities) and in the “Pedagogy Toolkit” (http://pedagogy-toolkit.org).

Putting the two workshops together was ideal:  the second offered specific guidance for starting small, with individual tools and simple course assignments, while the first offered a “big picture” view of what could be done by scaffolding larger assignments or collaborating with specialists on course/project design.  Both seminars made this relatively new field and its technology more understandable and accessible, showcasing the many good outcomes possible when computer technologies are introduced into the humanities.

Craft-Fairchild172X250Cathy Craft-Fairchild is a professor in the English Department. Although her primary specialty is 18th-century British literature, she also teaches women’s studies, literature and film, Jewish literature, and most recently, a transatlantic course that combines British and American literature. Her current research centers on the writing of Anglo-Irish novelist and educational reformer Maria Edgeworth, while earlier research focused on 18th- and 19th-century women writers more generally, with particular reference to the image and experience of masquerade.