The 18th-Century Common
April 9th, 2013
By Carrie Stokes (’12)
When Associate Professor of English Jessica Richard convened a Humanities Institute Interdisciplinary Faculty Seminar on “Science and the Arts in the Eighteenth Century” for the academic year 2009-2010 with other eighteenth century scholars around campus, she never imagined her work would develop into The 18th-Century Common, a public humanities website Richard developed in collaboration with Andrew Burkett, Assistant Professor of English at Union College. The website offers content written by scholars in accessible, non-specialized language for an audience of non-academic readers and provides a space for these groups to connect on a digital platform, a virtual “common.” Such open access for free and public use bridges the gap between the academy and a general audience.
In its second year of meeting, the seminar expanded its study of the intersection of science and the arts in the eighteenth century by examining Richard Holmes’ New York Times bestseller The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Intrigued by the popular appeal of Holmes’ book, the faculty group began developing the concept of a public humanities project that would provide a medium for eighteenth-century scholars to communicate directly with a popular audience.
With the support of a Humanities Institute Ventures in Humanities Research seed grant, Richard and her fellow seminar participants were able to spend the academic year 2011-2012 pursuing this digital initiative. Additionally, undergraduate students at Union College working with Burkett developed an early prototype of the site that was revamped and redesigned in fall 2012 when Richard began working with Damian Blankenship, a Collaborative Tech Associate in the Information Systems Department and May 2012 graduate of Wake Forest.
Richard, a self-proclaimed “moderately tech-savvy English professor,” describes the process of working with Blankenship as a “fascinating and exciting” collaboration. “We [Richard and Burkett] could not get our heads around the problem of how to organize this information,” she said, “all I could think of were traditional publishing models like issues of journals or blogs.” Richard said that Blankenship brought a “total understanding of how to maximize the digital architecture” of the website. Blankenship created an organizational structure that will sustain the site as it grows over time and allows readers to access the material from multiple entry points. “I wanted to make use of WordPress’ posting system to make posting easy, but furthermore, I wanted content on the site to be dynamic,” he explains.
The updated visual design of the site, http://18thcenturycommon.org, immediately captures the user’s attention with a look consistent with the time period. Thomas Gainsborough’s painting, “Wooded Landscape with a Cottage and Shepherd” as background inspires the feel of a “common.” Blankenship aimed at making the category pages read like a two-column magazine. He found that, “big titles and big pictures make it very easy to find what you’re looking for (or maybe what you aren’t!).”
The layout features three feeds of content: Collections, offering short, digestible descriptions of peer-reviewed work by eighteenth century scholars in topical categories such as “The Age of Wonder”; the Blog which includes some scholarly, peer-reviewed material as well as informal commentary on current topics in popular culture as it relates to the eighteenth century; and the Gazette which connects readers to other internet resources beyond the site. A comprehensive Resources section lists additional online resources for further reading and exploration. Additionally, Blankenship implemented a number of features on actual posts themselves. “When the user reads an article, the site automatically displays related articles that may be of interest, he describes, “it does this by analyzing keywords and tags.”
The project is Richard’s first foray in the digital humanities. Building a website and using a digital platform for a public humanities project is not technologically innovative. However, by establishing the “common” in the digital realm, Richard and her 18th-Century Common team are providing new spaces for connection and communication in the increasingly digital world. They are also demonstrating the public interest in the humanities that is too often overlooked. Surprisingly, there are few existing models for this type of project; most online communities are geared to an exclusively academic conversation or generate material for students. As Richard notes, the site’s mission to provide an educated, non-academic readership with concise posts in accessible language is being well received by its intended audience.
In so doing, Richard and her team may have created just the model that an educated public needs, one that strikes a delicate and productive balance by providing open access to scholarly work. Most NPR-listening, eighteenth century studies enthusiasts in the public prefer not to download a thirty page article from JSTOR, but they are eager to read a digest on a particular topic, such as pet-keeping in the eighteenth century, before jumping to another post on Maori tattoos or connecting to a Huffington Post commentary on the death penalty. The architecture of The 18th-Century Common provides this unique but necessary platform for public humanities.
Richard looks forward to seeing more interest among her colleagues in submitting material to the site and invites scholars interested in connecting with a broad and enthusiastic audience to contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow or tweet The 18th-Century Common on Twitter (@18Common) as well as “like” the project on Facebook. Additionally, each entry in The 18th-Century Common has a comment thread for readers to respond to posts and to each other.