Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Influences of Lydia Folger Fowler

This year, my holiday preparations include not only frantic knitting but also frenzied preparation of a paper that must be sent out on January 5.  There is nothing special about this situation, as some sort of writing to some sort of deadline is part of the academic professional’s condition.  It bears mention here because it takes me back to where I left off writing about Eliza Baylies Wheaton’s travel journal in (cringe) September.

The paper focuses on the business interests of Laban Morey Wheaton and David Emory Holman, and it includes some discussion about Lydia Folger Fowler, her travels in Europe between 1860 and 1862, and her influence on the journeys of the Wheatons and Holman in England and Europe.  My ideas about that influence have been percolating since late summer, and now that I have time to turn attention to some additional background research about Fowler’s travels in Europe, I am convinced that her influence offers a solution to a longstanding question in the interpretation of Eliza B. Wheaton’s herbaria.

My colleague and frequent co-author Wheaton College Archivist Zephorene L. Stickney (Zeph) is the real expert on the Wheatons and their papers.  Ever since we began working together on what has become the Wheaton College Digital History Project, she has emphasized the significance of the herbaria for our being able to develop a full understanding of the European trip.  The travel journal itself is quite short.  Eliza B. Wheaton described the time she spent in London through the first few weeks that she, her husband, and Holman spent in their rooms on Sloane Street, but her entries stopped at the end of May and did not begin again until July, when the travelers crossed the Channel to France. As I noted here on April 17, Eliza B. Wheaton wrote the travel journal retrospectively. Both Eliza and Laban Morey Wheaton made notes of their activities on various days, probably as an aid to memory for future entries in the journal. The gaps represent moments for which either the couple could not remember what they had done or Eliza Wheaton lacked time to go back to fill in descriptions of the experiences.  In fact, we might conclude that the wealth of ephemera that Zeph and I have relied on for parsing the travelers’ European itinerary represents an unfulfilled intention on Wheaton’s part to complete those descriptions after the trip had ended.

The ephemera is only one part of the Wheaton Family Papers collection that Zeph knew could help us describe the itinerary. Eliza B. Wheaton also compiled herbaria as a record of her journey. An avid gardener, she picked flowers and took clippings from trees at many sites, including the thorn tree in Glastonbury that vandals damaged last week. The herbaria introduced some confusion, however, because some of the evidence it included contradicted more reliable evidence from the ephemera. The herbaria contain clippings from Rome and Florence, but hotel receipts preserved in the collection provide evidence that the group traveled directly from Lyons to Geneva from there up the Rhine to Brussels. They did not go to Italy.

But Lydia Fowler did. And one of my tasks this week is to look through the Phrenological Journal for reports that might indicate she could have collected the specimens that appear in Eliza B. Wheaton’s herbaria and shared them with her friend when the activities of Garibaldi and his army prevented her visiting the sites herself. The game is afoot!


Eliza Baylies Wheaton, Travel Journal, Herbaria, and Ephemera, Wheaton Family Collection (MC089), Marion B. Gebbie Archives & Special Collections, Madeleine Clark Wallace Library, Wheaton College, Norton, MA.


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“What Can You Do with That?”: One Argument for Undergraduate Digital Humanities

As a faculty member in a humanities discipline at a small liberal arts college, I often find myself having the “what can you do with that?” conversation with students.  Now that the fall semester has ended and students are heading back home for the winter break and holidays, many of them are likely to have that conversation with parents, grandparents, friends, parents of friends, and maybe even strangers they meet in transit.  So this post is partly for them and partly for larger discussions about the humanities in general and digital humanities in particular.

Students have been subjected to the “what can you do with that?” conversation since at least the expansion of higher education in the late twentieth century, and classic responses abound.  My favorite goes like this:  All employers want well-educated employees. That means everyone who expects to have a job needs to be able to write coherently, do research, meet deadlines, and solve problems in discrete contexts.  Students who major in humanities disciplines learn these skills and thus are prepared to do well in whatever occupation they choose.  This response applies not only to the humanities but also to liberal arts education in general. One of my favorite moments teaching First-Year Seminar at my institution involved watching a student begin to understand that higher education is less about going to school for the sake of going to school than it is about taking a few years to learn skills that can be applied in many different contexts.  Some of my colleagues in the humanities and in liberal arts education might find such an instrumentalist definition troubling. But I have reluctantly made my peace with an economic climate in which I must try to justify getting paid for doing work that I love by explaining to people in policy positions that learning in the humanities does indeed have practical value. And I’m okay with that.

I first encountered the “what can you do with that?” conversation as an undergraduate myself, and purely by accident I learned that my university offered an opportunity to learn some possible responses. In the early 1980s, Rice had an internship program that placed students majoring in the arts and humanities in corporations. These internships added to the notion that liberal arts or humanities education has marketable value both the principle that skills specific to arts and humanities disciplines have additional value and the information that jobs based on that value do exist in the corporate world.  I didn’t do one of these internships myself, but I knew someone who did.  The student was an acquaintance a year or two ahead of me, so I don’t remember her name. She made a big impression on me though, and I can still see her face. Active in campus theatre, she might have majored in Theatre or English or Art History–I don’t recall. She played the Leading Player–Ben Vereen’s role on Broadway–in “Pippin” and Desiree Armfeldt–Elizabeth Taylor’s role in film–in “A Little Night Music.” And she did a summer internship working with the curator of an art collection owned by a Houston corporation. Who knew that corporations had collections and employed curators? For members of the What Color is Your Parachute? generation, this program helped expand students’ ideas about what kinds of jobs existed in the world. It helped us learn there were possibilities beyond doctor, lawyer, teacher, engineer.

Noticing that corporations hire curators to manage their collections might also remind us that arts and humanities and the ability to talk about them in interesting ways have an important place in a fully realized world. Most professionals are consumers of art, theatre, literature, history, music, and even philosophy. Such pleasures might seem elite and the audiences for them small, but the post-WWII project of expanding higher education has also increased the potential audiences for all of these. And these audiences will probably continue to grow. Now, Frank Donoghue noted a few months ago in the Chronicle Review that the consumption model does not make an argument for jobs like his and mine–historians and literary critics in colleges and universities. A faculty member at the Ohio State University, Donoghue focused on the corporatization of research universities and the changing place of humanities disciplines in curricula over time. He predicted that the humanities would survive outside the university, in the marketplace.  The prediction bears an unpleasant similarity to the one from Edward Bellamy that I wrote about in my previous post, and I can’t get the image of Linus Roche playing the economically struggling Samuel Taylor Coleridge to John Hannah’s successful William Wordsworth in “Pandaemonium” out of my head.  If geniuses are not always rewarded during their lifetimes, the outlook is pretty grim for ordinary historians like me.

I think digital humanities offers an alternative to Donoghue’s vision. A field that has a venerable past as well as an expansive “big tent” future, digital humanities can also help us imagine a curriculum in which arts and humanities education can prepare students in liberal arts colleges for digital workplaces. When I talk to students about the digital history projects I ask them to complete in my courses, I explain to them that working on these projects will help them both “do history”–perform historical work that adds to our collective knowledge of the past–and sample skills that give them an idea of what’s “under the hood” on the web. They will learn a little bit about pointy brackets and the code we use to tell computers what to do, and that just might spark enough confidence or curiosity in liberal arts students to do a bit of exploring in programming or web design. Some of them might find ways to parlay experience with using digital tools into skills with writing simple programs. At the very least, they might learn how to navigate a page of HTML code with something approaching ease. Even minimal comfort with the language of the web will add value to their undergraduate degree in History or English or African-American Studies. And whether they find jobs in contemporary analogs of those Houston corporations that participated in Rice humanities internships in the 1980s or engage in the kind of entrepreneurship featured in today’s New York Times article about NYU graduate Scott Gerber’s Young Entrepreneur Council, students who have been educated in digital humanities will leave their liberal arts colleges with real value added. They might even be able to explain that value to their grandparents.


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Book Prices

Thanks to a Facebook post from Julian Chambliss, I’ve just read Onnesha Roychoudhuri’s piece about Amazon in the Boston Review.  It certainly shows the effect of unrestrained capitalist profit seeking on the book trade over the past sixteen years.  But more interesting for me at just this moment is the information about book pricing since the Kindle.

This question reminds me of the fate of artists and writers in Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward (1888).  In this time travel novel, Bellamy’s protagonist Bostonian Julian West wakes from a 113-year sleep induced by animal magnetism to find himself in the year 2000.  His host Dr. Leete introduces him to a world in which the class wars of the late nineteenth century have been solved peacefully through a transition in which all industries have been nationalized. After their education is complete at age twenty-one, all citizens perform a fixed term of twenty-four years’ service in the industrial army.  Both trade and money have been replaced with a system of direct distribution in which people pay for goods using a credit card backed by an account in which each citizen is credited at the beginning of each year with their share of the annual product of the nation (Chapter 9).

Bellamy described book publishing and the making of art in his utopia as the place in which a market similar to the world of capitalist competition continued to operate.  Authors, for example, had to furnish the funds for publication out of their own credit. “He must pay for the privilege of the public ear,” Bellamy wrote, “and if he has any message worth hearing we consider that he will be glad to do it…. The cost of an edition of an average book can be saved out of a year’s credit by the practice of economy and some sacrifices. The book, on being published, is placed on sale by the nation.”  In Bellamy’s imagined future authors set their own royalties, which were added to the cost of publication to yield the price of the book.  If the book was popular and sold enough copies to support the author, then the author would be excused from service in the industrial army for as long as the credit lasted.  A similar process in which subscriptions substituted for the price of individual copies of books provided for the publication of newspapers and magazines (Chapter 15).

What might Bellamy’s vision of an ideal post-nineteenth-century world have to tell us about our own world?  The effects of digital access on the publication of periodicals in the form of the crisis in newspaper publishing might lead us to think that Bellamy has little to say to us.  Yet the model of sites like TruthOut and Reader Supported News, which rely on reader donations, might bely that assessment.  Onnesha Roychoudhuri describes a cultural marketplace in which the author has little to say about the price of the text and popularity is affected by algorithmic and business choices made by a middleman in the form of Amazon.  Perhaps new forms of digital publication that cut out both publishers and booksellers as avatars of the past can produce a new model. Bellamy reminds us that authors will still need to eat.

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