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Early American Print Culture in a Digital Age:
In the spring of 2001 I taught an upper-division course in early American literature in which I addressed issues of print culture and the public sphere as explained in Michael Warner's (1990) Letters of the Republic. I chose this theme because of its significance in current scholarly discussions and because of the loose but interesting analogy that it offers to our digital culture. At Emory University, where the course took place, I continually witnessed students' excitement over technological developments that gave them access to limitless information and allowed them to present opinions on myriad topics. By altering traditional course materials, including my writing assignments and use of technology, I hoped to harness this excitement to show my students shifting patterns of print culture and the public sphere in early America.
To accomplish this goal, I used LearnLink, Emory's intranet system (and a FirstClass product). LearnLink, which serves as students' default
e-mail server, allows an instructor to conduct a class "conference," an on-line forum that can be divided into separate "folders" for course materials (syllabus, handouts, etc.), student questions or ideas, and asynchronous discussion threads. Moreover, LearnLink allows professors to establish access restrictions in these course folders, a feature that became important as the semester went on. (On-line pedagogical programs, such as Blackboard and WebCT, can be used in much the same way.)
With LearnLink in place, I began the course by dividing the semester into three equal sections, each devoted to one of the three central stages of print culture and the public sphere that Warner (1990) discusses:
For the traditional stage, I followed the traditional classroom hierarchy and used traditional classroom procedures. The written assignment was a five-
to seven-page paper comparing the works of any two of the writers John Winthrop, Mary Rowlandson, and Cotton Mather. The students also wrote two-page weekly response papers in which they answered questions that I posted to LearnLink about the texts under discussion. For the first segment, then, my position was one of authority. I directed the assignments by giving specific ideas to investigate in papers and during discussions, and the students printed and submitted the formal paper and the response papers directly to me. Moreover, I restricted posting access on LearnLink to the
student-question folder in our class conference, thus retaining control of our on-line course conference.
As we moved into the civic republican stage, I wanted to parallel the changes that had taken place in print culture. Most obviously, I relaxed my exclusive control and expanded the "public sphere" of the class by giving the students a more active voice in our course activities. This shift was analogous to the changes in print and the public sphere that we witnessed in our course readings: Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, and the Declaration of Independence. The central assignment was a group presentation on any of these texts, and each group member selected a different critical approach, such as contemporary scholarship, contextual introduction...