Computers & Texts No. 16/17
Table of Contents
Winter 1998

Teaching with the Chadwyck-Healey Literature Databases

Neil Rhodes
School of English
University of St Andrews

In this article Neil Rhodes reports on the integration of the Chadwyck-Healey poetry and drama fulltext databases into an honours course at the University of St Andrews. How effective can students be at creating knowledge from large information databases?

The Course

St Andrews University was one of the original purchasers, at an unmentionable price, of the Chadwyck-Healey Full-Text English Poetry Database on CD-ROM, and later of the English Drama and Editions and Adaptations of Shakespeare CD-ROMs. As things turned out, we could have acquired these monstrously expensive items at a fraction of the initial cost if we had waited for the CHEST deal, but that was not foreseeable, and since we had the discs we clearly had to use them. So in 1995 Sarah Annes Brown and I devised a project which involved the use of the databases for our Honours course, Renaissance Literature: Texts and Contexts. We were fortunate in having help from our Information Services Librarian, Jean Young, who showed the students how to navigate the databases, and while there was at first a certain amount of panic-stricken technophobia, the verdict on the projects at the end of the course was remarkably positive. The principal complaint was that there were not enough copies of the discs to go round. The stunned reaction of the students on being told what the discs actually cost was very satisfying.

Although we did not wish to be too prescriptive about the form these projects should take, it was obvious that students would need guidance as to what kind to topic would best respond to the resources of the databases. So we devised four options which students could modify after consultation with their tutor. These were: (1) How did Renaissance poets view their contemporaries? Choose one writer of the period (not necessarily a poet) and discuss the way in which he is represented in poetry. You should identify the kinds of poem in which the writer is named, e.g. prefatory verses, satire, elegy; (2) Discuss the various significances of any one mythological figure in Renaissance poetry or drama. In each case you should comment on the context in which the figure appears. (Ovid's Metamorphoses would provide you with a useful starting point.); (3) Compile a short selection of poems by women writers of the period with an introduction explaining the reasons for your choice. Consider whether these poems achieve a distinctive female voice by comparing key words and themes in poems by male writers; (4) Prepare an annotated edition of a poem or group of poems on a similar subject which you consider to be of particular verbal complexity. You should write a short critical introduction to the poem(s) and elucidate the meaning of significant words or phrases by comparing similar usages in other poems of the period.

Annotating by Comparison

We have run these topics for the last three years, though with some modifications. We began by describing the 'edition', rather pretentiously, as a 'variorum edition', and while we abandoned the term on the grounds that it sounded daunting, the 'variorum' principle remained. The object here was not to edit the text itself and compile a list of variant readings, but to supplement existing commentary by finding parallel uses of striking words or phrases. An introduction would give a brief survey of critical opinion on the poems and comment on the parallels found in other contemporary writers; a short bibliography of sources would be supplied at the end. (The result, ideally, would be like a Longman Annotated poet in miniature, though I do not think we consciously had that series in mind.) Although not many students have attempted this project it has in fact produced some of the best results. In the first year there was an outstanding piece of work on 'The Phoenix and the Turtle' - outstanding partly because it was done almost entirely on the student's own initiative and without a prototype to follow. In fact, he found his own prototype in the Arden Shakespeare and produced a meticulously word-processed document with double-column notes in the lower half of the page. The lemmas appeared in bold rather than italics, which was actually an improvement on Arden 2, and at first sight the illusion of authority was remarkable. When we went on to real notes such as 'See also Joseph Beaumont, "Psyche in XXIV Canto's" (Appendix I), where he writes of the mingling of mine and thine and propertie in the sense that has been discussed here', or 'In "The Church Militant" (1640), William Vaughan refers to "Jeremiaes Threnes" instead of using the more familiar word "lamentations"' etc., we were amazed. Clearly we had been nurturing a future Dover Wilson.

To use the word 'illusion' is not to detract from the merit of the work in any way, but rather to indicate how powerfully this technology can be manipulated by an intelligent student. We knew, of course, that he was not phenomenally well-read, but the initial impression of great learning, coupled with the authoritative typographical lay-out, was for a moment overwhelming. Three years on it all seems more commonplace, and it is easier to ask to what extent the citing of a parallel usage really does enhance our understanding of a poem in any given instance. (This is a question which Longman editors have perhaps not asked themselves sufficiently often.) With experience it has become easier to advise students how to refine their word searches and how to be selective from the information they retrieve. At the same time, displaying the exemplary Phoenix to subsequent classes has provided a challenge with regard to presentation. This year an edition of Marvell's 'The Garden' appeared with text and notes visually illustrated from Ripa, Giovanni Battista Ferrari and Plot's Natural History of Oxfordshire. An edition of 'Lycidas' was so carefully prepared that the student felt entitled to place a copyright mark on the cover, a gesture which would itself have merited a tutorial on the conditions of electronic textuality.

Evaluating the Results

Other topics have produced more mixed results. The problem with the poets on poets project is the relative sparsity of the material available and the rudimentary nature of the critical vocabulary used to describe poetic achievement in the period. Marlowe, Shakespeare, Donne and Jonson have all been attempted, not surprisingly, but the best work has been on figures who are not purely literary. A project on elegies for Sir Philip Sidney discussed the Renaissance language of eulogy and ideals of versatile accomplishment. A particularly musical student discussed representations of Elizabeth in songbooks (tagged on the database), though the snag here was in penetrating the various mythological guises in which she may, or may not, have appeared. Results of the women poets project have also been uneven, with some of the commentary on the selections being a bit thin and repetitive. The best work has been the most focussed, on the figure of Eve, for example, and since the material is richer in the second half of the seventeenth century we decided to be more relaxed about the term 'Renaissance' as far as this topic was concerned. A number of the most successful offerings intelligently reworked the basic project topics to make best use of the technology. We were particularly impressed by an essay on the image of the compasses, which placed Donne's conceit in various other contexts, but then concentrated on Katherine Philips' use of the compasses as an image of female friendship. I should also note that the women poets project has become a great deal easier now that we have moved on to Literature Online, where gender is tagged. Previously we had to direct students in the first place to the relevant bibliographies.

The most popular topic has been the one on mythological figures. Where it has been done badly a large amount of undifferentiated information has been produced without regard to the significance of the representations. But this has been the exception, and most students have seen quickly how the databases lend themselves to work of this kind. The best projects, obviously enough, were those which selected a character who would produce a manageable number of hits of sufficient variety to show how a myth could be interpreted in different ways. We got some excellent work on Actaeon, Io, the Sirens and Echo, and also on different translations of Ovid, where the databases provided a facility for close verbal comparison. There was much to be said about gender here, and not merely in relation to sexuality; the essay on Echo, for example, produced an extremely interesting discussion of the female voice. Many essays on figures from myth have also dealt with the question of moral ambiguity, and it is this aspect of the projects which is most suggestive about their status as pedagogical exercises.

[English Poetry Full-Text Database]

Fig. 1. Searching and Reading Poetry in the English Poetry Full-Text Database

Transferable Skills

When we started our main worry was how we were going to evaluate and assign marks to the results. Students would turn up poems we had never read by authors we had barely heard of. (In fact, over the three years the fear of the unknown has receded, and I now have an extremely fragmentary knowledge of the works of Robert Baron, for example. Whatever the topic, you always get a hit with Baron.) In practice, however, this was not such a problem. We soon realised that most of the time what we were doing was assessing how effectively students were turning raw information into knowledge; how intelligent they had been in selecting from the seventy hits on Actaeon those which would answer their purposes, and binning the rest. To do this successfully they had to know something about Renaissance literature and culture, which we hoped we were teaching them elsewhere on the course, but they were also learning what ought to become the most vital of transferable skills. Kathryn Sutherland has recently observed that 'there is the threatening possibility that in its display of instantly accessible and multiply manipulable data, the computer screen will deliver information from the constraints of understanding' (Electronic Text, 1997, p.10). Exercises of this kind should enable students to meet that threat. At the same time, and this brings me back to the question of moral ambiguity, the projects bear some intriguing resemblances to Renaissance pedagogy itself. The computer has a memory, and memory was the fourth part of rhetoric, abandoned by Ramus (the first surfer, according to Marshall McLuhan) when he transferred the first two parts, invention and arrangement, from rhetoric to logic. The databases, like the well-trained memories of old, or the printed thesauruses which came to replace them with the advent of the Gutenberg technology, are huge storehouses of topics and commonplaces. Selecting the relevant material and setting it out in a logical and persuasive manner was precisely the business of the original first two parts of rhetoric. In Renaissance education this kind of training was frequently linked to the specific exercise of arguing on both sides of the question. You found arguments and examples which both supported and contradicted a given point of view (was Agamemnon right or wrong to sacrifice Iphigenia?), an exercise which led virtually to the programming of a sense of moral ambiguity in much Renaissance literature. This is something that students may discover when they retrieve a large volume of differing or even contradictory representations of a topic or figure from these electronic thesauri. More importantly, they may also be rediscovering some ancient skills in coping with copia.

Future Prospects

What we have done so far at St Andrews with the Chadwyck-Healey databases is, nonetheless, relatively limited. We have done little with dramatic texts, for example. Sarah Brown is now at Newnham College, Cambridge, on a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship, but we have been joined by Andrew Murphy, who has particular interests in the Shakespearean text. So we expect shortly to offer projects which will enable students to come to terms with the instability of the Shakespearean text and to address some of the theoretical issues raised by new concepts of textuality, including that of the electronic text itself.

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 16/17 (1998). Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

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