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Appendix B: Sample Teaching Assignment

Jane Austen's Contemporaries Assignment

(due for recitation Friday, March 25th))

For this assignment (due March 25th in class to your section leader) you have a choice of which Austen novel you'd like to make your focus. The assignment will take you somewhere between five and eight hours to complete. Our aim is provide you with the opportunity of gauging the place of one of Austen's novels among its competition -- i.e., among those novels that were published in the same year -- and of understanding just what that competition was. We advise you to choose the Austen novel you'll be treating in your longer essay, rather than the one you adapted for your screenplay.

The novel changed a lot between 1811 and 1818, and different years saw different major works published. For example, the year 1814 saw the publication of Mansfield Park; but it also saw the publication of Walter Scott's groundbreaking novel Waverley, Mary Brunton's Discipline, Maria Edgeworth's Patronage, Sydney Owenson's O'Donnell, and Fanny Burney's The Wanderer. The years 1816 and 1818 were equally strange and important in the novels they saw published, from Scott's Antiquary (1816) and Tales o f My Landlord (1816) to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818).

For this assignment, then, we would like you to do the following:

  • 1. Form a group with either one or two students from your section; groups of either 2 or 3 students are fine. As this assignment will likely help you with your final essay, you should probably choose people for your group who are writing their final essays on the same Austen novel as you are. (Note that you should write your final essay on a different novel than the one on which you did your Screenplay). Your group may either hand in one assignment with all your names on it or separate assignments.

  • 2. Go to the Reference section on the 1st floor of Van Pelt Library. You need to examine volume II of Peter Garside's The English Novel, 1770-1829. The book is a bibliography of all English fiction known to be published during these years. It goes year by year, and so it will be easy for you to look through the offerings of a given year. (You can find another copy on the sixth floor of Van Pelt Library in the Rare Book Reading Room. Just get buzzed in through the glass doors and ask for it. In a pinch, I also own a copy you can photocopy).

  • 3. Look through the different kinds of titles for fictional works in 1811, 1813, 1814, 1816, or 1818 (remember: pick one year only). See if you can begin to make sense of the array of possible kinds of book titles out there. Can you organize them into types or categories. What do the full titles tell you about the works? See what you can infer from the other information provided. For example, are there some booksellers who publish a lot of fiction? Who seems to be the most prestigious publisher? Who the least? Given that the average wages of a skilled (white collar) laborer in these years were between 15 and 20 shillings per week, how much do these books cost in relative terms? Which publishers sell expensive books and which inexpensive? (Don't limit yourself to these questions; instead, explore what interests you most).

  • 4. Once you've looked through that year's fiction, see which books are held by Penn and have a look at the 5-6 books that interest you the most.

      (Note: Here's how to do a search on Franklin for all the books held in the Early Fiction Collection in a given year. First, go to the Franklin "Advanced Search" page. In the first search field put the following phrase: "Collection of British and American Fiction, 1660-1830." Make sure you have chosen this first search term "as a phrase" and that your search field is "General Keyword." For the second search field, enter "1814" [or whatever year you wish] as your "Publication Date." You should bring up a fair number of books: 26 for 1814, 25 for 1816, and 23 for 1818. Limit yourself to first editions [i.e., new fiction]. Here, the Garside bibliography will help you figure out what is the new fiction and what is a reprint. That way, you'll have a sense of what novels are newly fashionable and which older books are still in demand.)

  • 5. Next, go to the Rare Book Reading Room on the Sixth floor of Van Pelt Library (open 9:00 to 4:45 Monday through Friday, and 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm on Saturdays). Say that you're in Professor Gamer's Jane Austen class and that you're here for the Rare Book Assignment. After you've been buzzed in through the glass doors and signed in, you'll need to fill out call slips for the books you want. The Rare Books staff will have pulled all of the pertinent volumes and have them on carts. Please note that you may not take books out of the reading room; you must read them there. Once the books arrive, have a good look through them. For example, read the prefatory material, look at the frontispieces and illustrations, and read some chapters. Compare these books to the first editions of Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma, or Persuasion. (Sadly, we don't have the first edition of Pride and Prejudice, but you can make do by having a look at the first editions of Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park and using your Broadview edition to imagine the rest). What can we learn from such a comparison between Austen's fiction and other new works published in the same months? What can we learn, as well, from the books (as actual physical objects) themselves? Are the novels printed differently or presented in a manner other than what you expected? Which, for example, are anonymous? Do books that call themselves "historical novels" begin differently from those that have subtitles like "taken from facts" or "a romance"? Based on your examination, what kind of novel is Austen writing? Look hard at the subtitles of other books; where does Austen's fit into the market? Where does her novel appear to stand in the hierarchy of prestige and taste? Do Austen's novels appear to have pretensions to elegance or status? How about her choice of title, or the price of the book? (Again, follow your own interests here; but do talk to Dan Traister, John Pollack, or any of the other Rare Books librarians if they are not too busy. They'll be able to tell you much about what you're examining).

  • 6. Finally, write an exploratory essay (no more than five pages) in which you quickly summarize for your reader what you did and present your findings. In particular, spend considerable time on what you can (and cannot) infer from the analysis you did in steps #1-#4 detailed above. Tell us what you've figured out and point to evidence that has been instrumental. Also, tell us what you cannot figure out and why! (Put another way, what we're interested in having you do is think as hard as you can about what you can know (or at least suspect) from the information you've gathered -- even from a simple list of titles and a rudimentary examination of a few books.)

    Put a final, other way: what do you now know now that you didn't know -- either about Austen or the novel -- when you began the assignment?