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Professor Whitney Trettien's Cultures of the Book Course Profiled in Penn Today

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Cultures of the book

An English class taught by Whitney Trettien allows students to explore a range of texts at the Penn Libraries to learn the history of how humans have recorded and shared knowledge.

A sought-after English class, Cultures of the Book, approaches the concept of “book” broadly, covering the first written language on 5,000-year-old clay cuneiform tablets to computer coding on today’s digital electronic tablets. 

Students study books but also other forms of recording knowledge, such as Inca quipu made from knotted strings as well as scrapbooks, ephemera, and unique artist books. 

“My main goal is to try to get them to think about the history of how human cultures have recorded and shared knowledge with each other, so we don't think of the book as just the codex with a spine and leaves that you read from one point to another,” says Whitney Trettien, assistant professor of English in the School of Arts & Sciences.

“It’s a historical survey in some ways because we start with cuneiform and the invention of writing, and we end with digital technology,” Trettien says. “Along the way I try to give students a sense for how the materials that are being used to store, record, and transmit human knowledge are shaping what can be stored, recorded, and transmitted.”

Each student takes on a final research project to “adopt a book” in the Penn Libraries collection, and they publish their work in a Wikipedia-like page for the Cultures of the Book resource on created by Trettien. The public site now chronicles contributions from four classes.

The course is popular; even with the enrollment cap increased by 10 to 40, it had a waiting list of nearly that many in the spring semester. It is one of the few general education courses in the English Department, which draws students with various majors in all four undergraduate schools. Jean-Christophe Cloutier, undergraduate chair of English, says the “tremendous interest and enthusiasm” for the course is a “dream scenario that reflects the evolving importance of English and the humanities.”

Class expansion

The spring semester was the fourth time Trettien taught Cultures of the Book since joining Penn’s faculty in 2017. English Professor Peter Stallybrass created the course 25 years ago as a small seminar with enrollment capped at 20. 

Then the pandemic hit, and Trettien was teaching 30 students in one synchronous class and one asynchronous class a week because students were scattered around the globe. “I had to completely rethink the class,” Trettien says, “and I used that as an opportunity to try to think about what a global history of the book would look like.” 

Trettien says she also learned to make better use of digital resources, like scavenger hunts in online archives. She came up with the idea of “adopting” a book: analyzing it materially and sourcing its provenance. Some of those aspects have continued now that she is teaching in person again. 

“Post-pandemic the class is broader in scope. We look at a much wider array of materials from East Asia or the ancient Middle East or the Islamic Middle East and the Islamic medieval world. I always try to add a little something that I didn’t know before,” Trettien says.

The class meets at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books & Manuscripts to work with selected items from the collection, stewarded by John Pollack, curator of research services. 

Students also take field trips to other resources on campus, like the Materials Library, where they saw various types of parchment and materials to make paper, as well as inks and pigments and pens. They also visited the Penn Museum to see cuneiform tablets, the Libraries’ Common Press to operate a historic printing press, and The Soap Box, a nonprofit community print shop in West Philadelphia which has a library of handmade publications. 

“It’s great to see a great teacher bring her students along on a learning journey and open up a whole new set of worlds and questions for them, even about something that everybody thinks they know something about, the book, something seemingly so simple can be so rich and complex,” Pollack says. 

Trettien starts the course with Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The poet wrote on the backs of envelopes and on little scraps of paper that she then bound together herself with stitches. “And when she wrote a poem about an insect, she included a dried insect with it,” Trettien says. “It’s this weird, fragmented archive.” 

The poem “completely changes” once it is printed, “once it undergoes that process of being mediated differently using different technologies,” Trettien says. And so even English majors can get that sense that what they are reading is not just the text. “There’s a history of the text being made materially that undoes a lot of assumptions about what literature is.” 

Adopting a book

The “adopt-a-book” project is the final assignment and counts for half the semester grade. 

This spring, students explored the Kislak collections with the help of Trettien and Pollack and teaching assistant Cassidy Holahan, who earned her Ph.D. in May. Once each student made their final choice they conducted a “material text analysis,” Trettien says.

“I tell them, ‘don’t sit and read the book. Literally, don’t read it. But instead touch it, smell it, open it, figure out how it operates. If it’s a big book, is it hard to open up? Or is it a tiny little pocket-sized book? If it’s just a single sheet what is it made of?’ I want them to focus on the materiality of the thing,” Trettien says. 

“If it’s parchment, do you know what kind of animal skin is it? Is it a nice clean piece of parchment or is it dirty, an offcut? What kind of ink is used? Are there different colors? What are its mechanisms of navigation. Does it have page numbers, an index, a table of contents? Is there music or other forms of media in it? It’s just literally, What is this thing?” 

The final assignment is to write an essay, Wikipedia style. The students need to connect the materiality to broader histories, to place it in social and historical contexts. They need to answer questions, Trettien says, such as, “who read this thing? How did it circulate? Who collected it? Why and how did this thing get saved? How did it end up at Penn?”

During the last two weeks of class the participates hold a mini conference to share their findings. They then learned how to copyright images and encode their text for their research project before publishing to the website.

After four years the published projects have resulted in a “nice archive of dozens of things that I had never seen before in Kislak that are really interesting,” Trettien says, noting that no student has chosen the same text. 

This year’s projects included “The Black Panther Ministry of Information,” a Tunnel book depicting a promenade on the Champs-Élysées, “The Experienced English Housekeeper,” “The American Flag: Reconstructed,” Balthazar Solvyns’ “Etchings of Colonial India,” and “The Handmade Papers of Japan.”

Colin Ly, a rising fourth-year neuroscience major in the College of Arts and Sciences from Sewell, New Jersey, adopted a two-volume song collection of musical manuscripts, mostly for piano and voice, dated from 1820 to 1860. A musician who plays the saxophone and clarinet and is band director of the Penn Glee Club, Ly was interested in music-related texts in his research during the class.

Ly says he was surprised to discover that several manuscripts from different eras were rebound together with new covers. “It’s been interesting watching the purpose of the book change from usage, because they had markings for actual music performance, to a preserved anthology,” Ly says. “That was the most exciting for me.”

Zoë Affron, a May graduate from Philadelphia who majored in English and environmental studies in the College, adopted a 1903 edition of what is considered the first popular field guide to flowers in America, “How to Know the Wild Flowers”

Affron is planning a career in publishing and is currently an intern at Spiegel & Grau in New York City. She says she is pleased to have her work included in the resource. “It is a very different kind of writing experience than writing a term paper for a class that you turn in to the professor, knowing that it’s open access and that it might be used as a resource for others,” Affron says. “I’m also excited for my work to be put in conversation with work on subjects so different from mine.”

Sharing the humanities

When Trettien came to Penn she considered herself “an early modernist who does book history and digital humanities,” but now she says she sees herself more as “a book historian” because the process of developing this course taught her so much about the archives of other periods. 

“This class is such a great way of showing students the depth of the humanities scholarship that goes on here, how serious it is, how advanced and exciting it is,” Trettien says. “We have great collections. I always try to talk to them about how we are the stewards of all this amazing stuff. And it’s their original research that helps make these materials newly relevant today.”