Teaching the Eighteenth Century Now: an Interview with the Editors

In Teaching the Eighteenth Century Now: Pedagogy as Ethical Engagement, teacher-scholars of “the long eighteenth century,” a Eurocentric time frame from about 1680 to 1832, consider what teaching means in this historical moment: one of attacks on education, a global contagion, and a reckoning with centuries of trauma experienced by Black, Indigenous, and immigrant peoples. Throughout, contributors reflect on what they do when they teach— how pedagogies can be more meaningful, more impactful, and more relevant.

Here, volume editors Kate Parker and Miriam Wallace talk with us about their motivations for creating this collection now and their hopes for its use.

BUP: In your introduction, you mentioned the impending “demographic cliff.” Do you believe that the methodologies discussed in this collection’s essays will maintain eighteenth century studies despite the looming reduction in student population?

Miriam: I think that whatever we mean by “eighteenth-century studies” continues to change and adapt. We’ve long since moved from the “genre and period” overview as the best way to organize the study of literature for majors and non-majors alike. But I’m always heartened by the stories students and teachers tell about how we found ourselves becoming “eighteenth-century- ists”— often it’s unexpected— we “fall” into it, like falling in love, because of a charismatic teacher, a wonderfully weird text, or a particular iconic figure or attention-grabbing event. One of the things I found inspiring here was how many people are finding ways to include works and writers and material culture from the period in courses where students didn’t sign up expecting “the eighteenth century.”

Kate: Miriam said this really well. The only thing I would add is that the demographic cliff brings with it staffing concerns, especially if the result is a lower enrollment rate at a given institution, and this disproportionately affects the humanities, not just because majors are at a historic low but also because, even in the most robust years of college, English majors only made up a fraction of the overall university population of students. With fewer students and less resources, there are fewer chances to teach specialized courses, and certainly fewer hires (which can mean more generalized positions). Finding the undercurrents, the gaps, the spaces for dialogue, opening up the field by integrating it into broader surveys and general education— this, in my mind, is the survival story.

Miriam: And we really hope these essays also point a way to not just surviving, but thriving within these new parameters— maybe this could be a renaissance of interest in the world that subtends so many of our most difficult questions right now about speech, power, what’s in and missing from the archives, and why we still live with the legacies of the 1700s.

BUP: Why did you decide to put this collection together? How do you hope it will be used by others?

Miriam: I give Kate complete credit for the idea: we were talking about how much we liked reading other people’s writing about teaching, and how we longed for something more detailed about the ways that teaching forces us to think hard about what we are doing, about the material we are working through with students, and that took the work of pedagogy seriously as a form of knowledge-making. We wanted something more extended than exchanges on social media about what we teach and how we approach it, and we wanted to hear more from people at all kinds of institutions who were grappling with teaching in what felt like a particularly pressurized moment.

Kate: I think we were also really thinking about teaching a lot during the pandemic— and we were having to really think outside the box. I remember being much, much more conscious about what other people were doing in their classes and spending more time scouring journals, blogs, etc. to find inspiration for classes in what was a pretty bleak time in my teaching career. I found a lot of rich resources, but I wanted to hear more about how people were teaching. That’s why we decided to emphasize “now,” even though we were advised that it could date the book; it’s because we wanted to emphasize the urgency that both of us, I think, felt in looking for new ways to approach our classrooms in this bizarre new world.

BUP: Do you have any concerns about tethering the teaching of the eighteenth century to its applicability to the present? Why or why not?

Miriam: It felt as though we needed some space to think about the moment in which this teaching was taking place, and particularly to acknowledge that our students are situated in the present. The old question of “relevance” from the 1960s still crops up, and even more so in a time of attacks on public education, on DEI, on liberal arts and the study of the humanities more broadly. It feels important to resist what feels like a backlash to the idea of general access to higher education— one that has its roots curiously in the ways that access to books and education was also contested through the eighteenth century.

BUP: Is there a sentiment or idea that you find to be at the heart of most (or all) of the essays in this collection?

Kate: That’s a great question. I’d circle back to what I said about urgency, above. Many of the essays have a kind of urgency to them— whether it’s to address race, gender and sexuality, harm and trauma, or even to push back against the “careerist” humanities— all of the essays have, I think, a sense of racing against the clock.

BUP: Did any of the essayists provide insight on the topic of teaching the eighteenth century that you had not considered or anticipated? Or is there a particular impression you hope readers will come away with?

Miriam: I hope readers will note the sheer resilience of all the many ways we can engage material from the founding period of “modernism” – continuing to make it relevant to a wide range of students— at public or private institutions, in humanities or in professional programs, innately interested or needing to be coaxed into finding the connections.

Kate: And think about how content and pedagogical method both matter— this isn’t just about feeding students information— most of these essays really demonstrate an ethic of care, a concern not just with what we teach, but with how we engage students for deeper learning that we all hope sets them up to become lifelong learners themselves, just using the eighteenth century as an exemplar for this kind of practice.

Teaching the Eighteenth Century Now: Pedagogy as Ethical Engagement is available to order here in paperback, hardback, and ebook.

Kate Parker, professor and chair of English, teaches pre-1800 English and European cultural studies and feminism and sexuality studies at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, a regional comprehensive university in the University of Wisconsin System.

Miriam L. Wallace, formerly professor of English and gender studies at New College of Florida, is dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Illinois-Springfield.