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RSA Paper (transcript)

2012 March 24
by Diane Jakacki

“‘Didst thou neuer know Tarlton?’:
Teaching Early Modern Popular Culture with Digital Editions.”

Presented at theRenaissance Society of America conference
Washington DC
23 March, 2012

Last fall, I taught a course on “London City Comedy” designed for first-year Georgia Tech students. The course was an introduction to composition and research. I chose the theme because I wanted to incorporate some of my own research interests – early modern drama, popular culture, and digital humanities – into a course meant to develop multimodal communication skills. The final project involved the production of a collaborative digital edition of Tarlton’s Jests, a collection of anecdotes about the Elizabethan clown Richard Tarlton.

Tarlton's Jests Digital Edition

We all use editions in our classrooms, perhaps without stopping to explain to undergraduates what an edition is or why it is important to their engagement with a text. At least it never occurred to me that my students would struggle with the core concept of how an editor interprets a work in order to enhance understanding of that work. But that disconnect became clear to me in another course last spring, and I wanted to address the issue with students in as transparent and constructive a way as I could. It is important that they recognize that all texts are mediated in some way, and that they will at some point in their lives act as an editor in some capacity.

I teach first-year composition and research courses to non-English majors at Georgia Tech. There isn’t even an English major at the university. Our students are aerospace engineers, architecture students, computer science majors … Whether or not we engage the interest of these frankly uninterested students is based on our ability to catch them off guard and make them interested in spite of themselves. When it comes to getting them interested in early modern drama and popular culture, despite my demonstrated enthusiasm, I often face an uphill battle. Most of my students read one of Shakespeare’s plays in high school. Fewer still have seen any film adaptation of a play, let alone witnessed one in performance. None of my students had any experience reading non-Shakespearean seventeenth-century drama, which made that battle more challenging. But I thought I could encourage students to make comparisons between themes and issues relating to 17th century London and those concerning our societal experiences in the 21st century. Comedy seemed to be a good platform to make those comparisons. The course description read thus:

In the last days of the reign of Elizabeth and the early years of her successor James, London-based playwrights used their city as a comedic setting with which to provide theatre goers with instruction as well as entertainment – effectively mocking them to point out flaws and shortcomings. These comedies were hugely successful with a variety of London audiences, and continue to offer insight into life in early modern London. Reading these plays helps us to understand seventeenth-century London society as well as to reexamine our perceptions about the world in which we live.

To make this point I assigned three plays: The Shoemaker’s Holiday, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and Bartholmew Fair. As well, students read selected critical readings about early modern London society, dramatic literature and performance practices. As they read each play, I told them to pay special attention to the introduction, glosses and footnotes. I explained that all of this information, that to them seemed dry and excessive, was designed to help them better comprehend the work. We discussed how the introduction was written to give them more insight into each play, and how footnotes and glosses informed their reading of particularly difficult passages.

I assigned students to produce what I called a “knowledge base” of contextual information about the period. Each student chose a research topic (a person, event, or societal issue) relating to the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. These topics ranged from James Burbage to the Spanish Armada to trends in early modern education. Seventy-five students across three sections participated in the development of this knowledge base. Each student produced a wiki entry on their subject (on our course wiki) and then made an in-class presentation on their topic. This work anticipated our final project in two ways: it introduced the concept of wiki production, which was new to most of them, and it initiated the idea of massive editorial collaboration – each student was directed to include links to other entries that enhanced the credibility of their own.

All of this led up to the final project to which I referred earlier. The final course module examined the work and life of Richard Tarlton. Students read excerpts of plays in which he

was involved or mentioned (The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth and The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London); they examined ballads and other contemporary references to Tarlton, as well as woodcut and engraved images (such as the letter “T” in Scottowe’s Alphabet) which suggested the popular appeal Tarlton had for sixteenth and seventeenth century audiences as an individual celebrity as well as a superstar member of the Queen’s Men acting troupe. This in turn led to the introduction of Tarlton’s Jests, a popular publication from around 1600. I chose Tarlton’s Jests in part because I am working on an independent research project about Tarlton, but also because there is no “modern” edition of the work.

The last (and perhaps only) critical edition of the text was published by James Halliwell-Phillipps in 1844. If I was going to get students thinking about the editorial process, this seemed a good way to throw them in the deep end of the pool.

The research project to which I refer is entitled “The Tarlton Project” and constitutes what I call a “dynamic biography” of Tarlton that will offer users a nonlinear, extensible collection of texts, images, and performance records that – taken as a whole – will help reveal information about this enigmatic figure.

I provided students with clear explanation of the assignment objective: that by approaching a text as an editor they would become stronger and more discerning analysts of texts. I keyed the assignment to categorical outcomes required by the Georgia Tech Writing and Communication program as well as the Georgia Board of Regents: of these, the most important in my mind were to understand collaborative and social aspects of writing processes and to use electronic environments for drafting, reviewing, revising, editing and sharing texts.

I posted a (very blurry) facsimile copy of the 1613 edition from EEBO. Each student was assigned a jest or section of a jest (determined based on the varying length of each anecdote and the number of students participating in the assignment). They were provided with their section of the original black-letter publication and directed to do the following:


  1. Make a draft transcription of the jest. Maintain original spelling, grammar and punctuation conventions.
  2. Revise the transcription, making decisions about modernizing spelling and punctuation, and incorporating a gloss of terms. (They were required to use the online version of the OED, which provided them with comprehensive, chronologically appropriate definitions).
  3. Write a 250-word introduction to their edition, identifying the edition’s audience, explaining the editorial and style choice made in writing the revised transcription, and any challenges faced and revelations discovered in the process.
  4. Write a 750-word contextual essay that provides insight into the significnce of Richard Tarlton’s actions, interactions with his peers, and movements throughout Elizabethan London and England.
  5. Write four blog posts (one per week) reflecting on the experience of developing the edition. Students also commented on one another’s blog posts – my hope being that they would understand that their experiences and challenges were often shared by many of their classmates.

Students compiled and presented their editions on workspaces established on the course wiki; all were connected through an index of the Jests. The stakes were high – the combined elements of the project were worth more than 35% of their course grade.

The students responded with unexpected enthusiasm. I was pleased with the caliber of student work – especially when taking into account that this was a first-year non-English major research skills course. The result of the assignment was gratifying in another sense: my purpose in undertaking this collaborative assignment was to help gauge the accessibility of Tarlton’s Jests – and by extension Tarlton himself – to a broad education base. I have anticipated that the Tarlton Project will be of value to a scholarly audience, but I am interested in incorporating an education module into the body of the project. With the success of the assignment, I intend to go forward with this module. It will be similar in form to the collaborative edition assignment completed last fall, offering students a jest to transcribe (preferably one of the jests that involves performance or touring references, such as “An excellent jest of Tarlton suddenly spoken,” or “Tarlton’s jest of a pippin”). The module will include the transcription exercise as well as research work within the framework of the Tarlton Project and linked to key sources such as the Records of Early English Drama’s Patrons and Performances website.

In hindsight, I should have taken the assignment one step further. I plan to teach a version of this course again in Fall 2012, and I intend to maintain the overall structure of the digital edition assignment with the addition of a final integration of the individual editions into one masterwork. Teaching students how to make editorial decisions about their own segment was an important step to help them identify their audience and articulate their grammatical and mechanical choices. To truly embrace the idea of collaboration, students will negotiate an overall set of editorial guidelines that would apply to all of the jests. These guidelines will be established via the course wiki, in a workspace drafted and refined by all students. Each section will then nominate a proofreading committee and an editorial board that will be responsible for checking each jest and ensuring that it conforms to the guidelines. These extra steps will provide an extra form of accountability that reinforces another aspect of the course that I find to be very important: peer review and evaluation. When students give one another feedback, I find that they are responsive in a way unlike their reaction to my feedback.

This extra work will force me to reconsider how the project fits into the greater scheme of the course syllabus. Last fall, I assumed that placing the edition project at the end of the term would serve to reinforce what we learned throughout the semester. However, in their course evaluations several students expressed the wish that they could have worked on Tarlton at the beginning of the course – or at least while they were reading the plays. I see now that by spreading the digital edition project **across** the term, it will provide more cohesive understanding of the issues involved in producing such a massive collaboration. They will be more attuned to the decisions made by professional editors. This also serves to avoid that end-of-semester burnout when students are so overwhelmed by all of their coursework that their commitment wavers.

I have had several conversations about this assignment – with other Brittain Fellows at Georgia Tech, and more recently on Twitter as an outgrowth of a blog article I wrote about the experience. Several colleagues were surprised that seventy-five first-year students could undertake such an ambitious assignment, but expressed interest in adapting such an approach for their own teaching. In a recent article on her blog, Katherine D Harris included my approach as part of a greater contemplation of syllabus development as a type of crowd-sourced endeavor, where we can build on the experiences (and sometimes the mistakes) of others to enrich our own development of course materials. As digital humanities practitioners we are by nature generous and open to collaboration, and I am eager to share my assignment development process with anyone interested in adapting such an approach for their own courses. While Tarlton’s Jests is certainly not useful for all early modern studies courses, any number of texts that have not “made it” into modern editions can be accessed through EEBO and are certainly ripe for this type of activity.


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