Teaching Print Culture

by George Hajjar

Last Friday, February 2nd, the English Department’s Print Culture Working Group had a meeting in Bobst to talk about teaching print culture in the classroom. Masters students, PhD students, and professors came together in a round table discussion about improving syllabi, using the “culture” around printing to deepen the understanding of a text. Although I was the only undergraduate student, I was welcomed into the meeting, and encouraged to share my experiences.

What is print culture?

It includes both the cultural context of a work, and the way it’s printed and disseminated. One focus can be the paratext—everything in a book that isn’t the text itself. Through paratextual analysis, one gains an understanding of the conditions that contextualize it.

Because paratextual analysis is integral to print culture, the meeting began with an exercise where everyone was given a Harlequin romance novel from the 1970s or 80s, and, without reading the text, each attendee had to talk about the book. People commented on the price on the cover, the series number, the readership implied, the locations where the text may have been sold, whether this text was a part of a personal library, what the story appeared to be about, etc. This exercise proved that there is a wealth of information a physical copy of a story can give a reader if she pauses to consider it.

The meeting also tackled questions about how to expose students of literature to the methods and interests of book history. One professor from Tandon described her Graphic Novel course, which asks students to consider the material properties related to different literary subgenres. Another professor commented on the importance of “demystifying” a text, showing that a book isn’t just a relationship between an author and a work, rather, it’s the product of a complicated process that includes printers, publishing companies, readers, and more. This demystification turns a book into something material. It creates a space for a reader to consider the ways people consume the literary work.

A number of people suggested that one good way to incorporate print culture into a class is by taking students out of the classroom, either on field trips to rare book rooms, like NYU’s Fales Library and Special Collections, or on field trips to printing presses, like those at New York’s Center for Book Arts. One existing course that does both of these things—and much more—is ENGL-UA 732 “Papyrus to PDF: An Introduction to Book History Now,” taught by Professors McDowell and Priddle.