Reviews of Engaging the Age of Jane Austen

Review for Eighteenth-Century Fiction by Lisa Maruca, Wayne State University

Engaging the Age of Jane Austen is a book about the importance of literary study, a manifesto on our crucial need as faculty and students to engage with a broader public, and a how-to manual that draws on the experiences of faculty, administrators, and alt-ac practitioners. It is also a rare book-length treatment on the pedagogy of eighteenth-century literature, which alone makes it worth keeping on your shelf.

One of the many things to appreciate about this book is its innovative, polyphonic authorship. Each chapter is singularly written by either Draxler or Spratt. Interspersed within these are small, focused contributions on a range of related topics by a variety of public humanities stakeholders: well-known eighteenth-century scholars; digital humanists and other faculty; museum curators, library directors, and special collection archivists; university administrators; volunteer coordinators and other community partners; and most importantly, the graduate and undergraduate students who participated in these projects. Together these voices illustrate, from multiple perspectives, the importance of civic engagement and the public humanities—terms that Spratt and Draxler prefer to the more patronizing “service learning” or “outreach”—for our students, universities, and communities.

This conscientious choice of terms, and Draxler and Spratt’s recognition of the politics behind them, is indicative of the careful, critical approach throughout. Their rich description of practice is grounded in strong research, implicitly drawing from both the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (or SoTL, a field too often ignored when literary scholars write about the classroom) and the critical pedagogy tradition. The latter’s emphasis on social justice is a thread that ties the book together, although it is explicitly organized through discussions of sites where fruitful public engagement can take place: local communities, the public library, the museum, the archives, and the digital sphere. This variety gives an indication of the work’s breadth and its multifarious definitions of public engagement.

Draxler and Spratt stress that the eighteenth century is not too esoteric to be relevant to today’s students. In fact, they argue, in terms of the public humanities, it is the ideal period to study. It provides examples of public intellectuals, such as the Bluestockings, and public life, in coffee-houses. Experiential learning can be linked to John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The period witnessed the origin of many foundational ideas about civil society and political rights, which, from the beginning, were both hopefully utopian and fundamentally flawed. Its rapidly expanding media landscape parallels our own, with its associated problems and potential. Finally, the titular Jane Austen offers many lessons applicable to today.

The first two chapters provide a compelling rationale for why studying literature in general is important and why doing that with the public is essential. Chapter 1 discusses Spratt’s students’ participation in arts and literacy non-profits. She uses the novel Emma (1815) to help students interrogate the worst elements of community engagement, the “savior complex” or “liberal do-gooder stance” (27). Close readings of Emma’s condescension and genuine compassion encourage students to reflect on their own motivations to help others. The chapter also theorizes the political work of community engagement, arguing that the study of English “helps disenfranchised people and populations recover … their own narratives” (26). As Spratt explains, “as experts on narrative and the articulation of the complexity of abstract issues (like equity and justice) … literature scholars are well-suited to teach others strategies for and the value of harnessing narrative skills in ways that support civically engaged projects and have the potential to instigate changes in local, state, and federal laws” (26). In this process, she hopes service learning can move from “being a bandage on a gaping systemic wound (perhaps a bandage that allows such systemic oppression to continue)” (27) to fostering broad social change.

While these lofty goals are held out as an ideal, the real-life examples provided, including some that went awry, show that results are often more modest. The discussions of what did not work are a strength of the book. We do not talk enough about mistakes, much less outline how we can learn from them. Yet experimentation, without which our teaching, research, and outreach are stagnant, requires that we accept what Draxler calls “productive failure” (67) alongside success. In chapter 2, she is usefully honest and open about limitations of early attempts and her work to improve all her projects. The final result is a class that many of us could emulate. Recognizing that literature can also be “something of a Trojan horse” (68) that brings people of diverse backgrounds and political viewpoints together, Draxler shows how “the polite veneer of a Jane Austen book club, with all the tea and trappings” can become “a covert way to have a meaningful dialogue about privilege, oppression, and human dignity” (69). First, she had students study the political and social contexts of the novels, including issues such as poverty, gender roles, class stratification, and colonialism, and then—in an excellent example of how to make history meaningful—apply them to today. From this, they segued into a number of public events around Austen, including leading an intergenerational reading group at a public library. This project not only offered a benefit to the community but also modelled civic participation, lifelong learning, and the importance of tackling tough topics. Draxler makes parallels between Austen’s novels, full of gaps in which readers must attend to what is not said, and the library conversations, with “moments of silence [that] opened space for us to listen to each other more carefully” (88).

The next two chapters focus on institutions. Chapter 3 tries to reimagine museums as more accessible and democratic, highlighting storytelling and interpretation with non-specialized language. Chapter 4 discusses Draxler’s undergraduate Newberry seminar in which students “think critically about the impact of digitization on the … future of archives” (149). Students were not isolated within the august institution, but were required to visit different libraries in Chicago and to explore their surrounding neighbourhoods. An assignment “prompted students to think about issues of race, class, and privilege and the various ways in which libraries and archives serve (or fail to serve) their local constituents” (149).

The potential of the humanities to democratize knowledge and to make cultural heritage relevant is an ideal continued in the chapters on the digital humanities. Spratt usefully redefines “service”’ as a public utility: “just as it’s a public service to have paved roads and facilities like parks and libraries, so too is it important to have digital resources freely and readily available to those who wish to use them” (172). The DH projects she discusses are familiar—having students contribute to 18thConnect or create digital editions—but describing these as forms of civic engagement and experiential learning reframes their possibilities. The public benefits, as do the student participants, who come away with real-life writing experience and digital skills.

As thorough and careful as this work may be, it occasionally raises questions. At times, it seems too optimistic in its uncomplicated assumption that “reading makes us better people” (6), a point easily undermined by examining, for example, the great libraries of slavers. I also worry that many of us promoting student DH work—and I include myself in this group—have not fully thought out how “public” such work really is. It is a crowded marketplace for online ideas and text; without the sophisticated use of SEO strategies and social media promotion, will student websites simply disappear in the noise? Finally, I was surprised at the term “the street” to describe community spaces. The term is explained as being metaphorically expansive, signifying connection, especially in its “connotations of action and protest,” such as when we “take to the street” (30). But it also seems a risky choice, since it can be a stereotypically negative term, as in the Merriam- Webster definition of “an environment (as in a depressed neighborhood or section of a city) of poverty, dereliction, or crime.” If understood as an appropriation of urban dialect, it could inadvertently reinforce the power relations that the authors work so hard to dismantle.

These quibbles do nothing to undermine my full-throated recommendation of this useful and powerful book. Even for readers with little interest in experiential learning or the public humanities, the book is rife with great examples to apply in one’s own classroom. It is also relevant far beyond eighteenth-century studies. The authors conclude that they see this book as “equal parts reflection and invitation” (222). Feeling the warmth of that invitation, I imagine returning to this book frequently for ideas and inspiration.

Lisa Maruca is an Associate Professor of English at Wayne State University. She is the author of The Work of Print: Authorship and the English Text Trades, 1660–1760 (2007).


From “Literature 1780–1830: The Romantic Period,” The Year’s Work in English Studies (2021), Oxford University Press

Bridget Draxler and Danielle Spratt’s Engaging the Age of Jane Austen is a collection of essays about public engagement. While the title refers to Austen, Draxler and Spratt also discuss eighteenth-century literature more broadly. As a canonical author, Austen serves as a framing device and key point of reference for the collection. Draxler and Spratt connect the time of Austen’s writing to our own cultural moment: for example, they compare the eighteenth-century ‘explosion’ in ‘information in media technologies’ (p. 12) with the present digital age. They also highlight the particular relevance of themes such as democracy and oppression.

The six chapters, authored by Draxler or Spratt, address particular sites or lenses of public humanities work. They also include a series of contributions from scholars, students, and participants. In the introduction, Draxler and Spratt use a reading of Seth Grahame-Greene’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to illustrate their argument that ‘engagement with [. . .] contemporary cultures helps us become more nuanced readers of historical literature’ and, conversely, ‘works from the eighteenth century help clarify how we understand our own moment’ (p. 4). They believe that ‘reading has the potential to make us better people’ by encouraging ‘empathy’ (p. 6). On this basis, they argue for the importance of well-conceived public humanities projects, which combine ‘digital humanities, public scholarship, service learning’, and ‘engaged learning’ (p. 10). The first two chapters in the collection engage the most with Austen’s work. Chapter 1, ‘The Street’, describes Spratt’s creation of an undergraduate class in which students worked with literacy and cultural projects, while reading Austen. Its subtitle is ‘What Emma Teaches Us about the Saviour Complex in Service Learning’. For Spratt, analysing Emma’s behaviour can encourage self-reflection. Emma raises questions about the process of ‘achieving social justice’ (p. 24) which are relevant to public engagement work. The chapter concludes with three essays on ‘reinvigorating Austen’s image’ with the public in mind (p. 51). Chapter 2, ‘The Library’, or ‘Productive Failure and Politicizing Silence’, describes Draxler’s organization of Austen reading groups in public libraries, with students as facilitators, which ‘became a covert way to have a meaningful dialogue about privilege, oppression, and human dignity’ (p. 69). The third chapter, ‘The Museum’, discusses Draxler’s creation of an exhibition on eighteenth-century women writers. Chapter 4, ‘The Archives’, narrates Draxler’s work with undergraduates doing archival research. Chapter 5, ‘Digital Archives and the Database’, describes Spratt’s project with undergraduates improving digital plaintext resources for 18thConnect. The final chapter, ‘The Eighteenth-Century Novel, Online’, describes how Spratt built upon this work with graduate students. Draxler and Spratt demonstrate that ‘there are many innovative, generative, and exciting ways for [the reader] to connect a historical period like the eighteenth century to a wide range of people today’ (p. xvi).

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