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Dead Letters: Teaching Early Modern Media Online During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Thomas Ward
United States Naval Academy

One of the earliest surviving images of a print shop, from Mathias Huss’s 1499 Danse macabre, depicts a compositor, two pressmen, and a bookseller attempting to carry on their trade while Death, embodied as a surprisingly lithe cadaver, dances around, pulling the stationers from their worldly endeavors.1 Ghoulish as it may seem, this image ended up serving as a fitting emblem for how my United States Naval Academy honors English seminar, “Early Modern Media in the Digital Age,” adapted to life (and death) in the era of COVID-19. Within a week of our shift to online instruction, the grinning corpses and the variously alarmed, anxious, resistant, and accepting faces of their living counterparts became a familiar sight as the banner on our new, ad hoc Google Classroom internet home, where the woodcut’s ironic emphasis on the impermanence of its own printed materiality took on new life as a digitally remediated memento mori.

It is tempting to draw an implicit contrast between the vulnerability of early printed materials as depicted in Huss’s fragile incunable and the immortality seemingly granted to texts that have earned a place in the digital cloud; however, the experience of distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic drew new attention to the materiality of our own media, the bibliographic and digital forms in which we encounter early modern texts in the twenty-first century. The macabre woodcut in pixilated form challenged my class to consider the often unacknowledged role played not only by pressmen, papermakers, and compositors, but also editors, scholars, coders, transcribers, photographers, webmasters, digital cataloguers, and the army of technicians keeping the internet up and running during this crucial time. Perhaps more soberingly, the pandemic invited us to consider a question implicit in Huss’s woodcut: What does a heightened awareness of mortality do to one’s sense of how paper, ink, binding—as well as, in our case, computer screens, hypertext, coding—mediates between the worlds of the living and the (long or recently) dead?

Ironically, many of the tools we have come to take for granted as scholars of early modern culture were developed during times of crisis. As Bonnie Mak has pointed out, the early production of microfilm that eventually became the basis for Early English Books Online (EEBO) increased dramatically with the outbreak of World War II, when travel to libraries housing rare materials became extremely dangerous and the materials themselves were threatened with destruction.2 My experience of teaching early modern texts during the COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged me with the hope that the current crisis will bring a new generation of tools for teaching and learning about the past, and that our students may be leading the way.

Because my honors students did not know we would not be returning from Spring Break, they had left the physical copies of their books on campus, and so I had to rethink how to continue addressing these questions through texts that were available in good online editions. The idea to spend the rest of the semester studying plague literature emerged naturally in our first videoconference on Google Hangouts (where we continued conducting classes for the next five weeks). Given the variety of ways students might be affected by the pandemic, I felt it important first to ask whether they were comfortable studying material that for some hits disturbingly close to home; they all expressed an eagerness to put the present experience of disease into dialogue with early modern texts.

The fact that there were only eight students in the seminar made it easy to collaborate on a path forward: we decided to focus on Samuel Pepys’s and Daniel Defoe’s very different accounts of the 1665 London plague outbreak and then to look at the iconographic tradition of the danse macabre.3 Our discussions of these materials focused specifically on their media, so that our study of Defoe’s Journal, for example, looked at how he created his account using data from printed bills of mortality, which we examined in the form of digital images from EEBO. Supplementing our reading with critical work by Jacque Wernimont and Paula McDowell, we considered how these bills themselves were created, largely through the unacknowledged labor of female “searchers,” who reported causes of death, and we considered the role played by statistics and other numerical media in the COVID-19 pandemic.4

The remote format put new constraints on the kinds of final project the class would be able to do. In our first online session, I put it to the students themselves to come up with a workable plan. One student proposed creating a fake plague journal along the lines of Defoe’s semifictional narrative; others in the class liked this idea but suggested that, instead of artificially trying to reconstruct the lived experience of the seventeenth-century plague, they use their own experience of the present pandemic, and to do so in a way that involved journal-like accounts as well as a range of other media. The idea that eventually emerged was a collaboratively designed course called “Parallel Pandemics,” in which the students devised a complete syllabus, course proposal, detailed lesson plans, and assignments for a seminar that would consider the role played by various media in early modern and contemporary experiences of plagues and epidemics. Working remotely from their homes around the country, students created a Google Classroom website for their course, where they were able to host course documents, readings, filmed minilectures, and supplementary materials, which they organized in week-by-week modules.

Self-consciously framing the digital classroom itself as a “media assemblage” of sorts, the imagined course became a forum in which students documented, analyzed, and curated materials relating to their own lived experiences of the pandemic, while putting these experiences in dialogue with early modern materials. Some of the connections they made were delightfully unexpected: one student who had become fascinated by the Naval Academy’s 1646 edition of Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica earlier in the semester created a lesson plan that considers Browne’s work in relation to present-day misinformation about the novel coronavirus circulating on social media. The project thus turned out to be Janus-faced, simultaneously looking to the past (the early modern period) and the future (later generations of Naval Academy midshipmen who might take the course they designed), drawing attention both to continuities and to differences across historical time and geography. Just as Defoe’s Journal adopted a well-known form (the diaristic account) to understand his own world (London of 1722) in relation to a past plague (the outbreak of 1665), my honors seminarians used a form familiar to them (the classroom itself) to remediate their own experiences in relation to the past worlds we had been studying.

Assessment of this project turned out to be one of the biggest challenges and one of the biggest joys for me as an instructor. In many ways, I had the luxury of being able to hold the students to a standard they set themselves; given the high degree of ownership they took over the course they designed, an external set of rubrics and grading sheets seemed superfluous. I also wanted to be mindful of the unique circumstances under which students were working, and while I told them I expected them to rise to the occasion (which is very much part of the ethos of the Naval Academy), I was also upfront with them about my feeling that employing the normal methods of assessment would contribute to an intellectually dishonest impression of objectivity and “business as usual” when the reality was anything but. In the end, we decided mutually upon a loose set of expectations and list of deliverables, which included details about documents they should produce related to the course (an official proposal, syllabus, bibliography, and so on), a virtual presentation in which they “launched” their class website, and a short essay in which each student explained his or her own contributions and rationales. I have included this list as an appendix to this essay.

I fully acknowledge that entering into this kind of trust with my students involved taking an unusual pedagogical risk (and I will certainly revise my assessment materials next time I run this assignment, which I hope will be under circumstances that do not require such ad hoc, emergency adaptation). Nevertheless, I was lucky that, in this case, the risk paid off, both in what I gained from the experience of relinquishing significant control of my class, and in the level of investment the students ended up making in their project. As an instructor, I emerged from the seminar with at least two new tools for teaching early modern literature. First, there is the “Parallel Pandemics” course itself, which, with a little tweaking, could easily be offered in future semesters. Second, the course-design exercise might be adapted for other contexts: I routinely talk about early modern practices of pedagogy and knowledge-organization in my Renaissance survey course, and I can imagine a smaller-scale assignment asking students to design a syllabus for a course to be taught in a sixteenth-century classroom. As was evident from their individual essays, students gained from the project an opportunity to consider their present experience in relation to the early modern past, as well as their roles as learners and as teachers. Several of the students remarked on how the experience encouraged them to think critically about the relationship between the “content” of their education and the means by which they encountered it: as one student put it, “we embraced the manner in which this shift in medium (from in-person to virtual) embodied one of the overarching themes of our class, that of digital remediation and its effects.” Others reflected on their sense of contributing to the intellectual future of the Naval Academy: “to create a course as an English major is to pass along the torch,” another student wrote, “offering something to the students who follow.” Ironically, given the concerns of the class, this same student went on to discuss how, far from being a static, dead letter, a good “syllabus lives and breathes.”

But perhaps what struck me most about the students’ reflection on their work came in the form of an email about a week after the course concluded, in which one student anxiously wanted to know whether, once their Naval Academy emails had been deactivated, the website they had created together would still be there. Poignantly, this student’s concern to preserve her and her classmates’ intellectual labor echoed an anxiety, embodied in the Huss woodcut, over the durability of media forms in the face of inevitable dissolution and loss. Fortunately, I was able to assure her that their website would persist at least for the foreseeable future, both because it was connected to my own email account and because, by this point, my own pride in the class’s work had led me to invite my colleagues to add themselves to the class website, as students.

Handout Detailing Project Expectations

Final Project Deliverables
  • • Official course proposal. This proposal should be formatted using the official USNA English Department course proposal form and should include a course designation, proposed course title, statement of purpose, brief outline of course structure, and tentative bibliography. I have included some examples of proposals I have submitted in previous years (see course folder) in order to give you an idea of what they’re supposed to look like.
  • • Course Syllabus. This should include a student-facing description of the course, an outline of course policies, required texts, and grading, as well as a plan for readings and assignments for each class session. You might use the syllabus for this course as a template, and you are welcome to adopt some of its language.
  • • An online “home” for the course. This is where you will arrange all the relevant materials, readings, assignments, quizzes, video minilectures, and so on. My suggestion would be that you use Google Classroom, since that is what we are familiar with from our own class, but you are welcome to try out other platforms.
  • • Full sample lesson plans for at least eight of the class sessions. These might include questions, minilectures, group activities, individual assignments, and so on; they should be typed up in a semiformal way and accessible via the online course home.
  • • A live presentation of your course via conference call. On a date to be determined before 8 April, the group will speak to me and one or two of the members of the English Department Upper Division Curriculum Committee, giving an overview of the course, walking us through how it will work, and answering questions. This will satisfy the required oral component of the capstone project.
  • • A write-up of your contribution to the project. In this four-to-five-page document, you should discuss the project’s overall significance to you and describe your specific contribution and how it fit into what the other members of the seminar contributed. This will serve as one of the materials required by the Liaison for Midshipman Research in order to receive credit for completing a capstone project.

I will be evaluating what you produce in terms of the following criteria:

  • • Purpose: Does this class have a clear sense of what it is trying to accomplish and what it wishes students to learn?
  • • Coherence: Does this class have a clear “through-line”? Does it tell a story? Is the syllabus structured logically and evenly? Does it strike a good balance between early modern and contemporary materials?
  • • Rigor: Does the class encourage students to think responsibly and critically about the historical past and the lived present?
  • • Synthesis: Does this class do something innovative and new? You are welcome (and encouraged!) to rip off ideas from other syllabi, including my own, but this class must ultimately be your creation, reflecting your ideas and concerns.


Thomas Ward is Associate Professor of English at the United States Naval Academy, where he teaches classes on early modern British literature. His research examines literary representations of unruly vocal sound in the seventeenth century; his current book project discusses the circulation of media in the works of John Milton, Abraham Cowley, Edmund Waller, and Katherine Philips.

1 Martin Hagstrøm, The Dance of Death.

2 Bonnie Mak, “Archeology of a Digitization,” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 65, no. 8 (2014): 1515–26.

3 See Seeta Chaganti, “‘Danse Macabre’: The Medieval Dance of Death in the Time of COVID-19, along with other excellent resources available at Middle Ages for Educators.

4 Jacqueline Wernimont, Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018); Paula McDowell, “Defoe and the Contagion of the Oral: Modeling Media Shift in A Journal of the Plague Year,” PMLA 121, no. 1 (2006): 87–106. I am hugely grateful to Jacque for sharing PDF proofs of her book manuscript, as I was unable to access a physical copy due to library closures.

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