This first semester of my college experience was a time of new adventures. To state the obvious, moving 1,049 miles away from my family, friends, and the only life I had ever known was no small adjustment. I moved into a small room with a person I had only met once before, began sharing my bathroom with 31 other people, and started needing to walk a few blocks every time I wanted to eat. Surprisingly, my classes actually provided some consistency coming from my previous life.
When I learned I needed to take English Literature here at Georgia Tech, I was less than thrilled that two years of AP English only translated into one semester of Georgia Tech English credit. The fact that I registered for a Shakespeare section didn’t make me much more excited. My opinions of the course quickly began to shift after just one or two classes. Not only had I already read two of the three plays we would be reading, my professor was deeply passionate about her work. Dr. Higinbotham showed us from day one how educated she was regarding Shakespeare’s work and how much it truly meant to her.
Aside from the normal reading and analyzing early modern plays to be expected in the course, we also did really interesting projects. This fall, we focused on Shakespeare’s First Folio, the first major publication of many of his works, because 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of his death. This huge book was a major accomplishment 400 years ago, a time before mass printing was commonplace. English 1102 gave me the unique opportunity to begin to appreciate what this meant through our paper making activity. During our trip to the Georgia Tech Paper Science Institute, we experienced firsthand the multi-day process that is making paper from scratch. Starting with scraps of linen fabric, I magically produced three pieces of Folio-sized paper just as it was done in the seventeenth century (though we were able to expedite the drying process through the use of modern technology such as a hydraulic press and electric fans).
While this project was mostly fun, it also provided a more interesting history lesson than I have ever learned in a classroom. I was literally able to get my hands dirty and do the behind-the-scenes work that went into every published book 400 years ago. This activity gave me an incredibly unique appreciation for the history behind what we were studying in class in a way that no English class had ever come close to doing for me (especially considering I am a person who does not care too much for history). This is an experience that I will remember for years to come. As a result, my Shakespearean studies will not be leaving my mind very quickly either.
Shakespeare's First Folio
In this special anniversary, a copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio was sent to each of the fifty states throughout the year. While Georgia Tech was not fortunate enough to be chosen to host Georgia’s copy, the Folio was sent down the road to Emory, and it was there during our fall semester. And to make it even better, seeing it was free to the public. Since there are only about 234 known copies of this book in the world today, having the opportunity to see one up close was very special.
Before seeing it in person, I was aware that the First Folio contained 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, many of which would not otherwise be known today. What I was not prepared for was the size and appearance of this book. The most stunning part for me was the hundreds of gold-edged pieces of paper upon which the plays were printed. Having made three of my own Folio-sized pieces of linen paper, I cannot begin to imagine the time and effort that went into the physically construction of the book alone. If it took a beginner paper-maker four days to prepare my three messy and bumpy sheets of paper, the hundreds of sheets of perfectly smooth and thin paper must have taken considerably longer.
The First Folio was inside a thick glass box that also contained a gauge that displayed the temperature and humidity inside the container, ensuring the book was well cared for. As I peered over the glass to get a close look at the text, a security guard watched carefully. On the day that I visited, it was open to the last page of King Lear, which was one of the plays we read this semester. I was there with another friend from my class, and we spent a few minutes trying to decipher the old language together, recognizing key quotes that were emphasized in the class. It was an added challenge just to remember simple things such as “v” really meant “u.”
While I am typically not much of a museum person, I really appreciated the opportunity to see the First Folio, especially because this was likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was really special to see such a well-known book after studying its contents for a few months. The fact that I was able to make my own paper just like the creators of the Folio made it even more amazing. I never would have done any of this had I not taken this class, so I am very grateful to have had these opportunities and to have been encouraged to partake in activities I would not have done otherwise.
There was one assignment this semester that changed the way I will look at literature for the rest of my life. Toward the beginning of the semester, we were assigned a podcast to listen to for homework. This podcast was a recording of a lecture that Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, gave on data-mining Shakespeare. The Folger Library is a library in Washington, D.C. where many major scholars study and research Shakespeare and his work. They also have a very large collection of First Folios. Witmore’s ideas on data-mining Shakespeare were very contrary to nearly all of the studies of Shakespeare that have been done. He presented the idea of using software to map the word choice in Shakespeare’s plays in order to determine their genre. Coming from the director of a premiere Shakespeare library, this is a very radical idea. The ability to closely analyze literature using math rather than close reading really inspired me.
As you will see in my first artifact, we were given an assignment to data-mine a selection of the Shakespeare pieces that we read. It was really interesting and fun to use the tools that Voyant provided, particularly the many types of graphs and visuals it created automatically to display the frequencies of particular words throughout the selection of text. While this gave me a taste of data-mining, I fell in love with the idea while writing my research essay (Artifact 2). I have never been (and probably never will be again) so excited while writing a research paper. I never imagined that I could use my more technical and quantitative analytical skills to do a “close reading” of famous literature, especially Shakespeare’s King Lear. I have never made spreadsheets and graphs in preparation for an English essay, but now I do not know how I wrote essays before this numerical analysis discovery.
This semester, I fell in love with an English class in a way I would have never thought possible. Most of the credit for this can be awarded to my professor, Dr. Higinbotham, who inspired me deeply. While our academic passions lie in very different disciplines, she was able to profess her love of early modern literature in a way that was difficult not to accept. Being such a busy and talented person out of the classroom as well, she inspired me to do the work to the best of my ability and work hard to find my own new passions. The research paper that I wrote for English 1102 is one that I will talk about for years to come, even if my grandmother finds it atrocious that great works of literature can be reduced to numerical values. While this class gave me concrete opportunities to develop my writing and presentation skills, it also allowed me to discover new passions in an area that had previously never interested me. I can honestly say that Dr. Higinbotham was my favorite professor this semester, and as a result, English 1102 was one of my favorite classes. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to grow in the ways that this class allowed me to during my first semester of college.