Wednesday, 5 October 2016

English Outreach: Digitising Jane Austen's Fiction Manuscripts

Jane Austen's 'History of England' (1790-93)

I have a long-standing interest in academic outreach, and am always pleased to see new projects that engage the public with academic research. Having always enjoyed working with school-aged students, I’m particularly interested in how academics working in the field of English literature can engage Key Stage 4 and 5 (GCSE and A-level) students with research. As part of my current role as a Career Development Fellow at Hertford College, Oxford, I design and deliver academic sessions for students of this age, covering topics such as the Last Man in Romantic literature (of course!), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Gothic, literary theory, and Romantic love poetry.

While lots of academics are carrying out this sort of outreach work, there are very few opportunities for us to get together with each other – and with teachers – to discuss the ways in which we go about providing outreach and to share best practice. It was for this reason that I organised ‘Academics in the Classroom’, a two-day workshop that took place back in August. This workshop brought together over fifty academics, teachers, and professionals from theatres, libraries, and museums across the UK to consider the wealth of English outreach work that is already being carried out and to discuss how we might innovate in the future.

I found it fascinating to learn about some of the great projects and programmes already taking place, and to hear feedback from teacher colleagues about how academics can best support schools. Our twitter feed, @EnglishOutreach, gives a flavour of some of the discussions that took place, and video recordings of each session are also available to watch on our website. If you’re interested in English outreach, whether as an academic, teacher, student, or another member of the wider English community, please do get in touch with your thoughts! Over the coming months, I’ll be publishing a series of guest blog posts about all aspects of English outreach on the project websiteso if you’re currently participating in any projects – or, indeed, if you’re looking for partners with whom to work – please drop me an email at catherine.redford@hertford.ox.ac.uk.

Manuscript of Chapter 10 from Persuasion
One project that we heard about at the workshop was ‘Digitising Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts’, which is being led by Professor Kathryn Sutherland (University of Oxford). This project – which was highlighted by Dr Lesley Paterson in her talk on public engagement with research – brings together over 1,100 pages of Austen’s manuscripts, published as high-quality digital images on a free-to-use website. These manuscripts, which are located in museums, libraries, and private collections around the world, have previously been accessible to just a handful of scholars, but are now available for anyone with an interest in Austen to enjoy. The images are even encoded to make them fully searchable, meaning that the manuscripts are available for analysis in close detail.

This is a brilliant example of public engagement with research, as the project is simultaneously an invaluable research resource for scholars and of great interest to any general reader of Austen’s books. Professor Sutherland is currently also piloting a transcription tool to be used in schools, which will enable students to engage with the manuscripts in a more interactive way. I regularly run a session for school students on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein manuscript, and often see the students in these sessions really relishing the challenge of deciphering an author’s hand and using the manuscripts to learn about the writing process. I'm therefore really interested to see how this pilot goes - I'm sure that it will be very popular with students and teachers alike!

I know from the emails I receive that this blog is read by all sorts of people with an interest in Romanticism, including academics, university students, school students, and other general members of the public. Whatever your background, the digital edition of Austen’s fiction manuscripts is an excellent resource, bringing together manuscripts from around the world that trace Austen’s development as a writer from her teenage years to her final works.


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