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Unique Class Lets Students Explore History of Text


In the true spirit of Hamilton’s liberal arts education, various classes offer students an opportunity for unique experiences in the humanities. The Matter of the Text, taught by Lecturer in Literature and Creative Writing Thomas Knauer focuses on exploring the material conditions of the texts we read and how the medium in which they’re presented affects how we understand them.

“The class is trying to get students to see language and text not as something that is automatic and has always been there, but as something that is a technology within itself,” says Knauer. “We’re giving special attention to the ways in which the material conditions of textual production intersects with the social, cultural, and economic realities that surrounded the texts.”

This semester is the first time the class has been offered. Knauer says his inspiration for the class came from the letterpress housed in the basement of Dunham Residence Hall which was used by former Visiting Assistant Professor of Literature Andrew Rippeon who used to run the letterpress studio. After Rippeon left Hamilton last year, Knauer decided to create this class to expand into different fields and cover various historical eras.

“Rippeon really did a great job of helping students learn how to work with the letterpress,” says Knauer. “I proposed this class to expand beyond from just the letterpress to looking at the materiality of text itself across technologies over time.”

Christian Goodwillie, director and curator of Special Collections and Archives, gave the class a workshop on text illumination early in the semester. Students used tools to outline decorated letters before coloring them in with ink they learned to make by mixing a variety of pigments with gum arabic. Goodwillie also explained the processes that went into producing papyrus, parchment, and book bindings in the past.

The course involves five projects that require students to use different forms of text production developed over the years, offering a very hands-on experience to those enrolled in the course.

At the start of the semester, students take on the role of a scribe as they emulate the process of making a manuscript page. After setting moving type on a letterpress to print and using typewriters to type poems, the class enters the modern age by exploring HTML, teaching students how to hand code the text on a webpage before moving onto motion graphics.

Besides the projects, students will be reading about the progression of text production over time. From cave paintings to websites and from manuscripts to books today, the course covers thousands of years of human advancement in the field of writing and printing.

“The class gives students an important historical view of the history of text to better understand how we got to where we are today,” says Knauer. “It’s a way of getting students to think about how we read, how we write, how the material of what we’re working with affects the meaning of the text itself.”

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