I am defending my dissertation this semester. When I have successfully completed this task, I will be required by the University of Maryland to submit a copy of it to be held in perpetuity by the university’s library system. In fact, just about anyone who has written a Ph.D. dissertation, a Master’s thesis, or even an undergraduate honors thesis at an institution of higher learning in the last century and a half has been required to do the same. And, in addition to these terminal projects, university libraries are overflowing with items such as course syllabi, exam booklets, seminar papers, and class notes. For example, you can walk into Alderman Library at the University of Virginia and read the doctoral dissertation of Woodrow Wilson. You can walk into Widener Library at Harvard and read undergraduate essays written in the 1890’s by Boston journalist (and Conrad reviewer) Edwin Francis Edgett. If you’re interested, you can read the complete text of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1885 medical school dissertation from the University of Edinburgh right now from the comfort of your living room couch. Like Wilson, Edgett, and Doyle, I could become famous enough during my lifetime that a person one hundred years from now will read my dissertation in order to divine from its pages the nascent genius of my later ideas. However, if I don’t make it to the realm of the extreme noteworthy, will anybody be interested in reading my dissertation in 2112? Will some future librarian at the University of Maryland quietly hit the delete button and send all my years of effort into the electronic ether?
One of the projects we have underway at Foreign Literatures in America (FLA) is to save these kinds of academic documents from obscurity (and possibly oblivion.) While most go unread for decades, old dissertations and theses on literary topics present a unique opportunity for scholars – and scholarly projects such as FLA – interested in the reception history of literary texts. First, looking at such material expands the pool of critical responses quite considerably. Published items such as professional essays, scholarly monographs, book reviews, and newspaper articles are all great sources of information about literary history and each category caters to a slightly different audience. However, as we have begun to compile bibliographic metadata on the reception history of Joseph Conrad at FLA, it quickly became clear that many of the articles, books, reviews of Conrad’s work over the course of his long career were actually written by a small handful of interested writers. By contrast, our initial effort to locate dissertations and theses written on Conrad in the years between 1900 and 1960, turned up two hundred and eight different projects either entirely or significantly focused on Conrad. A little digging is likely to turn up more. Even if we can locate copies of only a portion of these manuscripts, we will be able to get a broader view of Conrad’s place within the academy and use the bibliographies and citations contained in these documents to map how ideas about Conrad spread and circulated over time and across space.
Also, since these documents were written for or by students they provide a glimpse into the early days of Conrad Studies in American classrooms. For example, Heart of Darkness is now the most common gateway text, appearing on most syllabi of introductory English courses. But was this always the case? Have other Conrad texts gone through periods of prominence and obscurity on college campuses? How quickly do ideas trickle down from professional scholarship on Conrad to student-generated writing?
Finally, the relatively large size of the data set available from student papers makes possible comparative scholarship between different subsets of the student population. For example, almost half of the available academic projects on Conrad were written by female students. This alone is a somewhat surprising fact given Conrad’s reputation as a “masculine” author. Will we see differences in focus, emphasis, or approach towards Conrad’s work based on gender? If present, will these differences change over time?
We are excited that FLA will provide a full-text, searchable repository for the often excellent and unfortunately obscure scholarship on foreign authors done by generations of American students. Personally, I will be pleased if in 2112 a future user of the FLA database runs an algorithm in which my dissertation provides a data point. Oh, immortality.
Rebecca Borden is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Maryland. Her dissertation is titled “Making Meaning Together: Information, Propaganda, and Rumor in British Fiction of the First World War.” She is also the Executive Editor for Modern British Literature at FLA.