Teaching Editing in an Undergraduate Women Writers Classroom

Liza Blake, University of Toronto

This write-up makes reference to the following four files: a syllabus, and three assignment sheets: EWW1; EWW2; and EWW3.

Context and Goals

This post will describe a three-part “Editing Women Writers” set of scaffolded assignments that I used in my undergraduate course “Early Modern Women Writers” in the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM)’s Spring term of 2018. The class’s evaluation was divided: half of the grades came from more typical academic assignments (a short and long paper, and quizzes), and half came from experiential learning assignments (a Transcribathon, and assignments leading up to a class-wide editing project to produce a student-made anthology of women writers). Below I describe the context for the collaborative anthology as well as the learning outcomes; describe the assignments and how they were deployed; and reflect on the success of the experiment to incorporate editing into the classroom environment. I end with some practical tips on how the assignments might be adapted or generalized for different group sizes, different levels of study, and/or different courses.

These editorial assignments were built out of a desire to help undergraduates be not just consumers but producers of the texts they read in their classrooms. That is, the assignments taught my students to critically evaluate edited texts and anthologies, or at a minimum, to be more aware of the decisions and interventions behind editions of texts and anthologies. Teaching students to evaluate the editions and anthologies of others then prepared them to think critically about their own editorial decisions, and every student had an opportunity to not just consume the texts of the course, but to produce their own critical editions.

I initially developed this series of scaffolded assignments for my course ENG 307: “Women Writers before Austen,” a shell course designed to be capacious enough in its scope to be taught as a survey of pre-nineteenth-century women writers, or to be taught as women writers in any one period, according to the instructor’s preferences. I taught it as an Early Modern Women Writers course (see the syllabus here), and due partially to my textbook choice my course ended up having a very heavy literature focus. I used the course my first attempt to incorporate into the undergraduate curriculum experiential learning. As part of this push to enhance experiential learning, in addition to the editing assignments, I also hosted an Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) Transcribathon for the course, something about which I have written at the EMROC and Recipes Project blogs.

I chose a women writers course as the venue for this experiment partly because the explosion of editions of women writers in the 1980s and 1990s is what made women writers courses possible in the first place, and because (as I learned when browsing textbooks) people teaching women writers have a historically shallower (but broad!) pool of editions from which to choose. Much of our discussion in early weeks of the course was about the relationship between editorial projects focusing on women writers and the kinds of research and teaching they made newly possible. We also discussed the institutional history of women writer courses, including the fact that I as an early modernist was able to teach ENG 307 only because we had modified it only the year before as part of our departmental curriculum review at UTM. Before the 2017–18 school year, ENG 307 was much more narrow in focus: “Women Writers 1660–1800.” Raising issues of departmental curriculum as a matter of debate, and not settled fact, prepared them on a larger scale for the kind of questions they would ask on a much smaller scale of their edited texts.

Finally, much of the work grew out of a larger ongoing project of mine, to collaboratively edit the works of Margaret Cavendish with my UTM undergraduates. In the last three years I have worked with 13 undergraduates, in groups of 2–5 people, through UTM’s Research Opportunity Program, the Jackman Humanities Institute’s Scholars in Residence Program, and the Work Study program—and hired them as paid RAs—working to produce a collaboratively edited version of Margaret Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies with full collations across editions and textual notes. Work on these editions also involved research trips with my undergraduates to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, and to the British Library in London, England. Our edition of Part I of Poems and Fancies has been posted here; Parts II–V are completed and should be published online soon. As I worked with my undergraduates on this project, I developed reading lists and worksheets to educate them in textual bibliography, editorial theory, and feminist editing. The assignments described below come from those close collaborations with small groups of students, and represent my attempt to do comparable work with undergraduates at the scale of the larger class (ENG 307 filled, with 50 students, 5 over the usual cap of 45 for 300-level English courses).


The editing assignments, building up to a class-wide anthology, existed in three phases: Phase I taught them the basics of textual bibliography and editorial theory, and asked them to analyze editorial decisions; Phase II asked them to analyze anthologies and reflect on best practices; and Phase III asked them to edit a text for inclusion in a larger anthology. I include more details on each phase below.

Editing Women Writers Phase I (EWW1) consisted of a general introduction to editorial theory and terminology. I gave students two articles to read in addition to their primary text for the day: the introduction to Erick Keleman’s Textual Editing and Criticism, and Valerie Wayne’s “The Sexual Politics of Textual Transmission.” Keleman’s excellent introduction defines some key terminology for textual editing, and which makes clear the stakes of seemingly minor or trivial editorial decisions—his Frost analysis alone has made a generation of UTM students insanely attentive to punctuation’s ability to radically alter a text’s meaning. Wayne’s essay serves as a clear overview of feminist editing in particular, highlighting the way editorial choices, and editorial history, can be inflected by sexual and gendered politics. Together, both make a convincing case for editorial intervention as non-neutral, and give some examples of how to analyze editorial decisions.

The assignment sheet for EWW1, a Critical Editing Worksheet, asks them to demonstrate their comprehension of the two articles by giving short definitions of key terms or concepts, then asks them to use those concepts to analyze the editorial decisions made by Paul Salzman in his online edition of Mary Wroth. The questions on this worksheet both ask them to perform a basic collation (to compare variant versions of sonnets with the class textbook), to analyze a substantive variant, and to reflect on a larger editorial issue of how to organize the poems. It therefore moves them from analyzing the editorial and textual decisions of others, to defining and justifying how they might have made different editorial decisions had they been editing. The day they submitted this worksheet, we both discussed Wroth herself, and discussed Salzman’s print and online editions of Wroth. I also did a quick overview of the early modern printing process, to discuss why, e.g., it was important to look for stop-press changes when editing early modern printed texts.

EWW2, an Anthology Analysis, works in a similar way: it moves students from analyzing anthologies to articulating their own ideas about how to organize an anthology of early modern women writers. The assignment sheet asks them to provide analyses of two different women writer anthologies, one on early modern women writers, and one on women writers from another period. It provides them a number of specific and targeted questions, not about the texts within each anthology, but on an anthology’s principles of selection. The last third of EWW2 asks them to extrapolate from the anthologies they have analyzed to create (and justify) a list of best practices.

After they submitted their EWW2, I compiled their respective desires and led a robust (and heated!) class discussion about the anthology we would collectively compile. The goal was to reach a group consensus about the guiding principle for the anthology, and perhaps even a sense of its organization. The list of questions to be resolved in this discussion depends, of course, on how people end their EWW2s; a sample of questions I brought to my whole class for discussion and resolution after reading their EWW2s included:

  • Would we modernize texts across the volume (or was it important that all texts be uniform in this, or could we operate on a case-by-case basis)?
  • Would our anthology include male writers as useful comparisons?
  • Should it be all literary, or non-literary texts as well?
  • Should it be all English writers, or could we make an anthology that included non-English writers, as the market seemed already so saturated with English women writer anthologies?
  • Should we exclude religious writing? Should we include only religious writing, but on the requirement that at least some of it be non-Christian?
  • Was it possible to build an anthology of only early modern women of color?

The result of this discussion was that we decided to organize an anthology based around the topic of diversity; as is reflected in the questions up for discussion, the majority of my students were particularly concerned to find a way to represent non-Christian, non-white, non-English, and non-hetero, and non-cis writers, even as many advocated that there should be space for those who wanted to publish an Englishwoman to do so as well. The principle of diversity was (appropriately) inclusive: students had to propose a text written by a woman in (roughly) 1500–1700, and in their proposal write a sentence about how their text added to the diversity of the anthology, whether that diversity be understood as diversity of race, sexuality, or genre (e.g., some students edited manuscript recipes and testimonies from witchcraft trials instead of literary texts).

The final phase was EWW3, Editing a Text, and this is final phase is where Women Writers Online (WWO) became crucial. Many students wanted to branch out from the texts that we had read in class, or that they found in other anthologies, which means they needed an archive of texts to explore. While a few students did targeted research on a specific writer (one, for example, edited and translated the poetry of the first female Urdu poet into English), most used WWO to find new authors, explore new texts, and locate their text that they wanted to edit. In this final phase students conducted bibliographical research, edited and established their text, and added footnotes. They also wrote two different introductions: a brief (1–2 page) introduction providing contextual information and setting up some questions for their readers, and a textual or editorial introduction discussing the textual research they had done and their editorial process. All of these were submitted to me electronically at the end of class, so that I could organize them into a group anthology. At the end of the course I compiled them into a PDF for each student to take away, though eventually, perhaps, it might be possible to upload them into a website like Wordpress, for future classes (mine, or others) to use.

Reflections, Future Possibilities, Tips

In general, I thought the three phases of the assignment were successful, insofar as they made students aware of the amount of work that goes into assembling their class textbooks, and made them willing to question editorial decisions rather than taking texts for granted. The first two phases allowed for the kind of analytical writing typical of English papers, but also prepared them to transition from analysis into editing itself as a critical practice. Multiple students told me that the editorial assignments were their favorite part of the class, and a few told me that they had listed their editorial work on their CVs and resumes for jobs. In general, the feeling was that they appreciated a chance to think about something they had not really examined before: that the texts they encountered in every class until then were not just neutrally reproduced, but carefully crafted by editors whose intentions needed to be examined as closely as we examine the texts themselves in our close readings. The making of an anthology also allowed them to feel like they were contributing to the ongoing teaching and study of women writers.

If I were to do this again next time I teach women writers, or in another class, I might think carefully about how to strike a balance between the amount of class time given over to discussions of editing, and the amount of class time given over to discussion of our literary authors. In many cases, these two discussions dovetail beautifully, as in, for example, our examination of textual variants in Mary Wroth’s sonnets: I still hold that you never get to know a text so well as when you are editing it. On the other hand, I sometimes felt like we had to table interesting literary, formal, or analytical discussions to make room for the business of editing, for example the overview of textual history, or our long and protracted discussion about the nature of our anthology near the end of the course. In the end, given how much value I had given to editing in the assignments, I felt it necessary to make time to cultivate that skill in class as well, but it was sometimes difficult to strike the right balance. I would also recommend that anyone thinking about adopting these assignments on the same scale clearly advertise the editorial aspect of the course from the beginning; I lost a few students in the first week who weren’t expecting so much editing based on the course description (though more took their place from the waitlist).

I will end with some caveats and recommendations for people interested in adopting the assignments and assignments sheets in their own courses. First, a minor but practical one: each of the sheets references specific moments or examples from our class discussions, which will obviously need to be changed to reflect different classes and different discussions. Second, I would recommend revising EWW3 to reflect more clearly the steps involved in editing. Through the sheet is fairly detailed already, many students didn’t quite understand the nature of textual research required to establish a text, so specifying that in more detail (e.g., telling them to figure out many editions there were and when they were published; to locate copies or scans of as many as possible, etc.) would have been helpful for them. Finally, many indicated that an example would have been helpful for them to see what a final edition, and especially a framing introduction, might have looked like—telling them to look at any of their current anthologies for examples was not generally regarded as a helpful response to this request.

As I mentioned at the beginning, these assignments were born of much more concentrated editorial work with undergraduates, designed to be scaled up from working on a single author with 2–5 undergraduates, to working on a collaborative anthology with 45–50 undergraduates. If you are working with a smaller group, then it might be better designed if rather than an anthology everyone worked instead to edit one text in its entirety—in which case it might be more effective to cut EWW2 and replace it with a second assignment, perhaps on translation practices, or on textual bibliography. If you are working with an individual or with a very small group of students on an editorial project, do feel free to get in touch with me; I am happy to share my materials designed for guiding a small group of undergraduate (or graduate) collaborators through the finer details of textual bibliography and editing. Please do also get in touch if you decide to work editing into a graduate course, or make other interesting modifications; I’d be happy to know of any afterlives of these materials!

I gratefully acknowledge the National Endowment of the Humanities, whose support allowed me the time to write this post. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.