By Hugh Reid, Adjunct Research Professor, Department of English Language and Literature

My first blog about English 4115, Culture and the Text, (but which I refer to as my ‘Rare Books’ course) was about the excitement students feel when handling 200-year-old books and trying to solve the mysteries of their materiality contained therein. The second blog was about the personal aspect, which the students began to discover when dealing with the people who had written or who had owned the books. There is another element to the course, one altogether more practical, more utilitarian, that might seem far removed from examining 18th century books.

Nowadays it is fashionable for courses to be seen as practical, as if a university education were job training, which I most certainly believe it is not. There are frequently subtle, and often not so subtle, queries as to the relationship to jobs that a course may provide. And English 4115 seems to be about as far from job preparation as a course could be. How could examining 18th century texts possibly prepare students for the world of work? Well, clearly, the books themselves and the mysteries about them that the students discover, don’t. It is the process that is important.

Through the process the students learn, by experience, how to approach a problem and how to go through the vicissitudes of solving it. The course work parallels TV detective stories where there is a mystery, lots of clues to begin with, followed by a long period with no major developments, no progress. Then, during a lull near the end, some minor clue brings about a resolution, a clue which was often already in sight and generally found with ‘just hard police work.’ The mystery is solved.

Such is also the case in English 4115. The thrill and excitement of the early going keeps the students enthused, stimulated and motivated to spend even more time trying to solve the secrets that the books conceal. But there inevitably comes a time when their work, their research, begins to yield very little. Their investigations seem to be moribund, or, at the very least, heading nowhere. It is this stage which is most didactic, most instructional. For the students feel like the detective in the mystery. They have worked so hard and there is no obvious resolution.

Isn’t this what we all feel when doing something which is important, yet challenging? There comes a time in our labours that demands that we persevere even though we feel ignorant as to the direction, or even the method, of our persistence. We feel oddly let down, as if we haven’t done enough, as if we have been indolent all along. But somehow, miraculously, things effloresce, just as in the TV mystery.

This year, in the last working class, a student discovered the Victorian owner of a 1771 edition of Wesley’s Hymns, an antiquarian from a small village in Oxfordshire who was also, not surprisingly, a Methodist preacher. The student was even able to find a picture of the Methodist chapel in which he preached, and presumably, where he carried this very book.

No one seems able to explain these serendipitous occurrences, but they always happen. This is the lesson, the experience, which is important to take away from this course, and indeed, from university education. It is in courses such as this that we learn to think, to solve problems, to persist, and be diligent in our efforts.

One of the endearing moments of the course often occurs long after it has concluded when I encounter a student who says to me, “Do you remember when I was sure I couldn’t find anything more/what such and such meant/how that signature came to be there (or some such thing), and then I noticed…?” It is always said with the confidence and self-assurance of one who has learned how to deal with problems, and their often difficult resolution, or, perhaps, in other words, one who has benefited from a real university education, and not just a course in how to do something. And oh yes, the Latin title refers to such an education: “May it live, grow and flourish.”