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FRENCH 379 A: French And Francophone Cultural And Literary History Through Digital Archives And Tools

Meeting Time: 
TTh 1:30pm - 3:20pm
DEN 159
Geoffrey Turnovsky

Syllabus Description:


Digitizing the Revolution:

Eighteenth-Century France Through Digital Archives and Tools


Winter 2020; T-Th 1:30-3:20

Geoffrey Turnovsky (

Padelford C-237; 685-1618

Office hours: M 1-3pm and by appointment


Sommes-nous libres.jpg        TEI


PDF of Syllabus

Description. The last decade or two has witnessed a huge migration of texts and data onto digital platforms, where they can be accessed, in many cases, by anyone anywhere. This is a terrific benefit to students and teachers alike, who otherwise wouldn't be able to consult these materials; and it has transformed the kind of work and research we can do in the French program and in the Humanities. We can now discover obscure, archival documents which we would never have been able to find in the past. And we can look at classic works in their original forms, rather than in contemporary re-editions that often change and modernize the works.

Yet this ease of access brings challenges: to locate these resources on the web, to assess their quality and reliability, and to understand how to use them, as primary sources and “data”, and as new research technologies. The PDF of a first edition downloaded through Google Books certainly looks like the historical printed book it reproduces; but it is not that printed book. It is a particular image of one copy of it, created under certain conditions and it can be a mistake to forget the difference.

In this course, we'll explore a variety of digital archives, databases and tools that are useful for studying French cultural history. We’ll use these tools and resources to explore the eighteenth century and the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment in the decades leading into the French Revolution. This was also a time when new information technologies – periodicals, pamphlets, encyclopedias, sentimental novels – were transforming the ways that individuals related to their societies, their political worlds and their private lives.

We'll look at:

  • a new database of Revolutionary pamphlets recently created by the Newberry Library
  • two competing databases of book orders received in the 1770s and 1780s by a publishing house in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, which shipped clandestine texts into France
  • text analysis tools and techniques that use computers to help us see patterns – relations between words or between elements in a literary text – which we might, as “human readers,” miss

We'll discuss current debates on digital scholarship and the digital humanities. These often address the underlying question of what it means to read and to interpret texts, and how technology helps and hinders our abilities to access and understand these texts. Computers can be programmed to search through massive corpuses of texts in seconds to find patterns. How might this change or challenge our notions of what reading is? We’ll discuss these issues in parallel with discussions about how reading practices evolved in the 18th‑century. We’ll discuss the work of historians like Lynn Hunt and Robert Darnton who’ve explored the impacts of reading in the decades leading up to the Revolution.

We'll consider others aspects of the digitization of texts that we might not normally think about as we scan the internet for materials, resources and references: how are the texts that we find chosen and edited? In what ways do copyright and intellectual property law determine what we can and can't access and how we can and can’t use the materials? Finally, we will explore the rudiments of digital publishing through the preparation of a short reader of Revolutionary pamphlets which we’ll select from the Newberry digital collection. Working in teams, we’ll transcribe the texts and encode them using the widely-used protocol for preparing literary and historical texts for publication on the Internet: the XML-based Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) guidelines. We’ll develop editorial apparatuses for our texts, including introductions and footnotes based on research. And we’ll style our texts for rendering on the web.


Learning Goals.

* to discover at least a few of the growing number of archives and tools becoming available for studying many aspects of French cultural history and literature.

* to better understand the information these archives present; how the archives are constructed and what kinds of research they lend themselves to. What do they effectively help us know better, but what might they also obscure? In this case, through these tools, you will develop a sense of the reading culture of the late 18th century: what and how French people were reading, as the Revolution and the end of the Old Regime loomed.

* to better understand digital texts; as PDFs and as searchable text; to learn basic principles of editing, and specifically digital editing using the TEI guidelines.

* to develop a sense of the burgeoning field of the digital humanities, including the debates it has generated. This new field has transformed graduate education, but its effects are only slowly seeping into the undergraduate curriculum. This will change, however.

* finally, to reflect on relationships between technology and humanities research. How has digitization – turning literary and historical texts into searchable, processable “data” – transformed the way we read and study? What new insights do new computational tools that enable us to analyze massive corpuses of text in seconds (which would take an individual years to read) provide us?


Texts and materials. Readings will be delivered via the Canvas website as PDFs or as links to content online. You will need to bring a laptop to each class. Please let me know if this presents any difficulties.

For our work, you’ll want to install a few applications in the course of the quarter:

-- above all, the Oxygen XML Editor ( This is an editor we’ll use to prepare our digital pamphlet. The software comes with a 30-day free trial. If you install the software on Feb 11, then you’ll be able to use it for free until 3/12 (i.e. the last day of class). Oxygen is installed in the computers in the Media Arcade in Allen Library (381F) (, if you’d like to get a head start (and if you want to purchase Oxygen, it’s $99 for students).

-- an application called Jupyter Notebook. This is an environment for writing and running Python scripts (among other things). The easiest way to install this is by installing the Anaconda Distribution of applications (, which includes Jupyter. This is free.

-- finally, for Optical Character Recognition software that works with historical documents, we’ll experiment with Transkribus ( You’ll also need to set up an account. All free again.


Work. This course will have many workshop and hands-on aspects, when we are exploring a tool and, especially, developing our final projects in the 2nd part of the quarter. Preparation for and participation in classroom sessions – in class discussions and workshops – will be an integral part of your final grade.

The written work will consist of

* Nine short exercises to be uploaded to Canvas (usually 1/2 to 1 page; or a series of short questions)

* TEI project, to be completed with your partner. This includes:

-- the document analysis. Due 2/4.

-- initial transcription and draft of editorial materials (intro, at least 5 footnotes, and a bibliography of at least 5 items). Due 2/14.

-- the first version of the completed TEI-XML file. Due 3/5.

-- the final corrected TEI-XML file, plus corrected editorial materials. Due 3/12.

* a short final reflection paper (3-4 pages). Due Monday 3/16 at  9am.


Participation: This is a hands-on, project-oriented course, in which we’ll do a lot of workshop activities in collaboration with classmates. For your core project, you’ll be working with a partner. Presence and active participation are essential. This means completing the readings and contributing to discussions. It also means having your materials and equipment, especially your laptop, in class, so that you’re prepared to participate in workshops and other activities.


Grade Breakdown

Participation                                                                       15%

9 class exercises (lowest dropped)                         30%

Final reflection paper (due 3/16)                            15%

TEI Project (groups of 2)                                               40%

     The TEI project comes to 100 points, distributed as such:

         -- Document analysis (due 2/4)                         10pts

         -- Initial editorial materials (due 2/14):         10pts

         -- Submission of TEI drafts on 3/5:                   5 pts   

        -- Assessment of completed project  

                  (materials submitted on 3/12):                 75pts, broken down into:

Quality of TEI markup:                                        20pts

Quality of transcription:                                     20pts

Quality of editorial materials:                         20pts

Overall approach/rationale:                             15pts


Grade conversion chart: from percentage to 4pt scale


  1. Academic honesty and use of sources. Students in French 379, like all UW students, are expected to maintain “the highest standards of academic conduct,” and any misconduct will be taken very seriously. This includes cheating and plagiarism. Please consult the statement on “Student Academic Responsibility” prepared by the Committee on Academic Conduct in the College of Arts and Sciences: (Links to an external site.)
  2. Students with disabilities are encouraged to contact the office of Disability Services which coordinates reasonable accommodations for students with documented disabilities: (Links to an external site.).


Catalog Description: 
Digital archives and tools offer new resources for studying French and Francophone culture, literature, and history, and have transformed the way to learn about these materials. Takes advantage of new resources, as well as to understand them better: how are these technologies reshaping the ways we undertake research?
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
June 10, 2020 - 10:43am