This month’s entry comes by special request! It turns out that, in the midst of a scholarly renaissance in empirical bibliography in which institutions are buying presses and setting up print shops, the next question is: What do you do with them?
This post is going to assume you know the basics of printing and dive straight into actual exercises. We want to give a few options that you can mix and match for your own purposes. Please let us know if you try this at home, and even better—share your pictures and stories with us!
Printing with Undergraduates
These exercises assume that you have ninety minutes or less per class period, as well as a space that has been set-up ahead of time so you can start immediately. If you have more than a handful of students, we suggest you find an able printing assistant/printer’s devil for the day to assist; they can prepare the ink while you talk, be on stand-by for panicked type-setters, and in general be another set of hands for both teaching and clean-up. (For what it’s worth, many printers can be bribed with coffee and/or chocolate!)
Exercise 1. Printing a historical text.
“Historical” here can include anything from an excerpt of a known text (I’m rather fond of Elinor James’ “Mrs. James’ Advice to All Printers in General” from 1715 or so) to a full facsimile (should you have fonts and ornaments available, or a pre-fabricated zinc plate, if not) of a one-sided broadside. The idea here is to print something where the bulk of the work has been done, and all students need to do is get right to the inking and the printing. Alternatively, limited typesetting can be done in which each student sets their own name as a line of type, which is collected and then added to the bottom of the pre-set text.
- Advantages: Fast, and can be made relevant to the class’s topic.
- Cons: Perhaps too fast, as setting your own name isn’t that exciting or illustrative.
Exercise 2. Composing a new text.
This sounds more complicated, but it needn’t be. I co-taught a class where each student was given a homework assignment to create a one-sentence aphorism for the book, which they then typeset with their name. We gathered these and set them two to a page in small bi-folia, which the students would bind in a later class after they had dried. Each student got one of these little pamphlet collections to take home.
- Advantages: A group project that reflects a shared community, eg. the class.
- Cons: You will probably have to set aside at least two class periods for this, one for printing and one for binding; two for printing and one for binding if you have more than 15 students. (If you do have more than 15 students that will overwhelm most printing spaces; it may be worth it to split into groups with one set doing the activity and the other doing an alternate assignment, and then trading off for the next period.) This also means your printing space will require the ability to store the standing type in between sessions, which shouldn’t be a problem for most places, but should still be kept in mind.
Printing with Graduate Students
Printing with graduate students assumes you will have one “long” session of at least three hours to work with and a very small number of people (8 or less) attending.
Exercise 1. Printing a short historical text.
This is much like the undergraduate exercise above, but meant to encompass something more appropriate for a seminar. This activity would still be confined to a single class session, though one with more time to work in. The students will be asked to typeset the entire text, which should already be appropriately divided up into segments suitable for the number of students. If you have enough time and type, and are limited to only one period, it may be worthwhile to have a complete text already set that you can borrow from should you run low on time. The goal of this exercise is a more extensive reproduction of material work that relates specifically to the seminar, rather than giving only a taste of printing.
Exercise 2. Printing a longer historical text.
This is a more intensive version of Exercise 1 and will take up two or more sessions depending on your goals and chosen text. The idea here is to introduce not just typesetting and printing but also signatures and gatherings as a study in possible problems in collation. If you want to up the difficulty/challenge level you can silently introduce elements yourself, or require the students to design the imposition order themselves.
These are just a few exercises possible with a primary audience of literature and history students. Other disciplines may want to play more with elements of graphic design, particularly if there are suitable libraries of wood type, block cuts, or ornaments available, and still others may want to integrate more production analysis into the exercise, eg. have the students calculate during or ahead of time the number of sheets they will need for pages, and so on. There are multiple avenues of material study that can be used to advantage by using letterpress in your teaching!
About the Author
Cait Coker is a doctoral candidate in English literature at Texas A&M University. She is currently working on her dissertation, "Liminal Ladies: Reconstructing the Place of Women in Seventeenth-Century English Book Production." Contact her at: cait.coker (at) gmail (dot) com.