English R1B

Reading and Composition: Early American Technology

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
14 Spring 2020 de Stefano, Jason
MW 5-6:30 134 Dwinelle

Book List

Equiano, Olaudah: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; Paine, Thomas: The Thomas Paine Reader

Other Readings and Media

All other readings will be provided in a course reader.


The era of the American Revolution and Early Republic was also a time of rapid innovation in science and industry. It was arguably America’s first technology boom. This course explores the place of technology in early American culture, specifically its role in constructing individual and national identity in and for the new United States. The definition of technology that we know today originated in this period, a time when inventions in the “applied sciences” and “practical arts” were classed among the arts in general; the things one designed and made in turn defined one’s place in society and sense of self. We will build an interdisciplinary account of how these definitions helped Americans distinguish their new national culture (in terms of ingenuity and industriousness, for instance, and with ideas of providence and manifest destiny), emerging political philosophies (from the Federalists’ investments in manufacturing and trade to Agrarianism’s faith in farming), and some of their most prominent compatriots (such as the inventor Benjamin Franklin and the amateur naturalist Thomas Jefferson). How were the visual cultures and vocabularies of emerging technologies employed as metaphors for the revolution and construction of the nation? In what ways did Americans find in the materials of their trades a set of conceptual resources for imagining their role as citizens? We will investigate some of the problems posed by technology, specifically those arising from its unchecked growth and uneven distribution. How did advancements in agriculture and transportation materially aid and ideologically justify arguments for territorial expansion, indigenous displacement, and hemispheric control? What kinds of relation to technology were possible, or proscribed, for African Americans in a society of chattel slavery? Throughout, we will consider literature and print as technologies of communication that fostered the emergence of the American republic within a transatlantic republic of letters.

R1B is designed to engage students in extensive writing and scholarly research. To that end, we will use questions about the history of technology in early America to pursue our own inquiries through primary and secondary sources. Students will learn to make use of digital technologies that aid research in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: online manuscript archives from institutions like the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Franklin in 1763; and digitized newspapers and periodicals like the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, early America’s preeminent scientific journal. Class meetings will often involve looking at visual materials such as paintings, broadsheet etchings, scientific diagrams, and pictures of historical objects that will enrich our discussions of the texts and topics under consideration. Writing assignments in this course will allow students to experiment with different research methodologies. The goal is to create an open and engaged conversation about writing well and how to use research to help make our writing better.

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