Everything Old is New Again

A mashup of 18th Century Literature and modern technology results in a new online journal about early women authors.

By Vickie Chachere

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (March 17, 2011) - They were suspicious of the new technology. People could steal your words. They could easily spread lies. And how would you know if anything you read was actually true?

At the dawn of the modern age of literature, books were considered nothing but trouble.

Fast forward to the 21st Century and the age of the Internet and the concerns about online publishing seem all so familiar, points out USF English Professor Laura Runge.

Which is why this week’s launch of a new online, interactive journal dedicated to Aphra Behn, the English Restoration-era writer and poet widely regarded as the first female professional author, is destined to shake things up just a little.

Aphra Behn Online: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts 1640-1830 by the Aphra Behn Society debuts as a new open-access, high-tech treatment for a traditional academic discipline. Runge, an 18th Century literary expert who has spent a career studying and teaching Behn’s works, is the force behind an international effort to remake the academic journal.

“We hope to make the 18th Century relevant again,” Runge said.

The annual journal focusing on women in the arts between 1640 and 1830 will have all the protocols and trappings of traditional academic publishing: the articles will be peer-reviewed and indexed and its content will provide scholarly insight for researchers and students alike. An international band of editors and board members scattered across the United States, Australia, and England will oversee the new journal; they meet via Skype and Google Groups.

But as a modern outlet for scholars, it will also include online discussions about new media applications and women’s literature on the web, blogs, podcasts and will be publicly available. The idea, Runge said, is to streamline and modernize the process of becoming published for academics while hopefully engaging the public in new and interesting ways.

The new approach also addresses a long-standing problem for researchers in the humanities: the painfully long wait to get published given the flood of work submitted, the time-crunch on reviewers, and too few journals able to sustain expensive publishing costs.

“Our profession suffers from a backlog of papers waiting to be published,” Runge said. “It can take two or three years to get an article into print. With publishing online you can alleviate that.”

Throughout her career, Runge has sought to raise the profile of female literary figures both in higher education and in the community, even teaching a course called: “Who is Aphra Behn and Why You Should Care.” Most students, much less casual readers, can go through their formal education without ever hearing of these women who played important roles in shaping modern literature and eventually the feminist movement.

Behn, who lived from 1640 to 1689, lead a fascinating life that scholars believe included time in the former English colony of Suriname, young widowhood and later work as a spy for England during the Dutch Wars under the pseudonym “Astrea.”

 After ending up penniless and in a debtor’s prison, she became a successful published author of poetry, novels and plays. Her most notable work is the love story Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave, which continues to be the subject of analysis today as a touchstone on issues of slavery, women’s roles and colonialism.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, technology has only made the study of such traditional works stronger, said Runge, who incorporates tools such as multimedia Wikis and blogs into her undergraduate courses to create a 21st Century version of classical commonplace books.

“The English major is not suffering,” she said. “All this technology and innovation has led to people writing more. When they want to write about something, they want to read more. … It’s a different world. It’s a different set of English majors.”

The current issue of Aphra Behn Online can be found here. Aphra Behn Online on Facebook is here.

Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.