English Professor Peter Logan and His Student Assistants Show Why CLA’s Dedication to Research Matters
By: Nick Santangelo
It’s somewhat of an unfortunately well-kept secret outside of Temple University’s campuses, but Temple is a Research 1 University. What exactly does that mean? Well, by definition it means the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education has certified that Temple is among the 115 nationwide universities conducting the highest levels of research. You know, that old thing.
Right. OK, Temple has this impressive-sounding scholarly classification, but what does it actually mean for incoming students to Temple’s College of Liberal Arts (CLA)? It means they can expect to learn from and work with faculty members who are better prepared than most to give them the kind of broad worldview that’s central to an effective liberal arts education. The English Department’s Peter Logan is one such professor. Just this month, Dr. Logan was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Grant for his Developing the Data Set of Nineteenth-Century Knowledge project.
A Unique Student Experience
Thing is, it’s not only his project. Three CLA undergraduate students and one CLA graduate student, along with collaborators from another university, are working on the project with Dr. Logan. They’re not unique in that. College-wide, students are benefitting from working on such projects and learning directly from their authors in the classroom. And while Dr. Logan believes every school has great teachers, there’s something different about professors at Research 1 schools.
“The difference at a Research 1 university like Temple is that students get to work with people who wrote their textbooks instead of just people who've been reading them,” says Dr. Logan. “And I think that's a huge difference in instruction if you can actually work with people who are generating the new ideas in the field. I think that's a unique experience for students. It gives them a much broader perspective about how the humanities work, in particular how research works and about what's actually going on in the field currently.”
The CLA students who benefit from all this research come to Temple from around the globe. Their ethnicities, nationalities and socio-economic positions are far too varied to list out here. But one major cohort is those students who come to our North Philadelphia Main Campus from underserved communities. Dr. Logan explains that one way CLA gets these students acclimated to the college experience is by pairing them with faculty members who are leading researchers in their fields. And with Dr. Logan’s project, students are even working on subject matter they “seem to find interesting because they see ongoing echoes of present-day concerns.”
The faculty-student team is developing a dataset built out of 100 million words from four Encyclopedias Britannica spanning the French Revolution to WWI. Reading through them all is a roughly four-and-a-half year process. That’s why nobody on the team is going to bother doing so—it’s one reading assignment that not even the toughest professor would hand out. Instead, some fancy computational analysis will build the data as the encyclopedias are entered into a digital database. It still takes work to upload all the entries into the system, so no one’s kicking back and relaxing while the computers do all of the lifting.
Students get to work with people who wrote their textbooks instead of just people who've been reading them
But it is an innovative technological process that will save years of work and make it feasible to build a clear picture of how the understanding of key concepts changed across the 19th century. As mentioned, this evolution of accepted knowledge is, in many ways, echoed today.
Time Reveals All
Of course, as Dr. Logan explains, knowledge was “extremely different” in the 1800s than it is today. Entire new subjects were developed, classified and reclassified. Anthropology, for instance, was originally classified as a subfield of biology, because it was initially based on evolutionary theory. But in the 1870s it was reclassified as a social science, when anthropologists wanted to get away from the biological roots of the discipline.
“In the 1840s, you had an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica on ‘History.’ That was the actual title,” notes Dr. Logan. “It based its claims about the history of the Earth and the history of humans on the Book of Genesis. By 1889, when the ninth edition came out, that was completely changed. It began to look more recognizably modern. The History entry started with an entry on historiography and all the problems with the way the old historians had thought about history. That's like an indictment of the earlier entry.”
Dr. Logan has plenty of other examples. The research will even bring to the surface the ugly prejudices of the era.
“If you read an article on Africa in the Encyclopedia Britannica from the 19th century,” Dr. Logan continues, “you're going to say, ‘This is a joke. This is so racist.’ It is racist because it talks in derogatory terms about the people who lived in Africa and the cultures they had.
“If you look for any articles on things like domestic life or issues of concern to women, you won't find them. They didn't exist. That's because Britain was a culture that didn't value the contributions of people of color or of women, and the question is in a society like that is, what does knowledge look like? Well, these old encyclopedias showing us exactly what knowledge looked like.”
It’s easy to look back at that Victorian Society today and call it racist and sexist. And in many (many) ways, that would be accurate. But Dr. Logan also encourages modern-day society to look inwards and think about how someone in the 2180s might grimace at how today’s knowledge is recorded through the lenses of current-day biases and bigotries. He concedes, however, that it is likely “impossible” to truly understand the full breadth of how ugly some of today’s words and generally accepted concepts will seem in some 170 years.
Direct from the Source
Better, then, to focus on that “knowledge” which can be re-evaluated through a modern lens. It’s work that Dr. Logan never thought he’d get the opportunity to undertake. The professor says CLA and Temple Libraries were both excited to help by supporting him with a fantastic workspace in Paley Library, by covering the costs of his student assistants and by encouraging him to pursue his research. Still, the NEH Grant was necessary to fully fund the project, and fewer than one in 10 grant applicants are approved.
But Dr. Logan’s second proposal—his first was rejected in 2017 with what he says was some very constructive feedback—was approved. As a result, CLA student assistants are busy working with a good teacher on what will become analyses of knowledge from the Industrial Revolution, an era that shaped the United States and Europe of today. Dr. Logan is humble enough to recognize he’s far from the only good teacher, but he has that quality only found at a liberal arts school within a Research 1 University.
“There are good teachers everywhere, but, again, research universities are where people write the textbooks, and that really does make a big difference for the students when they get to work with and learn from those faculty members.”