Interview with Dr. Russ McConnell, curator of Grammar-Land, Part I

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By: Dr. Russ McConnell, Instructor in the English Department

This week, we’re talking Dr. Russ McConnell about his research and his process for curating an exhibition with special collections materials. Check back on Wednesday to hear his tips and tricks.

Hello! Thank you for agreeing to speak with us today about the experience of curating an exhibition with the Division of Special Collections. First, could you tell us a bit about your role here at the University of Alabama?


Dr. Russ McConnell

I received my BA in English at the University of Calgary and my MA and PhD at the University of Western Ontario.  This is my first semester at the University of Alabama and I am an instructor in the English Department.  This semester I am teaching English 215, an Honors course that surveys British literature from the medieval period to 1800.  Next semester I will be teaching English 220, an Honors course surveying American literature from 1865 onwards.  I will also be teaching a seminar course on comic books for the Blount Undergraduate Initiative.

What does your scholarship primarily discuss?

My doctoral dissertation was titled Graphic Drama: Reading Shakespeare in the Comics Medium, and was devoted to discussing and demonstrating the power and versatility of comic books in adapting and interpreting early modern dramatic literature.  Doing so involved not only analyzing a wide range of comic book versions of Shakespearean plays, but also developing an analytical method capable of fully drawing out the fascinating complexities of these works.

My current research concerns the history of grammar and writing instruction in early modern England, with a particular emphasis upon William Lily’s seminal textbook, A Short Introduction of Grammar, which dominated English grammar school education from 1548 to 1758.  Thus far, my work in this area has emphasized the poetry of John Milton and Andrew Marvell.

Although these two research areas may seem disparate, they are in fact deeply congruous, as both represent a historical formalist approach to literary interpretation.  This approach focuses on the discursive forms and structures that make meaning possible in a particular medium, and on how these forms and structures are learned, used, and understood by practitioners.



How does the topic of your exhibition, Grammar-Land: Learning to Write in America (1700-1930), fit within the scope of your scholarship?  

While the history of grammatical education in early modern England was already an interest of mine, the Grammar-land project provided an opportunity for me to extend my research both in time and space: into the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, and across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World.  This meant that most of the materials that I discovered in the W. S. Hoole collection were new to me, but also that the purposes, functions, and aims of these materials were often quite familiar.

Have you been to special collections exhibitions elsewhere?

In the past I have had the opportunity to work in a number of special collections libraries, including the Newberry Library in Chicago, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.  All of these libraries host fascinating special collections exhibitions, and although it did not occur to me for a long time that I might ever curate an exhibition myself, I did get to see quite a few of them.

Come back on Wednesday to learn more about Dr. McConnell’s process of curating an exhibition.


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