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This content is taken from the University of Basel's online course, Literature in the Digital Age: from Close Reading to Distant Reading. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Welcome to Reading Literature in the Digital Age. My name is Philipp Schweighauser, and this is where I work. Well not exactly here in the courtyard, but in this building. We are here at the Department of English of the University of Basel where I teach American and General Literatures. Founded in 1460, the University of Basel is Switzerland’s oldest university, but the venue we find ourselves in here is even older than that. The rear building was first mentioned in a document in 1294 because of its wealth and decorative splendour. For centuries this was the home of rich citizens, and from 1431 to ‘49 it hosted church dignitaries during the Council of Basel.

Skip to 0 minutes and 57 seconds These rich citizens, church dignitaries, and nobles entertained guests in one of this building’s largest rooms. Let’s have a look at it.

Skip to 1 minute and 11 seconds We call this the Great Lecture Hall, but when Pope Pius II, the founder of the University of Basel, described this room in 1434 he noted that only the most beautiful women danced here. And he added that the common folk were denied access.

Skip to 1 minute and 33 seconds As I teach literature in this room I’m taken back to times where very few people could read. Sure, the church dignitaries, rich citizens, and nobles that entertained guests in this hall, they could read, or at least most of them could read. As could the spice merchants that sold their wares just across the street. But the common folk that Pope Pius II mentions, the vast majority of them, could not read.

Skip to 2 minutes and 5 seconds So between the first centuries of this building’s existence and today a great revolution in reading has taken place. Today Switzerland has a literacy rate of 99%, but between 1294 and today another revolution in reading has taken place. And to talk about that second revolution in reading let me take you to another room of this building.

Skip to 2 minutes and 48 seconds We find ourselves here in the Department of English’s theatre cellar. For many evenings of the week this is a place of bustling activity. We have several semi-professional and amateur theatre groups performing their plays here. We even have our utterly delightful theatre group named the Gay Beggars. Founded in 1941, the Gay Beggars are named after John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, and they first performed on this stage in 1969. This brings me to the second revolution in reading that has taken place. When the Gay Beggars first entered this stage in 1969 none of the actors possessed a computer, and none of them were hooked up to the internet.

Skip to 3 minutes and 44 seconds True, the ARPANET, the internet’s precursor built by the US Department of Defence, was first put to use in 1969, the very same year that the Gay Beggars entered this stage. But personal computers only began to be introduced on a large scale into households and campus dorms in the mid 1970s. And the internet only became a force to be reckoned with in the late 1980s. Clearly then much has changed in the last 50 years. Today my students do all of their writing on personal computers, or computers provided by the University of Basel. And they also do most of their reading on personal computers, be it laptops, desktop computers, or smartphones.

Skip to 4 minutes and 39 seconds I’m not only talking about Facebook and Twitter, I’m also talking about course reading, the critical texts they read, the theoretical texts they read, and quite a few of the literary texts they read for my courses. Not only that, my students do a lot of their reading online. And that comes with all the benefits and the distracting potential of hyper-reading. Novels seem to be an exception, though. To this day students still prefer to read print novels over ebooks, but that may too change in the next 10 years or so. Clearly then something has changed. As a teacher of literature I have a sustained interest in trying to understand how my students’ reading practices have changed.

Skip to 5 minutes and 37 seconds And I also want to understand how my own reading practices have changed. And I’m pretty sure that your reading practices have changed, too. And this is precisely what we’ll explore in this course, how we read literature in the digital age.

Welcome from Philipp Schweighauser

In this video Professor Philipp Schweighauser introduces you to the topic of the course and shows you around the Department of English of the University of Basel.

Have a look at the department’s lovely courtyard, historical Great Lecture Hall, and cosy theatre cellar as he conjures up the building’s fascinating past and its relation to two major revolutions in reading practices.

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Let us take a moment to introduce the Educator Philipp Schweighauser.

Philipp Schweighauser is Associate Professor and Head of American and General Literatures at the University of Basel. He is the author of The Noises of American Literature, 1890-1985: Toward a History of Literary Acoustics (University Press of Florida, 2006) and Beautiful Deceptions: European Aesthetics, the Early American Novel, and Illusionist Art (University of Virginia Press, 2016).

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This video is from the free online course:

Literature in the Digital Age: from Close Reading to Distant Reading

University of Basel