Senior Liz Bettinger never knew that a chance course she applied for after its deadline would turn into her thesis.
This past semester, Bettinger and a handful of other girls woke up early and took the Metro to Capitol Hill every Friday morning so that they could experience, as Bettinger puts it, the “once in a lifetime opportunity” of studying at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
The Folger holds the world’s largest collection of Shakespearean and Renaissance books, manuscripts and art. Students in the seminar had full access to the Folger, which has a partnership with GW. The students used antique books and manuscripts, many of which were handwritten, as primary sources for their research projects. Some students, such as Bettinger, continue to visit the library this semester, taking advantage of their extended six-month membership.
The program is a highly competitive senior seminar with its own special application process. This fall marked its second term.
The partnership between the Folger and GW began after professor Gail Kern Paster, a famous Shakespeare expert, left GW several years ago to work at the Folger. Many members of the English faculty use the Folger collections to conduct research.
For faculty, “it’s usually a place go to once a week, or spend a summer there. Professor Jonathan Gil Harris is spending an entire year there,” said Jeffrey Cohen, chair of the English department. “We wanted to make sure we could share this with the students.”
Harris introduced senior Christina Katopodis to the seminar. Katopodis said her time at the Folger turned out to be one of her most fulfilling experiences as an English major.
“To work with books that old means that they were special in history because they had survived. It indicates they were valued,” she said.
With the help of Folger scholar Sarah Werner, Katopodis worked specifically with a 1605 book by Thomas Haywood, a famous Elizabethan writer and actor. “If You Know Not Me You Know Not Nobody” was written on vellum – a type of paper made of animal skin – and Katopodis discovered more than just archaic spellings. She also found “little hairs mixed in.”
Bettinger, a history major, had more ambiguities with her book on Richard III, whose title is too long to say, let alone print.
“It was a mysterious little book with no author. My project was on how the book came to be,” Bettinger said.
But as she sat and studied for four months in the Elizabethan style reading room, she realized the project could turn into her senior thesis, which analyzes the literary character of Richard III.
To finish work on her thesis, Bettinger plans on going back to the Folger to do more research later this semester.
“I was touching a piece of history,” she said.
The English department plans on making the program permanent, said Jeffrey Cohen, chair of the English department. The only obstacle is the cost, he said.
“The problem is it’s an extensive course to run. Hopefully we will find a donor, but it’s worth every penny,” Cohen said.
Katopodis said the program has made her respect books more and that when she goes into a bookstore, she is more inclined to “subconsciously think about how books are made.”