1


Elizabeth Sommers: Please explain your project to your colleagues and students in Humanities. What's the philosophy underlying your project? How did you go about turning the philosophy into the project?

David Renaker: To explain my project, The Atheist Seventeenth Century Website, a number of things have to be considered: the huge excess of printed matter in the Humanities, the politicization of scholarly publication, and the Christianization of Renaissance studies. In 1965, Morris Bishop, the head of the Modern Language Association of America, said that the quickest route to bankruptcy known to any university press was to publish quantities of literary studies, and that if every member of his Association published only one book in five years, the result would be 5,000 books a year. Things then only got worse instead of better. Clearly, we are consuming too much wood-pulp, sacrificing too many trees, for ephemeral ideas and trivial facts. The Internet should be the proving-ground of criticism and scholarship, after being tested on which, a book or essay might be promoted to print because it had shown itself to be indispensable.

And this would be liberating. My project was born when I saw an advertisement pasted to a fence: "All you need to own your own website is something to say." To publish in a scholarly journal you must crawl through a minefield of patronage, collusion, and the special interests of literary schools, cliques and cabals. In 1988, the MLA proposed to end this collusion by requiring that the editors not know the authors' names before reaching a decision--an elementary requirement of fairness, one would say. But Professor Stanley Fish wrote an essay arguing that a journal could not be published without this collusion and that he, for one, could not tell how good an essay was unless he knew both the name and the department of its author.

The Internet will free us of all this. We may feel frightened of the anonymity of being one in a series of eight million websites, but in this medium our ideas will stand on their own merits, not depending on conformity to the wishes of literary cliques. And, they will reach a global audience, more farflung than any university press can reach.

Though the seventeenth Century was an age of fierce religious wars and persecutions, and growing skepticism, there has been a tendency to present it as an age of faith. This seems to be acute right now. For example, the latest biography of Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, presents him virtually as a Christian saint, and his book as literally a sermon. In my website I'll labor to prove that he wasn't and it isn't.

Elizabeth Sommers: How is technology enhancing your ability to carry out your project?

David Renaker: In March of 2001 (only a month after I creaetd it), more than 1000 people accessed the website, from places as far away as Namibia, Egypt, Belgium and Australia as well as here at SFSU. Technology didn't enhance my project; it virtually created it from the ground up.

Elizabeth Sommers: How did you go about implementing it?

David Renaker: I sketched it on paper; Heidi Ward, then the English Department's in-house staff computer expert, selected the colors, ornaments and type fonts and assembled them into the home page and links. Later you taught me hypertext markup language (HTML) in which I could write texts.

Elizabeth Sommers: What do you find most troublesome about your web project?

David Renaker: I still feel, when I operate a computer, that I know and can use about one one-thousandth of its capabilities.

Elizabeth Sommers: What surprised you the most?

David Renaker: Namibia.


Back to About the Author

Copyright 2002-2004 by David Renaker. All rights reserved.