Printing the old way! Hands-on session for graduate students

Hands-on session for graduate students of universities in the Midlands Three Cities Doctoral Training Partnership: 29 October and 5 November 2014, De Montfort University, Leicester.

Find out more about the Centre for Textual Studies at De Montfort.

Printing the Old Way

For most of the history of the printed book the words were put together in a printing press by the process of hand-setting. Men called compositors–they were always men–would look at the author’s manuscript (the copy) and work letter-by-letter, word-by-word, and line-by-line picking out of a typecase individual pieces of type, each containing one letter or piece of punctuation, and placing them in a small tray called a composing stick. The line of type in the stick reads from left to right (as does the copy) but each one is placed upside down so that a new line may sit upon its predecessor as the page is built up.


A cabinet full of typecases, with one on top         (G Egan)

After the compositor had set perhaps six lines of type, his composing stick was full and he moved the type, carefully held as one block by the fingers, from the stick into a tray called a galley. The compositor repeated this process until the galley held all the type for one page of the book, and then he tied the page of type with cord to keep it together until it was ready to be imposed.


Compositor holding 2½ lines in his ‘stick’

This last process, imposition, is the bringing together of two or more pages of type to make what is known as a forme, which consists of the type pages–topped and tailed by such things as running titles, page numbers and catchwords–held in a frame called a chase. The rectangle of loose pieces of type had to be pressed together within the chase in order for it to behave as one solid block of type and be ready to be moved to the printing press. Once in the press, it was inked, paper was placed on top, and a heavy block called a platen was forced down onto the paper, pushing it onto the ink type and so an impression was taken. Across the centuries since Johannes Gutenberg invented this process around 1450 the details changed somewhat–early presses were made of wood, later ones were made of metal, and the Victorians added steam engines for automated running–but the essential details remained the same.

Wooden printing press

Wooden printing press c. 1750


Albion printing press

The Centre’s Albion printing press

If we want to understand the literary and historical culture of the past 500 years we need to understand how people made the books in which that culture was, for the most part, embodied. The processes of printing were subject to many kinds of mistakes so that the printed books do not quite represent what was in the authors’ manuscripts, and moreover the limitations as well as the advantages of printing shaped what authors wrote and how readers apprehended their writing.

Hands-On Learning

To enable graduate students to get a feel for how books were made in the hand-press era, the Centre for Textual Studies (CTS) at De Montfort University recently organized a pair of hands-on printing sessions. The sessions were attended by graduate students and their tutors from the University of Birmingham, the Shakespeare Institute and Leicester University and was led by Gabriel Egan and Paul Brown of the CTS.

Using as our copy the first poem in Shakespeare’s collection called Sonnets, printed by hand in 1609, the students broke into teams to set the type using the equipment of the CTS’s printing laboratory. In the first of two 2-hour sessions the students acted as compositors, working letter-by-letter through the poem and selecting the right pieces of type from their typecases. As with learning to use a keyboard, the location of each letter in the typecase is something that has to pass into muscle memory with practice and at the beginning the process is slow and frustrating. Even within the short time available, however, students noticed that for the most commonly used letters–t, e, and a in English (how British)–the hand soon knows where to go, and that it is the least frequently used letters that have to be hunted for. With each team setting a couple of lines, the first session ended with seven pairs of lines safely stored in seven galleys, the metal trays used to hold type during typesetting.


Using the 'galley'

Building the poem line-by-line within a ‘galley’

The second session started with students working to bring those seven pairs of lines together in the right order and place them upon the imposing stone, a flat surface where one or more pages of type are put together to make a forme: all the type needed to print one side of a sheet of paper.

Students combining their individual pairs of lines in a 'galley'

Students combining their individual pairs of lines in a ‘galley’

Although we did not have time to try it, it is possible to print 4, 8, 12 or even 16 pages on each side of a sheet of paper and then to fold it in such a way that it forms a multi-page gathering, like a pamphlet, in which all the pages are in the correct reading order. It is easy when moving the type from the galley to the imposing stone to pie the type: knocking it off its ends so that a neat rectangle of type becomes an unusable heap.


Pied type

Pied type

CTS's Paul Brown demonstrating how easy it is to pie the type

CTS’s Paul Brown demonstrating how easy it is to pie the type

Once the 14 lines of Shakespeare’s first sonnet were on the imposing stone, the students placed over it the rectangular frame called a chase and filled the gaps between the type and the chase with wooden furniture and wedges called quoins. When the quoins are tightened they should lock the entire forme into a single body of type that can be safely lifted and carried to the press. This took some time as getting an even pressure all around the type is fiddly.


A 'forme' of type holding Shakespeare's first sonnet

A forme of type holding Shakespeare’s first sonnet

With the forme finally imposed, and another forme containing a brief title-page being constructed, the students put their forme onto the bed of the CTS’s 19th-century Albion iron printing press. After rolling a small amount of ink into a smooth rectangle on the inking table, the students inked the type, laid a sheet of modern paper over it, lowered the tympan, turned the rounce to roll the carriage (holding the type) under the platen, and then pulled the bar of the press to lower the platen on to the tympan and thus apply pressure to the paper to push it onto the inked type. Releasing the bar, turning the rounce again to bring the carriage back, lifting the tympan, and carefully pulling the paper off revealed the results: a competently executed first impression.

A reasonable first impression!

A reasonable first impression!

One of the students took on the role of proof-reader and–these being graduate students–reported back that there were no typographical errors in the setting. The inking could be improved a little and some experiments were undertaken in increasing the pressure locally in various parts of the forme by sticking small pieces of paper to the tympan in a process called make-ready. After a few more pulls the impression was coming out virtually perfect, and a small print-run of 20 copies was produced. By this time the title-page was ready, so the heap was turned and the sheets perfected by being printed on the reverse side too.

What Did We Learn?

We found that you can learn the rudiments of printing with Gutenberg’s amazing invention in four hours! So why did it take an apprentice seven years to learn all the processes? Because they had to: set type accurately without using the cheat-sheet we had; plan the typesetting of a whole book, often setting the pages in a different sequence from that in which they would be read; learn how to correct errors that were spotted during the print-run; learn how to distribute the type back into the typecases after printing from it; manage the heaps of paper that would be produced by the setting of a long book; learn how to gather from the heaps to make individual copies; and learn how to stitch the gatherings together in to right order to make a completed book.

This hands-on opportunity will be repeated with more sessions in the 2015-16 academic year. See the Midlands Three Cities consortium website at <> for details of where and when and to sign up for a place.

Article by Gabriel Egan
National Teaching Fellow 


The research-teaching nexus in Politics and IR departments

The research-teaching nexus in Politics and IR departments: taken for granted, but not so well-understood or developed in practice.

By Volha Piotukh and Simon Lightfoot

The links between research and teaching in higher education (HE) institutions are often taken for granted, as these activities are thought to define what we do as academics. At the same time, and as far as Politics and International Relations (PIR) as a discipline is concerned, there has been a lack of analysis of the specific ways in which such links are perceived and enacted in practice. In a recent article we discuss the findings of our research into these issues.

The research in question aimed to discover how the research-teaching nexus was understood by a group of colleagues with an established interest in the area. We found that, even among this small group, there were very different views regarding the relationship between research and teaching. For instance, responses to the question ‘How do you understand the term “research-led” teaching?’ were surprisingly varied and ranged from a rather traditional (narrow) understanding of the link as ‘teaching in the area that relates to [one’s] research agenda’ or a more specific view of it as teaching informed (driven/directed) by research (majority of answers), to a broader and more balanced approach, whereby the two were perceived as integrated.

When asked to characterise their own practice (see below), most respondents agreed that their courses supported the development of students’ research and transferable skills, with only a fraction of respondents saying that they collaborated with their undergraduate (UG) students in conducting research. This demonstrates the challenges presented by ‘higher’ levels of integration of research and teaching.

Piotukh &Lightfoot - linking research to teaching practice.

Piotukh &Lightfoot – linking research to teaching practice. Staff views.

The most common way that students experience the research-teaching nexus, according to our paper, was   through the final year undergraduate dissertation. The responses also demonstrated a lack of awareness of best practice in PIR departments other than respondents’ own, with one third of respondents struggling to name any examples. For us, this suggests that more needs to be done across the discipline to showcase best practice and disseminate information that could be of potential interest/value to colleagues.

The small-N survey and interviews were complemented by an analysis of 90 Politics/IR departments’/schools’ websites in order to get a sense of whether and how these links were presented to the public, which would include future students. The analysis revealed that, while departments/schools of the Russell Group universities as a whole explicitly discussed the research-teaching nexus, very few of the individual departments demonstrated a variety of practices. Furthermore, nearly 23% of these departments/schools did not offer any evidence of the links between research and teaching, which, to some extent at least, signals a lack of importance and value afforded to such links, something that is also likely to have an impact on how future students will perceive the research/teaching nexus.

We call for the need for a fuller understanding and more appreciation of the links between research and teaching across the discipline of PIR. For us, such understanding and appreciation are important for a number of reasons, not least because of the productive synergies between the two. Thus, the positive influence of research on teaching can be seen in the novelty and originality of the material being taught by research active academics and in their closeness to the research experience and research process as a whole.  As the relationship is not one-directional, the positive influence of teaching on research also comes in a variety of ways, for instance, when research is shared with, and challenged by students, or when new research ideas are developed through teaching.

Furthermore, understanding and appreciation of the links between research and teaching are important if students are to fully benefit from ‘higher’ levels of integration between research and teaching by acquiring necessary skills (the so-called ‘research literacy’) and engaging in research as early on in their studies as possible, thus becoming an integral part of the research community. Indeed, research literacy improves students’ employability, it helps them better understand the university environment and appreciate the contribution academics and they themselves make to the development of scholarship, as well as further utilising the research that informs their learning.

We also identify and discuss multiple examples of the good practice of relevance, ranging from the incorporation of theoretical and methodological discussions into the module delivery, to providing ‘hands-on’ research experience during placements with an embedded research component, and from using problem-based learning when delivering teaching directly related to the academic’s current research, to encouraging UG students to present at conferences. The PSA recently sponsored the first PIR UG research conference at De Montfort University, which provides an excellent example of the type of event that exposes students to life as a researcher. The event brought together 16 students from nine UK universities.

We conclude that links between research and teaching in PIR are not as visible as one would expect, in part due to them being insufficiently developed. Along with further exploration of perceptions and attitudes regarding the research/teaching nexus of both academic staff and students, we advocate the production of more case studies from the discipline with a view to ensuring that the significance and variety of research–teaching links … is more fully appreciated and, ultimately, that the research/teaching nexus remains viable in the future.

Volha Piotukh is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Durham University. Simon Lightfoot is Senior Lecturer in European Politics at Leeds University and a National Teaching Fellow.

This article first appeared on the Political Studies Association blog.

More highlights from the ISSOTL14 conference, Quebec

One of the highlights of the ISSOTL14 conference was keynote lecture by UK National Teaching Fellow Sue Jackson.

NTF Sue Jackson at ISSOTL14

NTF Sue Jackson at ISSOTL14

You can find further details of Sue’s presentation and abstract on the ISSOTL14 website.

Artwork by Brianna Smrke (student)

Artwork by Brianna Smrke (student)

The conference was very fortunate to be able to enlist the talents of Brianna Smrke who captured the keynote lecture and some of the sessions.

Brianna Smrke Artwork

Brianna Smrke Artwork


The next ISSOTL conference is to be held in Melbourne Australia. Do visit the ISSOTL website to find out more details.