Robin Valenza

Associate Professor
6177 Helen C. White Hall
(608) 263-3784
E-mail Robin Valenza
Restoration, eighteenth-century, and romantic literature and culture; history of science; digital humanities

Degrees and Institutions

PhD, English, Stanford University, 2003
MPhil, Engineering and Linguistics, Cambridge University, 1998
AB, Computer Science, Duke University, 1996

Selected Publications

Research and Teaching Interests

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature and culture, history of the academic disciplines, history of science and mathematics, Samuel Johnson and his circle, print culture and the history of the book, theories of narrative and of description, digital humanities, text mining.

Current Projects

My second book, On Description, is a project built from the archive of eighteenth-century print culture upwards. The project opens with an analysis of the many methods that have gone under the banner of description from the ancient academies to the modern university.  Subsequent chapters use late-seventeenth- through early-nineteenth-century materials to piece together a theory of description that takes into account the reading and writing practices that held sway before reading for pleasure was so tightly linked to reading for the plot.

A distinctive feature of this project's methodology will be its use of large-scale full-text digital archives and tools for analyzing and classifying large amounts of "dirty" data (from over 100,000 books) alongside more traditional modes of close reading. I refer to this data as dirty because the scans of the pages have not been checked for accuracy.  Researchers working with this sort of data need to use statistical methods to allow for the inevitable machine-generated error in such a process.  Using such databases alongside more traditional modes of reading will give the project a broader range of texts to analyze and from which to draw conclusions. 

My preliminary research suggests that theories of literary pleasure anchored in the nineteenth-century novel and its successors do not work especially well when considering eighteenth-century literature.  Rather than either regarding descriptions as detours on the way to narrative or reading the descriptive mode as merely one of the tools of narrative, description might instead be viewed as a master category.  In this model, narration may be defined as the description of an action, just as one might have a description of a person, a landscape, a thought, or a feeling.  This shift in paradigm makes available a broader perspective on similar literary techniques at work in many different genres of writing and attends more closely to the kinds of pleasure readers take from encountering these techniques.


My courses have included “The Graphic Novel,” “The Gothic Novel,” “Language and the Human,” “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: English Poetry from Milton to Blake,” “Early Enlightenment Epistemology in England,” “The Theory of Description,” “Wit and Wisdom in the Eighteenth Century,” “Critical Perspectives, Introduction to the Discipline of English,” “Literature and the Division of Intellectual Labor,” “Medicine and the Novel from Haywood to Collins,”“Enlightenment and Revolution,” “Media Aesthetics,” “Science and Literature in the Eighteenth Century,” and “The Public Sphere.”

Recent Books

  • Literature, Language, and the Rise of the Intellectual Disciplines in Britain, 1680-1820

    Robin Valenza

    Cambridge University Press


    In this interdisciplinary study, Robin Valenza shows how Isaac Newton, Samuel Johnson, David Hume, Adam Smith, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth invented new intellectual languages. By offering a much-needed account of the rise of the modern disciplines, Valenza shows why the sciences and humanities diverged so strongly, and argues that literature has a special role in navigating between the languages of different areas of thought.