21H.343J | Spring 2016 | Undergraduate

Making Books: The Renaissance and Today

Instructor Insights

Course Overview

This page focuses on the course 21H.343J / CC.120J Making Books: The Renaissance and Today as it was taught by Professors Anne McCants and Jeffrey S. Ravel in Spring 2016.

Part of the Concourse program at MIT, this course explored the impact of new technology on the recording and distribution of words and images at three different times: the invention of the printing press ca. 1450; the adaptation of electricity to communication technology in the 19th century (telegraph, telephone, photograph); and the emergence of digital media today.

Assignments included essays and online projects. Students also participated in the design and construction of a hand-set printing press. Learn more here:

MIT SHASS Communications, “In the MIT History Workshop - where building a printing press illuminates human systems,” SHASS News, May 25, 2016.

Melanie Gonick, “The History of Making Books: Building a Printing Press at MIT,” MIT News, May 25, 2016.

Course Outcomes

Course Goals for Students

  • Learn about the history of the book in Europe from Gutenberg (ca. 1450) to the French Revolution (ca. 1800).
  • Examine in detail European books and prints from 1450 to 1800 in the Rare Books Collection of the MIT Libraries and the MIT Museum.
  • Build a functioning, durable printing press based on Early Modern European designs.
  • Consider the parallels between the world of print in the Early Modern period and the rapidly changing media landscape today.

Instructor Insights

"So much learning happens in the hands-on component [of a humanities course] when it is well integrated with the reading, writing, and historical materials because of all the time afforded for spontaneous conversation between faculty and students while engaged with the project."
— Anne McCants

In the following pages, Professors Anne McCants and Jeffrey Ravel describe various aspects of how they taught 21H.343J / CC.120J Making Books: The Renaissance and Today.

Student Insights

"The experience of building the press meant I learned new woodshop skills and ideas about design instead of unanchored facts about printing and presses."
— Lauren Huang

In the following pages, Lauren Huang, an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science major, and Theodore Mouratidis, a recent graduate who studied Aerospace Engineering and Physics, describe their experiences as students in 21H.343J / CC.120J Making Books: The Renaissance and Today.

Curriculum Information



Requirements Satisfied


21H.343J can be applied toward a Bachelor of Science in Humanities and History, but is not required.


Offered for the first time in Spring 2016


The students’ grades were based on the following activities:

  • 20% Class attendance and participation
  • 20% Four forum postings
  • 30% Two five-page papers
  • 30% Building a handset printing press

Student Information


10 students

Breakdown by Year

Mostly juniors and seniors

Breakdown by Major

1/2 electrical engineering and computer science majors, 1/2 history majors

Typical Student Background

Prior to enrolling in the course, one student had taken 21H.141 Renaissance To Revolution: Europe, 1300-1800. Another had taken 21H.009 The World: 1400-Present. The rest were new to the material. None of the students had built a printing press previously, and only two were aware of MIT’s Rare Books Collection.

Some of the students were also participants in the Concourse program at MIT. Among other things, the Concourse project engages students in collective deep reading in the humanities and was a critical factor in generating enthusiasm for the course.

How Student Time Was Spent

During an average week, students were expected to spend 15 hours on the course, roughly divided as follows:


  • Met 2 times per week for 1.5 hours per session; 13 sessions total; mandatory attendance.
  • Class sessions were discussion-based and several included an exploration of items from MIT’s Rare Books Collection.
  • A field trip to the MIT Museum enabled students to view visual material dating from 1500 to 1800.

Hands-on Lab

  • Met twice a week for 1.5 hours per session; 13 sessions total; mandatory attendance.
  • Students worked in the MIT Hobby Shop to design and build a printing press.

Out of Class

Course Team Roles

"I love co-teaching. The conversation between faculty with different points of view, different areas of expertise, or even entirely different disciplinary training, is so much fun for instructors, and so valuable for students. If we want our students to be able to think broadly, and engage with difference productively, the best thing we can do in the classroom is to model how that works."
— Anne McCants

Lead Instructors (Professors Anne McCants and Jeffrey Ravel)

During the first class meeting, the instructors divided the students into two groups. In most weeks, one group met with Professors McCants and Ravel to discuss class readings and examine rare print objects from the MIT collections, while the other group met with Mr. Stone (please see below) to build the printing press. The following week, the groups traded places, such that all students participated equally in the academic and building exercises.

Co-Instructor (Mr. Ken Stone, MIT Hobby Shop Director)

Mr. Stone helped plan the course and supervised the building of the printing press in the MIT Hobby Shop.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2016
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Written Assignments with Examples
Image Gallery
Instructor Insights