The Dickens Debate

As indicated in my previous post, my students have been studying Bleak House.  The online session that follows our classroom discussion of the novel takes the form of a debate.  The motion that they either are for or against is “This house believes the law is an ASS”.  But the twist from previous sessions is that they respond to this motion in character, as a character from ‘Bleak House’.   A novel like this is, of course, an absolute gift for some role play.  With a ‘cast’ of more than 50 characters there is no shortage of choice for them.  My only ‘rule’ is that they are all to be a different character; hence if they go into the forum intending to be, say, Jo, but find he is already playing his part in the discussion, they must choose another.  This means that the class need to be aware of what’s going on in the forum before they start posting.

Attorney and Client by 'Phiz'

Attorney and Client by 'Phiz'

We had spent quite a bit of time in class — more than usual — discussing Dickens’s use of characterization in the novel.  I’d been doing some reading of Pam Morris’s excellent Open University Press book on Bleak House (1991) and this had got me thinking in ways I hadn’t previously about the narrative voice of Esther as that of an illegitimate child, who is very unsure of herself — at least in the earlier part of the novel — not least because of the narratives about her past that she has internalized.  I’ve been newly aware as well of how the presentation of some characters — Sir Leicester for example — changes as the novel develops.  The satiric approach to Sir L turns into something more sympathetic by the end of the novel, with the turning point perhaps being his refusal to cast Lady Dedlock off once her secret is out.  This focus on character seems to have paid off in the forum.  The session guidelines encourage the class to pay careful attention to their character’s mannerisms, ways of speaking, catchphrases, nervous tics, and there’s some great stuff going on in there.  Jo is always a favourite — a chance for someone to have fun with mis-spelling!  There’s currently a very flightly Miss Flite, a rouged-up Volumina Dedlock, and one student has got Skimpole off to a tee.

I’ve written about such online role play sessions in a case study for the UK English Subject Centre: ‘Text. Play. Space: Creative Online Activities in English Studies’.  I think such kinds of online activities can work incredibly well in a discussion forum space.   In my experience English Studies students love the opportunity to do something creative like this.  They often don’t expect to be invited to ‘play’ in this way and maybe we should do it more as university lecturers. The play is, of course, done with a very specific intent, and the students who really are able to ‘get under the skin’ of their character will perform the best.  It’s a shame that I can’t show you in this blog some of the stuff they are coming up with, although if you are an English lecturer reading this and want me to visit your department to ‘demo’ the activities I’m describing here than you can get to see what my students get up to (See the ‘About Ms E-Mentor page).

Teaching long novels

Last week we started a two week exploration of Bleak House.   As an undergraduate myself I had the slightly strange experience of only studying Dickens via The Mystery of Edwin Drood and as my own research went on to focus on Victorian poetry I never really got into Dickens.   Since I’ve been on the other side of the desk that has changed, and I now think he’s terrific.  Bleak House, of course, is long, and that can pose its own challenges.  I know of at least one English department where staff have said to me that they just couldn’t teach such a long novel to their students.  I’m not sure what the rationale for that is, and I doggedly refuse to lose the ‘long novel’ experience from both my Victorians course and a level two course I teach on Realism and the Novel, despite the fact that every year, when module evaluation forms come in, there are always a couple of comments exclaiming “Middlemarch is too long”.   The Victorian period is the great period of belief in narrative and its possibilities to describe, create and recreate the world and it thus seems necessary to expose students to that very Victorian way of saying things at length.  A few weeks earlier we considered Elizabeth Barratt Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856).  I’ve never previously taught this, although, again, it was the choice of my idiosyncratic undergraduate tutor when I did the Victorians.  “Longer than Paradise Lost“, he said, “but it doesn’t feel like it.”  One of my current students agreed when she said she romped through Aurora Leigh but was struggling to keep up with the intricacies and complexities of the plot in Bleak House and the sheer staying power needed to get through 800+ pages of it.  Another student told me she’d been reading Bleak House on and off since last summer and still hadn’t got to the end.

So are there things that can help?  Teaching such very long texts over more than one week perhaps does, and I had also set a reading week before it as well.  My class have a longish research essay to do as one part of the assessment on this course and depending on the choice of question and texts they choose to focus upon I’m aware that some could just decide to opt out of bothering with a text like Bleak House altogether.  This is where using a VLE can come in very useful.

As I have a series of online VLE activities throughout the entire course (there are 7 sessions in total over the term) there is inevitably one on Bleak House.  As my assessment criteria suggest as a basic participation requirement that the highest grades are likely to go to students who have taken part in all sessions (although it’s ultimately qualitative criteria that decide this) then students who want to do well on the VLE part of the course will take part in all of them.  It’s undoubtedly the case that there’s more engagement with a long novel like Bleak House now that the class know there is an online activity on it, regardless of whether they wish to explore it further for their essay, than there was before I was using the VLE.

And this online session is often one of the best, and different in kind from any of the others thus described in this blog.  I’ll be posting again in a day or two once ‘The Dickens Debate’ is underway to describe what they’re getting up to…

What’s going on in the What the Dickens?!

As indicated in a previous post, my students have distinct forums for each of the online sessions we have throughout the course.  But there is also a general forum, which is nothing to do with assessment, where basically the class can talk about what they like, if they so wish.  For the first time this year it was possible to ‘manipulate’ this general forum so it could be renamed, and I got the class to vote for the name they wanted for it (see The Pre-Raphaelites Online post on 12 October 2009).  So we have a virtual Victorian inn called the ‘What the Dickens?!’

Some years my online class don’t really take much notice of this space but this year there’s a healthy level of interest and usage of it continuing throughout the term.  One student, having watched the BBC’s carry-on-up-the-Pre-Raphaelites romp that was Desperate Romantics has singlehandedly started the international Aidan Turner fanclub (he played Rossetti).  After we’d been discussing the Victorians and the body in one class another student posted up a link about corset piercing (it’s as painful as it sounds!).

There’s also a significant Victorian kitsch thing going on as well, and I must admit I have encouraged this.  It all began with my showing an Elizabeth Barratt Browning plimsoll in the class on Aurora Leigh.  A student posted up a Queen Victoria teapot.  Is there a recession on?  Are we seriously meant to believe that people buy this stuff?  Soon we had the Tennyson plimsoll (this particular company seems able to put a picture of practically anything on anything), and — my particular favourite — North and South merchandise.  I still don’t quite know how I am managing to refrain from buying an “I found my thrill at Marlborough Mills” T-shirt.  It’s also got to the point in the term where my little ‘icon’ that appears in the corner of every post I make in a forum has changed from being Queen Victoria to a William Morris Daisy watering can.  I actually own this.  It was given to me as a civil partnership gift last year by my mother, who died earlier this year.  It’s thus become a very treasured item in our household.  Ah capitalism!  The delights you have given us!

Occasionally it gets a bit more serious: I’d given the class a copy of John Millais’s Retribution in a handout one week but we hadn’t got around to discussing it in the classroom, so we took the discussion of what was going on in the image into What the Dickens?!  But I am genuinely not too fussed what the class talk about in this general forum, and I’m pleased when they do choose — as they pretty much are doing this year — to follow up themes and topics from the course, whether in a more light-hearted vein or not.  It adds to the sense of class community created online, that’s for sure.

A lot of Wuthering on the Heights

This week’s Victorian Vision Online session has followed on from our brief survey of changing attitudes to the novel from its inception to the later twentieth century in class last week.  The class went away with the first chapter of Terry Eagleton’s Heathcliff and the Great Hunger (Verso, 1995) to read and reflect on, which very clearly designates Heathcliff as Irish.  I’m incredibly impressed with the level of debate and discussion of the novel going on in the Forum this week.  Stormy arguments rage about the extent of Emily Bronte’s conscious awareness of the class and racial issues the students perceive the novel as exploring.   Again I find myself pondering just how involved and passionate students can get over this novel.  It’s as though the passion in the novel spills over into their responses to it.

I discover a monitoring tool within our VLE that means I can see how many times any given student has looked at posts in any given Forum.  I never knew it existed previously and I find myself wondering slightly whether this might in any way influence my marking when I come to do that.  As a  general rule it would probably be true to say that students who show the most engagement with VVO do best, although obviously bald statistics say nothing at all about the quality of students’ posts.  One student has looked at posts in the ‘Heathcliff, It’s Me’ Forum more than 160 times this week.  Wow.  Wow.  Another was posting at 2.30am and 4am this morning.  Dear me.  I don’t want to be held responsible for damaging their social life or sleep patterns…