In the virtual penitentiary…

Session F of The Victorian Vision Online follows an in-class session on the ‘fallen woman’.  Specifically, we focus on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Jenny’ and Augusta Webster’s ‘A Castaway’ (both published 1870).  In many ways these are a dream team of poems to set alongside each other for all sorts of reasons.  They can be compared as monologues, with DGR’s being considered a kind of ‘interior’ monologue (as Daniel Harris, 1984, suggested), and can be compared through the lens of gender, with the ‘client’ versus prostitute herself speaking.  Many critics (e.g. Joseph Bristow, 1993) have pointed out that Rossetti’s poem, although seemingly emerging from a liberal male standpoint, nonetheless silences and aesthticizes Jenny: it turns her into art rather than having to engage with her as a woman who speaks.  The reappraisal of Augusta Webster in recent years — surely a poet who must in future be taught alongside the dramatic monologues of Browning and Tennyson — has meant that ‘A Castaway’ has also become comparatively better known on Victorian Literature courses. 

Engraving of Augusta Webster (1882).

Augusta Webster (1882, NPG, London).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "Fanny Cornforth: Study for 'Found'" (c. 1859-61), BM&AG.



The session itself is in many ways almost a ‘traditional’ seminar, but it takes place in an online space.  I give the students a number of questions about both poems — e.g. “What is our speaker’s attitude to Jenny?  Does this change as the poem /the night progresses?”; ”What kinds of social analysis of women’s position (fallen and otherwise) does ‘A Castaway’ contain?  You might want to think about the topics of work, education and marriage.” — and they are encouraged to make close readings of the poems in their responses.  This always works well.  The ambiguously placed narrator in ‘Jenny’ still continues to get students going, and although once he might have seemed the height of sympathy for the prostitute’s plight he doesn’t fare so well (in my students’ responses and in more recent critical accounts) alongside Eulalie’s attempt to give voice to the prostitute herself.

I decided to do something I’ve never done before with these discussion forums, and I told the class there would be a prize for the student who made the best contribution to the ‘online penitentiary’ over the week of the exercise.  Who would decide this?  The students themselves.  Their final ‘signing off’ from the exercise at the end of the week was to send me an email telling me who they thought should be the winner and, briefly, why.  This they did.  Overall they voted for 13/28 different students as their nominee, with a few students receiving multiple votes.  There was one student who clearly got more votes than any other but two who came joint second.  As I was in a good mood I gave the runners up a small prize too.  The winner got a copy of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (reviewed here by Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian).

Here are some examples of what I thought were good comments by the students about their classmates’ postings:

  • “XX’s own initial posting shows a good insight and is done with close reference to the poem … In her other contributions XX manages to present her own opinion based on her findings in the poem and encourages others to take part in the discussions”.
  • “I think XX is the winner because in her posts she is very detailed and also she has responded to lots of people’s posts. Her dedication to keeping on replying shows her interest in the topic”.
  • “XX submitted her first post on Friday and continued during the week. She gave thoughtful and sensitive interpretations of both poems using good quotations that showed close reading of the texts. She also supported them with refs. She continued her own discussion and contributed to others. Her English and grammar were also good”.
  • “XX’s strands are always informative and very interesting without being too long, or too formal. XX always interacts well with other discussions and you can guarantee a good enjoyable debate with XX, as she always responds to and develops your ideas and opinions”.

 

In the week of the X-Factor final on ITV there was nothing else to do but be democratic about who determined the winner here.  It can perhaps feel risky for lecturers to allow their students to engage in peer assessment, although this was relatively safe (no actual marks involved), and I was pleased by the quality of some of the comments they made on each other’s postings.  I was wanting them to pay some attention to what makes for a good contribution to a discussion forum and I felt they did.

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