A Forum of Our Own: The Virginia Woof competition

Due to decisions made which didn’t and don’t have my agreement at all I no longer have a module to teach this semester which has a significant online component.  That’s what you get for being an e-learning innovator.  So … I decided to see whether I could get any interest going on a non-assessed discussion forum on my Level 2 UG module Women’s Writing: Reading Gender.

Within Wolverhampton University’s VLE platform (WOLF) it’s possible to change the name of the ‘Course Café’ which is included within all of our online WOLF topics as a default forum.  So I suggested to the class that they come up with a name for it.  They had a week to post up their suggestions in the forum itself.

In addition, I decided to run the Virginia Woof competition.  We had looked at the famous extract from A Room of One’s Own about the imagined life of Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, in our first class.  In my office I have a copy of ARoOO which was left in class after one of my Women’s Writing sessions a couple of years back.  It was never claimed.  So … I offred a copy of ARoOO as the prize for the best 100 word or less response to the question “Why still have a module called Women’s Writing?”  Why the Virginia Woof competition?  Simply because of the apocryphal story about the student who wrote an entire essay about Virginia Woof … surely one of the best English Studies student howlers (please send me more).  Virginia Woof

I logged on to our VLE late last Friday, not really expecting very much.  To my (pleasant) surprise several names had been suggested (The Purple Room and The Woolf’s Lair were rather good) and about a dozen students had come up with 100 word responses, all of which engaged with a variety of feminist issues and perspectives.  I picked a response that was suitably literary in focus as the winner, and added the quote, verbatim, to the homepage of our VLE topic, so it’s there for the rest of our course.  The Course Café name itself has been changed to the rather witty and Woo(l)f-oriented sugestion in this post’s title.

There’s no integrated use of a discussion forum on this module so it will now be largely up to the student group themselves as to whether they make any use of it as the term goes on.  Certainly getting the class to name their own forum is a good initial way of fostering a community spirit on a module.

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.

Mr Smallweed thinks the Law is a brimstone beast!

This is a Subject Line from one student’s contribution to the last Victorian Vision Online session, ‘The Dickens Debate’.  It’s always one of my favourites, and I’ve come to think of this kind of online exercise as something of my ‘signature’ in terms of expanding the possibilities of what can be done in a discussion forum for English Studies (or Creative Writing) students.  Indeed,  I’ve published a case study article about the kind of creative-critical activity this is (Text. Play. Space: Creative Online Activities in English Studies’, English Subject Centre Case Studies, October 2007).

After two weeks on Bleak House the class enter the discussion forum to debate the motion “This House Believes the Law is an Ass”. The significant ‘twist’ is that they enter as a character from the novel and everything they say/post they say in character.  In effect this means they role play.  Dickens, of course, is fantastic for this, and the number of characters in Bleak House means that it is more than possible for everyone to take a different character.  As an added incentive to get going quickly students are not allowed to repeat characters, so if they particularly want to ‘be’ a specific character, then they need to post as them before anyone else does.  This also hopefully means they are checking out what has already been going on in the forum before they make their first post.

This year there are some great Subject Lines as the students introduce their character’s post.  As well as the Smallweed one above there is also ‘Richard is indecisive’; ‘Rosa: Emotion over the law’; ‘Esther Summerson: Though I am not clever…’; ‘Miss Barbary would like to concentrate on submission, self-denial and diligent work’; ’Harold Skimpole: What is all this about the law?’; and many many more.

As I have become more of a creative writer myself I have become a great fan/advocate of this kind of more creative activity for English Studies students.  There’s no doubting that the class always seems to enjoy this exercise — it is often mentioned in my end-of-module feedback questionnaire about the online work as being one of the best — but the issue is not just about whether they ‘enjoy’ it.  To do well the students need to have ‘got under the skin’ of their character, which means they need to have applied some critical thinking as to how Dickens has constructed that character.  From feedback comments I have received previously I also know that students welcome the kind of creative freedom that the exercise gives them.   Of all students English students should be able to know and experience something of the creativity inherent in the writing process that is part and parcel of all the poems, novels, plays, etc., that they spend their degree reading.  But the key difference is in that last word — reading:  English Studies students read texts that are considered creative, but they are not expected to write them.  The critical essay/response thus becomes part of a different field, but not one that is ‘creative’.

Several years ago I introduced a four-week creative writing option into an Introduction to Poetry course I was teaching for first-year undergraduates.  When it came to tutorials I was struck by the sense of investment that the students seemed to have in their creative work — almost all of them wanted a tutorial and feedback on the poems they were writing.  Had they been doing an essay the response would have been more lukewarm from some.  Their creative writing mattered to them in a way that  was different from their essay writing.  I’m not at all suggesting that they didn’t care about their essay work, but there was a distinctively different kind of investment going on.  Maybe they perceived the writing of a poem as allowing them to explore more of the personal, or allowing them to explore a topic through language in a way that is more playful and inventive than the seeming rules and rigours of the academic essay.  Whatever their reasons, those tutorials have stayed with me…

Mmmmm….juicy. Illustrating ‘Goblin Market’ and ‘The Lady of Shalott’.

Apple with fangs  This past week I’ve once again tried out a new online exercise.  It’s always good to exploit the visual potential of online content, and access to visual images that the web makes available, so this week the class have been thinking about Victorian poetry and visual responses. The two poems they’ve been using for this are Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’.  The exercise set was for each student to find an image — either Victorian or later — that is in some kind of dialogue with one of these poems.  I asked them to get to know their chosen image well — really look at it  and pay attention to its detail — and then consider what lines in the poem it seems to be responding to.  In the case of some images — for example, illustrations to editions of ‘Goblin Market’ — this may be relatively clear.  With others — and more than fifty visual responses to ‘The Lady of Shalott’ appeared within the Victorian period alone  — the image, particularly if it is a painting, may well not come with a tag line making clear which exact lines it is responding to.

I’m a big fan of work on reading words and images together, or in dialogue.  Some of my own work on William Morris has been significantly influenced by the work of Jerome McGann in The Textual Condition (1991), and his subsequent work which has argued strongly for the necessity of reading poetry as ‘literature by design’, set alongside all the bibliographic coding that is part of any given publication’s making, publishing and production.

I gave the students some links to good sites featuring images of both the texts, and pointed them to various articles and chapters worth checking out.  In particular the terrific work of Lorraine Janzen Kooistra featured several times, whose 1994 article ‘Modern Markets for “Goblin Market”‘ (Victorian Poetry 32 (3-4), pp. 249-77), and subsequent book Christina Rossetti and Book Illustration: A Publishing History (Ohio UP, 2002), are fascinating accounts of the multiple ways Rossetti’s iconic poem has been illustrated.

Perhaps because ‘Goblin Market’ had been focussed on in the classroom session this was perhaps overall the more popular choice for students to find images for.  Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1862 illustrations to the first edition, Laurence Housman’s 1893 edition for Macmillan — one of the Fin de Siècle’s most distinctive illustrated books, and Arthur Rackham’s 1933 illustrations all appeared.  This latter contains one particular image, responding to the lines White and golden Lizzie stood, that has been subsequently much copied – sometimes with telling variations (see below).  One student made my week by finding the entire adult comic version of Goblin Market, illustrated by John Bolton in 1989, which I had heard of via Kooistra’s 1994 article, but certainly never seen (a) in full or (b) in colour.

It’s a whole other essay of a post for me to start discussing visual responses to ‘The Lady of Shalott’.  They are legion.

The Lady of Shalott at her Loom by Elizabeth Siddal (1853)

 Check out Christine Poulson’s essay on visual responses to the poem in Re-Framing the Pre-Raphaelites (Scolar Press, 1996) and her The Quest for the Grail: Arthurian Legend in British Art, 1840-1920 (MUP, 1999), Elizabeth Nelson’s Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and its Contexts (Brown University, 1985) and any of numerous books on the Pre-Raphaelites.  Suffice to say that the students seem to be engaging with the exercise well, and it is an interesting exercise in getting them as English Studies students to think about interpretation of texts from a slightly different angle.  After all, every illustration in relation to a text is some kind of interpretation — that’s partly what I’m trying to flag up.  As the exercise kicked off last Friday I was having to restrain myself from wanting to respond to every post that was going up!  Once again I was pleased to see quite a number of students eager to engage with the online task within hours of the classroom session finishing…and the posts have kept coming over the whole week of this session.

Trouble at Marlborough Mill

Well, far from it, actually.  The class have been considering Elizabeth Gaskell’s  North and South (1855) for a couple of sessions and for the first time there is an online session to accompany their in-class discussions.  I’ve adapted an idea I’ve used on my Fin de Siècle course previously in online sessions for this one.  It’s a relatively simple idea of getting each member of the class to choose a chapter from the novel to discuss: they situate it briefly in the plot, and discuss in more detail what happpens in the chapter and what significance it has in the ongoing novel.  This means everyone has got something of their own to contribute by way of each student picking a different chapter.  They are encouraged not to duplicate each other’s chapters — hence they also need to keep an eye on what is being posted up.  I was pleased to see that posts were going up only hours after the Friday morning class as a few students were keen to make sure they could post on their particular chosen chapter.

Are we nearly there yet?

This exercise is of course partly trying to encourage the practice of good, concise, attentive close reading — skills which we all want to see in essays.  I’m pleased too to see some students are clearly doing some extra reading on Gaskell, and are bringing that to bear on their posts.

I respond briefly to a few of the posts — adding a question prompted by something in a post and/or trying to encourage the discussion on a bit further.  From my virtual distance the class are coming across to me as quite motivated in relation to the online activities…I’m not overly having to remind them to take part and there’s a good level of engagement quality wise in the tasks set.