A new academic year begins…

… which means a new term kicks off of my third year module, Victorian Literature, Art and Culture.  It’s had a name change since last year as the title now has to function as a potential catch-all for two different types of content, depending on year.  A decision was made to get rid of one of my Victorian modules entirely in Wolverhampton’s en masse move from a 15 to 20 credit system from last academic year to this.  As this was undoubtedly one of the low points of last academic year for me, the only way I can ‘save’ both my Victorian Vision module and my Fin de Siècle module is to rotate them every other year.

Jake von Slatts' Steampunk computer

And as an added twist, I’m not actually teaching the module this term in the classroom (colleague Lorna Shelley is doing that part), but I am overseeing the online component of the course — pretty much entirely from a distance and thus all online.  I went into the first in-class session on Friday to introduce the online component of the course to the class but all the rest of my involvement will be made in the discussion forum itself.  I’m writing this on a Sunday evening and I’m pleased to say that there’s been some activity in our first discussion forum over the weekend.  For the first Victorian Vision Online (VVO) exercise the class have been given some extracts from ‘Victorian overview’ books and, in conjunction with the discussion about the Victorians that they started in class, are invited to consider what the Victorians’ legacy is to us today, in our postmodern world.  I’ll post again later in the week about how the session has gone overall, but thus far I’m pleased at how it’s started off. 

I’ve spent a bit of time this afternoon fiddling around ‘behind the scenes’ with the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) area for this module — where all the action happens.  I’m always trying to make the technology work better for me, particularly by way of presentation and how it looks to the students.  I’ve added an instruction on how to turn text into a live weblink if students want to do that in posts and have modelled including a few such links in my own posts.

The image above came from doing a Google image search on ‘Victorian’ and ‘computer’.  Jake von Slatts’s Steampunk computer is sadly not something you can buy at PC World.

News from Virtual Nowhere

In a recent article in the Journal of William Morris Studies, ‘Hope and Change: Teaching News from Nowhere, David Latham wrote of the difficulty of teaching Morris’s utopian novel today.  In particular he highlighted what he regarded as the overly-cynical response of his students: “‘He [Morris] can’t be serious; it’s Nowhere because it will never work; even the sunny weather would scorch the earth; I mean, get real’” (p. 6). There is perhaps  thus a tendency to be slightly defensive when teaching News from Nowhere, almost anticipating the negative responses.

However, this is largely not my experience.  Just before Easter my Level 3 Fin de Siècle class read the novel.  It’s always a session I enjoy teaching, not least because there is a sense in which I can ad lib about Morris’s life and work reasonably well, and generally I hope I’m accurate!  I offer the class a potted resumé of Morris’s life, with a more detailed focus on the emergence of his politics in the 1880s.  Our seminar discussion was engaged, and I had no sense that my students were simply dismissing Morris’s vision as Latham suggests some of his might do.  I write this as in two weeks we are all going to vote in the UK, and talk of ‘hope and change’ are being everywhere co-opted by politicians (some of whom Morris wouldn’t have had a lot of time for).

 The online session which results from our News from Nowhere class gives my students ample opportunity to explore Morris’s ideas in more depth.  I ask them to pick a chapter of the work each, to reread it, and to write up a summary of the main points of the chapter in our ‘Nowhere’ discussion forum.  In a class of 20+ students this means we get about two thirds of the novel covered and discussed.  They are then asked to offer their views of whatever it is that is being consdiered in that chapter.  This leads to detailed discussions of education, gender roles, crime, work, capitalism, human nature, issues around choice versus coercion … and much more.  I also invited the class to read their chosen chapter via Florence Boos’s online edition of News from Nowhere and to comment on it.  Several students appreciated the images in the online version, which aided with giving a sense of nineteenth century contexts, but one student started a discussion strand entitled ‘Electronic vs. Books of the old-fashioned variety’ which set off a lively eight-post thread.  Almost all contributors ultimately argued in favour of the smell and feel of physical books, although e-books as helping to get more people reading were thought of as a good thing.  As I had been bringing in some of my 1890s books into our classroom sessions (including a Kelmscott edition of Morris’s 1891 volume of poems Poems by the Way), one of the students brought in this week a number of books that had been passed down to her by her grandfather, including what I think was a first edition of Mary Barton.  It’s great to see my students sharing a continuing love of books-as-made-things.  Morris would be pleased with that, I think.  Harder to know what he would make of online editions, perhaps … but cannot websites also be aesthetically pleasing and well made too?

“Kiss me with those red lips!” In Dracula’s Vault.

Dracula.  One of the absolute necessities for any course on the Victorian Fin de Siècle.  By the time we get to it in week 5 we’ve touched on aestheticism, decadence, degeneration, changing masculinities, homosexuality, the femme fatale, the gothic … and it’s all in there and more.  It’s also a text on which there is a super-abundance of critical commentary, and our second online session of the course exploits this fact.  The class are invited to enter the ‘Dracula’s Vault’ forum (with virtual garlic, of course) after having first found an article on Stoker’s novel.  It must be an article, and not a chapter in a book, and so in part it is a reminder for my students as to how they can go about searching for scholarly articles via the databases of journals that my university subscribes to.  Each student has to find a different article.  In the forum they post up a summary of their article’s argument, and respond to some of the other summaries of their classmates.

Dracula model and coffin

Lecturers dress smartly at my institution

Whereas the first Fin de Siècle Online Experience (FOE) session had been slow to get going, this one is well underway by Saturday lunchtime, the day after the class.  Early on someone summarises an article by Elizabeth Miller, ‘Coitus Interruptus: Sex, Bram Stoker and Dracula, which is trying to take issue with the contemporary default mode of reading Dracula as being a text everywhere about the sexual.  This sparks lots of good debate, as the student isn’t convinced by Miller’s attempts to say a stake is (only) a stake is a stake.  Neither am I.  Later on someone also posts on Christopher Craft’s excellent article ‘”Kiss me With Those Red Lips”: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula(Representations 8 (Fall 1984), pp. 107-33), which opens with the following: ‘When Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu observed in Carmilla (1872) that “the vampire is prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence resembling the passion of love” and that vampiric pleasure is heightened “by the gradual approaches of an artful courtship,” he identified clearly the analogy between monstrosity and sexual desire that would prove, under a subsequent Freudian stimulus, paradigmatic for future readings of vampirism.  Modern critical accounts of Dracula, for instance, almost universally agree that vampirism both expresses and distorts an originally sexual energy’ (p. 107).

I am struck by my class really enjoying getting their teeth into (sorry) debates about this text.  Someone establishes a pattern that other students follow of summarising their essay then very clearly heading a new paragraph ‘My opinion’, which means that they are practising taking a stance in relation to a critical argument.  It’s a lively and busy forum discussion for the week.  It also demonstrates to students just how varied and plural readings of texts can be.

The Secret Life of Bees: from book to film

Last night I watched the 2008 film of The Secret Life of Bees (dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood), adapted from Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling novel of 2002.  I’ve had the DVD a while, but my profound love of the novel has made me reluctant to watch the film, for fear it can only disappoint.  The likely “but that’s not how I imagined this character, this scene, etc.” factor was always going to be high.  I’m well aware that the burgeoning field of ‘adaptation studies’ attempts to address adaptations in more sophisticated ways than these, considering what different media do in their own right to stories, and the DVD is helpful here, offering both the possibility of watching the film with the director’s commentary running, and a short film on adapting the novel to the big screen.  In interviews Sue Monk Kidd has been magnanimous in her response to the adaptation, accepting (rightly, I think) that a novelist in a way has to turn her work over to a director and production team and trust them to keep to the spirit of the original, while also making it into a good film on filmic terms.

Well, every now and then my partner and I did interject phrases such as “was that in the novel?”, “I’m not sure XX said that in the book”, and indeed “that didn’t happen in the novel”, but overall it wasn’t the disappointment I’d feared.  The casting is strong (other than Rosaleen, who is [a] too young, and [b] not nearly feisty enough) and the novel is able to realise certain things — such as how to keep bees — which can of course only be described in the novel.  A key scene that is omitted from the film is when, on Mary Day, the women gather to retell the story of ‘Our Lady of Chains’.  The story is told, earlier on, in a gathering that in part mimics a black pentecostalist-style service, but practically all reference to the chains has gone (don’t upset the punters with any allusion to slavery, huh?).  But the scene in the novel when the women gather and communally rub honey into the black madonna figure, both to protect and nourish her, is charged with a power and eroticism that also, it seems, had to go.  These are the kind of decisions that disappoint in the film.  The other key change in the film is to do with the central question/’mystery’ in the novel of whether or not Lily Owens actually did kill her mother when she was a little girl.  As a very well constructed novel, Monk Kidd leaves this right until the end, and manages to stay on the right side of tipping into sentimentality and easy ways out.  How does the film deal with this?  I won’t say, but you don’t have to get very far into the film for it to be clear that expecting the viewer to live with a degree of uncertainty about this issue all the way through has clearly been regarded as too much for the average viewer.  Hollywood, why don’t you try and imagine some of your viewers have intelligence?  Go on, I dare you.  At the end of the story, when T. Ray finds Lily at the Pink House and comes to take her forcibly home, the film powerfully and convincingly shows Lily as having become the kind of young woman who has learnt that ‘Mary is inside her’ and that that gives her a tremendous strength in the face of injustice and potential violence.  I felt that this came across more clearly in the film than the novel.

Why am I talking about The Secret Life of Bees in a blog on e-learning?   Well, it’s my prerogative to go off topic a bit sometimes, and — more relevantly — I teach the novel on a Level Two undergraduate course on Women’s Writing and Feminist theory at the University of Wolverhampton.  With a seeming light touch, the novel has considerable depths to it, in terms of its engagement with issues of the maternal, mothers and daughters, racial tensions in 1960s America, and the feminine divine.  Anyone who has read other of Sue Monk Kidd’s works will know that she writes of matters of the heart and spirit with great honesty and integrity, and her published accounts of her own spiritual journey have been inspirational and ‘companions on the way’ for many women (and quite possibly a few men too).  The Secret Life of Bees, the novel, can very much be read as a part of Monk Kidd’s spiritual journey, as well as an astonishing first novel in its own right.

I’m also running a weekend event on the novel at Holland House Retreat and Conference Centre, Cropthorne, Worcestershire, in June 2010.  See their events programme for more details , or contact me direct (see About Ms E-Mentor page).

Mad About Oscar

Semester Two teaching is underway, which in my e-learning land means my third year undergraduate module on Fin de Siècle Writing and Culture.  Unlike my Victorians module from last semester, this course includes less online sessions (four in total rather than seven) and they are assessed to the tune of 25% of the overall mark.

The course starts with a few weeks introducing the class to ‘key terms’ of the period — namely, Aestheticism, Decadence and Degeneration.  Week 2 is on Oscar Wilde and Decadence.  Wilde is an endlessly fascinating figure and I’ve taught myself quite a lot about him since I have been teaching this course.  His presence and ‘influence’ (to cite a word so potent in The Picture of Dorian Gray) in the 1880s and ’90s are phenomenal.   This is one session where I devote a great deal of time to talking about Wilde’s life, in detail, because, as Francesca Coppa has argued, ’Wilde’s first and foremost invention [was] the performed persona of “Oscar Wilde”.  If there is one thing that makes us feel that Wilde, dead for over one hundred years now, is our contemporary, a man who would be perfectly at home in the world of Andy Warhol and Madonna, David Bowie, Baz Lurhmann, and The Osbournes, it is his understanding of the self as performance’ (Francesca Coppa, ‘Performance theory and performativity’ in Oscar Wilde Studies, ed. Frederick Rosen [Palgrave, 2004], p. 73).  

Our first online session involves using the Trials of Oscar Wilde site and the class are invited to discuss how The Picture of Dorian Gray is used in the libel trial by the Marquess of Queensbury’s counsel, Edward Carson.   The session takes a while to get going, perhaps in part because it is the first session and some are unfamiliar with such online discussions.  Each of my online sessions lasts a week, kicking off with the day of the class, and after 4 days only half the class have posted.  I send some reminder emails, and in the latter part of the week the forum really takes off, with some interesting and engaged discussion being posted about Wilde’s stance as an aesthete in the dock, about art versus life, about literature being used as a way of ascertaining biography, about the reclaiming of the word ‘shame’ by writers such as Alfred Douglas (in poems such as ‘Two Loves’ and ‘In Praise of Shame’) and much else besides.

The class also have an online ‘Salon’ forum where they can post in a general sense  about this module.  Last term having a general forum space was really taken up and ‘owned’ by my Victorians class.  It can’t ever be manufactured, and it’s up to the class, ultimately, but as a first step I invite them to submit some names for their Salon.  We had a vote this morning and ‘The Yellow Room’ won, closely followed by ‘Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder’, ‘The Fin de Semester’ and my particular favourite, ‘The Van HesINN’.  That’s the spirit!  I leave a virtual copy of The Yellow Book around by way of an image of one of the periodical’s distinctive covers.

The Yellow Book, Volume 1 (1894) I’m fortunate enough actually to own a complete run of The Yellow Book, and last week I brought in a couple of volumes for the class to see.  I’ve also this last week purchased a set of The Savoy and a facsimile edition of The Chameleon, the undergraduate magazine in which Douglas’s notorious poems appeared, and Wilde’s ‘Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young’.