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.

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.

Online Discussion in English Studies: A Good Practice Guide

Finally, finally Online Discussion in English Studies: A Good Practice Guide to Design, Moderation and Assessment (English Subject Centre Report No. 21) is out!  It’s been a long time in the making but this Guide to using discussion forums in English Studies (and beyond) has been a collaborative venture between many colleagues, both at the University of Wolverhampton and beyond.  Its genesis is in e-learning-related projects carried out by myself, Ben Colbert and Frank Wilson at Wolverhampton, with Hilary Weeks as our research assistant between approximately 2004-06.  Out of these came an English Subject Centre project, which included a day conference, several seminars to colleagues and finally this Guide.  Wolverhampton colleagues Candi Miller and Jackie Pieterick came on board relatively late in the day to add a chapter on using discussion forums in Creative Writing, and Christina Lee (Nottingham), Matt Green (Nottingham), Stacy Gillis (Newcastle), Heather Beck (Manchester Metropolitan), and Michael Symmons Roberts (Manchester Metropolitan) all added case studies from their various different teaching contexts.  Brett Lucas, the English Subject Centre’s Learning Technologist, has been a terrific support from start to finish as well, and has put a lot of work into getting the Guide looking as good as it does.

I’m personally very proud of this work, by which I mean both my contributions to it, but also the Guide as a whole.  I’ve had reason to be reminded recently of the ways in which pedagogically-focussed work can be regarded as ‘in tension’ with subject-based research, and the genuine difficulties there can be for academics who wish to do both.  Someone somewhere sometime will try and force you to choose between them.  When I started my career as an academic I was as dismissive as some no doubt still are of pedagogical research versus the clearly ‘more important’ subject-based research.  This changed for me when I undertook a Post-Graduate Certificate in Higher Education at Wolverhampton — the kind of teaching qualification that new lecturers now have to do.  I tried the resist the cynicism I saw in some of my colleagues who were undertaking the PGCHE and genuinely welcomed the opportunity it gave me to reflect on my teaching in a focussed way, underpinned by reading and research. In the Technology-Supported Learning module I went from being the student at the back of the class with her arms folded — all body language saying “this is nothing to do with me” — to someone enthusiastic about what using discussion forums in my Victorian classes might mean.  Everything I have done with e-learning since came from this.  At no point did I stop thinking about myself as an English Lecturer (or researcher), and I remain very firmly committed to my subject as the focus for the pedagogical thinking I do, but the Good Practice Guide has broader appeal beyond the discipline of English too. There’s no doubt to me that my bits of the Guide are what I would call ‘subject-based research’ too, but whether future REF panels will agree remains to be seen.

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.