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…

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…