What’s going down in Bram’s Bites (1)

It’s the Fin de Siècle.  I’m now into a new and unwanted regime whereby I only get to teach this module every other year, and therefore this module’s assessment pattern has had to dovetail with that of its sister module which focusses on the high Victorian period. Practically what this means is that the module is now running with more online sessions than when I previously blogged about it, and thus Ms E-Mentor has been making some new ones up.

For anyone new to this blog a brief outline of how I integrate online sessions with face-to-face teaching is as follows: across a teaching term of 12 classes there are 7 online sessions, assessed to the tune of 40% of the overall marks on the course (the other 60% is a research essay).  From the outset of the course the students are clear where the online sessions dovetail with the classes as listed on the module guide.  Online sessions continue and develop themes and issues that we have started exploring in the face-to-face classroom.  This is a third year undergraduate course, and by this stage English students at Wolverhampton are familiar with using VLE discussion forums.  They will have done so at least once, in the first year, but quite possibly more than once, in the second year as well.

I refer to the online sessions on this module under the acronym of FOE (the Fin de Siècle Online Experience).  Our first FOE Session A is thus in Week 2, when we discuss Oscar Wilde and decadence.  I’ve blogged about what we do in this session before so I don’t intend to repeat the description in full.  What I noted this time round was that it took the students quite a while to get posting, to the extent that I sent round a couple of emails — on the Monday after the Friday class, and again on the Wednesday — encouraging them to take part.  As the online sessions last a week (i.e. students have a week to post in the discussion forum, starting from the day of our class) several left it pretty late in the day to start joining in.  Why was this?  I don’t entirely know, although I was also able to see behind the scenes of the VLE that quite a few students were returning to the forum several times before they actually posted anything.  So perhaps there was an element of ‘first session’ syndrome, with students wary or unsure of being the first to post without seeing what their classmates were doing.

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…

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.