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?

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’.

Marking, Marking, Marking…

It has come to this.  I’m blogging about marking.  Our new semester of teaching starts this coming week so normal service will be resumed soon and I will start talking about the online component on my 3rd Year undergraduate module on Fin de Siècle Writing and Culture.  In the meantime, I’ve spent much of January writing an essay for my MA and … marking.

The marking that I’m focussing on here is the marking of the discussion forum activities that took place on my Victorians module in Semester One.   Sometimes colleagues of mine in English Departments have wondered whether it is possible (or indeed desirable) to assess online discussion.  I have become quite a proponent of assessing such work for two main reasons: (1) assessing online discussion values the work students are putting in to online activities (and if they’re anything like mine, many will be putting in a lot of work), and (2) you will ensure 100% participation, across the entire course.  Some colleagues reading this may say they have highly motivated students who don’t need the ‘stick’ of assessment to get them to participate in such activities.  If so, then good for you, although I am still a tad sceptical as to whether all students will participate across an entire course in such circumstances.  My assessment criteria aim to provide many ‘carrots’ in terms of motivating my students in terms of their online work, and it is my experience (after about 5 years of assessing online discussion) that many students will work really hard at online activities.

My marking of what my students have posted in discussion forums over the course of a semester doesn’t involve any kind of electronic mechanisms:  I basically look at the posts each student has posted (our VLE enables me to ‘sort by author’ for each discussion forum) and assess the quality of what’s there against my assessment criteria.  Soon I get a feel for a particular student’s standard, as ranged against everything else I’m looking at (as one does with a batch of essays).  As I read their posts I make brief notes for myself as to what they are doing well/not doing so well.  My feedback form is simple:  it lists the number of discussion forums the student took part in across the semester, and then I offer my comments and a grade.

When I have visited other English Departments in the UK to ‘demo’ my VLE activities I am often asked how long such marking takes.  Overall I would say it is quicker than marking the equivalent number of essays, not least because I don’t write comments on forum postings as one writes on an essay.  My assessment criteria are also often popular with colleagues.  In the forthcoming Guide to Good Practice in the Use of Discussion Activities in English (HEA English Subject Centre, 2010 — see my Ms E-Mentor ‘Publications, Presentations and Awards’ page on this blog)  I have written the ‘Assessment’ chapter and the assessment criteria I use are set out there.  They probably aren’t perfect, but they work for me, and have been ‘tweaked’ over the years to try and iron out loopholes (students are very good at finding these, intentionally or not).  At best, the marking of the online work is really enjoyable, because I see students putting in a huge amount of effort and commitment to the activities, and responding with intelligence and flair.  Although I do look at what is going on in the forums as they are happening, and as the term progresses, I don’t make any claims (either to my class or to myself) to look at everything at that time.  When I come to mark I do aim to look at every post made, and there are always new things that surprise and impress me.

Victorian Christmas: Merry Christmas one and all!

My Victorian Vision class have just finished undertaking their final online session of the term and course.  Our final class was on Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) in particular, and Sensation Fiction in general.  But the final online session of the term exploits the Victorians’ innovations in relation to the season of Christmas.

Ill London News Cover

Illustrated London News cover, December 1845.

 Once again the class enter the Forum ‘in character’ as they did in ‘The Dickens Debate’ (see The Dickens Debate post on November 23rd)…but this time they can be any character from any work, or author of any work we have studied.  This means we’ve had Robert Audley, George Talboys, older and younger Cathys from Wuthering Heights, Esther, John Thornton, Margaret Thornton, Eulalie from Webster’s ‘A Castaway’ and the Lady of Shalott, amongst others, all telling each other what they are getting up to over Christmas.  To help them do this the class are given links to websites detailing Victorian traditions and customs (such as the first Christmas cards, and decorating Christmas trees).

Once again this exercise works on good character understanding and role play skills.  Wit, imagination and flair are positively encouraged, and some posts have been full of humour.  I also say that students may enter the forum in the guise of an author whom we have studied.  Usually no one much takes notice of this but this year we’ve had Dickens, Lizzie Siddall, Emily Bronte…AND William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti posting entirely in poetry!  ‘Being’ an author is more difficult to pull off than being a character I think, as to be convincing there obviously needs to be some knowledge of the author’s life in play, but it’s all part of the general unpredictability of any given cohort in a discussion forum.  It’s always the case that with each new year a different cohort comes up with something new in my online activities that no previous class has ever quite done.

And so The Victorian Vision Online comes to an end for 2009.  I’ll be marking what they’ve posted in due course, but time for some turkey and plum pudding first!

Final Class of the term…

…and slouching slowly towards Christmas.  Actually I’ve had a really enjoyable term and although I don’t really feel I can stop yet (MA essay to write, book to edit…) there’s always both relief and a slight sadness when a course ends.  Today a couple of Erasmus students from Germany called by my office to say goodbye as they return home soon.  They’ve been a richly valuable addition to my Women’s Writing course.  And tonight was the final teaching session on The Victorian Vision, and hence the very final final class for one of the students who finishes her degree mid-year.  She said before everyone else came in that she felt “quite emotional” and said at the end that she had very much enjoyed my classes.  I’m looking forward to reading her dissertation on late Victorian poet Amy Levy in the new year.

There’s been a reasonably strong sense of community in my Victorian Vision class.  This is partly because it is Year 3 and friendships are well formed but  I hope the Victorian Vision Online has added to this.  This cohort has undoubtedly been the best ever in terms of their use of the general forum space that they named The What the Dickens?!  There have been regular postings on this throughout the past twelve weeks on everything from Jim Carrey’s new A Christmas Carol movie to geeky (but no doubt very trendy) online cartoons about the Victorians, to lots of links to dreadful/fantastic (delete as appropriate) Victorian kitsch.  I’m pleased it’s developed a life of its own.

We’ve also had a caption competition.  Here’s the image to which the students are invited to add a caption:

Caption competitionThe class were given a week to come up with captions and there were 14 entries.  Previously I’ve chosen the winner, but I realise that they should be the ones to make the vote, so this year I used The What the Dickens?! to distribute all the captions once they were in and they voted by emailing me their choice.  The winner and runner up were both actually by the same person, so an outright winner there:

“Ever the stoic Victorian gentleman, Roger refuses to acknowledge that his feet are on fire”.

“The Suffragist letter-bomb campaign gets off to a bad start when Maud realises she’s forgotten the gunpowder”.

Third place would go to:  She: “Father!  The publisher — they’ve accepted my novel Wuthering Heights!  But I’m so terribly worried they’ll find out I’m a woman.  What should I do?”  He: “Oh, I think it’ll be fine … There’s no way a woman could produce work of such quality!”

Great stuff!