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.

The VLE is Undead!

Last Wednesday, on December 16th, I attended an afternoon event at the University of Wolverhampton on ‘The VLE is Undead’.  This was a replay/development of a session first aired at the ALT-C conference in September 2009, entitled ‘The VLE is Dead’.  The event took the form of a debate, with James Clay and Nick Sharratt arguing for the continuing usefulness of VLEs, and Steve Wheeler and Graham Attwell suggesting that they are outmoded.  It was a ‘buzzy’ event, with advance interest generated by a “quick and dirty” social networking site: VLEUNDEAD and ‘live tweets’ being posted up via the data projector screen in the room where we were meeting as the event happened.   Most of the attendees were learning technologists within HE or FE; I was one of the few academics.  But I am genuinely interested in the future of such online learning spaces, seeing as I’ve invested quite a lot of my own time in making VLE platforms work within English Studies.  There’s a Cloudworks webpage on the ALT-C version of this event if you are interested.

There was discussion of the proprietorial ‘walled garden’ nature of VLES, commercial vs. open source vs. in-house VLEs, the perceived clunkiness of VLEs compared to Web 2.0 social software such as Facebook, the future of education and technology, the ever-increasing diversity of learning and learners into the 21st century, and much more.  One attendee made the very valid point that it is not so much that VLEs are outmoded as that many lecturers have never used them to their full potential, and dismiss them based on that lack of effective usage.  Personally I think that once you as a tutor see your own students/class using a VLE effectively — and obviously doing some rich learning using it — your views change.  As I say on the ‘About Ms E-Mentor’ page of this blog, my own classes that use online discussion activities would be lesser things without the online component, and that all happens within a VLE.

Maybe it is the case that a majority of academics won’t wish to do the necessary learning to manoeuvre round their institutions’ VLE, and that online pedagogic innovation will always be led by the few.  What I have found effective from my own experience is going into other departments as a subject specialist  and demoing effective use of VLEs. There’s still a great deal of interest in this from my colleagues across the UK in English Studies, many of whom still don’t really know how to make VLEs effective in their own teaching.  The VLE is a space, like a classroom is a space.  It’s what you do in it that matters and that makes learning happen.

So for me the VLE is very much not dead, or even undead.  I am sure VLE technologies and platforms will continue to develop — and so they should — but I’m very far from convinced that anything like learning is going on in the overwhelming majority of Facebook posts.  As the name suggests, it’s a ‘social networking site’ and not a learning space.  My students’ discussion forum posts on the online activities I’ve been describing in this blog are very clearly about learning, and I still very much think there is a place for an enclosed online space connected to any given course, which is what VLEs offer.

Teaching with Youtube

If I can digress off the Victorians for this post I was teaching a course on Women’s Writing and Feminist Literary Theories to second year undergraduates this week.  It’s the point in the course where I attempt to explain Judith Butler to them and her notion of the peformativity of gender.  I had just read the latest edition of Wordplay, the English Subject Centre’s Newsletter, and Anna Palko’s article on ‘Teaching with Youtube’, where she mentions using the Dove ‘Evolution’ advert to introduce ideas around essentialism and gender performance.  The advert is quite mesmeric, and Palko rightly says that it is “extremely powerful, as it displays an issue of which many, if not all, of the class is aware and are affected by”.  I showed it as my very first slide, with a reference to Joan Rivière’s 1929 essay on ‘Womanliness as Masquerade’ and the notion of “performing the pantomime of femininity”.

It felt like it was only the start though and I am not sure it entirely ‘works’ for a discussion of Judith Butler.  Certainly the image of the woman that you see on the billboard at the end of the advert has been constructed — and it’s the photoshop adaptations in the ad that are somehow the most impacting/shocking to me — but Butler wasn’t the first to say femininity is culturally constructed by a long way.  Her point is much more about the way in which society produces gender from an a priori sex and Butler in Gender Trouble argues against that ‘logical’ causality.  For the first time I also showed my class a clip from the 1991 film Paris is Burning, which Butler discuses in Bodies That Matter (1995).  Despite the fact that Butler is often taken as advocating drag as a way of parodying the constructed nature of all gender (with no originary sex behind it), she is ambivalent about the extent to which the drag performances on offer in the film are liberatory.  There’s certainly some interesting discussion to be had around the category of ‘Realness’ which the men attempt to approximate and perform in the Balls.

The Pre-Raphaelites Online

My first online session with my third year class on the Victorians is now over.  They came up with an impressive bank of comments and discussion about how the Victorians have influenced us now, and their legacies still with us.  I kept logging on to the first Forum excitedly the day after my first class to see who was posting.  It took a little while to get going but I do always find I want to see the Forum in progress as it were.  The dynamism of it is part of the appeal and what makes it work.

As well as the Forums for each specific designated exercise our VLE also has  general forum on the menu of each online topic area which I as ‘Admin’ person can change the name of.  In past years we haven’t been able to do that, so I also set the class the task of renaming the general forum for their own use.  I’m not really bothered what they talk about in here.  As long as it’s not offensive or illegal it’s fine with me.  It helps if it’s course related but I’m not really policing it.

The suggestions for names for our ‘Virtual Victorian Inn’ were great:  The Literary Lounge, The Stiff Upper Lip, The Chamber of Converse, The Punch and Dickens, The Queen Vic, The What-the-Dickens?!, The Brontë Bruiser’s Bar, and The Having a Gas(kell).  As our second class was exploring Chartism, Reform Bills and working class pressure for the vote, we had our own secret ballot to vote for the winner.  The What the Dickens?! won, but there’s now a snug in the back called Having a Gas(kell).

Our second Victorian Vision Online session, which accompanies the third class, is one of my favourites, and works incredibly well.  The class build their own bank of weblinks to Pre-Raphaelite paintings, thus creating a resource for the class, and then make a post in a ‘Pre-Raphaelite Painting’ forum on their chosen painting, telling their classmates about it.  They are encouraged to do some research on their painting, alongside using the useful information available on good websites such as those of Art Galleries which have PR holdings.

I’m also trying out a ‘Pre-Raphaelite Poetry’ forum alongside it using the online Morris Edition being created by Florence Boos at the University of Iowa.  Margaret Lourie’s excellent annotated edition of William Morris’s The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems (1858), long out of print, has been made available online.  There are also copies of some of the original first reviews of the volume, so it’s possible for my class to see how critics of the time referred to these poems as somehow ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ and doing in verse what they perceived the PRs to be doing in paint.  I thus also set my class the quite challenging task of discussing one of choosing one of the 30 poems to discuss.  In what ways might it be perceived as ‘Pre-Raphaelite’?  Is it possible to translate techniques in painting to poetry?