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…