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…

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!

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).