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!

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).

Teaching long novels

Last week we started a two week exploration of Bleak House.   As an undergraduate myself I had the slightly strange experience of only studying Dickens via The Mystery of Edwin Drood and as my own research went on to focus on Victorian poetry I never really got into Dickens.   Since I’ve been on the other side of the desk that has changed, and I now think he’s terrific.  Bleak House, of course, is long, and that can pose its own challenges.  I know of at least one English department where staff have said to me that they just couldn’t teach such a long novel to their students.  I’m not sure what the rationale for that is, and I doggedly refuse to lose the ‘long novel’ experience from both my Victorians course and a level two course I teach on Realism and the Novel, despite the fact that every year, when module evaluation forms come in, there are always a couple of comments exclaiming “Middlemarch is too long”.   The Victorian period is the great period of belief in narrative and its possibilities to describe, create and recreate the world and it thus seems necessary to expose students to that very Victorian way of saying things at length.  A few weeks earlier we considered Elizabeth Barratt Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856).  I’ve never previously taught this, although, again, it was the choice of my idiosyncratic undergraduate tutor when I did the Victorians.  “Longer than Paradise Lost“, he said, “but it doesn’t feel like it.”  One of my current students agreed when she said she romped through Aurora Leigh but was struggling to keep up with the intricacies and complexities of the plot in Bleak House and the sheer staying power needed to get through 800+ pages of it.  Another student told me she’d been reading Bleak House on and off since last summer and still hadn’t got to the end.

So are there things that can help?  Teaching such very long texts over more than one week perhaps does, and I had also set a reading week before it as well.  My class have a longish research essay to do as one part of the assessment on this course and depending on the choice of question and texts they choose to focus upon I’m aware that some could just decide to opt out of bothering with a text like Bleak House altogether.  This is where using a VLE can come in very useful.

As I have a series of online VLE activities throughout the entire course (there are 7 sessions in total over the term) there is inevitably one on Bleak House.  As my assessment criteria suggest as a basic participation requirement that the highest grades are likely to go to students who have taken part in all sessions (although it’s ultimately qualitative criteria that decide this) then students who want to do well on the VLE part of the course will take part in all of them.  It’s undoubtedly the case that there’s more engagement with a long novel like Bleak House now that the class know there is an online activity on it, regardless of whether they wish to explore it further for their essay, than there was before I was using the VLE.

And this online session is often one of the best, and different in kind from any of the others thus described in this blog.  I’ll be posting again in a day or two once ‘The Dickens Debate’ is underway to describe what they’re getting up to…

Heathcliff, it’s me…

Wuthering Heights.   I’ve grown to love it.  I did it myself on my English BA at Birmingham back in the 1980s but then hadn’t reread it until my colleague Ben Colbert suggested it went on to the Victorians course a few years ago.  When I announced at the end of last week’s session that “…and next week it’s Wuthering Heights…” there was an audible cheer from near the back.  I don’t get that reaction often so I found myself ruminating over the week about what it is that makes this novel so loved.

I create a handout which features critical comments on or responses to the novel from its first publication in 1847 to the latter twentieth century.  I’m struck anew by the metaphoric power of Charlotte Brontë’s final paragraph in her 1850 edition ‘Preface’ when she images the novel as hewn from the rough granite of the Moors into something both terrible and beautiful.  By the early twentieth century the novel has been canonized as about universal human themes of mythic proportions.  I offer further quotes that (1) read the novel from a Freudian, familial perspective, (2) deconstruct it and (3) suggest it’s a work about the disappearance of God, to quote J. Hillis Miller’s well-known book.  We then get to more ‘located’ readings by Arnold Kettle and Terry Eagleton and end up with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s reading of it as a parodic re-reading of Paradise Lost in The Madwoman in the Attic (1979).

We end up with enough time to spare at the end of the lecture hour for me to ask ‘Whither Wuthering Heights?’ and I have an excuse to show some favourite Youtube clips.  I realise that most of my class weren’t even glimmers on the far horizon of life when Kate Bush released her iconic song in 1979 but I show them the video anyway.  Kate-BushYoutube has a red dress version (outside in the woods, presumably on the moors) and the original white faintly see-through dress studio version.   I’m sure Kate Bush single-handedly started a revolution in wafty aerobic dancing with those videos.  And I’d forgoten the cartwheels in the studio version.  Never mind Catherine Earnshaw saying “I am Heathcliff”, I think Kate Bush is Cathy.   She is very convincing as a slightly crazed lovesick ghost.  We then progress to the National Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s version.  I love this.  Particularly when the sheep join in near the end.  We end up with Monty Python’s Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights which is a parody of the 1939 film with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon (dir. William Wyler).  I hesitate to analyse to myself why this is so funny for fear of destroying it’s Pythonesque nuttiness.

I signal to the class that later they too will be out upon the virtual moors of our latest Victorian Vision Online exercise…

Victorian Song

Session 3 of the Victorian Vision Online involved the class each having to find a Victorian song, post up the lyrics, and tell their classmates something about it.  This made an interesting swerve as the online exercise after an in-class session on Victorian poetry where in some ways the discussion had been more ‘highbrow’, considering the ways in which Victorian poetry found itself marginalised in the period and struggling to find a sense of its own purpose and role as the novel took centre stage.  The idea for this session online came from a colleague of mine, Hilary Weeks, several years ago.

For the first time thus far with the VVO sessions I don’t send the class a reminder/prompt email about the session.  I figure by this point in the term they should be into the groove of the sessions and able to follow the programme of when they happen.  Sure enough they don’t have any problems getting on with the task.  I log in on Monday morning, after three days, and find lots of posts.  I had posted a number of links to suggested websites where I thought students might find examples of Victorian songs but they have also used other resources.  One student posts that she spent Sunday afternoon listening to a CD of Victorian songs, and her chosen song is a poem called ‘The Lost Chord’ by Adelaide Procter, set to music by Arthur Sullivan in 1887.  She is surprised and even a little outraged that she can find so little reference to Procter anywhere.

There are quite a lot of hymns and Christmas carols posted up — a good reminder that the Victorian period is one of quite a lot of faith as well as doubt — and I’m often impressed by the level of analysis that the class are giving to their finds.  A terrific discussion kicks off starting from someone posting ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, written by Cecil Frances Alexander and published in 1848 (it ends up as a ‘thread’ of 19 posts).  The discussion goes all over the place, and is popular probably because so many of the class can remember singing this hymn at school.  A debate starts as to whether children should have to sing hymns in school at all and it ends up in a discussion of religion as the opium of the people and class suppressor when someone finds the now omitted second verse: 

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Another student makes the most of my encouragement to the class to interact with each other well on the forum and posts all but the last verse of a popular music hall song.  With the subject line of ‘What happens next?’ he invites classmates to suggest how the song’s story turns out.   Great stuff.