A new academic year begins…

… which means a new term kicks off of my third year module, Victorian Literature, Art and Culture.  It’s had a name change since last year as the title now has to function as a potential catch-all for two different types of content, depending on year.  A decision was made to get rid of one of my Victorian modules entirely in Wolverhampton’s en masse move from a 15 to 20 credit system from last academic year to this.  As this was undoubtedly one of the low points of last academic year for me, the only way I can ‘save’ both my Victorian Vision module and my Fin de Siècle module is to rotate them every other year.

Jake von Slatts' Steampunk computer

And as an added twist, I’m not actually teaching the module this term in the classroom (colleague Lorna Shelley is doing that part), but I am overseeing the online component of the course — pretty much entirely from a distance and thus all online.  I went into the first in-class session on Friday to introduce the online component of the course to the class but all the rest of my involvement will be made in the discussion forum itself.  I’m writing this on a Sunday evening and I’m pleased to say that there’s been some activity in our first discussion forum over the weekend.  For the first Victorian Vision Online (VVO) exercise the class have been given some extracts from ‘Victorian overview’ books and, in conjunction with the discussion about the Victorians that they started in class, are invited to consider what the Victorians’ legacy is to us today, in our postmodern world.  I’ll post again later in the week about how the session has gone overall, but thus far I’m pleased at how it’s started off. 

I’ve spent a bit of time this afternoon fiddling around ‘behind the scenes’ with the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) area for this module — where all the action happens.  I’m always trying to make the technology work better for me, particularly by way of presentation and how it looks to the students.  I’ve added an instruction on how to turn text into a live weblink if students want to do that in posts and have modelled including a few such links in my own posts.

The image above came from doing a Google image search on ‘Victorian’ and ‘computer’.  Jake von Slatts’s Steampunk computer is sadly not something you can buy at PC World.

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.

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?

The end of the first week of teaching

It’s nearly the end of the first week of teaching at the start of another academic year.  I spent much of yesterday morning ‘cleaning out’ and ‘cleaning up’ my VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) space for the module I teach on the Victorians in advance of the evening’s class.   Due to being absent for some of last academic year I’ve not done any online work with my students for well over a year so I’m looking forward to doing some again.  I update my instructions and online resources for the first session of ‘The Victorian Vision Online’ (VVO), as I call the online component of the course and upload them onto our VLE at Wolverhampton (which is called WOLF: the Wolverhampton Online Learning Framework).

Over the summer our VLE got ‘updated’ by the IT team at Wolverhampton who mastermind it.   Combined with my general absence from doing online teaching things for a while this means that I also spend some of the morning trying to work out how to do things on WOLF again.   As a lecturer one has to come to know and love the idiosyncracies of one’s institution’s VLE: they all have them.

The evening’s class seems to go well, and I’m energised by it.  We’re in a windowless, relatively cosy room and if any more turn up next week I will need to order in oxygen, but in spite of the heat the class seem eager and keen to join in.  I’m interrupted a few times with some impressive and attentive readings of some of the extracts I have given them.  

EN3010 homepage 50

 I spend the last 15 minutes or so introducing the online component of the course.  If the students log on to the module on our VLE this is what they currently see.  To the left of the screen is a menu that ‘builds’ as the course progresses.  For now I’ve added general ‘Welcome to VVO’ details, stuff about Aims and Assessment, and details of the first VVO Session A, which kicks in once the face-to-face class ends.

The activity for this first week is a kind of icebreaker in which the class are invited to post responses as to how they see the Victorians having influenced the postmodern world we inherit today.  We did a brainstorm on what everyone knew about the Victorians to start the class, and they have extracts and a few further general quotes on the Victorians to aid their thinking.

I find myself eagerly logging back in after the class and the next morning to see whether anyone has yet posted.  Nope.  Just after lunchtime today the posts start.  The Victorian Vision Online has begun.