What’s going down in Bram’s Bites (1)

It’s the Fin de Siècle.  I’m now into a new and unwanted regime whereby I only get to teach this module every other year, and therefore this module’s assessment pattern has had to dovetail with that of its sister module which focusses on the high Victorian period. Practically what this means is that the module is now running with more online sessions than when I previously blogged about it, and thus Ms E-Mentor has been making some new ones up.

For anyone new to this blog a brief outline of how I integrate online sessions with face-to-face teaching is as follows: across a teaching term of 12 classes there are 7 online sessions, assessed to the tune of 40% of the overall marks on the course (the other 60% is a research essay).  From the outset of the course the students are clear where the online sessions dovetail with the classes as listed on the module guide.  Online sessions continue and develop themes and issues that we have started exploring in the face-to-face classroom.  This is a third year undergraduate course, and by this stage English students at Wolverhampton are familiar with using VLE discussion forums.  They will have done so at least once, in the first year, but quite possibly more than once, in the second year as well.

I refer to the online sessions on this module under the acronym of FOE (the Fin de Siècle Online Experience).  Our first FOE Session A is thus in Week 2, when we discuss Oscar Wilde and decadence.  I’ve blogged about what we do in this session before so I don’t intend to repeat the description in full.  What I noted this time round was that it took the students quite a while to get posting, to the extent that I sent round a couple of emails — on the Monday after the Friday class, and again on the Wednesday — encouraging them to take part.  As the online sessions last a week (i.e. students have a week to post in the discussion forum, starting from the day of our class) several left it pretty late in the day to start joining in.  Why was this?  I don’t entirely know, although I was also able to see behind the scenes of the VLE that quite a few students were returning to the forum several times before they actually posted anything.  So perhaps there was an element of ‘first session’ syndrome, with students wary or unsure of being the first to post without seeing what their classmates were doing.

Yet more Wuthering on the Heights

The class have recently engaged in exactly the same online exercise concerning Wuthering Heights as did last year’s cohort: namely, alongside the opening chapter from Terry Eagleton’s Heathcliff and the Great Hunger and Charlotte Bronte’s 1850 Preface to the novel, they consider whether the novel could be considered xenophobic.  The question is deliberately provocative, in one sense, but the Heathcliff-as-Irish link that Eagleton makes raises the question of him as a kind of racial other.  Once again I note how this novel always gets students going.  They never seem short of things to say about it and the debate and discussion in the ‘Heathcliff, It’s Me!’ forum is always animated.

High Withens, Haworth Moor

High Withens, Haworth Moor

As I’ve not been teaching the class in the classroom this year they have been spared my gratuitous youtube clips of Kate Bush’s 1979 video and the Monty Python semaphore version.  I’ll still give them the links though.

Here’s the link to the post I made this time last year about this session, including an enthusiastic comment from one of the students in the class.

Trouble at Marlborough Mill

Well, far from it, actually.  The class have been considering Elizabeth Gaskell’s  North and South (1855) for a couple of sessions and for the first time there is an online session to accompany their in-class discussions.  I’ve adapted an idea I’ve used on my Fin de Siècle course previously in online sessions for this one.  It’s a relatively simple idea of getting each member of the class to choose a chapter from the novel to discuss: they situate it briefly in the plot, and discuss in more detail what happpens in the chapter and what significance it has in the ongoing novel.  This means everyone has got something of their own to contribute by way of each student picking a different chapter.  They are encouraged not to duplicate each other’s chapters — hence they also need to keep an eye on what is being posted up.  I was pleased to see that posts were going up only hours after the Friday morning class as a few students were keen to make sure they could post on their particular chosen chapter.

Are we nearly there yet?

This exercise is of course partly trying to encourage the practice of good, concise, attentive close reading — skills which we all want to see in essays.  I’m pleased too to see some students are clearly doing some extra reading on Gaskell, and are bringing that to bear on their posts.

I respond briefly to a few of the posts — adding a question prompted by something in a post and/or trying to encourage the discussion on a bit further.  From my virtual distance the class are coming across to me as quite motivated in relation to the online activities…I’m not overly having to remind them to take part and there’s a good level of engagement quality wise in the tasks set.

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.

News from Virtual Nowhere

In a recent article in the Journal of William Morris Studies, ‘Hope and Change: Teaching News from Nowhere, David Latham wrote of the difficulty of teaching Morris’s utopian novel today.  In particular he highlighted what he regarded as the overly-cynical response of his students: “‘He [Morris] can’t be serious; it’s Nowhere because it will never work; even the sunny weather would scorch the earth; I mean, get real’” (p. 6). There is perhaps  thus a tendency to be slightly defensive when teaching News from Nowhere, almost anticipating the negative responses.

However, this is largely not my experience.  Just before Easter my Level 3 Fin de Siècle class read the novel.  It’s always a session I enjoy teaching, not least because there is a sense in which I can ad lib about Morris’s life and work reasonably well, and generally I hope I’m accurate!  I offer the class a potted resumé of Morris’s life, with a more detailed focus on the emergence of his politics in the 1880s.  Our seminar discussion was engaged, and I had no sense that my students were simply dismissing Morris’s vision as Latham suggests some of his might do.  I write this as in two weeks we are all going to vote in the UK, and talk of ‘hope and change’ are being everywhere co-opted by politicians (some of whom Morris wouldn’t have had a lot of time for).

 The online session which results from our News from Nowhere class gives my students ample opportunity to explore Morris’s ideas in more depth.  I ask them to pick a chapter of the work each, to reread it, and to write up a summary of the main points of the chapter in our ‘Nowhere’ discussion forum.  In a class of 20+ students this means we get about two thirds of the novel covered and discussed.  They are then asked to offer their views of whatever it is that is being consdiered in that chapter.  This leads to detailed discussions of education, gender roles, crime, work, capitalism, human nature, issues around choice versus coercion … and much more.  I also invited the class to read their chosen chapter via Florence Boos’s online edition of News from Nowhere and to comment on it.  Several students appreciated the images in the online version, which aided with giving a sense of nineteenth century contexts, but one student started a discussion strand entitled ‘Electronic vs. Books of the old-fashioned variety’ which set off a lively eight-post thread.  Almost all contributors ultimately argued in favour of the smell and feel of physical books, although e-books as helping to get more people reading were thought of as a good thing.  As I had been bringing in some of my 1890s books into our classroom sessions (including a Kelmscott edition of Morris’s 1891 volume of poems Poems by the Way), one of the students brought in this week a number of books that had been passed down to her by her grandfather, including what I think was a first edition of Mary Barton.  It’s great to see my students sharing a continuing love of books-as-made-things.  Morris would be pleased with that, I think.  Harder to know what he would make of online editions, perhaps … but cannot websites also be aesthetically pleasing and well made too?