Mad About Oscar

Semester Two teaching is underway, which in my e-learning land means my third year undergraduate module on Fin de Siècle Writing and Culture.  Unlike my Victorians module from last semester, this course includes less online sessions (four in total rather than seven) and they are assessed to the tune of 25% of the overall mark.

The course starts with a few weeks introducing the class to ‘key terms’ of the period — namely, Aestheticism, Decadence and Degeneration.  Week 2 is on Oscar Wilde and Decadence.  Wilde is an endlessly fascinating figure and I’ve taught myself quite a lot about him since I have been teaching this course.  His presence and ‘influence’ (to cite a word so potent in The Picture of Dorian Gray) in the 1880s and ’90s are phenomenal.   This is one session where I devote a great deal of time to talking about Wilde’s life, in detail, because, as Francesca Coppa has argued, ’Wilde’s first and foremost invention [was] the performed persona of “Oscar Wilde”.  If there is one thing that makes us feel that Wilde, dead for over one hundred years now, is our contemporary, a man who would be perfectly at home in the world of Andy Warhol and Madonna, David Bowie, Baz Lurhmann, and The Osbournes, it is his understanding of the self as performance’ (Francesca Coppa, ‘Performance theory and performativity’ in Oscar Wilde Studies, ed. Frederick Rosen [Palgrave, 2004], p. 73).  

Our first online session involves using the Trials of Oscar Wilde site and the class are invited to discuss how The Picture of Dorian Gray is used in the libel trial by the Marquess of Queensbury’s counsel, Edward Carson.   The session takes a while to get going, perhaps in part because it is the first session and some are unfamiliar with such online discussions.  Each of my online sessions lasts a week, kicking off with the day of the class, and after 4 days only half the class have posted.  I send some reminder emails, and in the latter part of the week the forum really takes off, with some interesting and engaged discussion being posted about Wilde’s stance as an aesthete in the dock, about art versus life, about literature being used as a way of ascertaining biography, about the reclaiming of the word ‘shame’ by writers such as Alfred Douglas (in poems such as ‘Two Loves’ and ‘In Praise of Shame’) and much else besides.

The class also have an online ‘Salon’ forum where they can post in a general sense  about this module.  Last term having a general forum space was really taken up and ‘owned’ by my Victorians class.  It can’t ever be manufactured, and it’s up to the class, ultimately, but as a first step I invite them to submit some names for their Salon.  We had a vote this morning and ‘The Yellow Room’ won, closely followed by ‘Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder’, ‘The Fin de Semester’ and my particular favourite, ‘The Van HesINN’.  That’s the spirit!  I leave a virtual copy of The Yellow Book around by way of an image of one of the periodical’s distinctive covers.

The Yellow Book, Volume 1 (1894) I’m fortunate enough actually to own a complete run of The Yellow Book, and last week I brought in a couple of volumes for the class to see.  I’ve also this last week purchased a set of The Savoy and a facsimile edition of The Chameleon, the undergraduate magazine in which Douglas’s notorious poems appeared, and Wilde’s ‘Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young’.

Marking, Marking, Marking…

It has come to this.  I’m blogging about marking.  Our new semester of teaching starts this coming week so normal service will be resumed soon and I will start talking about the online component on my 3rd Year undergraduate module on Fin de Siècle Writing and Culture.  In the meantime, I’ve spent much of January writing an essay for my MA and … marking.

The marking that I’m focussing on here is the marking of the discussion forum activities that took place on my Victorians module in Semester One.   Sometimes colleagues of mine in English Departments have wondered whether it is possible (or indeed desirable) to assess online discussion.  I have become quite a proponent of assessing such work for two main reasons: (1) assessing online discussion values the work students are putting in to online activities (and if they’re anything like mine, many will be putting in a lot of work), and (2) you will ensure 100% participation, across the entire course.  Some colleagues reading this may say they have highly motivated students who don’t need the ‘stick’ of assessment to get them to participate in such activities.  If so, then good for you, although I am still a tad sceptical as to whether all students will participate across an entire course in such circumstances.  My assessment criteria aim to provide many ‘carrots’ in terms of motivating my students in terms of their online work, and it is my experience (after about 5 years of assessing online discussion) that many students will work really hard at online activities.

My marking of what my students have posted in discussion forums over the course of a semester doesn’t involve any kind of electronic mechanisms:  I basically look at the posts each student has posted (our VLE enables me to ‘sort by author’ for each discussion forum) and assess the quality of what’s there against my assessment criteria.  Soon I get a feel for a particular student’s standard, as ranged against everything else I’m looking at (as one does with a batch of essays).  As I read their posts I make brief notes for myself as to what they are doing well/not doing so well.  My feedback form is simple:  it lists the number of discussion forums the student took part in across the semester, and then I offer my comments and a grade.

When I have visited other English Departments in the UK to ‘demo’ my VLE activities I am often asked how long such marking takes.  Overall I would say it is quicker than marking the equivalent number of essays, not least because I don’t write comments on forum postings as one writes on an essay.  My assessment criteria are also often popular with colleagues.  In the forthcoming Guide to Good Practice in the Use of Discussion Activities in English (HEA English Subject Centre, 2010 — see my Ms E-Mentor ‘Publications, Presentations and Awards’ page on this blog)  I have written the ‘Assessment’ chapter and the assessment criteria I use are set out there.  They probably aren’t perfect, but they work for me, and have been ‘tweaked’ over the years to try and iron out loopholes (students are very good at finding these, intentionally or not).  At best, the marking of the online work is really enjoyable, because I see students putting in a huge amount of effort and commitment to the activities, and responding with intelligence and flair.  Although I do look at what is going on in the forums as they are happening, and as the term progresses, I don’t make any claims (either to my class or to myself) to look at everything at that time.  When I come to mark I do aim to look at every post made, and there are always new things that surprise and impress me.

The VLE is Undead!

Last Wednesday, on December 16th, I attended an afternoon event at the University of Wolverhampton on ‘The VLE is Undead’.  This was a replay/development of a session first aired at the ALT-C conference in September 2009, entitled ‘The VLE is Dead’.  The event took the form of a debate, with James Clay and Nick Sharratt arguing for the continuing usefulness of VLEs, and Steve Wheeler and Graham Attwell suggesting that they are outmoded.  It was a ‘buzzy’ event, with advance interest generated by a “quick and dirty” social networking site: VLEUNDEAD and ‘live tweets’ being posted up via the data projector screen in the room where we were meeting as the event happened.   Most of the attendees were learning technologists within HE or FE; I was one of the few academics.  But I am genuinely interested in the future of such online learning spaces, seeing as I’ve invested quite a lot of my own time in making VLE platforms work within English Studies.  There’s a Cloudworks webpage on the ALT-C version of this event if you are interested.

There was discussion of the proprietorial ‘walled garden’ nature of VLES, commercial vs. open source vs. in-house VLEs, the perceived clunkiness of VLEs compared to Web 2.0 social software such as Facebook, the future of education and technology, the ever-increasing diversity of learning and learners into the 21st century, and much more.  One attendee made the very valid point that it is not so much that VLEs are outmoded as that many lecturers have never used them to their full potential, and dismiss them based on that lack of effective usage.  Personally I think that once you as a tutor see your own students/class using a VLE effectively — and obviously doing some rich learning using it — your views change.  As I say on the ‘About Ms E-Mentor’ page of this blog, my own classes that use online discussion activities would be lesser things without the online component, and that all happens within a VLE.

Maybe it is the case that a majority of academics won’t wish to do the necessary learning to manoeuvre round their institutions’ VLE, and that online pedagogic innovation will always be led by the few.  What I have found effective from my own experience is going into other departments as a subject specialist  and demoing effective use of VLEs. There’s still a great deal of interest in this from my colleagues across the UK in English Studies, many of whom still don’t really know how to make VLEs effective in their own teaching.  The VLE is a space, like a classroom is a space.  It’s what you do in it that matters and that makes learning happen.

So for me the VLE is very much not dead, or even undead.  I am sure VLE technologies and platforms will continue to develop — and so they should — but I’m very far from convinced that anything like learning is going on in the overwhelming majority of Facebook posts.  As the name suggests, it’s a ‘social networking site’ and not a learning space.  My students’ discussion forum posts on the online activities I’ve been describing in this blog are very clearly about learning, and I still very much think there is a place for an enclosed online space connected to any given course, which is what VLEs offer.

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…

What’s going on in the What the Dickens?!

As indicated in a previous post, my students have distinct forums for each of the online sessions we have throughout the course.  But there is also a general forum, which is nothing to do with assessment, where basically the class can talk about what they like, if they so wish.  For the first time this year it was possible to ‘manipulate’ this general forum so it could be renamed, and I got the class to vote for the name they wanted for it (see The Pre-Raphaelites Online post on 12 October 2009).  So we have a virtual Victorian inn called the ‘What the Dickens?!’

Some years my online class don’t really take much notice of this space but this year there’s a healthy level of interest and usage of it continuing throughout the term.  One student, having watched the BBC’s carry-on-up-the-Pre-Raphaelites romp that was Desperate Romantics has singlehandedly started the international Aidan Turner fanclub (he played Rossetti).  After we’d been discussing the Victorians and the body in one class another student posted up a link about corset piercing (it’s as painful as it sounds!).

There’s also a significant Victorian kitsch thing going on as well, and I must admit I have encouraged this.  It all began with my showing an Elizabeth Barratt Browning plimsoll in the class on Aurora Leigh.  A student posted up a Queen Victoria teapot.  Is there a recession on?  Are we seriously meant to believe that people buy this stuff?  Soon we had the Tennyson plimsoll (this particular company seems able to put a picture of practically anything on anything), and — my particular favourite — North and South merchandise.  I still don’t quite know how I am managing to refrain from buying an “I found my thrill at Marlborough Mills” T-shirt.  It’s also got to the point in the term where my little ‘icon’ that appears in the corner of every post I make in a forum has changed from being Queen Victoria to a William Morris Daisy watering can.  I actually own this.  It was given to me as a civil partnership gift last year by my mother, who died earlier this year.  It’s thus become a very treasured item in our household.  Ah capitalism!  The delights you have given us!

Occasionally it gets a bit more serious: I’d given the class a copy of John Millais’s Retribution in a handout one week but we hadn’t got around to discussing it in the classroom, so we took the discussion of what was going on in the image into What the Dickens?!  But I am genuinely not too fussed what the class talk about in this general forum, and I’m pleased when they do choose — as they pretty much are doing this year — to follow up themes and topics from the course, whether in a more light-hearted vein or not.  It adds to the sense of class community created online, that’s for sure.