Wordsworth Online and On Location: Teaching Romantic Writing Beyond the Literature Classroom

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Wordsworth Online and On Location: Teaching Romantic Writing Beyond the Literature Classroom

Simon Bainbridge
Professor of English and Creative Writing, Lancaster University


This submission outlines two pedagogic projects designed and delivered by the Department of English and Creative Writing, Lancaster University, UK. The projects are led by Simon Bainbridge, Professor of Romantic Studies, and involve collaboration with other organizations (Wordsworth Trust) and Departments (Lancaster University Management School). The projects use innovative methods to teach William Wordsworth’s poetry to a range of learners from outside the usual disciplinary environment of literature departments. Both projects use experimental teaching formats to take learning beyond the conventional classroom: in one case through online technology, in the other through on-location walking. They seek to support the study of Wordsworth’s poetry for learners who would not normally have access to high-level, research-informed teaching, especially the general public and those in other disciplines (particularly the fields of Leadership and Management Studies). Both projects have created new readerships for Wordsworth and Romantic-period texts and have produced fresh appreciations of poetry and literature beyond the academy. The projects have both been taught within the academic year 2015–16.

Pedagogic Project 1: William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

This MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) was taught in four weekly parts during September–October 2015 (and will be offered again in September 2016). It was free to participants and made available via the FutureLearn platform (https://www.futurelearn.com/courses). The course attracted 5,334 “Learners” (those who visited the course once it began) from 60 countries, of which 4,675 were “Active Learners” (those who used the “Mark as Complete” button during the course, indicating that they had learned from a particular step). The course was designed and delivered in conjunction with the Wordsworth Trust by a team of four Romanticism specialists (Simon Bainbridge, Sally Bushell, Keith Hanley, Sharon Ruston), one creative writing lecturer (Jenn Ashworth), three PhD students (Kate Ingle, Frank Pearson, Andrew Raven), one postdoctoral researcher (Andrew Lacey), four online learning specialists, and the Trust’s curator Jeff Cowton.

The course aimed to facilitate the study of William and Dorothy Wordsworth’s writing for learners with all levels of expertise. No prior knowledge of the texts or of literature more generally was expected, but it was also hoped that the materials made available would be of interest to scholars in the field. The course particularly examined Wordsworth’s writing process— through the manuscript collections of the Wordsworth Trust held at the Jerwood Centre—and the importance of location—using onsite filming in Grasmere and the wider Lake District.

The course was delivered in four weekly sections with each consisting of around fifteen learning steps, providing an estimated four hours of study per week. Steps comprised a range of different learning forms, including films, illustrated audio recordings, readings, analytic exercises, discussions, peer-review activities, quizzes, and creative exercises.

The structure of the four-week course was as follows:

Week 1: Introducing Wordsworth and Lyrical Ballads

Main steps: Film: Introduction to Wordsworth; Film: Introduction to Jerwood Centre; Quiz; Key principles of Lyrical Ballads; Guide: How to close read poetry; Film: Reading and analysis of “The Tables Turned”; Film: How to read and interpret manuscripts; Quiz; Reading of “Old Man Travelling” and questions; Film: Manuscript of “Old Man Travelling”; Video: Summing up.

Week 2: “Spots of Time”: Childhood, Education and Memory in The Prelude

Main Steps: Film: Prelude manuscripts; Quiz; Film: Beginning The Prelude—reading and analysis; Film: Wordsworth and education (filmed at Hawkshead Grammar School); Film: “Spots of Time”; Creative task around “Spots of Time”; Film: “Boat Stealing”—introduction and re-enactment filmed at Ullswater; Peer-review essay; Film: The Goslar Letter; Activity: Make your own Goslar Letter; Video: Summing up.

Week 3: “Michael”: Wordsworth and the Importance of Place

Main Steps: Film: “Michael” and place; Film: Michael and the land; Discussion: What does Wordsworth value in Michael; Creative Task: Personalising place; Film: The sheepfold; Film: Wordsworth at the sheepfold; Film: Manuscripts of “Michael”; Article: Cross-written manuscripts; Video: Summing up.

Week 4: William and Dorothy Wordsworth in and around Grasmere

Main Steps: Film: Introduction; Film: The Wordsworths and letter writing; Film: The Christmas Eve Letter; Reading; “Home at Grasmere”; Film: The Rock of Names; Film: Dorothy Wordsworth and Dove Cottage; Quiz; Film: Introduction to Grasmere Journal; 3 readings from Dorothy’s Journal and quizzes; Film and comparison exercise: Dorothy, William and the daffodils; Film: Conclusion; Video: Summing up.

Sample course materials can be viewed on YouTube:

Learner participation was central to the course. Learners were able to post comments on each of the steps, which were designed to stimulate engagement, and this created a strong sense of an online learning community. Each step generally produced between 500-1,000 comments. Learners were also able to write short essays that were peer-reviewed. In addition to the academic elements of the course, we designed a number of creative steps. For example, learners were able to create a version of a Wordsworth manuscript for themselves. We also used Padlet to enable learners to post their reflections on the importance to them of a particular place or “spot of time,” creating remarkable visual and textual mosaics, strongly in the Wordsworthian tradition.

Our team of four online mentors—three PhD students and one postdoctoral researcher—were crucial to the course. Along with the academic leads, this team guided online discussion, dealing with specific queries and any other issues. At the end of each week, the teaching team filmed a discussion that responded to the major issues and questions raised in the week’s 10,000 or so comments. We concluded the course with a Google Hangout, a live online interaction with participants hosted by the Wordsworth Trust at the Jerwood Centre, a venue to which all participants were also invited: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i50UIVOY9Pg

Feedback on the course was extremely positive, with nearly 1,000 comments on the course’s final “summing up” and “conclusion” sections. Learners identified a number of elements as particularly valuable for them, including providing, or helping develop, an understanding of William and Dorothy Wordsworth’s lives and writings; offering ways of studying poetry, a form which had previously intimidated some learners; and stimulating creativity especially through the Padlet exercises; enabling participation in scholarly discussions; giving access to otherwise unavailable materials, activities and locations; introducing new forms of technology and learning methods; stimulating further learning and study, particularly of poetry and Romanticism. The course has also benefitted the Wordsworth Trust through increased visitor numbers and engagement and a raised online profile. As the Trust’s curator Jeff Cowton commented in unsolicited correspondence: “Thank you for involving the Trust so much in this project . . . We'll never be able to thank you enough for the good this MOOC will do us.”

Participants’ comments:

  • “What a fabulous course, I have so enjoyed it more than anything I have ever done, it has inspired me to write more.”
  • “Thank you for an inspirational experience in this MOOC. I found it a gentle well-paced return to study for pleasure as well as a chance to get to grips with technology entirely new to me. I think the thought provoking summary videos have enhanced my reading not only of Wordsworth’s poetry but of many poets’ work.”
  • “I have enjoyed this MOOC so much, not least because I previously suspected I wouldn't really like Wordsworth's poetry. I have been delighted by the enthusiasm and passion of the Educators who have communicated so well their love of his work.”
  • “Thank you all so much! I've been so impressed by the quality of teaching. I was a little skeptical about online learning, but this was so well done that I felt there and a part of things.”
  • “What a fantastic way to be inspired to use my brain again after having babies. I adored this course, thank you so much.”
  • “This has been a brilliant course and I've learned so much. The variety of educational methods has been extraordinarily well thought-through.“
  • “It has been excellent; I have learnt a lot and been inspired to continue delving into Wordsworth and more widely into the other Romantic poets.”

Pedagogic Project 2: Wordsworth Walk

A Wordsworth Walk is a one-day learning experience that uses a Wordsworthian framework to enable participants to reflect on their past, their future, and working with others. The first Wordsworth Walk was collaboratively designed by Professor Simon Bainbridge; Steve Kempster, Professor of Leadership Learning and Development at Lancaster University; and Mike Palk, an outdoor learning practitioner. Their aim was to use Wordsworth’s poetry and the specific Lake District landscape around Rydal and Grasmere to enhance an MBA module on “The Reflective Mindset.” Wordsworth Walks have since been incorporated into several Leadership and Management MBAs and run several times a year. Well over 1,000 students have participated in a Wordsworth Walk. They have also been provided for individual companies and organizations. Though there are different versions of the walk, the standard version is described below.

A Wordsworth Walk involves a hike in the poet’s footsteps from Rydal to Grasmere. It begins with an introductory lecture for students, most of whom have little or no knowledge of Wordsworth’s work. The lecture emphasizes Wordsworth’s value as a poet of reflection and vision (key issues in current management and leadership studies) and the importance of others for his creativity, specifically Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The lecture outlines how walking and talking were central to Wordsworth’s own creative process. To replicate William’s collaboration with Dorothy and Samuel, participants spend the day in pairs or groups of three in which they discuss their responses to the three reflective exercises undertaken on the walk. These reflective exercises are as follows:

1. Spots of time: This exercise uses Wordsworth’s concept of “spots of time” as a framework within which students can reflect on the key moments in their lives and on the “growth of their own minds.” It enables them to consider their own development and the influences that have shaped them. The exercise takes place in the darkness of Rydal cave, into which students scramble while protected by ropes. There are two Wordsworthian reasons for the use of this powerful experiential location. Firstly, Wordsworth locates the origin of the imagination’s river-like journey in a “blind cavern,” so Rydal cave signals the symbolic start of the day’s excursion. Secondly, the obscure location recreates the language of blindness and darkness that Wordsworth uses when describing his “boat-stealing” “spot of time.”

2. Vision: This exercise is staged on Loughrigg Fell, above Grasmere, where Wordsworth had one of the crucial visions of his life, as outlined in the opening of “Home at Grasmere.” Where the previous exercise focused upon the past, examined in the cave’s darkness, this exercise imagines the future, illumined by “the gleam of light” provided by a sense of vision. It asks students to think about Wordsworth’s description of his vision and its value in relation to their own sense of vision. The geographical specificity of this exercise, which could not be undertaken anywhere else in the world, creates a powerful learning experience.

3. Critical collaboration and critical partnership: In this exercise, the groups paddle canoes from Grasmere “beach” to Grasmere Island, a location to which Wordsworth and Coleridge regularly rowed for tea, contemplation and conversation. The exercise emphasises the importance of Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to William Wordsworth’s creativity. It outlines the nature of their collaborations and partnerships, drawing particularly on the passages in The Prelude in which Wordsworth offers thanks to Samuel and Dorothy. As the students drift on the Lake, they consider and discuss who in their own lives has provided similar roles for them and how they, as leaders and managers, provide such support to others in their organizations.

The walk concludes at William and Dorothy’s graves in Grasmere with a recapitulation of key themes. It is often followed by a tour of Dove Cottage and a session with Jeff Cowton in the Jerwood Centre, examining the manuscripts of the works studied (especially The Prelude).

As a result of “Wordsworth Walks,” executives from a range of companies and NGOs have engaged with Wordsworth’s writing and thinking. Organizations who have participated via various MBA programs include the following: Ernst & Young India, Fujitsu, Kenya Red Cross, LG, Polska Telefonia, Lufthansa, Swiss International Airlines, Austrian Airlines, Deutsche Telekom, Panasonic, Mines Advisory Group, Brazilian Development Bank, China National Fisheries Corp., IMC Shipping Limited, Crystal Digital Technology Co (Shanghai).

Student Feedback from Anonymous Evaluation Forms:

  • “The most profoundly impactful learning and development experience of my life. Brilliantly conceived; executed with passion and feeling.”
  • “The catalyst for both inspiration and reflection.”
  • “[-----] did a great job relating Wordsworth to management and teaching us so much in such a short period of time.”
  • “It was great to figure out my vision in the future.”
  • “Exceptional parallel of tasks and environment. Excellent delivery, very well prepared. Love the literary aspect.”
  • “Superb day all round—[-----] was great—brought the subject to life and made it relevant.”
  • “A wonderful & profound day, [-----’s] presentation style & content was so simple and tangible to the ordinary guy.”
  • “I would like to thank you for such a thought provoking and inspiring lecture last week in Ambleside. The mixture of such classic poetry, beautiful countryside and leadership concepts complemented each other so perfectly; and keeping such a large and diverse group of people enthralled for several hours was a mark of how well the blend worked.”
  • “Amazing day!”; “Great experience”; “Amazing and fantastic experience”; “Very powerful session”; “Powerful learning experience”; “A very different & very high impact experience”; “Wonderful day experience.”