As a scholar and a teacher, I enjoy experimenting with both individual and collaborative projects. I tend to feel that the humanities are unique in their ambivalence about collaboration. On the one hand, the web is offering humanities scholars many opportunities for collaboration; on the other hand, I always find myself wondering how much a collaborative article, project, or book will “count” when it comes to hiring or tenure.
The topic is especially interesting for someone who teaches the Romantic period, since Romanticism is often associated with individualism. And yet, Romantic authors also expressed collectivist sentiments. As Beth Lau points out, even famously individualistic male Romantic writers struggled with individualism:
In a number of poems, Wordsworth describes his initial penchant for solitary nature worship giving way to love of other human beings. [...] Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner is one of the most powerful works ever written on the horrors of solitude and the problems inherent in overwheening individualism, and Shelley’s Alastor is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of solopsism. John Keats increasingly wished to do ‘some good in this world’ instead of merely writing lush, escapist poetry. Even Byron, whose early poems featured such gloomy, misanthropic, solitary heroes as Childe Harold, the Giaour, and Manfred, ended his career with the comic satire Don Juan, which is very much concerned with people in society. (224)
I feel that a similar argument could be made about William Blake. While he frequently celebrated his individual vision and the originality of his work, Blake also stressed the importance of “self-annihilation,” elaborating in his poem Milton that “We are not Individuals but States: Combinations of Individuals” (32.10; E131). And we must not forget the frequent, though often unmentioned, participation of Catherine Blake in the production of William Blake’s illuminated books.
The problem with emphasizing collaboration and collectivity in Romantic courses is not only the historical association of Romanticism with individualism, but also the institutional makeup of the humanities. Most humanities courses still overwhelmingly favor individual success and failure. As David Parry recently noted on the blog AcademHack, collaborative projects are extremely difficult to assess but enormously important to teach. “I want to encourage and evaluate students for who they are,” Parry explains, “but on the other hand I see as part of my job to teach students how to work in groups.”
Parry’s proposed solution to this delimma is to give each group the ability to fire one of their members. The rejected member is then required to complete the group assignment alone. While I feel that Parry’s plan could work quite well for his course, I would like to move in a different direction that I feel is more conducive to the ambivalence many writers had with individualism during the Romantic period.
I’d like to use this blog to plan a course around digital culture and Romantic Individualism. My central focus in this course will be William Blake, since I am primarily interested in the artists and critics who have transmitted Blake’s work from the Romantic period to the present and their impact on the image of Blake as an individualist writer. I would also like to use the course to experiment with collective subjectivities: in the content of the course, in the course’s exploration of the William Blake’s subjectivity, and in the makeup of the assignments and their assessment. Future posts will chart possible assignments, readings, ideas for discussion and class projects. I would also like to hear suggestions and criticisms from teachers, scholars, or anyone who visits this site. What are your thoughts about the usefulness of collaborative projects? Do you have any successes or failures to share?
Lau, Beth. “Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.” A Companion to Romanticism. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. 219-26.