An excerpt of this post was previously published at TechStyle.
Although my course this semester focused on the poetry, art, and science of the Romantic period, the course was also the second in a series freshman composition classes that all students are required to take here at Georgia Tech. These courses aim not only to introduce students to specialized topics of study, but also the communication and research skills that they will need when they enter into science and technology fields. Consequently, courses like mine need to prepare students not only to write and research well, but also to communicate in various mediums, especially in digital mediums.
Because no matter what medium students are working in they need to be strong writers, I have continued to ask students to complete traditional assignments that help hone their writing skills: from practicing thesis statements, to crafting close readings, to summarizing scholarly sources. Additionally, whether they’re developing a traditional academic essay or a blog post, students need to know how to use reliable sources, and so my course aims to introduce students to how to find and best use the sources that are available through our library’s database, especially peer reviewed scholarly essays. And finally, I believe that reading and analyzing literary texts gives students a flexible framework for critical thinking in any discipline.
For me, however, the goal of asking students to develop their communication skills in digital mediums has opened up exciting new ways to get students to write and think about Romantic literature. This semester, my students worked in groups to develop interactive online exhibitions that mapped Romantic literary texts by drawing out their relationships to the scientific developments of the period. Near the beginning of the semester, I placed students in groups. I did this carefully: each student completed an application form that let me know what kinds of skills they had coming into the class as well as what kinds of skill sets they hoped to develop (were they especially confident about their writing, their research, their ability to design websites or did they want to improve on one of these in particular?). Even though students were placed in groups during the second week of the semester, the assignments they worked on throughout the first ten weeks were graded individually. These included assignments such as a close reading essay and an annotated bibliography, among others. The idea, however, was that students would choose what poems to read closely and what sources to examine for these assignments based on a shared group idea about what topic the final project would address. Doing assignments like these meant that students were still individually responsible for the bulk of their course grade and that each student not only had a stake in the final project but meaningful content that they could add to the online exhibition. Each group website, therefore, reflects the work of all the group members. During the last five weeks of the semester, in addition to continuing to read and discuss Romantic works, we also devoted time to working on and refining the final project. We discussed strategies for refining topics, crafting careful analysis, using reliable sources, and using design elements to get our interpretations across to our audience.
When I explain my students’ final projects to other instructors, many often admit that they fear that neither they nor their students have the technical skills to make these kinds of projects work. Granted, some of my students’ projects boast a technical know-how that’s not easy to replicate. Many students at Tech are self-described “code monkeys” and have a vested interest in learning to create innovative web technologies. I am always grateful for the expertise they bring to the class. However, having students who are expert coders is not a prerequisite for introducing these kinds of assignments in the classroom. In fact, only a handful of students in my courses have these skills. This semester, I had several groups use wix.com to build their websites. Wix is free, relatively easy to use, and creates professional-looking sites, and although I have some misgivings about the fact that Wix will advertise on my students’ sites, the capabilities for presenting and publishing their research for a wide audience seem to outweigh the ideological costs (although I’m curious to see how others feel about this).
I will admit that I love assigning these projects as part of my courses. My students, most of whom are freshmen, almost always create amazing sites. Their websites are intellectually rigorous and creative; they feature student-authored, research-based analysis of literary works. These websites also allow students to draw on sources, including literary works, visual materials, and expert scholarship, that are newly available online. Additionally, hyperlinked mediums mean that students can make new connections between texts, disciplines, and historical periods. In undertaking these websites, many students realize that there is much yet to discover about the Romantics and that there is also a contemporary audience eager to read and think more about literature, be that audience one of academics who are browsing the web looking for more information or enthusiasts who are pursuing their favorite writer, artist, or topic. These assignments get students excited about their analyses as they realize that not only are there opportunities for them to discover new meanings, research, and even new literary works and previously undiscovered allusions, but also a wide range of venues and mediums that they can use to create and share their findings. At the end of the semester, each class always asks to see the projects the other classes completed, and I can tell by looking at my web statistics that many go home for the holidays and share their websites with their families.
In many cases, the students actually carve out unique research niches with these websites. For example, one project this semester on Humphry Davy’s poetry and his experiments on Nitrous Oxide seems to be the most comprehensive and reliable website on that topic of its kind. Likewise, another group decided to create a digital book about representations of sex in scientific discourses, complete with an index. Another project collected poems about astronomy from the period that might be useful for further study, and yet another collated data from literature as well as history and created charts that try to make sense of the material effects of Romantic science. All of the projects can be accessed here.
I’m eager to hear about the experiences others have had with assigning projects in their courses on the Romantics. Have others tried to have their students build websites? What are the pros and cons of such assignments? What are the specific challenges and benefits of such projects? What are some other creative strategies for assessment you’ve tried?