Teaching Playfulness in Romanticism

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These posts on Teaching Romanticism have been intriguing and thoughtful. Thank you for putting this together!

I always find that Romanticism and textual studies are good segue into Digital Humanities for teaching and research.  I began teaching at San Jose State University 5 years ago and opened with a very traditional Romantic-era survey of Romanticism.  We followed the timeline, began with Blake and ended with Mary Shelley. We ranged over the slavery issue and working class poets, though there were very few of those poets being printed.  The Mellor & Matlak anthology was my guide because it offered thematic arrangement of materials while still including the women poets who, I felt, were integral to the understanding of collaborative creative moments among our canonical Big 6.  But, the course wasn't satisfying. The only assignment where students actually engaged with the material at some depth was the recitation, and even then they were fearful instead of fearless and playful.  Considering who I have become as a researcher and how involved I am in Digital Humanities work, I wanted to bring a sense of passion and engagement to my teaching.  Textual studies and Digital Humanities seems to do that for me, allowing me time to play with the material, see patterns, extrapolate theses that haven't been otherwise contemplated in the field.  In constructing this type of course, I had to first determine what would be considered playful by my students.

In Digital Humanities circles, we often talk about collaboration between disciplines, among scholars, and with technologists. While progress in the field is nurtured certainly by this type of research, what of our students? How are we shepherding Digital Humanities to those undergraduates who could most benefit from exposure to collaborative tools or humanities computing strategies? Happily, HASTAC has been addressing pedagogy, most specifically with Cathy Davidson's post "Research is Teaching" and the wildly successful forum "Teaching with Technology and Curiosity."

Collaboration, shared knowledge, open access, extra-disciplinarity. These are the major tenets of Digital Humanities. However, what is missing in this list is something required of all digital projects: play. Roger Caillois qualifies this type of unstructured activity as “an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill” (Man, Play and Games 2001; 6). This lack of structure, leads to exploration, discovery, and production of knowledge in ways that were only imagined twenty years ago. Typically though we don't allow our students this sense of play in their traditional studies. Especially in literary studies, we supply students with the end-product but don't expose them to the theories and the methodologies always.  We separate those kinds of issues into other courses (e.g., Introduction to Literary Criticism or Introduction to Research Methods). When faculty bring a particular perspective, for example textual studies or feminist theory, to a classroom setting, the methods for exploring and discovering aren't exposed to students. Instead, we're offering them the one big major tool, close reading, for their arsenal.  Students then live with some anxiety that there's one way to read a text and, more often, ask "how does the professor want me to read this?"  It becomes a guessing “game” instead of an exploration and discovery of the literature. In the final essay, we expect students to offer a discovery, a research paper, or an analysis.  But, if we haven't exposed them to the methodology and the theory, how can they adequately achieve a true exploration of the literature? In this way, the course becomes a game with an outcome, consequences, and rigid rules. Using Digital Humanities strategies, I want to instill a sense, even if it's artificial, that literary studies are a “free and voluntary activity, a source of joy and amusement” as Caillois defines “play” (6).

To this end, I combined textual editing with technology in my Romantic Literature Survey course. We had the use of a spectacular room, filled with hardware and software everywhere:

TechnoRomanticism: We created our own digital edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Along the way, we created a collaborative timeline using MIT's SIMILE & Timeline script. We didn't even begin to create a website until some of the preliminary assignments are done -- assignments that look at the construction of this novel, both linguistically and bibliographically. Every 2 weeks, we held a workshop on some digital assignment and acquired 1 new skill, not even necessarily a new tool, but a skill. We practiced radial and ergodic reading by taking on only 2 chapters of Frankenstein each week.  However, we read other literature into the novel.  For instance, at one point "... Tintern Abbey" is quoted in the novel, but if students haven't had a chance to read or study this particular poem, they would have a difficult time understanding its interruption of the narrative.  So, we studied the poem as we were studying that very chapter. By not overloading undergraduate students with readings, we were really able to spend an entire class meeting on both the poem and the novel's page.

That strategy gave way to self-interruptions in constructing their digital editions -- what did it mean to provide a hyperlink in the middle of a paragraph? How does it interrupt the musings on Nature, the soul and science?  All of it, all of it went back to Romanticism's major ideas.

Is anyone else performing these kinds of interruptions and collaborations in their own courses?

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Katherine, What


What serendipity that we both post on the digital humanities in the same week! I really enjoyed this article on playfulness and the use of digital work to explore without a pre-defined structure. I would also love to teach a course in the way you imagine: as a kind of hypertext, where allusions lead to new works.

I'm trying to take your idea and imagine what a social media-organized curriculum looks like. If, for example, hypertext takes a central text and adds "links" to other works, how would a course imagined as a collection of different "feeds" look like?

With Blake's poetry you can, I think, assign either a concept or a character to each student. So, one student would be given Urizen, another Los, yet another Blake's notion of self-annihilation. Then, instead of reading the entire work as a linear and enclosed space, perhaps the student would be responsible for reading only those passages that address the character and/or concept. So, the emerging conversation would not center around the same text, but would act as a hub for these complementary voices?

Any thoughts? I'm obviously at a very preliminary/brainstorming stage with this idea and would love to see suggestions, critiques, etc. I

Roger, I think you and I

Roger, I think you and I cross over much in terms of Digital Humanities and Romanticism. (As a side note, I see you're doing the MLA panel on pedagogy in digital pedagogy, something that is near and dear to me!)

To answer your question, I've been teaching through McGann's idea about radial reading and adding ergodic reading strategies to that to engage with students (http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/harris/DigLit_F10/Handouts/waysreading.pdf). In terms of your ideas about reading Blake, though, what are the primary goals for disrupting the individual work -- which is essentially what students would be doing. How would they come to some sort of unity about a single piece, is what I mean? Or is that important? Or is it that you want them to read into Blake, see what he was experiencing and reading that influenced his work. And, as a textuist, I always see Blake as more than reading text. Indeed, Blake commands that his works be considered in a multi-modal form. How do you ask students to reconcile the linguistic codes with the bibliographical codes? Perhaps your experience with graphic novels is best used here!!

Instead of assigning a character or concept to a single student, it might be interesting to assign a single item to two students, placing them in different groups and then having them compare notes midway through the project to see if they agree. That way they come to discovery on their own but in the end collaborate on the meaning. It might evolve into a debate from which the rest of the class would benefit.

Please keep us updated on this concept....I think it might deserve a full post so others don't have to hunt through the comments.

In any event, hope to see you at this summer's Digital Humanities Conference out here on the sunny coast.