Posts in category "In the Classroom"

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Less a Discussion, More an Invitation

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You may be interested in the following considering that many Digital Humanities projects have come from Romantic-era studies and considering that we've been skewing some of our discussions here towards digital projects and whatnot. Please consider submitting, dear readers and contributors!

*Electronic Roundtable Demonstrating Digital Pedagogy*

*MLA 2012*
*Seattle, Washington*
*January 5-8, 2012*

Discussions about digital projects and digital tools often focus on
research goals. For this electronic roundtable, we will instead demonstrate
how these digital resources, tools, and projects have been integrated into
undergraduate and graduate curriculum in alignment with the MLA 2012
Presidential Theme: Language, Literature, Learning. Proposals may include
demonstrations of:

-  successful collaboration with undergraduates on your digital scholarly
project;
-  specific assignments, including student learning goals, teaching
strategies, successes/failures, grading rubrics;
-  integrating digital assignments with general education requirements;
-  assessment of student digital projects;
-  constructing syllabi with digital-focused assignments;
-  portals for collecting digital-focused syllabi and assignments.

This Roundtable session will contain up to eight presenters. Presenters
will engage in informal discussion or offer interactive electronic
demonstrations. Electronic roundtables allow attendees to circulate among
eight stations that will be set up around the meeting room with appropriate
audiovisual equipment.

Presenters are welcome from a broad range of institutions with a range of
contexts and budget demands. Selection of participants will be based on a
cross-spectrum of styles, classrooms, student experience, successes, and
failures. If possible, we will try to submit two electronic roundtables;
however, this is a Special Session not yet accepted by the MLA.

300-word proposals by March 1 to Katherine D. Harris (
katherine.harris@sjsu.edu). Please email with questions.

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Scribd, the Collaborative Classroom, and the Paperless Blake Class

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Like Kate Singer, I too have been thinking about the rise of the Digital Humanities at MLA 2011. I agree, largely, that making should be a hallmark of identifying as a digital humanist but - like Kate - I wonder if making is limited to coding. Building or making may refer to the construction of scholarly and student communities.  Matt Kirschenbaum in "What is Digital Humanities and What's it Doing in English Departments?" makes the following claim:

Whatever else it might be then, the digital humanities today is about a scholarship (and a pedagogy) that is publicly visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed, a scholarship and pedagogy that are bound up with infrastructure in ways that are deeper and more explicit than we are generally accustomed to, a scholarship and pedagogy that are collaborative and depend upon networks of people and that live an active 24/7 life online. Isn't that something you want in your English Department?

One way I try to engage in the collaborative infrastructure that Kirschenbaum imagines here is by publishing my syllabi on Scribd. Scribd is a website that allows you to upload, share, and embed .pdf files. Here is a copy of my syllabus:
[scribd id=46615462 key=key-1ila71b42dcxy3sh8q5p]

Scribd reformats your documents to allow them to be read on smartphones and tablets like the iPad, and any document type may be uploaded (.doc, .docx, .pdf, .ppx (for PowerPoint), xml, OpenOffice). Readers can, furthermore, share whatever documents they find on Scribd by "readcasting" them. Readcasting generates Facebook updates and Tweets with links to the document being read. Readcasting can, for example, be a useful way to have students engage in peer review and collaborative research.

Of course, copyright does become a problem with Scribd. Users have in the past violated copyright by placing protected documents on the server. However, I do feel that Scribd opens up some really interesting possibilities - especially for classrooms that wish to do away with paper.

I say this in response to a recent post on the NASSR listserv by Adam Komisaruk:

I'm slated to teach a graduate "readings" course in Blake this summer, and book orders are due soon.  As I contemplate and reject several alternatives (the Dover facsimiles are too sporadic, the Princeton facsimiles are too expensive, the Erdman/Bloom lacks illustrations, etc.), I'm wondering about the viability of "going paperless."  I've already requested a fully wired classroom--i.e., with individual iMac terminals, overhead projection, and a high-speed Internet connection--so, assuming my students have similar equipment at home, I could conceivably use the Blake Archive and eE as my texts.

The majority of respondents mentioned using the Johnson/Grant Norton edition in conjunction with The Blake Archive. While I largely agree that this is a great way to go (I'm currently using the Johnson/Grant edition in my Blake class), I feel that the current generation of students is too savvy with the internet and social media to passively accept the edition we order in the bookstore. For example, I ordered the Johnson/Grant edition, but I know that many of my students use the free Erdman edition of Blake on the Blake Digital Text Project, supplementing it with the Archive and tagging websites and .pdfs using Diigo or A.nnotate. I initially resisted this development in my class but inspired by Komisaruk's comment, an article by Leeann Hunter, and a revealing expose on the textbook industry by Anya Kamentz, I've decided to encourage the digital revolution percolating in my students.

Instead of assigning individual papers, I maintain a Wordpress site called William Blake and Media as a hub for my collaborative classroom. On the site, you can find my Scribd syllabus, a description of the first and second projects, a group blog maintained by my students, and a Twitter feed. I use these, in conjunction with papers distributed by Scribd, as a way to reduce (if not currently eliminate) paper in my Blake class. Check out the site and give me some suggestions.

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Frankenstein, again?

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The semester has blasted off, and I'm already revising my British Literature 1800 [1780]-Present reading list. Of course, I overload on the Romantics because, well, it's the Romantics. This is probably a pitfall for all Romanticists teaching survey courses, though. There are numerous issues to cover in conjunction with the literature, which means often I find my syllabus littered with non-fiction prose, introductions, and histories more so than poetry and short stories, at least in the early years. By the time I round the corner to the Victorians, my students are relieved to be leaving behind so much poetry. It's not until the end of the semester that they understand the subtitle to this course has some meaning: Aftering, Parody & Pastiche. You see, we look at the revisions to Romantic and Victorian literature, even Romantics within the Victorians, as the decades progress until we end with Neil Gaiman's graphic novel, Endless Nights, on the last day of class -- really a treatise in the Gothic tradition and early 19th-century print culture.  By that last day or two, they get it; they really see it.  But first, they must suffer through a hard mid-term exam where I ask them to memorize much about the Romantics and Victorians (including Wordsworth's famous phrase).

This semester, I'll contrast Wordsworth's authorial production theory against Mary Shelley's "creating out of chaos" production theory. Despite having assigned Shelley Jackson's "Patchwork Girl" CD last semester, I didn't assign Frankenstein. I like to reserve that novel for my TechnoRomanticism course where we languish over the novel for 10 weeks and read Romanticism into its narrative (ergodic and radial reading methodologies).  10 weeks -- 10 weeks! on a single novel! I did this twice and enjoyed the conversation and results immensely. We even built a digital edition/archive as a class project. But, in the British Literature survey, we don't have time to do this. And, quite frankly, I had become tired of teaching about the good (or bad?) Dr. Frankenstein. I had run out of ideas for engaging students in the production of the narrative and the progress of technology. I have to admit, I was leaving out Frankenstein in favor of more canonical works. I wanted them to immerse themselves in Lyrical Ballads and Biographia Literaria, or Keats' lyrics and Shelley's politics. Though we all consider Mary Shelley to be canonical now, in a survey how much of the Big 6 do I sacrifice to include her highly politicized, relevant novel? As long as I'm confessing, I was feeling guilty about not exercising my traditional literature chops of late, having become immersed in so much Digital Humanities work. I felt like I needed my street cred back in Romanticism. (Alan Liu has talked about his struggle to maintain his Romanticism focus while becoming a leader in Digital Humanities.)

Well, this semester, all be damned. I welcome Frankenstein back and realize how much I've missed this sickly, fainting doctor and Mary Shelley's long sinuous descriptions of Nature. I'm anticipating that Jackson's later hypertextual novel will make much more sense to students, as will Gaiman's graphic novel.  (We even have a treat here at San Jose State: it turns out that one of the artists who collaborated with Gaiman teaches in our animation/illustration department!)

We begin the novel next week and spend a mere 3 days on it: 1 per each volume. It's not enough time, I know. But, then again, this is a survey course, a course for piquing student interest for other upper division courses in their favorite areas. Like last semester, this semester's group of 25 is inspired and inspiring already. Perhaps it's budget cuts or the dwindling number of classes; whatever is happening, I have mostly senior English majors in this lower division course. They have some savvy about their ideas and are enthusiastic, even during our evening meeting time.

So, Frankenstein, 1818 edition with the 1831 introduction, you are permitted entrée into our parlour.

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Pedagogy as Poesis? NINES, Omeka, & Exhibit Builders

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I've been thinking a bit about some of the large claims trickling out of this year's MLA digital humanities panels--particularly one about how doing digital humanities means making something. Whether or not that definition holds (and whether or not making something demands a sophisticated knowledge of coding), I can't help but think about how that applies to pedagogy. Deidre's really thought-provoking post, "Poems to Remember (but how?)" led us to discuss how we might manifest and visualize the reading and note-taking experience. That is, reading is remaking a text with your mind, with a pen, and perhaps with a word processor or a wiki.

There are also some tools such as the NINES Collex where users can construct collections of materials from a patchwork or mash-up of various primary and secondary texts. Omeka's exhibit builder can be used in this way as well, though users need to bring their own texts, images, and so forth into the site, rather than accessing the group of nineteenth-century databases already filtered into NINES. Last year, as some of you probably read, Amy Earhart wrote a post for ProfHacker about using the NINES Collex as a tool to teach her students researching skills. But I wonder, too, if surfing through the Collex and collecting materials might also provoke a type of hands-on "distant" reading?

Has anyone used NINES, had their students do so, or would have a go at it now? How are these tools useful for our students or ourselves as a form of data or resource collection, a different kind of reading, or something else altogether? What other tools might we use, or what other types of making might we do in the classroom?

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Editors and other mediators and re-mediators . . .

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I am not nearly as media-savvy as some of the contributors to this blog (Crystal and Roger and Katherine have reaffirmed for me my old-fogey-dom at the same time that they have taught me a lot!).  But I can say with conviction that my undergraduates so far this year have seemed to be at their very best when I ask them to think about Romantic poetry in relation to a Romantic-period history of media, mediation, and re-mediation. Is this the case for other visitors to this blog?

One of the most successful class sessions we had in fall term was on ballad-collecting and on the Tour to Scotland that William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge took in 1803--a session that resulted in an energetic discussion of the Romantic period’s nostalgia for poetry as sonic experience and the Romantics’ awareness of the gains and the losses involved as sung and chanted ballads were re-mediated as printed artifacts. This past week, as we began the second term of our year-long course with the poetry of John Clare, mediation has once more come  to be at issue, and our discussions have once again been wonderfully energetic and thoughtful. I from the get-go have stressed the controversies that attend on the presentation in print of those poems of Clare’s that in manuscript tend to flout the conventions for standard English orthography punctuation. (And I have taken pains in designing the reading assignments for these two weeks  to give the class various editors’ versions of the poems--Eric Robinson’s, vs. Jonathan Bate’s, vs  J. W. Tibble’s.)  The flashpoint for those controversies is, of course, readers’ ambivalence about the role in the production of our reading matter that is played by that mediator and middleman (or middle-woman), the editor.

The  intensity of the students’ engagement with these topics makes sense, I think, because (as the students in ENG308Y were themselves quick to recognize) they themselves have a stake in the controversies over the editing of Clare as well as in the controversies over copyright in the manuscript material that have become entangled with those debates about editorial practice. Clare’s corpus is a work in progress, and they sense that they can shape that progress. I have the advantage, too, that as some one who is preparing a new selection of Clare poems for the 9th edition of the Norton Anthology I can talk about the choices I’ve had to make as I’ve punctuated, or not puncutated, and the sleepless nights I’ve experienced after making my decisions. This generation of students seem interested by just the issues of textual criticism that to previous generations might have felt like a distraction. I half suspect that this is because they are so aware that their schooling is happening at a moment of media shift, when the relations among print artifacts, digital text, digital sound files are being unsettled and rearranged.

Let me give an example of some of the moments in discussion when students made connections that indicated that awareness.  In the class session last term in which we treated ballad-collecting and Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper” we got a lot of mileage from the passage in James Hogg’s Familiar Anecdotes of Sir Walter Scott when he listens in on his mother’s response to Scott’s ballad-collecting:

there war never ane o' my sangs prentit till ye prentit them yoursel', an' ye hae spoilt them awthegither.  They were made for singing an' no for reading; but ye hae broken the charm now, an' they'll never sung mair.  An' the worst thing of a', they're nouther right spell'd nor right setten down.

When we talked about this moment my students came up with some terrific analogies for the problem: recording artists who thwart their audiences’ desires for lyric sheets, for instance. The recent project of a colleague here at Toronto, Andrew Dubois, coeditor of the recent The Anthology of Rap for Yale U.P., has been much in my mind as I’ve thought about why it feels so right for us right now to zero in on this aspect of Romantic culture-- odd as it is to think of Margaret Laidlaw as a forerunner of Chuck D!

P.S. Re. my December post:  I still haven’t prepared those slides of my own note on poems--embarrassment about handwriting , not to mention about my proclivity for statements of the obvious, has been holding me back!

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Student Projects and Digital Media in the Romantic Class

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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?

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Looking back

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Since I clearly didn’t come through with the “regular updates” on my Keats and Contemporary Poetry seminar I promised back in the fall, maybe now I can at least post some highlights of the semester that (as of today, with grading at last done--hooray!) was.

Among the great things this semester were the class presentations—knowledgeable, informative and fun—in which students introduced contemporary poems, not on the syllabus, with some relationship to Keats; I made some discoveries this way. We had a fascinating discussion for example about “This Living Hand” from Dean Young’s collection Skid, a book I hadn’t read (sadly, word is that Dean Young is himself very ill right now...). I like the idea of having students bring in their own discoveries (sort of like show-and-tell) rather than presenting on a text I've assigned (where we're both conscious of the fact that I, as the instructor, have a stake in the material and take on the material they're not fully aware of until after their presentation).

I’d been wondering at the start of the semester how the mix of MA and MFA students in the course would work out. The two groups had different styles of reading and different knowledge bases (when talking about a poem, for example, the MFAs tended to start with form and technique, and the lit. students tended to start with interpretation; the MFA students were more comfortable voicing evaluative judgments on poems, and of course had a much greater familiarity with the world of contemporary poetry they’re a part of). There were some moments of tension around the sense that there really were two communities of readers in the class, but for the most part I think these got resolved productively, and overall the class had a very strong collaborative spirit. Those moments of tension were instructive, too, reminding me as well as the students that not only do different texts demand different reading strategies, but different readers in the same classroom approach the same texts with differing techniques, goals, and expectations—a point that’s now just a given of our theory, of course, but that’s nonetheless (perhaps because of its obviousness to us on the level of theorizing about reading) sometimes difficult to plan for and manage in the classroom. And such a conflict in approaches to texts happens less often, in my experience, in undergraduate classes in the major, where all the students tend to have very similar training.  Maureen McLane’s engaging essay “Romanticism, or Now: Learning to Read in Postmodern”  proved helpful to me and my students in thinking about these issues, and in dealing with the frustration experienced by some of my students when their trusted critical tools didn’t work on certain poems (postmodern poems, or even Hyperion—which to some students was among the most foreign things we read!). (Following up on Deidre’s earlier post about note-taking, by the way, Maureen charmingly reproduces in the essay her own undergraduate notes on a poem).

And certainly one of the semester’s highlights was a delightful visit from the poet Stanley Plumly, who very generously traveled around the Washington Beltway (no easy feat, given all the traffic) to talk with us about Keats and contemporary poetry, and especially his recent Posthumous Keats. Now that’s a pedagogical strategy I strongly recommend: get a distinguished poet and gifted raconteur like Plumly to come dazzle your students with an extraordinary store of insights and anecdotes! Even if it’s anticlimactic when your visitor leaves and it’s just you in front of the classroom again, your students will be buzzing with ideas and comments, as mine were. Plumly’s visit got us thinking especially about the role of biography in the classroom and in our relationship to poetry more generally; that’s a topic worth a post of its own, coming soon (I hope)!

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Poems to Remember (but how?)

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As is all too apparent, time got away from me this semester (luckily the undergraduate Romantics course at the University of Toronto is a two-semester course, so I will have plenty of opportunities to make up for my silence). I have a backlog of topics to address. Right now I’m thinking hardest--because I’ve just handed back the first set of papers and because we’ve just had a review session for the “term test” that will conclude this semester-- about my undergraduates’ relation to poetry and the panicky feelings many, though not all, have when invited to understand a poem as something other than a piece of prose arranged eccentrically on the page.

One thing I have been doing since the start of the class is to insist that poetry is written to be heard and sounded. That teachers of Romantic poetry should do such insisting will not be controversial for any visitors to this blog, but the good news is that, maybe in Canadian universities at least, there is a chance that more of our students will come to us already accustomed to think of the poem as an occasion for recitation. Scott Griffin, the benefactor and founder of the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry has just announced a generously funded contest called “Poetry In Voice/ Les voix de la poésie” . The contest is intended to encourage the memorization and recitation of poetry. “The students will carry these gifts inside them for life,” Mr. Griffin says, a statement chiming serendipitously with the last lines of Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper”. (In a follow-up posting, I want to talk about the class session in which that poem figured--and in which it generated an intense amount of discussion). When my students expressed concern last week that they wouldn’t remember the poetry we’d studied long enough to succeed in the test (never mind “for life”), I told them that retention becomes easier if you have enlisted to that end other senses beyond the reading eye --if your ear has encountered the sounds and rhythms, and you’ve had the feeling of the poem’s words in your mouth.

But what I mainly wanted to post about is my belated realization that my students need a lot of direction about how to take notes when they read poetry--and boost their powers of retention by that means. For years my syllabi have included this notice: “Please read with a pencil or pen in your hand. Prepared students are, in fact, usually those who write in their books and write a lot.” (It takes a leap of imagination for teachers to remember that our younger selves believed that neatness counted. And of course anthologies especially-- so like Bibles, books of books--can make readers’ marginalia seem desecrations. ) But only during the last couple weeks, as the test approaches and office hours gain popularity, have I realized that many students don’t know why their use of their pink and yellow highlighters wasn’t exactly what that instruction was promoting. They don’t know what it is one might be writing in the margins of poems. Because note-taking is (as the historian of the book Ann Blair has observed) “a hidden phase in the transmission of knowledge,” it was actually a challenge to give explicit guidance--to instruct them, variously, to e.g. take note of the words that repeat; mark the moments when the poem’s argument or mood shifts; look for the moments when the poem deviates from its previously set form; speculate about the word choices; scan the meter and mark the rhyme scheme. And my New Year’s resolution (the luxury of a two-semester long course is that one actually has opportunity to implement them) is to display some powerpoint slides made from photocopies of the pages in my own copies of our anthology to indicate what note-taking looks like, though I’ll feel a bit exposed by showing them. I’d of course love to hear about other teacher’s methods for making poems memorable (and--alas for this necessity!-- examinable).

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"Teaching Romanticism"

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I have enjoyed reading this collective blog, and I have anticipated with pleasure making my own contributions. And anticipated, and anticipated.

I've found myself having trouble rustling up a post on teaching Romanticism, however, because I am not teaching Romanticism.  During the week before Thanksgiving break, a typical one in many ways, I taught King Lear in one class, taught White Teeth in another, and worked as department chair to host external reviewers whose visit was the culmination of a self-study.

That was a pretty good week, all in all, but it didn't lend itself to posting fresh insights about teaching Wordsworth. Those insights may come: I do teach a Romanticism seminar in the spring, and I'll go to London next fall to teach a literature-in-place course linked to a colleague's ecology-in-place course.

Before I teach those courses, however, I want to offer a different kind of post, meant primarily for the graduate students and job seekers in the audience. We often talk about teaching from the perspective of institutions that allow and require teaching specializations that do not characterize many of the jobs Romanticists hold.  As it happens, I love teaching Shakespeare and Zadie Smith as well as Coleridge and Austen, and I find satisfaction--OK, sometimes--in the way that smaller institutions ask faculty to get deeply involved in service and governance. (I am, for example, in my tenth year at Grinnell College and in my second term as department chair.)

In some ways, I do not have the job I imagined when I started my dissertation, but that indicates a failure was of imagination, not of the job.  To spark the imaginations of others, I will use this space in part to describe the working life of a liberal arts college Romanticist.  I welcome questions that will help me understand how to provide useful commentary from that perspective.

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Beyond Blake

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The other day I took students to see prized items at the E.J. Pratt Library.  As others have noted on this blog, students really seem to love Blake.  Luckily at Toronto we have an impressive Blake collection.  Because the students were so excited about Blake in class and seemed eager to write about him in their papers, I had expected that they would be most excited about seeing items such as electrotype plates of Songs of Innocence and Experience and copy M of “A Song of Liberty.”  The seminar took a pleasant but unexpected turn when one student, admiring the third edition of Darwin’s The Botanic Garden containing Blake’s engraving “The Fertilization of Egypt,” said that the paper seemed “cool.”  This prompted a series of questions about papermaking and printing in general.  The students did not know much about book production beyond Blake’s unique illuminated printing process.  This is perhaps not surprising, since Blake’s methods are so integral to understanding his texts.  Plus, sources such as The William Blake Archive give students easy access to Blake’s works, revealing them to be much more than printed words in the pages of their modern editions.  Though Blake is exceptional and deserves our and students’ attention, I do wonder if it might be worth spending some time in our classes discussing how, as one student put it, “normal books were made.”

While there is a danger, as Crystal Lake voiced in an earlier post, of overwhelming students with information that takes valuable time away from primary texts themselves, I still think students of Romanticism would benefit from knowing more about how those primary texts were made.  I’m admittedly biased when it comes to such issues.  In addition to being a Teaching Assistant for the English Department, I am a Teaching Assistant for the undergraduate Book and Media Studies Program where I lecture about the hand-press period.  While I wasn’t surprised to find that the students in my Material Bibliography and Print Culture course are fascinated by the history of printing, I was impressed to find how much interest in book production my literature students expressed.  Once we covered the production of paper, they wanted to know how Blake’s illuminated printing differed from the examples of his commercial work I showed them (including his engravings of gallstones in James Earle’s Practical Observations on the Operation of the Stone).  They also wanted to know about the differences between copperplate engraving and the steel-plate engravings found in literary annuals.  In the context of these other “normal” books, Blake’s methods became even more exciting.  Moreover, providing students with an overview of Romantic-era book production brought home some of the ideas discussed in class, such as the fact that most books were expensive and that different social and economic classes bought and read different literature.

I am interested to know if others teach undergraduates about the material production of texts in addition to their socio-political contexts.  And, if so, how is this information introduced in the classroom?  I have come across an impressive number of YouTube videos about printing.  Many are poorly made, yet there are a few interesting ones that have helped book history undergraduates I’ve taught see printing in action.  (One decent short video I’ve come across includes superfluous puppets.)  I’d be interested if anyone else has similar videos or other tools that they either use in lectures or post on course websites for students to view on their own time.

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