Posts in category "In the Classroom"

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The Critic in the Classroom: "Tintern Abbey"

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When I teach Wordsworth’s  “Tintern Abbey,” I give students a handout with excerpts from three essays about the poem:

“Everyone knows that "Tintern Abbey" is a sad poem…” Quinney, Laura.  “Sensibility, and the Self-Disenchanted Self in ‘Tintern Abbey.’”  ELH 64.1

"Tintern Abbey" has a temporal structure of absence and presence which is folded upon itself and projected into the future as we move from memory to imagination: grammatically, the poem moves from the "present perfect," where the "past" is recuperable, to the "future" tense at the poem's close, where the present situation is imagined as already "past."

Lawder, Bruce. “Secret(ing) Conversations: Coleridge and Wordsworth.” New Literary History 32.1 (2001) 67-89.

The romantic critical tradition has read Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" as a poem about aesthetic contemplation, and about the "personal myth" of memory as salvation.  In this line of thinking, the poet's aesthetic contemplation entails both an objective focus on the natural setting of the Wye Valley, the Abbey's surroundings, and a subjective focus on perception and imagination, between what the "eye, and ear. . . half create, and what perceive" (lines 105-7). The poet's use of memory details a shift from past to present, from the loss of childhood's "glad animal movements" (line 74) to the "abundant recompense" of a mature imaginative sensibility. Likewise, it details another shift from present to future, a projected continuity wherein the poet's sister Dorothy represents for him a remembered existence even in his anticipatory absence; toward this end, the poem concludes in his final entreaty to her:
with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!

Hadley, Karen. “The Commodification of Time in Wordsworth's ‘Tintern Abbey.’”   Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.4 (2002) 693-706.

The first excerpt cracks some of my students up while it annoys and confuses a few others, and we all note how tricky it would be for one of them to a write a sentence in their essays that begins “Everyone knows.”   It also forces the group assigned to this excerpt to instantly rethink their feelings about the poem. I am always pleasantly surprised by the discursive space Quinney’s bold claim opens up. They assume Quinney is describing the tone of the poem, a reasonable place to begin.  Students who might not answer the question “what is the tone of the poem?”—either because they hadn’t noticed it or wouldn’t have the language to describe it—suddenly have very strong opinions about this element of it.  The poem isn’t “sad,” they argue, but “happy.”  The most this group will allow, at the beginning of their work, is that the poem might be contemplative and bittersweet but they are emphatic in their belief that the poem is not sad.  Most of the time, someone will wonder what Quinney actually means when she describes the poem as sad. Is it sad in its tone? Is it sad in its subject matter?  Is it sad throughout or just in parts? Is it sad that Wordsworth wrote it? And, if things go well, someone asks about the introduction of the Dorothy figure and the language in that part of them poem, and I see students frantically flipping back and forth between the pages trying to sort through it all.  Their impulse is to read the introductory, biographical information at the start of the Wordsworth section, and someone will offer to do that, but then someone else remembers what I’ve been repeating every class and says, “textual evidence” (and I realize that I might be more like Cleanth Brooks than I care to admit).

Each excerpt provides its own challenges, but even students who struggle mightily with poetry enjoy this entry into the text.  I think they find it so satisfying for a number of reasons.  On a practical level, there is safety in numbers, so even if they’re overwhelmed by the longer excerpts, they are overwhelmed together. Each excerpt is so different that it also allows space for them to ask questions about specific lines and passages and to pay careful attention to Wordsworth's language. They also like puzzling out what the critic is actually trying to say.  When the group working with Lawder finally works out what he means when he points to the poem’s “temporal structure,” they happily start seeking out the shifts in tense in the poem. Lawder gives them the tools to breakdown a poem whose length is overwhelming while offering a theme they might have noticed without knowing how it contributes to a fuller interpretation of the poem.

Hadley’s assertions allow them to recontextualize their initial response to the poem. For reasons that have a lot to do with the very term “Romanticism” in general and Wordsworth’s subject matter in particular, I find that my students read him with an incredibly sentimental eye.  They also project onto him their own experience, so they see the poem as happy because they imagine how happy they would be to revisit a place from their past.  This is a fine place to begin, but my goal is to push them into the poem and its language (this partly out of fear that I’ll get journal entries with titles like “My Own Private ‘Tintern Abbey’” rather than critical essays when they turn in their first full writing assignment ), and Lawder’s work with the poem moves them to a place where they can consider its philosophy against their own world view—one that works differently in real time than it does in their heads. Hadley’s argument asks them to rethink the pleasure of memory, and they do that by paying close attention to how Dorothy is addressed in the poem.

I teach poetry and fiction in my Romanticism class. Students tend to be more comfortable with the prose than the verse, and I’ve been trying to work out ways to give them more of a foothold with the poetry while still leaving them plenty of space to work with it on its own terms.  I’ve found that these critical tidbits lead to productive work, particularly in helping students solidify their own sense of the poem; because when they finally “get” the critic, what they are really understanding more concretely is their own initial responses to the text.

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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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Blake and the Digital Humanities

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My course for the next semester is heavily involved in the "digital humanities." Recently, Alex Reid wrote a fascinating post on his blog "Digital Digs" about what he called the "strong" and the "weak" versions of the digital humanities. The weak definition, Reid says "is one that draws some fuzzy and arbitrary line among digital technologies and says if you use these technologies to study humanistic content then you are a digital humanist." The strong version, on the other hand, "has two main components. There are makers, who build various digital tools for use in humanistic research and teaching. Then there are researchers, who study humanistic aspects of digital media and culture." Reid admits that this second definition might be too limiting, since the digital humanities are becoming more inclusive, and suggests a third category "adapters, who are taking emerging technologies and developing new scholarly and pedagogical methods. The difference being that adapters would be see disseminating knowledge about new digital methods and adapted tools as part of their scholarly work rather than simply using the tools to create familiar scholarly products."

Reid's third category is particularly interesting to me, since I feel that Blake held an "adapter" role in the development of a mass print culture during the Romantic period. In Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel (2003), Janine Barchas cites Blake as an author whose combination of verbal and visual elements shows the need to move beyond the traditional bibliographic vocabulary used to describe "illustrations" and "design." In fact, along with writers like Alexander Pope and Laurence Sterne, Blake "include[s] a far wider variety of graphic designs (for example ornamentation and punctuation) which the scholarly community is just beginning to recognize as textual phenomena with interpretive impact" (9). Blake, Pope, and Sterne inhabit a transitionary period between manuscript and mass print culture in the eighteenth century, one that was slowly giving way to the woodcuts and the novelistic illustrations that would become more central as the novel emerged as the dominant middle-class form of narrative in the nineteenth century. Blake's designs, however, also allude to medieval forms of illumination, and in this capacity, they inhabit an adaptive role for both the visual and the textual aspects of modern print culture.

I want to use my course to see if Blake can be used in a similar adaptive capability for digital and participatory culture. My thesis isn't very new. Marcel O' Gorman, for example, uses Blake as a "pictoral schema for organizing and generating knowledge," specifically for what he calls a "hypericonomy:" a series of icons used to "encapsulate an argument and present it pictorially." My course would push O' Gorman's hypericonomic project into the realm of social and collaborative media.

With this in mind, I consulted the extremely useful DH Questions and Answers message board hosted by the Association for Computers and the Humanities. You can find a record of my conversation with the digital humanities community here. To summarize, I mentioned my desire to have my students create a DH tool over the course of the semester - and that I'd like the tool to rearrange William Blake's textual corpus according to specific tags. The responses were wide and varied. Patrick Murray John, for example, suggested that I have the students build the project three times: in Wordpress, in Drupal, and in Omeka. Wordpress and Drupal are both content management systems (CMS) that build websites around blog-based designs. Users can upload plugins and modules to expand the basic functionality of the site. Omeka is also a CMS, but it is built specifically for publishing online exhibitions.

I got many great suggestions for the class, including one from Dorethea Salo that suggested I look specifically at how different media platforms use different forms of programming, but I felt by the end of the discussion that I was getting away from my core-interest in applying William Blake and Romanticism to concerns in the digital humanities. That being said, I would suggest that anyone who is interested in the digital humanities or digital pedagogy visit DH Questions and Answers. It's an invaluable tool for learning about and experiencing the breadth of knowledge and experience held by the digital humanities community.

I'd like to turn my question it to the RC community. What are some suggestions for tools that will help scholars, students, even non-academic admirers of Blake to understand his work? I'm not looking for the programming-specific advice I got on the digital humanities board. Rather, I'd like something akin to a wish list. What do you want, as a scholar or a teacher, that could help you explore the world of William Blake?

References

Barchas, Janine. Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

O'Gorman, Marcel. "The Fourfold Visions of William Blake and Martin Heidegger." Romantic Circles Praxis Series. (2005). Web. 07 November 2010.

Reid, Alex. "Weak and Strong Defintions of Digital Humanities." Digital Digs. 03 November 2010. Web. 07 November 2010.

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Teaching non-majors

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As a full-time graduate student and part-time instructor, I typically teach lower-division survey courses with nebulous titles like "Masterpieces of British Literature" and "Introduction to Women's Literature."  My sections are populated by students with majors such as psychology, integrated physiology, molecular and cellular developmental biology, etc.  Since the majority of my students will never take another English course, I feel a great deal of pressure to inspire them with a lasting passion for poetry, drama, and novels--or, perhaps more realistically in the Hippocratic spirit of first do no harm, to make it so that they don't hate Shakespeare or Austen or Tennyson.  Accomplishing these worthy objectives requires me to play a variety of roles in the classroom.  At times I am a salesman.  I need to convince them that their precious time would be better served by struggling through Hamlet than watching "The Jersey Shore"--though ideally one would be able to do both.  Several recent Business Management books have emphasized the superiority of internal motivation over external motivation.  I think that it's incredibly valuable to tell students why I think that the work is important--why I put this work on the syllabus rather than something else.  Whether those reasons call attentions to the work's aesthetic, technical, innovative, or controversial elements, even the most skeptical non-majors will give the work a fair hearing.

At other times I am a tour guide.  From Samuel Johnson's trademark antithesis to Austen's irony to Byron's digressions, I have found that many students enjoy discovering the distinctive stylistic features of the various texts and authors that we encounter.  This can also serve as a great launching point for more creative class activities in the spirit of what Rob Pope calls "textual interventions."  I have asked students to adopt the narrator's voice from Northanger Abbey by writing a paragraph that introduces themselves.  Hearing a few of these read aloud while discussing the recurring features allows us to move to examining Austen's famous character introductions.  Although some traditionalists may dismiss these sort of exercises as frivolous time wasters, I would argue that the interpretive skills needed to produce a parody or to mimic another's style reveals a deep level of engagement and understanding.

Teaching non-majors also requires the skills of a translator.  Even the most basic tools of our discipline--like "close reading," for example--can seem rather alien to the non-major.  Like my previous example, I find that the most learning occurs when a student is asked to perform a task without being fully aware of all of the implications of the skill that is being practiced.  In the case of close reading, I have tried to get the students to do close reading without realizing that that's what they're doing.  Call it a bottom-up rather than top-down approach.  Beginning with a more familiar context--the #1 selling song on iTunes, which for the Fall semester was Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream"--allows the students to jump right into the activity without having to address the impediments that come with 200+ year-old texts.  I had typed up the lyrics and asked the students to circle everything they felt was "poetic" about the song.  People had circled examples of metaphor, synecdoche, alliteration, anaphora and were performing "readings" of the song that could be called psychoanalytic, ideological, new historical, and structuralist.  As they realized that whatever it was that they were doing was some form of "close reading," it was much easier to then apply those same practices to an unfamiliar context, in this case Shakespeare's sonnets.  I feel that the movement from the familiar to the unfamiliar provides an excellent way to organize class discussion, writing assignments, journal topics, and other key aspects of the non-major English class.

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More Contemporary Connections (Keats and Contemporary Poetry)

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Deidre’s great post on “contemporaneity” sets things up nicely for me to introduce the class I’m teaching this semester, a new grad seminar on “Keats and Contemporary [as in contemporary to us] Poetry.” In my department, we have an excellent creative writing MFA program alongside our MA programs in Literature and in the Teaching of Writing and Literature (we don’t have a doctoral program in literature). I designed this course in part to get a mix of poetry MFA students and MA students into my seminar—I’ll confess that I even focus-grouped the topic with the creative writing faculty to find out what would most attract practicing poets to the course (for what it’s worth, the word was that Keats, Blake and Wordsworth would be the likeliest draws). I’ve loved it in the past when MFA students have shown up in my grad seminars—they’re amazingly perceptive readers and they help shape the conversation in provocative ways—but it's been hard sometimes to get the MA and the MFA students into classes together, as the MFA students tend to fill up their schedules with courses taught by the creative writers. This seminar starts out from the observation that contemporary poets turn with perhaps surprising frequency back to Romantic poets, and perhaps in special ways (not more or less but maybe different) to Keats (territory explored by Jeffrey Robinson in his wonderful book, and a point recently exemplified by Stanley Plumly’s “personal biography” of Keats, among many other instances). We’ve been spending the first half of the semester reading widely in Keats (the poetry and the letters), and we’re gradually moving on to consider modern and contemporary poetry that in some way addresses, reworks, reimagines, recalls or challenges “Keats” (the poet or the poems). So far, the course has been a real joy to teach.

It’s only recently struck me that in a way this seminar could be an answer to a question I was asked in a job interview when I was first on the market some years ago. This was a job (I didn’t get) at a very good and fairly arty liberal arts college, and the interviewer described the undergraduates there as quite interested in contemporary poetry but rather reluctant to try anything older. How, he wanted to know, would I get them into my Romanticism courses? My flustered answer at the time had to do with the on-going relevance of key Romantic concerns (e.g., modern ideas of selfhood, democracy, community, the ecological imagination—I forget which I talked about, but you get the drift) and the modernity of the Romantic movement as a self-consciously experimental avant-garde. After the interview, I began to suspect I had misread the question (are there really undergraduates adventurous enough to take in contemporary poetry but still skittish about Romanticism?); it dawned on me that I had been asked to justify Romanticism not to the undergraduates, but to the interviewer himself (who worked on contemporary literature). In my next interview, I tried a different tactic, and had ready a whole speech about the excitement of the historical moment in itself (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” etc.) that I delivered to nice effect when I got a different version of the “why teach Romanticism at all?” question. But what I realize now is that the interviewer’s question about Romanticism’s contemporary interest is one that contemporary poets, at least, do not in fact need to ask. For the most part, that is, their question is not whether they have a relationship to Romanticism—it goes without saying they do—but rather, just what the relation is.

I’ve been thinking about all this as I teach Keats and contemporary poetry to a group of bright, curious students, some of whom are themselves "contemporary poets" and some of whom have precious little experience with contemporary poetry. Over the semester, I’ll be posting reports on how all this going, including how we adjust to the varying expectations and expertise different groups of students bring to the course. For now, just a few observations on the difference it makes teaching Keats in this context— “Keats for poets” in more than one sense. If in my undergraduate Romanticism courses I do often try to sell Romantic poetry by using both the contemporary relevance and historical difference arguments I mentioned above, here, because these are grad students and because Romanticism and the contemporary is in fact the topic of the seminar, I’ve been holding back on the sales pitch to let the students themselves arrive at a position on Romanticism’s “contemporaneity.” So far, that’s been working well. We’ve had some great comparative discussions of poems, such as James Schuyler’s marvelous “Verge” paired with “To Autumn,” or Rachel Hadas’s “Sappho, Keats” paired with the “Nightingale” ode it riffs on. Both the MFA and MA students have been making telling connections not just between Keats’s poetry and contemporary poetics but also between Keats’s experience as a poet making a career for himself and that of the contemporary poets we’re studying. The poets in the class—who are very alive to matters of form, meter, and style—have also nudged the discussions in the direction of Keats’s technique and his habits of composition in rewarding ways. In this regard, the MFA students can be both much less reverential and, at the same time, much more awed by Keats than my undergraduate English majors: the MFA students have a “how did he do that?” response to Keats’s various fluencies that feels to me a lot like a young basketball player watching film of some NBA legend pulling off spectacular shots or incredible mid-air moves. And when we were talking about Keats and coterie production, both the MFA and the MA students had fun doing some timed sonnets on set subjects, though they reported it a very challenging exercise—and a couple of the sonnets I got from the MFA students were simply jaw-droppingly good: poems I thought I should be teaching rather than grading. If I can get permission I’ll try to post some here.

I'm wondering about the experiences of others who have taught courses stressing connections (and disjunctions) between Romanticism and contemporary writing—the ideas Roger, Crystal, and Deidre have already tossed out are intriguing. What’s worked and what hasn’t worked? If anyone’s taught a “Keats & Contemporary Poetry” course in particular, I’d love to compare notes!

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Rare Books in the Classroom

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In a couple of weeks I’m going to take a group of students from Deidre Lynch’s Romantic Poetry and Prose course to the E.J. Pratt Library to show them some rare material in the Library’s collection.  Pratt has a particularly strong Romanticism collection, including such gems as the holograph of Christabel, many of Coleridge’s notebooks, numerous Blake prints, and a diverse collection of color prints by George Baxter.  Indeed, there is so much interesting material that it is proving difficult for me to select what to show students.  Yet in considering what specific items I will show the class, a more fundamental issue has arisen.  In the end it may matter much more how I show them things rather than what I show them.

I think it is fair to say that the majority of students in the class have not worked with, handled, or even seen rare books and manuscripts, and I hope that their first experience will be an exciting and memorable one.  I realize that there is a danger of making a trip to the rare book library seem like a demonstration about neat curiosities rather than a scholarly exercise.  However, it would be silly to deny the fact that rare materials do have a certain “wow” factor.  I remember fondly my own first experience working with manuscripts while researching Lady Caroline Lamb’s correspondence.  Sitting in the Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies Office just north of London, I could not believe that the librarian gave me a box (an entire box!) of letters (her letters!) to read.  It was a good half hour before I could actually compose myself enough to do any real work.  I do not think my experience is unique, and one of the exciting things about our field is the chance to work with materials that sometimes take our breath away.

As Walter Benjamin’s work reminds us, certain objects, whether they are works of art, letters, or rare 200-year-old books, have a powerful aura.  It seems only sensible, then, to acknowledge to our students that, at a very basic level, a lot of the manuscripts, letters, and books that we study are not only of scholarly interest but are also downright cool.  Indeed, the curiosity so central to bibliophilic impulses has been the foundation of countless libraries and collections that are now valued for their scholarly import but were once privately collected.  I think that to downplay these aspects of research would be doing students a disservice.  Acknowledging the thrill of certain rare materials can be helpful in making both us as scholars and the material we study more accessible to students.

My own research is book historical in its approach and focus, so to me it seems self-evident that one may wish to consult the actual edition readers may have been reading.  Similarly, it seems obviously useful to trace a reader’s engagement with a book through his or her marginalia or to compare two different editions of the same work that were sold at different price points.  I think the key to making the library excursion interesting and valuable for my students will be to get them to infer the scholarly ways the materials I will show them could be used.  Rather than show them Coleridge’s marginal notes and tell them how and why I find them useful, it seems best to let them tell me.  A letter or a book is not a single purpose academic tool.  Like the modern edited texts of the Romantic works that we teach, there is more than one reading and more than one way of using primary resources.  Getting students interested in and engaging with rare materials through early exposure is the first step towards getting students to recognize them as valuable resources rather than simply cool old things.

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Contemporary Connections (Blake in the Guardian, Cowper in Singapore)

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I very much enjoyed the conversation about William Blake’s contemporaneity that Roger and Crystal commenced in the “comments” section that follows her posting “Wordsworth in a Math Bubble.” Further evidence supporting Crystal’s remarks on Blake’s power to inspire the present is offered in this rather charming series of interviews with contemporary musicians that the Guardian newspaper has put together to celebrate National Poetry Day in the U.K (today). (Yes, “Bard Reputation” is a terrible title. And I admit that “contemporary” is not quite the right word, given that the interviews include one with Neil Peart from Rush, who is even older than I am!) Anyhow, Blake, Coleridge, and Percy Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy all get a shout-out.

I think of myself (still) as a historicist critic, and I consistently bring that historicism into the classroom: in part as a context for reading Blake (he’s on all our minds right now!) and reading the Songs, my students have learned in the last week about late eighteenth-century chimney-sweeping, about the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, about the Sunday School movement, etc. But I agree strongly with what Crystal and Roger say about how contemporary writing can provide students with openings onto Romantic poetry, and it has seemed increasingly important to me to make time amidst the contextualization for that writing. I have been seeking to make room in particular for poetry from later eras, our own included. (I’m prompted by my sense that traditional English department curricula like my Department’s own sometimes seem to present poetry as though it were something that faded from the scene along with horse-drawn carriages.) In the past Marianne Moore (“Poetry”) has helped me introduce some of the Lyrical Ballads; Wallace Stevens (“Anecdote of the Jar”) has given them, or at least me, a way into “Mont Blanc,” and I am looking forward to seeing what happens a couple weeks from now when I bring in Robert Pinsky’s amazing, troubling “Last Robot Song” as a contemporary analogue to “The Eolian Harp.”

The contemporaneity of Romantic poetry has been on my mind, as well, thanks to a student in my survey class who last week educated me on how the issues that had been raised in our discussion of William Cowper’s abolitionist ballad “The Negro’s Complaint” are also at stake in (astonishingly) the poetry that poets in Singapore have written to protest the lot of the workers on Malay oil palm plantations. (She is just back from an exchange semester at the National University of Singapore--and she has promised me a reading list.) There’s something depressing about hearing this--hearing that the global idiom of feeling-at-a-distance developed in the age of Britain’s Second Empire retains its relevance. But also something exhilarating about the moments when our students make those connections.

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Starting the semester and naming names

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How to begin?  According to scary statistics that are always quoted by my university’s Centre for Teaching, students are frighteningly quick to make up their minds about a course --and make their first impressions of the first quarter-hour of the first class bear heavy evidentiary weight.  That is not the only reason to steer clear of the defeatism that Arthur Lovejoy models in one passage in his "The Discriminations of Romanticism" essay (1924): "When a man [sic!] is asked, as I have had the honor of being asked, to discuss Romanticism, it is impossible to know what ideas or tendencies, he is to talk about, when they are supposed to have flourished, or in whom they are supposed to be chiefly exemplified."   Competing definitions of the “Romantic” are arcane material with which to begin the academic year, but doing a Lovejoy, so to speak, and throwing up our hands in despair isn’t an attractive option either.  So we have to say *something* about why (as in my case this past week) the course we are embarking on is entitled, e.g. “Romantic Poetry and Prose.”

It is embarrassing to admit this--but it took me years of teaching before I began remembering in my inaugural comments to take into account what it is that  "romantic" (in the lowercase) connotes in everyday contexts.  It turns out, I’ve learned, that it's generally worth saying outright in the opening class that, whereas Romantic poetry and prose might include love poetry and love stories (though it doesn’t very often), it is not limited to love poetry and love stories.  It’s also worth acknowledging how easy it is for this nomenclature for a literary period and/or movement to mislead (if not the students who’ve actually signed up for that class--no one in that group has ever actually admitted to me to ever having been misled-- then the “friends” or the “parents” who have taken an interest in their course selections). Even the Wikipedia entry on Romanticism doesn’t engage the relation between what is upper-case Romantic and what is lower-case romantic!  Still, I think that acknowledgment can provide a really great starting off point for a course.

One way to begin might be with this wonderfully suggestive comment by Elizabeth Fay, introducing an edition of Romantic Circles:  “Romantic poets, at least those of the canon, do not make love to women in their passionate pleas, but instead make love to nature and natural objects.”  (Fay was introducing here a collection of essays that, as subsequent events showed, managed to put passion back on the scholarly agenda of Romanticists.)  I’ve been taking a different tack lately and have often begun my Romantics courses by having the students think with me about how the Victorians’ retroactive identification of an earlier period as “Romantic” built upon the meanings that had previously been attached to “romance” in that prior era of romance revival.  Keats’s apostrophizing of romance as “Queen of far away” in the sonnet on reading King Lear speaks volumes as well as speaking for and to volumes--and I’ve often made this little phrase serve as a kind of notional epigraph for the semester.  Or there’s this fabulous moment from Wordsworth’s Prelude that I’m gearing up to discuss on Wednesday--introduced onto the syllabus as a bit of necessary leavening of our discussion of Burke, Paine, Wollstonecraft, and the Revolution Controversy:

                                                O times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute took at once
The attraction of a Country in Romance

This is a long way of directing the scary question with which I began at YOU. How do other teachers of the romantic-period survey BEGIN?

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Wordsworth in a Math Bubble

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This semester I’m teaching a course entitled, “Poetry, Art, and Science in the Age of Wonder” at Georgia Tech. At Tech, there’s no such thing as an English major, and so teaching a humanities course poses some unique challenges. How to make literature compelling for science and engineering majors is one of the questions I frequently ask myself when designing courses. Richard Holmes’s recent The Age of Wonder presented me with an excellent opportunity to combine my students’ interests with Romantic literature. So far this semester, we’ve been reading Holmes’s book and the experience has been, well, wonderful. The text has proven enticing for my students; it’s also a great example – as a notable and bestselling book – of the contemporary interest in and relevance of the Romantics.

One of the concerns I’ve had, however, is that the book is long and detailed, and we’ve spent a lot of time discussing Holmes but less time than I would like discussing Romantic poetry. I tried to rectify that this week by bringing to class a copy of William Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned.” I handed out the poem after we had discussed Holmes’s chapter on “Dr. Frankenstein and the Soul.” This chapter, more than any of the others, considers why the Romantic poets have frequently been seen as anti-science. I felt that “The Tables Turned” would allow students to dig into those assumptions and see first-hand how complicated Wordsworth’s response to science was in the poem.

In discussion, students targeted the famous line, “We murder to dissect.” Students also started to ask questions, such as, “if the poem is so anti-science, why does Wordsworth use ‘we’ in that line? Shouldn't he say you?” Then students noticed the grouping of “science and art” in the last stanza, realizing quickly that much like science, poems also dissect objects of beauty for analysis in their own way. I was pleased with this discussion, but I also wanted to see how far we could take our analysis of the poem. I asked students to indulge in a creative thought experiment: if they could represent the poem as a work of visual art, any kind of work of art (a painting, a digital project, a comic book), how would they do so?

Students were quiet at first, but then they started to get excited. Really excited. I couldn’t keep up with the hands in the air. Lots of students proposed depicting a dreary lab with a window out on nature; others started to get more complex. One student said she imagined Wordsworth trapped in a bubble made out of math equations floating over a sublime landscape. As the students tossed ideas around about what the poem would look like, they engaged in compelling analyses of the poem: one student, for example, said he worried that representing the lab as dreary and nature as wonderful recreated a dichotomy between science and art that perhaps Wordsworth hadn’t quite meant to create; perhaps we could combine them by making the lab instruments double as natural objects. A tree could be a beaker, a leaf a sheet of lab notes.

All in all, it was a great discussion, and students got to get excited not only about the poem but about their creative capacity for analyzing and representing it. This kind of excitement is important in my course not least because throughout the semester, students are working in groups to develop technologically innovative online exhibitions of Romantic poetry, creating just the sorts of images they imagined in class this week. But I will save those details for another blog post. In the meantime, I’m wondering what other kinds of creative strategies folks have used to get students engaged in discussion, and I’m especially interested in considering the benefits (and perhaps also the drawbacks) of asking students to perform this kind of synaesthesiac experiment   – would this experiment be possible to try with music, for example?  Or film? Or other mediums?

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