I am proud to be the recipient of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Award of Excellence: “Outstanding Teacher for Technology in Teaching” for Spring 2013. The students in my two Fall Introduction to Women’s Literature courses nominated me for this award, which was presented by ASSETT (Arts and Sciences Support of Education through Technology).
ASSETT interviewed me regarding my teaching with digital tools. Find the article here.
During office hours at the end of Spring term, Moulshri Mohan, a student in my 2015 Women’s Literature and Technologies of Transmission course, taught me about Twine, an open source tool for writing digital narratives that remind one of choose-your-own-adventure stories. I had never heard of Twine, but she gave me a tour of the website and then showed me a few mock-up pages of her final project. She found and learned this program on her own and then wrote an interactive electronic critical essay in Twine designed to introduce others to the graphic novel Kari by Amruta Patil—the work Moulshri selected for her final project, inspired by works of 18th and 19th-century women writers we spent most of the term studying. Moulshri’s desire to discover, learn, and effectively and creatively share knowledge model the pedagogy I strive for. I have been teaching a wide variety of college-level literature and writing courses for thirteen years. Assessments of coursework and especially final projects indicate that my students gain mastery over our course content, and with hard work and my support they transform into teachers by the semester’s end.
Student Investment and Satisfaction with Our Course Goals
Presenting students with clear learning objectives helps them understand what they can expect to learn from the course as well as why those skills and ideas are important. This provides motivation for students to invest their precious time and energy toward specific “take-aways” from an English class. For example, I teach several strategies for performing literary analysis, and two of them include close reading and distant reading using computational text analysis tools such as Voyant and Juxta to supplement traditional literary analysis techniques. I express to my students that the major learning objective for these lessons is to be able to synthesize their close readings as well as distant readings of the same text so that they can persuasively share their critical conclusions in a formal essay, strengthened through revisions, or through an informal discussion. Furthermore, I reinforce in thorough, personalized feedback in Track Changes, shared Google Docs, face-to-face workshops, or video conferencing on regular writing assignments what students have improved on and where more work is needed in their writing and analytical skills to meet those learning objectives, as well.
Cultivating Knowledge in Diverse Ways
While clear learning objectives make the payoffs of a course easy to understand, the content they allude to needs to accommodate the many ways that students synthesize new information. Whether I’m teaching an English literature class for majors or non-majors, a composition and rhetoric course, or a new media course, I teach an array of authors and works, and I am vigilant about including minority writers who have traditionally been left out of the canon. I also teach a range of genres, including novels, poetry, drama, film, comics, essays, theory, life writing, and e-literature. I plan our coursework in diverse modes to reach those who learn visually, verbally, interactively, or pensively, and I model teaching this way so that students, too, learn the benefits of multimedia rhetorical delivery. For example, when I teach Shakespeare’s or Charlotte Smith’s sonnets, I have students read sonnets for homework, watch clips of the film “Yes” by Sally Potter, with its dialogue entirely in iambic pentameter, and also listen to the NPR audio essay about the film, “Saying ‘Yes’ in Iambic Pentameter,” so that they can read, watch, hear, and feel the verse’s rhythm and musicality lend meaning to poetic lines. In class, I deliver a short oral lesson on sonnet form, project images of a sonnet with its facets labeled, and replay a few clips of “Yes” to demonstrate the meter. Finally, I hand each student a few slips of paper, each with a single word from a sonnet on it. Given what they’ve just learned about sonnet meter and rhyme, students draft sonnet lines by collaborating and arranging their words in a “correct” order. They present their completed lines to their classmates, and if time allows we compose enough lines to make one complete sonnet as a class. Following this exercise, we delve into close reading analysis and discussion of the sonnets we read for homework.
Understanding Old and New Media
One major new challenge in teaching literature and writing is helping students learn to notice and control the media through which they read and write. The invention of electronic texts has not driven printed books out of the market but, instead, proliferated the possible interfaces and platforms that deliver our texts and the meanings that form can enact on content. I take N. Katherine Hayles’ call for “media-specific analysis” to be one of the most crucial theoretical imperatives of our current media age, and I impart this to my students through comparative practices that combat media blindness. For example, when I teach Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I require students to read the Broadview 3rd edition (eds. Macdonald and Scherf) of the novel as a class. We leave our classroom together to compare this modern critical edition to the 1831 edition held in Rauner Special Collections including their covers, bindings, paratextual apparatuses, paper, and illustrations—a lesson during which I provide an introduction to the discipline of bibliography. Finally, I assign select readings toward the end of the novel in Stuart Curran’s electronic edition that assist comparative textual analyses of the 1818 and 1831 editions in Juxta Commons. In blog posts, students reflect on how different media, from early 19th-century print to electronic editions, determine their reading and analytical experiences, an exercise that surprisingly endears students to both their print copies as well as e-texts and usually engenders desires to learn how e-texts are published, which I model in an introduction to Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations (XSLT).
Education within and beyond the Classroom
As an 18th-19th century British literary scholar, bibliographer, and digital humanist, I am always looking for opportunities to enrich the literature I teach with my research expertise and interdisciplinary resources found outside of the classroom, especially those in the library, in computer labs or media centers, in community resources like theaters or museums, and online. My goal for each such “excursion” beyond the classroom is to help students connect what we study to the world outside in personal and tangible ways. As a learning community, my classes share a course website that we make together and in which we post responses to reading, comments, questions, and share resources and experiences related to class between our in-person meetings. I also brought the students in a recent course to Dartmouth’s Book Arts Workshop for a series of two classes. I planned these classes to coincide with our reading of Book V in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a part of the book in which Aurora discusses the bookmaking and publishing industries and conveys the gender bias of these professions. At times, her poetry mimics the rhythm and vertical movement of the hand press on which her epic novel would have been printed, the foot pedals that move the plates, and the printed page that emerges wet with ink. In a class I co-taught with the letterpress instructor, my students learned about nineteenth-century letterpress printing, and as a class we typeset and printed a collection of lines related to printing or publishing from this long poem. Through the labor-intensive activities of typesetting and printing, students were able to experience and ponder the processes that Aurora describes and longs to have control over in relation to her own poetry.
For each course I teach, I also always incorporate at least one day in the library’s Special Collections working with rare books and manuscripts—this is an important facet of my research and a real joy. I have been teaching with Special Collections and their librarians since 2011, and assignments range from a single class period to a semester-long project. Previous longer assignments ask students to select one textual artifact to work with extensively over the course of the term and use it to produce a digital exhibit, a website built in WordPress or Drupal, that teaches its users about the form and content of their rare book using text, images, and video. Students usually love working with rare books, and while producing digital exhibits they also learn about copyright and how it pertains to the web, how to troubleshoot software, the skills to collaboratively build and manage a website, and they ultimately teach each other and me about the content and publication history of their rare books.
Conclusions as Opportunities for Self Discovery
In my research as in my teaching, I constantly interrogate what we can learn from others’ ideas conveyed through their writing, and I show that we can also use the texts we read and craft to learn about ourselves. I assiduously endeavor to help each student learn that studying literature can help her see her own strengths and weaknesses as a reader, writer, and communicator so that she can follow her passions and offer her own critical thoughts and unique voice to our greater cultural dialogue. Moulshri is a shining example of this, as she now works for an independent feminist publishing house in India.
Student-Curated Digital Exhibits of Rare Books
Spring 2012: http://wlitrarebookexhibit.wordpress.com/
Fall 2011: https://cubritlitexhibit.wordpress.com/