NASSR 2016 – Progressive Pedagogies

One of the last panel slots of NASSR 2016 was reserved for a roundtable with contestants of the Romantic Circles‘s Pedagogy Contest, hosted by RC Pedagogies editor Kate Singer. This year’s competition featured these finalists:

In general, I was floored (and, to be honest, a little intellectually intimidated) by the pedagogical innovations on display yesterday. And while Wolff was unfortunately unable to present, I was excited that the remaining panelists and audience would have plenty of time for the presentations plus a vibrant lengthy Q&A discussion session to round off the entire conference. Here’s more:
Simon Bainbridge walked us through two courses that Lancaster has been running for non-traditional learners. The first is a four-week online course that’s open to the general public. “Wordsworth: Poetry, People, and Place” offers a series of informative videos that introduce students to Grasmere and surrounding locales, while Brainbridge and fellow scholars explain the basics of Romantic poetry, Wordsworth, his circle, and his compositional sites and practices. The course focuses on conveying the importance of location to Wordsworth’s creative work.
Virtually connecting students to the poet’s home turf, this interactive course stimulates learning with a variety of tools, like reading assignments and discussion boards, some of which collected hundreds of responses. Post-graduate students act as mentors for the online students and facilitate learning by responding to questions and giving advice to participants, and at the end of each week the faculty create another film in which they provide a collective response to some of the central discussion topics from the week’s boards. A Google hangout with the Worsdworth Trust finishes off the whole course.
The other project was Wordsworth Walks, which involve one-day learning experiences to get people reflecting on their own paths in life by tracing Wordsworth’s steps. As the website summarizes:

Wordsworth Walks offer a unique, one-day developmental experience, suitable for individuals, companies and organisations. Built around a guided three-mile walk of Wordsworth country (Rydal and Grasmere in the Lake District), these walks use the landscape, the poet’s work and a series of practical exercises and physical activities to provide a framework in which participants can reflect on their own development, values and plans for the future.

These hikes, which have tended to attract MBAs and other leadership types, focus on developing three themes: reflection, vision, and working with others. Using Wordsworth’s “spot of time” model, students are asked to reflect on their own past; climbing into the dark recesses of Rydal cave, they’re inspired to contemplate a vision for their futures; on a canoeing trip out to Grasmere island, they learn about the importance of cooperation and collaborative work with others–thinking about how they might, back in their own corporate worlds, be a “Coleridge” to someone else’s “Wordsworth.” (Bainbridge promises they cast this supportive, partnering dynamic in a purely positive light!) Rydal3-940x430
With more than 5,000 learners participating from 60 countries, these courses have had immense success. And while I’m not sure that I like the idea of hundreds of corporate MBAs traipsing across Grasmere imagining that they can embody the Wordsworthian experience in a day (which, of course, was a relatively solitary experience, even if Dorothy and Samuel were by William’s side), I appreciate the effort to expose a general public to the values of Romantic literature and its ethos of meditative tranquility.
Returning us back to a traditional classroom setting, Michelle Levy presented (directly after her work on the book history roundtable!) along with Ph.D. students Sharren and Grammatikos on Levy’s graduate seminar at Simon Fraser. In her course “Remediating Lyrical Ballads,” eight students undertook the project of publishing an online digital edition of the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, on a website complete with introductoryLB at SFU materials for each of the 23 poems as well as a history of the material circumstances of publication, including binding, paper, collation, errata, and more. All of this supplementary content on the website stems from students’ individual research projects. Check out the entire site here.
The point of the course, as Levy, Grammatikos, and Sharren explained, was to push the limits and expectations of a traditional graduate seminar while invoking the collaborative and experimental spirit behind the original Ballads.  While they encountered a variety of technological and logistical struggles along the way, it seems that this learning experience was immensely valuable for all. In particular, they gained critical editorial expertise as well as a range of DH skills such as XML coding, which grad students typically would not have had exposure to elsewhere. In their writing for the website, students considered how to balance their prose so that it would be both accessible to the general public as well as useful and insightful for the scholar–a dual stylistic skill that would behove any of us to hone.
Following introductory material, each poem is presented with a digital scan and a transcription:
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As the digital humanities and, in general, digital editions and archives begin to infiltrate our once paper-devoted field, it seems that learning these kinds of hands-on (er…keyboard-on?) skills is an invaluable asset to graduate students, and I hope more faculty will begin bringing such collaborative efforts into the seminar classroom.
From graduate students to undergrads, we turned finally to Lauren Neefe’s first-year composition class for technologically-savvy students at Georgia Tech, where freshman “English” classes are not literary so much as linguistic–students are asked not to study any fiction, per se, but rather to work within a range of multimodal writing aimed at teaching students how to make arguments, not necessarily how to read novels or poems. In what for many of us would thus be an atypical setting, Neefe has found ways to harness the technical prowess of her students to create a unique learning experience.
In “Romanticism’s Social Media,” Neefe divides her course into three units with three coinciding projects that ask students to do a variety of exciting tasks, including:

  • Put together a 3-minute lecture that explains, using Romantic “media theory,” what one of the Romantic writers studied would say today about a social media platform (Kant takes down his Facebook page; Charles Lamb is sad you don’t read his blog)
  • Create a broadside sheet (with paper that they made themselves in Georgia’s paper museum, and using relief-printing techniques!) that documents a public reading that they had to imagine taking place for either “Eve of St. Agnes” or “Christabel”
  • After reading Emma, propose a new social media platform that would serve the community of Highbury (Twitter for gossip-mongers, anyone?!)

In support of these creative endeavors, students had to provide written artist’s statements and other supplementary materials that explained and justified their choices. Neefe’s Prezi presentation showed some incredible products of which, unfortunately, I don’t have images to show you–but trust me, these students pulled out all the stops!
With these three phenomenal courses in mind, the audience provided lots of feedback and questions, including issues around:

  • socioeconomic disparity among students (what do we do when students don’t have easy access to computers and other resources?)
  • technological knowledge on the part of the instructor (can we be humble enough to trust our students and learn along with them?)
  • grading (how do we, as literary-trained instructors, evaluate creative, multimodal, and artistic projects?)
  • outcomes and takeaways for students (what are these projects teaching students when content, and even traditional forms of writing, is not the priority?)

Even though these courses diverged in their pedagogical approaches and products, two key themes rose to the surface here: Collaboration and Community. Like good Romantics, both students and their professors discovered that they could achieve much more together than alone. In the various collaborative modes represented here, whether it involved students responding to one another on an online discussion board or teaching one another XML coding or making paper together for a set of broadsides, each of these courses opened up a stimulating intellectual community that taught students more than they bargained for in a class on poetry—and, undoubtedly, formed precisely the kind of close-knit intellectual community that Wordsworth and his Grasmere pals would have fondly recognized.