Interview with Thora Brylowe and Miranda Burgess

By Caroline Winter

Dr. Thora Brylowe and Dr. Miranda Burgess were co-winners of the 2017 NASSR/Romantic Circles Pedagogy Contest, as announced at NASSR 2017 in Ottawa. Thora is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Miranda is an Associate Professor of English at the University of British Columbia. They’ve been kind enough to tell us about their submission and share some tips for graduate students on teaching Romanticism.

Caroline Winter: Hello, Thora and Miranda. Thank you for sharing your insights with us for the NGSC blog, and congratulations on your award! Could you tell us about your submission?
Thora Brylowe: Thank you for having us, Caroline. We agreed to submit this award very early on in the development of our linked courses, because I wrote a grant for my institution, and I needed to say what my plans were publically broadcasting what I did with the money I received from University of Colorado’s Faculty Teaching Excellence Program. NASSR seemed like the best plan, since Miranda and I are both Romanticists. But in fairness, co-teaching was Miranda’s idea and she did the lion’s share of the work on the NASSR submission process. She also planned our presentation, so she deserves a lot of credit for our winning the award. We submitted syllabi and assignment design for two courses networked between two universities in two different countries. Both courses take a project-based/experiential and collaborative approach to the media history of literature in English during the early print period (roughly 1700–1850.) I think we first agreed on the theoretical underpinning of the course, and Miranda has been running flipped classrooms for some time. I was excited to learn from her.
CW: You each teach at different institutions. How did this collaborative project come about?
Miranda Burgess: I’ve been a fan of Thora’s for a long time, but the germ of this collaboration was at NASSR 2015 in Winnipeg, when I heard Thora speak and realized that her work in the labour history and material history of media studies complemented my ongoing work on raw materials and transportation networks in the Romantic period. So I was eager to invite her to co-teach and thrilled when she agreed. I thought our approaches would work well together and that I could learn as much from Thora’s approach to teaching the field as I do from her scholarship in it. Moreover, I was sure that our students would benefit from our modelling of collaboration and their own experience of it. (We were also fortunate that the time difference between Boulder and Vancouver bestowed an hour of overlapping class time on the project!)
CW: What motivated you to develop these particular courses?
TB: The link-up has to do with our interest in mediation. Miranda came to Boulder for a conference hosted by my colleagues, and we had some time to talk through ideas. I have always been interested in the technology and institutions that structure knowledge and learning, so this topic made good sense. I think Miranda’s teaching praxis lends itself to a course like this.
CW: How does this course fit into your larger research projects or areas of interest?
MB: I’m finishing a book that is, most fundamentally, about the way Romantic-period writers responded to and managed the felt presence of other people. The book considers the raw materials of paper and the circulation of books together with the networks that transported not only people and goods, but also paper and its furnishes. I saw the development of these networked courses in media history as a way to clarify and test my thinking about these topics by engaging students in exploring them. There is nothing like conversing with undergraduates to keep a professor intellectually honest! At the same time, I firmly believe that Romanticists have an obligation to decolonize our corner of literary studies and help in opening the field to a wider range of geographical ambits. In research and teaching, because of the way media history intersects with the histories of early globalization, resources, and transportation, among other topics, it affords unparalleled opportunities to pursue these aims.  
TB: Yes, I too am very concerned with broadening our understanding of Romanticism. For me, it’s a matter of backs as much as minds. Mediation takes hard work: it means growing, making, and shipping materials, physically running printing presses, and selling books and papers. We have and hold these works because someone scythed the linen to make the rag paper to print the book. Someone printed it, saved it, printed it again. Those processes require institutions, technologies, and human sweat.
CW: How did students respond to the courses? What was it like to teach them?
MB: I’ve led the course twice now. The first time through, interaction with Thora and her students added a dimension (of geographical range and dialogue, as well as practical experience of communications technologies) that the second iteration tangibly lacked. The second time through, it was possible to smooth the challenges significantly: to know in advance what kinds of messes linseed oil-based ink might make with brayers on classroom desks; what fears students might have about working with the handpress; how much paper to supply, and what kinds; how to budget for time and materials.
TB: Teaching it was hectic, and I experienced some resistance, especially at first. Because mine was an intro course, my students were less prepared for the chaos of figuring out how to do something with the instructor as a guide rather than as a lecturer who dispenses knowledge. They got the hang of it, though, and I think when we had a viable final product in the form of an edition of 40 bound and numbered books, they were quite pleased. I really wanted them to have a tangible object they could point to and say “I worked collaboratively and we produced X thing.” Our linked online exhibit and the printed books really did that.
CW: What advice do you have for graduate students who are developing their own Romanticism courses?
MB: Plan for and program interactive inquiry. Get your class into the archive where you can. Consider the invisible and inaudible alongside the well-represented and prolific. Don’t treat the ocean as a barrier. Use online text resources to your advantage. Cast a wide net. Provide a core/canon of theoretical and historical readings, discuss them with students at regular intervals, and refer back.
TB: Move through space. Get students teaching each other or the community. Remember that you love this material. How can you best share that love? You want your students to remember what you’ve given them long after college. Moving their bodies, engaging with others, making things–those are some ways of helping them see the importance of the humanities in the world.
Thank you again, Thora and Miranda, for contributing to the blog. Their syllabi, and those of previous winners, will be available on Romantic Circles.