Apr 01

Student Realizations: Pedagogy, Performance, and Illustrated Fiction

In this post I describe an exercise that helps students connect words and illustrations. I used it this semester in my “Disney’s Victorians” course, and it has a historical frame that is particularly appropriate for teaching a Victorian novel (especially Dickens). But it might be useful if you’re teaching any text that combines words and images — especially one that usually privileges the words.

The idea is a simple one: students, in small groups, stage a reading of a scene that corresponds to an illustration. They choose an appropriate moment in the passage, and when they get to that moment they “realize” the illustration, posing as the characters are posed and holding the pose for 30 seconds or so.

As I explain below, the idea came from a workshop with John Glavin, who has really interesting ideas about performance as interpretation. What students get from this exercise depends a lot on how you set it up, and so below I discuss some backgrounds and practicalities before getting to the payoffs.

Background: Pedagogy and Performance

New Royal Theatre 1858

The New Royal Theatre in 1858. From Wikimedia Commons.

Last summer I participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar, “Performing Dickens,” led by Sharon Weltman and joined by a series of distinguished visiting faculty. Tracy Davis and Carolyn Williams shared their research on melodrama and some historical contexts for Victorian theatrical adaptations. When Jacky Bratton and Gilli Bush-Bailey visited, we staged a reading of a short scene from Dickens’s The Battle of Life. We tried it several different ways, and the experience helped put into practice some of the theoretical ideas Davis and Williams had introduced.

That focus on staging and embodied performance continued with John Glavin’s visit, which totally changed things for me. Glavin is interested in performance and adaptation as pedagogical and interpretive tools, as he discusses in After Dickens. During his visit, after a series of theatrical warm-ups and voice and body exercises, we engaged in the kind of performance he envisions. We each chose a minor character from Great Expectations, and then came up with different ways of “staging” the scene of Pip’s near-drowning, as the characters from Pip’s life flash before his eyes. We lay on our backs and passed “Pip” over our hands (as in, physically moved a body over our heads) as we each recited a line spoken by our chosen character; then we stood in a circle around “Pip,” moving back and forth and changing elevations to mimic the rocking of the waves as the submerged Pip is bombarded with lines he’d heard earlier in the novel.

If you know Great Expectations well, you can probably locate the scene of Pip’s near-drowning, as he attempts to escape with Magwitch and is overtaken by Compeyson. Here is how Dickens writes the scene:

“I had had to feel my way back among the shipping” by F. A. Fraser. Illustration for Great Expectations. Via Victorian Web.

In the same moment, I saw the steersman of the galley lay his hand on his prisoner’s shoulder, and saw that both boats were swinging round with the force of the tide, and saw that all hands on board the steamer were running forward quite frantically. Still in the same moment I saw the prisoner start up, lean across his captor, and pull the cloak from the neck of the shrinking sitter in the galley. Still in the same moment, I saw that the face disclosed, was the face of the other convict of long ago. Still in the same moment, I saw the face tilt backward with a white terror on it that I shall never forget, and heard a great cry on board the steamer and a loud splash in the water, and felt the boat sink from under me.

It was but for an instant that I seemed to struggle with a thousand mill-weirs and a thousand flashes of light; that instant past, I was taken on board the galley.

Where does it say Pip’s life flashed before his eyes, you ask? Well, it doesn’t. Or at least, we need some interpretive work: the exercise, having minor characters in the novel each speak a line, is an interpretation of those “thousand flashes of light.” It’s one that gives voice to minor characters, building on Alex Woloch’s The One vs. the Many (a title Glavin credited). And that’s the point — performance is a way of interpreting the novel that differs from, and complements, discussion.

Glavin calls After Dickens “a playwright’s book” (8), and I’m providing here an admittedly oversimplified version of what he has in mind: After Dickens builds on Jerzy Grotowski’s Poor Theatre to unpack the interplay between affect and critique, and the first part of the book contextualizes Dickens’s “refusal” of the stage. But I hope I’ve convinced you — as Glavin convinced me — of a basic point: the pedagogical possibilities of performance as an avenue for textual analysis.

Background: Melodrama, Serial Fiction, and Illustration

My “Disney’s Victorians” course is about adaptation: we spent the first five weeks on Oliver Twist, looking at stage and film versions alongside the novel. By the time we got to Disney’s Oliver & Company, students had a range of other adaptations with which to compare it, and some historical contexts for thinking about those adaptations.

Playbill from May 21, 1838. From the British Library. Public domain.

Oliver Twist, of course, was published in monthly parts, in Bentley’s Miscellany. Michael Lund and Leigha McReynolds, among others, have written about the pedagogical possibilities for reading periodicals and serial fiction, and I took some advantage of the serial form to make a historical point. I assigned the novel through the May, 1838 installment, and then we read a theatrical adaptation from that month. Performed before the novel was finished, the play gave us a chance to talk about Victorian copyright law and adaptations, and Dickens’s discomfort seeing his unfinished novels on stage. As Forster writes, “in the middle of the first scene [Dickens] laid himself down in a corner of the box and never rose from it until the drop-scene fell” (152).

I also used this stage version to introduce some genre conventions, and for that I assigned portions of Carolyn Williams’s wonderful essay on “Melodrama,” from the Cambridge History of Victorian Literature. “In its most literal definition,” Williams writes, “melodrama consists of a combination of music and drama in which passages of music either alternate with passages of dramatic speech or subtend them almost continuously and in which speech and action are interrupted by moments of static pictorial composition, the tableaux” (193). The music prepared students for some later adaptations, but it was the tableaux on which we focused. In particular, I introduced them to the “realization,” the tableau that reproduces, on stage, a recognizable painting or illustration. As Martin Meisel notes, actors often “realized” the illustrations that accompanied the novel they were adapting. The theatrical adaptation of Oliver Twist in particular “capitalizes thoroughly on the vividness and familiarity of the plates” (253). By recreating these historical conventions, students link text to play to illustration, and develop a sense of how the Victorians experienced Oliver Twist.

Practicalities

George Cruikshank Oliver TwistThe exercise is fairly self-explanatory, but as with anything, an example never hurts. I chose the book’s most famous scene, Oliver asking for more, and Cruikshank’s accompanying illustration. I asked for a few volunteers, and assigned each a character. They read the character’s dialogue (I read the narration), and posed them as they are positioned in the image. Once students had seen what they would be doing, I split them into groups and assigned passages and illustrations. I wanted to be prescriptive: rather than letting them choose a scene and illustration, I told them which paragraph to start with, and where to end. For me, it was important that they pick a precise moment to stop speaking and hold the tableau. Choosing that moment was part of the interpretation, and I wanted to give them a finite set of paragraphs to choose from.

I had assigned the Norton edition, which includes some but not all of Cruikshank’s illustrations. To make up for this, I printed out the images I assigned to each group and distributed them in class. During their “performance,” I projected the image onto the screen in class, so that the “audience” could see the illustration next to the realization, and compare.

The Writings of Charles Dickens v4 p370 (engraving)We did this in class, as essentially a discussion activity. It takes enough time that a full class session could be devoted to it (our class meets just once a week, so this took up only a portion of our time). The paper assignment that followed asked students to write about a specific scene from Oliver Twist and an adaptation of that scene. Some students chose a Cruikshank illustration, and incorporated their conclusions from this exercise into their paper. Depending on your goals for the course, you might require students to do this, or use the activity simply to spark discussion.

I designed this exercise for Dickens, but it could certainly be used with other authors. It makes the most sense for illustrated novels, but needn’t be limited to them. When teaching classical texts, one might choose famous paintings. Historical texts might realize photographs. And for any book, students could consider book covers or movie posters that refer to particular scenes. Depending on your class, you might even take this further: a colleague suggested mixing media by having students take a picture of their realization, and even aging it with an Instagram filter.

Payoffs

As Meisel puts it, “The reading experience assumed in most of the serial fiction produced in the middle decades of the century was discontinuous … To read was to experience both picture and text” (53). The realizations exercise helps students recreate this experience, giving them a better understanding not only of Victorian theatrical convention but also the oft-ignored illustrations. It forces them to think about the act of transferring their attention from word to image.

The Writings of Charles Dickens v4 p114 (engraving)Embodying the text also helps students consider movement and stasis, physical relationships between characters, and details in the text they might not otherwise notice. In the picture to the right, for example, Nancy and Sikes kidnap Oliver as he tries to return Mr. Brownlow’s books. Sikes is grabbing the books from Oliver’s hands, and the illustration emphasizes the crowd of people at the scene: performing it requires giving the women in that crowd a voice, highlighting the public nature of the scene that might get overshadowed by a focus on just Sikes, Nancy, and Oliver.

As the semester progressed we continued our discussion of which scenes are illustrated, and the fact that an illustrated scene is more likely to appear in later adaptations. After this exercise, students were more willing to go back and forth between the text and the image, and prepared for texts like Alice in Wonderland, which explicitly tells the reader, “look at the picture.”

Have you had students perform scenes in this manner? How do you encourage them to go back and forth between text and illustration? Do you have other ways to re-create for students a historically distant reading practice? Tell me about it!

Works Cited

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1980. 2 volumes.

Glavin, John. After Dickens: Reading, Adaptation, and Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Lund, Michael and Leigha McReynolds. “The Class as Periodical: A Contemporary ‘Humanities Lab.'” Pedagogy 9.2 (2009): 289-313.

Meisel, Martin. Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England. Princeton University Press, 1983.

Williams, Carolyn. “Melodrama.”  The Cambridge History of Victorian Literature. Kate Flint, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 193-219.

Feb 11

Academic Summers

Like most professors, I don’t usually teach during the summers. But that doesn’t mean we don’t work. In fact, since so much time during the semester is taken up with planning classes, grading papers, and meetings (with students, committees, etc.), the summer might be when the most academic work gets done — if by academic work we mean designing new courses, researching, and writing.

If you are or know an academic, you’re probably reacting like those people in Geico commercials: everybody knows that.

As it turns out, the National Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities know that too. Both offer summer seminars for faculty, and last summer I had the privilege to attend two: a Jesse Ball duPont Summer Seminar for Liberal Arts Faculty, held at the National Humanities Center and led by Laurie Langbauer, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar at the University of California, Santa Cruz, led by Sharon Weltman.

Both were immensely valuable experiences, and I’m still reaping the benefits of those weeks in North Carolina and California. The seminars changed the course of my research. I was working on my book proposal during the NHC seminar, and thanks in part to feedback from Laurie and the other seminar participants, that paid off: my book has been accepted for publication by the University of Tennessee Press. At the NEH seminar I developed what had been an undergraduate class (“Disney’s Victorians”) into an article. That article will be part of a larger project in Victorian studies and children’s literature, but also building on adaptation studies and performance theory — fields I might not even have known about if it hadn’t been for Sharon and the other NEH summer scholars. The NEH seminar culminated in Dickens Universe, a week-long event open not just to scholars but to anyone interested in Dickens. I’ve since then increased my public humanities commitments (I gave a talk at the Orlando Public Library in August and another in December, and in a couple weeks I’ll be a guest judge for a Shakespeare competition).

Summer School, Windermere, England, 1943 (Wikimedia Commons). Sing-a-longs optional at NEH seminars.

Two of my three classes this semester were also directly shaped by those seminars. My literature and childhood course builds on materials from the NHC seminar, and includes texts I wouldn’t have thought to include, were it not for the multimedia and childhood studies approaches I learned at that seminar. The syllabus is varied: we just transitioned from Charlotte’s Web to Sapphire’s Push (Sapphire visited campus last week as part of Rollins’s Winter with the Writers series, so my class got to hear her speak, too). I also redesigned my “Disney’s Victorians” class completely: we’re starting with two case studies, Oliver Twist and Alice in Wonderland, and looking at stage adaptations, reviews, and film clips. Then students will work on group projects for the second half of the semester, ending with research-based creative projects. All this is grounded in the adaptation theory I read at the NEH seminar.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of both seminars was meeting like-minded scholars, with whom I’ve kept contact and will be collaborating. I’ll be presenting at this year’s Dickens Universe with others from the NEH seminar, and put together a panel for the Children’s Literature Association with participants from both seminars. Less formally, but no less importantly, I made good friends with those scholars.

So if you’re an academic and can spare a few weeks this summer, I highly recommend these opportunities. Applications for this year’s NEH summer seminars are due in March. The duPont fellowships have internal deadlines, but the NHC is hosting a Summer Institute in Digital Textual Studies; applications due February 20th.

Oct 22

Wikipedia Assignments: some thoughts from mid-semester

Right now I’m teaching a first-year composition class, themed around Wikipedia. This is the third iteration, redesigned with the support of a Faculty Instructional Technology Integration grant, and mid-semester seems like an appropriate moment to share some thoughts about the course. The first section explains the background, but if you just want some tips for designing a Wikipedia assignment, you can jump straight there.

How My Course is Set Up

If you’re interested, the syllabus for this class is available online. This being a first-year writing class, I want students to be able to consider their reader as they write; to evaluate the evidence they use to support their arguments; and to engage with other writers, thinking of writing as civil conversation. My own training is in the Little Red Schoolhouse method, and for this class I’m using several modules from the Grounds for Argument website (which, full disclosure, I worked on when I was a graduate student).

Young Britons Study American History- Education in Wartime England, 1943 D13783

This student asks, “Is Wikipedia a reliable source?”

The first half of the course introduces students to Wikipedia. Ultimately, I want them to contribute to the site. To do so, they first become familiar with some of the myriad policies and guidelines and then they choose a Wikipedia entry that needs updating, and write a proposal (taking the form of a 3-4 page argument) about what needs to be changed and why. As they research their sources, I have them evaluate each one, using Wikipedia’s own guidelines for reliable sources. Finally, they contribute to the site, making whatever changes they had said needed to be made. This is a major payoff for the course, as students produce knowledge that others outside the class might read. I let students choose their own topic, and they vary widely: some write about their own schools or their hometowns, some write about sports, some find topics from other classes that aren’t covered on Wikipedia, and develop pages for those. The contributions are typically not major — they range from adding sources to writing a few sentences, to creating a page from scratch. I grade students on the detail of the proposal, the quality of the evidence they use, and their own self-evaluation. (I don’t grade them based on whether their change stays on Wikipedia).

This week students are starting the second part of the course, looking at some academic studies of Wikipedia in preparation for their upcoming research paper. At this point my course differs little from other themed composition courses: it borders on cultural studies, with a focus on collectivism, Internet culture, and knowledge-production. I select a handful of articles based on what students seem to be interested in: this semester, it’s history, political activism, global economics, and the gender gap. These articles expose students to ways in which Wikipedia connects to various academic fields. As they start their research papers, they will select a few articles from a list of popular press articles about Wikipedia, which we’ll discuss in class. Then their research papers will develop their own interest. In past semesters the best papers connect Wikipedia to an academic field in which the student is interested — law, biology, computer science, etc.

Tips for Designing a Wikipedia Assignment

Having students write an article for Wikipedia can be a great assignment. In my experience — and many other scholars have done this, too — students are more motivated when they write for an audience that isn’t just their classmates. But there are risks involved. In addition to the first two iterations of this course, I’ve included Wikipedia assignments in a couple literature seminars, in various ways, and I’ve written several posts them. Based on my own successes and failures, here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to have your students create Wikipedia assignments (and how I addressed these issues in my own course):

  1. Familiarize yourself with the site, and build in ways to get your students familiar with the guidelines. Wikipedia’s policies are dizzying and byzantine. There’s no way you could learn all of them in a semester, or expect your students to learn them. But you should know at least the five pillars, and how the talk and history pages work. Students should create accounts, so you can track their edits.
    • In class I had groups of students summarize and present Wikipedia’s core policies (verifiability, notability, and neutrality/due weight). The talk and history pages are fascinating in themselves, and good sources for short writing assignments describing evidence. Aaron Swartz builds his argument about “Who Writes Wikipedia?” on evidence from the history pages, and Dan O’Sullivan’s chapter on “Wikipedia: Structure” covers the talk pages in detail.
  2. Decide on the scope of the assignment. If it’s not too obvious to state, this assignment should be linked to your own goals, not Wikipedia’s. The point is not to make Wikipedia better (though see #4) — it’s to make students better writers/researchers/public contributors. The Wikipedia Education Program (see #5) seems to encourage building new articles or making major, substantial contributions. That’s great, if it aligns with your course goals, but more modest changes can be just as useful. Many articles on Wikipedia lack sources: you could even have students browse a list, and beef up the bibliographies with relevant readings from class.
    • Since this was a writing class (the content is secondary), my students first made very minor changes (like fixing punctuation or spelling) to get used to the format, and to get them auto-confirmed. And even the full-scale “add to Wikipedia” assignment was more about finding sources and recognizing the limitations of certain pages.
  3. Decide how you’ll grade. You’re asking for trouble if you grade students based on whether or not their contribution stays on Wikipedia. You’ll know better what your priorities are — maybe it’s researching a topic or writing grammatically correct sentences. But students will naturally worry about their grades, and will worry even more if they feel their grades are subject to the whims of anonymous Wikipedians.
    • I grade students on the quality of their proposals (an argument about what improvements their chosen page needed); the quality of their evidence; and their self-evaluations (an argument whether they’d made the improvements they stated in their proposal). I read their contributions to the site only to confirm the last part.
  4. Act in good faith. Wikipedia is a community, and like most communities, has lots of helpful people, and some jerks. The benefit of adding to Wikipedia is that it puts students in contact with a public outside the college, but that public can be disruptive and mean (Meghan Duffy’s experience is not unusual). You minimize your chances of encountering this kind of disruption if you follow tips 1 and 2, and make sure you are genuinely trying to improve Wikipedia (within the context of your goals for students).
    • The first time I taught this course, I had all my students (three sections) lie to Wikipedia. Don’t do that. The result was pedagogically useful: most of the lies were immediately caught, and within a couple hours the college’s IP address was temporarily blocked from anonymous editing. So students learned that Wikipedia does have some oversight. And one student’s edit remained on the page for over a month, until I deleted it myself. So they also learned that the oversight doesn’t always work. I still don’t recommend this exercise, though: for one thing, it disrupts other users from the same IP address (I inadvertently derailed another professor’s exercise). And I think it sends the wrong message to students — better to integrate them into the Wikipedia community, rather than start by setting them against it.
  5. Consider making your course official. The Wikipedia Education Program, launched in 2010, works with teachers and students to facilitate academic assignments. You can create an official course page (like the one for my course), and you’ll be assigned a mentor/adviser.
    • To be honest, I was initially skeptical of this program, because of #2, above. I wasn’t sure my goals would match up with Wikipedia’s self-interests. Only in the most recent version of the course did I link up with the WEP: I consulted with my assigned adviser as I put together the course, and she was helpful in answering some questions and pointing to some resources (all of which are available through the site). The biggest benefit was a practical and procedural one: using a course page allowed me to keep track of my students contributions.

Have you, or are you considering, developed an assignment for students to add to Wikipedia? How did it go, or what questions do you have?