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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While Holmes is good at

While Holmes is good at inspiring wonder, and hopefully he has put to bed the idea that the Romantics did not care about science, he is not good at thinking about how wonder becomes disciplined by science of the time. I'd be tempted to counter one of his chapters with Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston's Wonders and the Orders of Nature.

Thanks for this comment,

Thanks for this comment, Professor Sha. I agree that there are problems with Holmes's book, many of which are engendered by its having been written for a nonspecialist audience. I've been especially wondering about the politics of representing the expeditions to the South Pacific and Africa as thrilling adventures rather than imperialist projects. I shall definitely take your advice and consider providing students with a chapter from The Orders of Nature!

Crystal, This is a truly


This is a truly inspiring teaching story you've presented us with here! I feel that the addition of Holmes to the curriculum is great, as is your attempt to translate a literary form (poetry) to a visual or digital form. It's a great method to show students not only the historicity of poetry but also the way different modalities can transform the experience of reading poetry.

About two years ago, I taught a course at the University of South Florida called Gothic Media. The course was focused around different mediums of the Gothic: visual art, literature, comics and film. We read vampire novels, looked at prints by Fuseli, Blake and Gilray, and watched films adapting or appropriating Shelley's Frankenstein and Stoker's Dracula. The final project asked students to take a character, scene or idea from Shelley's or Stoker's novel and show how its translation to a film of their choice changed the political or social context of the novel. I found that many students were extremely interested in talking about Muranu's Nosferatu. One student commented on the representation of Count Orlock in the film and its visual exaggeration of the racism and nationalism found in Stoker's novel. Obviously, Stoker is Victorian and not Romantic, but I feel translation exercises where students have to meditate on the medium of a narrative can be quite eye-opening for them.

As I mentioned above, I'm also interested in your use of Richard Holmes. I wonder if anyone else has found inspiration for a course from a single notable or bestselling book. Whether or not you agree with everything Holmes says in the book, contemporary writers can often provide openings for students who are not familiar with the Romantic period. Part of the reason I became so interested in the 20th century reception of William Blake is that students were often baffled by Blake's poetry, but they would become oddly interested in him after watching a film like Red Dragon or The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. Now, Red Dragon isn't really of the same aesthetic caliber as William Blake, but the portrayal of Blake in both films causes an odd obsession amongst many of my students to figure out who made the weird images they saw on the screen.

Thanks for this, Roger!

Thanks for this, Roger! You'll be happy to hear that after reading Blake's "Auguries of Innocence," I had a student come in with multiple color printouts of the poster for Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon. I am very much sold right now on the idea of using a popular, contemporary work to get students engaged in a historical topic. The Age of Wonder has been especially useful because as a work of research and nonfiction, it shows students the world outside of specialized academia still values thinking critically about the past and digging up new sources. I'm curious if you sometimes experience a downside to assigning contemporary works, however; I've found that they put a real crunch on the time we get to spend in the classroom discussing the primary sources themselves. Thoughts?

I suppose it depends upon

I suppose it depends upon your course objectives. In a period class, I don't spend all that much time on contemporary works. However, a large portion of my research is on the adaptation and appropriation of Romanticism in contemporary media, so I do spend time in courses that I've developed in the past (for example, a course on "Romanticism and Popular Culture") looking at the intersections between the past and the present.

And it's really cool that your student was able to bridge "Auguries of Innocence," a truly mind-blowing and complex work by Blake with Red Dragon, a mass-market thriller and Hollywood blockbuster. I just love the fact that Blake can create these incredibly complex and esoteric works and yet inspire people in all parts of culture.

@Crystal B. Lake Crystal,

@Crystal B. Lake
Crystal, I'm late to this conversation, but I too am intrigued by bringing the contemporary into the Romantic. Right now, I'm teaching an Brit Lit Survey: 1800 to present and have subtitled it Revising, Aftering, Parody, and Pastiche: http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/harris/BritLitSurvey_F10/Engl56B_Frame.htm

The entire class is based on the continuation of Romantic themes into the present, through the Modernists into the Postmodernists. We're even dealing with the graphic novel via Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. So far, so good. We're just now onto Clockwork Orange and find ourselves returning constantly to the Byronic hero, education, constructions of masculinity and more.

Please let us know how it continues!