The Romantic Audience Project: A Wiki Experiment Table of Contents

An experiment

"The following poems are to be considered as an experiment."
— William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1800

"These two cantos are merely experimental."
— Lord Byron, Preface to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, 1812

"Experiment after experiment failed, because one pair of hands was insufficient to complete them..."
— Mary Shelley, "The Mortal Immortal," 1832

It is a standard romantic disclaimer: the opening announcement, so peculiary hesitant and excited all at once, of an experiment. We would like to introduce the Romantic Audience Project, a collaborative website built by students at Bowdoin College, in similarly provisional terms. Premised on congruency between the Romantic period and our own — periods each witnessing dramatic changes in publication technology — the Romantic Audience Project (or RAP, its quick nickname) exemplifies unpredictable dispersion. It was developed experimentally and lives on to inspire, somehow.

We report here, specifically, on the use of a web platform called a wiki in a romanticism seminar populated by eight able students. This open-source software enabled modes of class activity unimaginable a few short years ago, yet quickly mastered by students used to interactive communication in their day-to-day lives. With a wiki, text, images, and multimedia could be put online by anyone in the class, no HTML required. Any word of any poem could be transformed into a link. Student comments could link to each other. Essays and projects could be openly critiqued, easily referenced, and efficiently archived. Rather than passively consuming web resources, the class actively and collectively authored in a digital environment, making its mark on the material it studied.

As it applied new technology to a publicly staged discussion of poetry, the class cultivated productive self-consciousness. RAP's first users knew that their exploration of transmission upheavals in the Romantic period was, by means of the wiki's own novelty, a sympathetic echo. In this way, RAP drove inquiry into the ongoing relationship of Romantic poetry to audience.

In this essay, we have attempted to describe our use of a wiki from several angles. We muse on the connection of Romanticism to technology like this. We list general characteristics of a wiki that proved instrumental in RAP. We identify pros and cons of using a wiki in a college classroom and we describe, from the instructor's perspective, organizational challenges. Though software is in constant flux, we've included some technical information about the program that ran RAP. Finally, as a supplication of open-source programmers — the unacknowledged legislators of the web — we've assembled a wishlist of features we'd like to see in future wikis.



Navigating this essay

Ideally, our report about the Romantic Audience Project would itself be in the form of a wiki. That way, these very words could be linked to comments added by educators, web developers, and students — by anyone resituating college-level study of literature into interactive, digital contexts. In the interest of stability, however, we confine ourselves to traditional, static HTML pages.

But we have tried to retain a little of the flavor of wikis by interconnecting the pages in this essay. Words that evoke information on another page are linked, inviting readers to meander through this hypertext essay at will. You see some of these links in the text on the left. Alternately, all pages of this essay are listed in the Table of Contents.

Thumbnails of screenshot illustrations appear on the right side of pages. Under these thumbnails, you are invited to open a new browser window with an "enlarged image and live page link." These pop-up pages offer more legible and/or comprehensive images than the thumbnails can, and they contain links to the live version of the pages being illustrated. The live RAP site should render properly if you are using any up-to-date browser on a PC, or an up-to-date version of Netscape, Mozilla, or Safari on a Mac.

Texts cited and websites mentioned in this essay are all listed on the Works Cited page; links to this bibliography appear on every page. When we link to an outside website, the linked, green text is preceded by a small graphic, like this. Otherwise, all links connect to related pages in this essay.


Little Boy Lost: William Blake

"The child was wet with dew...."
— William Blake, "Little Boy Lost"

About the authors

Wikis foster collaboration, and this has shaped the authorship of this essay. RAP would have been impossible to launch without an instructor-romanticist and a web developer working in tandem. Therefore we report here, broadly, from both an instructor's and a technician's point of view. It is sometimes difficult to identify where one perspective ends and the other begins — nor would we want to. The erosion of such divisions in favor of a cooperating plurality is a discernable effect of wikis — and in speaking of RAP, we wish to reflect that.

Mark Phillipson, Visiting Assistant Professor at Bowdoin College, specializes in nineteenth-century British literature. His essays on Lord Byron and exile have appeared in Studies in Romanticism and, most recently, Nineteenth-Century Literature. Since graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in 1998, he has taught at Berkeley, Holy Names College, and Bowdoin College, and worked extensively in web content development.

David Hamilton, Education and Research Web Developer at Bowdoin College, encountered hypertext systems in college in the 1980s and has focused on innovative information transmission ever since. At Bowdoin's Educational Technology Center he partnered with faculty to develop a variety of digital research and instructional projects, including Mongol Invasion Scrolls and Flight to Freedom. He joined Skidmore College in August, 2004 as Senior Instructional Technologist.



We would like to especially thank Peter Schilling, who, as head of Bowdoin's Educational Technology Center, fostered the development of this project and secured its support. Eric Rabkin, at the University of Michigan, improved the description of this project with a series of clarifying questions. Technical assistance was provided at Bowdoin by Larry Hughes and Jennifer Snow. We are grateful for the continuing support of Bowdoin's English Department. Kevin Travers assisted Mark Phillipson in his design of this essay.

Most of all, thanks are due to the eight students in English 247 (pictured below), who signed up to learn about romantic poetry and found themselves pitched into a digital experiment. They graciously rose to the task, with instincts that proved exemplary.


RAP's developers: the eight students enrolled in English 247, Spring 2003, at Bowdoin College.