Digital Communities, Embodied Learning, and Material Culture in Jane Austen

This essay will describe a multi-modal, collaborative, project-based approach to teaching Jane Austen’s novels through a focus on remixing and material history. Assignments that engage students in collectively remixing Austen’s novels meld individual students into a community, strengthening the classroom’s “little social commonwealth” by connecting classroom and digital learning spaces in a single learning ecosystem (Persuasion 31). Key elements of such project-based community-building include an ongoing, weekly participant-creation assignment posted to Tumblr, a short exploration of textual materiality connected to a close reading assignment focusing on historical word shifts, a physical making assignment, and a student-led collaborative project that brings all class members together into a participatory final experience. Transgressing distinctions between popular and scholarly reading communities by sharing their classwork openly online in turn empowers undergraduate students to realize that their own scholarship participates in, benefits from, and may eventually even reshape the networks that characterize our current digital social commonwealths.

Digital Communities, Embodied Learning, and Material Culture in Jane Austen

1.        A joyous energy often pervades the first day of class in my upper division seminar on Jane Austen. Upon entering the room, I will overhear discussions about how many, and which, Austen novels students have already read. Another group, frequently the most spirited, will be debating the relative merits of various film adaptations of the novels. Such rapport among students derives from their shared enthusiasm for the topic, which in turn creates an instant sense of community among many class members. Even those who are not fans often find themselves invigorated by the happy anticipation of their peers. Because of this, my central pedagogical question when teaching an Austen seminar becomes how to enrich and support this peer-to-peer energy and make legible to students the ways that Austen’s popularity reflects continuities, as well as differences, between the sociality of the English country gentry and our own increasingly networked online communities and identities.

2.        By reading Austen as a member of a seminar that is also a peer-to-peer learning community, students get to experience a twenty-first-century version of the social bonds that structure relationships among Austen’s characters. This style of teaching, in which digital and embodied experiential learning methods cross-fertilize each other as part of a single, integrated approach, is my version of what Jesse Stommel and others term “critical digital pedagogy:”

3.        In short, Critical Digital Pedagogy:

  • centers its practice on community and collaboration;
  • must remain open to diverse, international voices, and thus requires invention to reimagine the ways that communication and collaboration happen across cultural and political boundaries;
  • will not, cannot, be defined by a single voice but must gather together a cacophony of voices;
  • must have use and application outside traditional institutions of education. (Stommel “Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Definition”)

4.        This essay will describe a multi-modal, collaborative, project-based approach to teaching Jane Austen’s novels through a focus on remixing and material history. Assignments that engage students in collectively remixing Austen’s novels meld individual students into a community, strengthening the classroom’s “little social commonwealth” by connecting classroom and digital learning spaces in a single learning ecosystem (Persuasion 31). Key elements of such project-based community-building include an ongoing, weekly participant-creation assignment posted to Tumblr, a short exploration of textual materiality connected to a close reading assignment focusing on historical word shifts, a physical making assignment, and a student-led collaborative project that brings all class members together into a participatory final experience. The choice of the social networking site Tumblr as a central course platform has special resonance in an Austen classroom, as a lively Austen fan community already exists on Tumblr. Through networking, reposting, and remixing, students’ classwork thus organically becomes part of wider conversations about Romantic-era culture among some of the many virtual communities of Austen’s readers today. Transgressing distinctions between popular and scholarly reading communities by sharing their classwork openly online in turn empowers undergraduate students to realize that their own scholarship participates in, benefits from, and may eventually even reshape the networks that characterize our current digital social commonwealths.

“and very good lists they were”: Tumblr Commonplace Books and social reading

5.        The backbone of my remixing approach to teaching Austen is a digital commonplace book assignment that scaffolds student interaction throughout the course. A quick search will turn up a number of useful models for commonplacing assignments in the literature classroom. In a recent article in the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, for example, Vimala Pasupath details an assignment using Pinterest to make visible the labor and insights of close reading. Another assignment by Andrew Goldstone sets up a single shared, password-protected Tumblr blog for the whole class. My assignment asks students not only to build their own Tumblr blogs, but also to follow and interact with class members’ blogs, extending educational discourse beyond the campus. Elsewhere, I’ve talked about this teaching approach as “perforating the classroom,” a term to describe the value of teaching openly on the web rather than in the “walled” spaces of learning management systems (LMS) like Moodle or Blackboard. Such LMSs have their uses—to keep grades confidential, for example—but the fact that they are deliberately isolated from the web reduces their utility both as tools for student lifelong learning and as analogies to Romantic-era literary culture. My pedagogical approach highlights connection—between students, between ideas, between historical periods, between Austen and her readers, between elite and popular cultures, between technologies of reading. As Juliette Wells argues in a recent article, I want to encourage my students to connect with Austen fandom and popular culture as well as the many resources available online for scholarly study.

6.        On that note, I cannot fail to point out the wonderful resources and teaching ideas in the recent Romantic Circles Pedagogy Commons special issue “Teaching Jane Austen,” edited by Devoney Looser and Emily Friedman. One of the signal contributions of this openly available journal issue is the “Annotated Bibliography on the Scholarship of Teaching Jane Austen,” compiled by Emily Zarka and Devoney Looser. Annotated bibliographies like theirs are scholarly versions of the kind of curation that my students undertook in their commonplace books, and offer a useful touchstone for understanding the value of curation as a social-intellectual practice that can yield networked scholarly communities in this era of digital connectivity. This essay benefits from the resources, articles, and ideas compiled by Looser and Friedman, and adds to them a critical digital pedagogy approach to scaffolding a Jane Austen seminar which integrates both digital and embodied learning.

7.        To foster such communal scholarship, I ask students to create digital commonplace books in which they engage with other readers of Romantic-era literature via remixing not only their own collection of quotations but also the bits of Austen culture online that attract their interest. Tumblr, a free and open blogging platform, has the advantages of being familiar to most students, very simple to use, and popular with a huge community of users who regularly reblog media objects in a twenty-first century version of commonplacing. Tumblr also has an active Austen fan population who share memes, movie references, news about new games, products, travel opportunities, and so much more. Encouraging students to interact with Austen fandom and popular culture for a class assignment brings enormous energy into classroom discussions and challenges the unspoken barrier between reading for pleasure and reading for class that so often frames academic discussions of even the most beloved literary works.

8.        My commonplacing assignment was initially inspired by a blog post on a wonderful academic blog titled This Gaudy Gilded Stage, and adapts categories and language from Patricia Taylor’s Electronic Commonplace Book assignment as posted on the University of Connecticut freshman English blog in 2014. The key requirements are that each student add three elements to their Tumblr blog each week, that they tag their posts according to an organizational method that represents their particular interests, that they follow each other’s blogs, that they design their blogs according to their own taste, and that across the semester they include a variety of different types of posts. Here is an excerpt from the assignment, which enumerates various types of posts.

9.        Tumblr commonplace books must include at least one example of the following:

  1. Important and/or interesting quotations from Austen’s novels,
  2. Regular reposts of classmates’ posts, tagged according to the students’ own commonplacing structure,
  3. Summaries and/or quotations from scholarly or critical sources about Austen, 18th and early 19th century material culture, domesticity, gender, class, empire, etc.
  4. Historical information on 18th and early 19th century issues relevant to Austen, including period-appropriate maps, descriptions of southern England, and related information about the places of Austen’s life and work.
  5. Popular culture appropriations of Austen (from any period). This can include artwork, photos, YouTube videos, Web series, etc. Artwork or videos can be either created by the student herself (bonus points!), or the work of others so long as it is properly attributed.
  6. Music from the period.
Other categories may include:
  1. Silhouettes and other types of art from the period.
  2. Puzzles, charades, definitions of words whose meaning has changed, etc.
  3. Notes on how to throw a themed ball, set a table, make a recipe, play a period card game, wear Regency-period clothing, etc.
  4. Quotations, ideas, or anything else relevant to the student’s interest in Austen and her historical era.

10.        Students begin their commonplace books the first week of class after a brief introduction to the Enlightenment intellectual practice of commonplacing, a tutorial on setting up their Tumblr accounts, and, most importantly, a discussion about how they will choose to craft their online identities for the course. Fortuitously, our class was reading Austen’s early epistolary novella Lady Susan while we were also getting the Tumblr blogs launched, and so questions of rhetorical stance, audience awareness, and reputation construction cross-pollinated our discussion of both the novella and student choices about their own online identities for the course. Students always enjoy reading the letters through which femme fatale Lady Susan manipulates her daughter, her lover, her intended fiancé and others through a carefully plotted rhetorical campaign. As a character, Lady Susan is unlike other Austen protagonists in both class status and conduct, and may seem quite simplistically wicked at first read. While discussing this novel, students consider how to craft their own social media identities. The activity prompts students to think through this plot crisis as an eighteenth-century version of what theorists of social media today call “context collapse,” in which distinct audiences combine and create unexpected (and often, unwanted) interpretations (boyd 31).

11.        Students’ increasing awareness of the wide implications, and often unforeseen consequences, of their own social media self-expression sets the stage for a richly intercontextual discussion of this first person epistolary fiction. Like Lady Susan, they realize that their plans and hopes can be undermined if information intended for one audience (photographs taken at college parties, for example) crosses over to other audiences (future employers). While many students initially condemn Lady Susan, agreeing with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that “[h]aving two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” (boyd 31), they quickly complicate this sentiment when they consider their own online identity decisions. Social media “context collapse,” which is especially prevalent on Facebook and other platforms that are part of the “real name web,” is a useful analogy to help modern urban readers comprehend the social dynamics of eighteenth-century English country gentry. Students immediately grasp the identity complexities introduced by the possibility of such context collapse, and tend to brim with stories about when their aunt or grandfather misunderstood something they posted on social media for an intended audience of peers. Seeing Lady Susan’s letter-writing practice in this light helps them interpret her character more sympathetically, since many have grown up learning painful lessons about reputational identity in social media. For this same reason, it is a key learning goal of my course to increase students’ expertise at shaping and managing their own online identities. My feminist pedagogy seeks to encourage student agency online so that they can be, as one student pointed out in a moment of delightfully ironic realization, more like Lady Susan—in rhetorical artistry, if not morality.

12.        Therefore, before students create their Tumblr blogs, we thoroughly discuss their choices about how much identifying information they will choose to reveal in their Tumblr accounts. Students then decide to create their Tumblr blogs with either their real names, a durable pseudonym which they maintain across platforms, or an entirely anonymous, disposable moniker chosen for one use only. In our course LMS, which is password protected, we all share our Tumblr blog identities so that we can all follow each other’s blogs. But on the Tumblr platform itself, I discourage students from publishing identifying information (including photographs or nicknames) about other students, even if they choose to use their own real names for their own blog. As students gain more control over their own social media personas, they also gain richer appreciation of the context of Lady Susan or Emma, novels which feature long-established, deeply interconnected communities of families. For example, this student, Erica Clifford, chose to identify herself by her full name in her course project, but students are free to choose how much identifying information they wish to include.

13.        The following is a release form I now ask that all students to complete to highlight their awareness of their own agency in determining their online identities before participating in open online learning activities in my courses:

Interactive Projects Release Form
Professor Andrea Rehn, Whittier College
Section 1: I, _________________________ (print name), hereby consent to the saving and digital redistribution of projects completed by myself in this class.
Section 2: I, _________________________ (print name), consent to being involved with class projects that take place on social media. I choose to participate in such projects under my own name as printed here.
I, _________________________ (print name), consent to being involved with class projects that take place on social media. I choose to participate in such projects under the following pseudonym:
Pseudonym _________________________________________
                             (Please provide pseudonym)
Section 3: I, _________________________ (print name), understand that all material obtained will be used by faculty at Whittier College for educational and related purposes, including external distribution and sharing in various digital formats through distributions services such as YouTube, Medium, Vine, Twitter, WordPress, etc. I understand that by using these services I am agreeing to their Terms of Service.
This agreement does not in any way affect the ownership of the content presented in projects. I retain rights to my own work, and I agree to include nothing in my projects which will infringe the copyright of any third-party. I further agree to treat my classmates and others I encounter via digital media with respect and courtesy. Finally, I understand I will receive no compensation for my consent to participate in this class.
Section 4: I, _________________________ (print name), have read this form and have had the opportunity to ask questions about it. I agree to be bound by this consent form.
Signature: _________________________________________________ Date: __________________________

Digital Pedagogy and Material Culture

14.        Once student blogs are launched with a few initial quotations from the early readings on the syllabus, we start thinking about the commonplace books as not only a useful analogy for self-aware identity construction, but also as a knowledge technology with specific resonances to eighteenth century and Romantic-era culture. Although we read most of Austen’s published novels as well as many excerpted critical studies in this course, we do not have time for a deep exploration of eighteenth-century book history and publishing practices. However, even a brief consideration of the material history of the eighteenth-century book can help students begin to appreciate the economic conditions that configure Austen’s characters’ opportunities and choices as well as Austen’s own various publishing strategies. To this end, while reading Edward Copeland’s “Money” from the Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, the class visits special collections, where students get to handle a number of Regency-era texts and learn how printing processes, materials, and costs influenced readership and the rise of circulating libraries, and we also get to view an early edition Johnson’s Dictionary as well as some manuscript commonplace books.

15.        The archival visit is always one of the highlights of the semester, and two assignments build on it: a short reflection piece about reading and writing by candlelight, and a close-reading of a passage from an Austen novel comparing Johnson’s definition of a word to our modern usage. Many students put one or both of these assignments into their Tumblr commonplace books, as in this example. The other technology of the text assignment, reading/writing by candlelight, pairs very well with Sense and Sensibility, and helps students appreciate Austen’s careful equation between Marianne’s cramped postures and her desperate emotions while she writes letters to Willoughby in the second volume. The assignment also offers context for thinking through the trope of the flickering candle, that durable device of gothic fiction, which Austen exploits and satirizes in Northanger Abbey. The assignment asks students to read at least one chapter of a novel and then handwrite a reflection about the experience—both by candlelight. Students then take a digital photograph of their study area and post it to their commonplace book alongside their reflection, as in this example by Terrileigh Shepherd. Notice the layers of textual technology represented in this single image: the student is hand-writing after reading by candlelight from a Norton Critical Edition of Emma, then using a cell phone camera to digitally photograph her text and post it to her twenty-first-century version of an eighteenth-century commonplace book. In this particular case, the assignment offered Terri an opportunity to tell the class about growing up in Zimbabwe, where frequent power outages made candlelight a familiar homework resource. Access to technology is not only temporally but also geographically differential, a topic that the class explored again when we watched Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of Mansfield Park and discussed Said’s argument about Austen’s implication in English imperialism.

16.        These simple assignments yield remarkable results, since they defamiliarize reading itself by transforming it into a consciously embodied role-playing activity that can bring the Regency period to life. As students orient themselves to the physical postures and technological challenges of reading and writing by candlelight, they begin to imagine how material culture pervades and situates our lived experience. Students reflect on issues including the height of the candle, troublesome drafts, the smell and heat of candlelight, the physical cramps or eyestrain they experience, and their sense of embodying Marianne’s Romantic sensibility. The opportunity to imagine themselves into the physicality of the Regency period can open a series of realizations about gender, age, class position, social occasion, affect, and the body itself as a historically-constructed aspect of character. After this initial assignment, and because students find this kind of experiential learning so dynamic, the class engaged in a series of role playing activities that focus on material culture, including a Jane Austen dancing session, a sketching exercise where we copied a profile using shadow-tracing, a Commerce card-party, and a Regency-style potluck. For many of these activities, students added entries to their digital commonplace books not only collecting but also reflecting on the experience itself; in other words, their commonplace books became, in many instances, not only collections of remediated objects and phrases, but also of reflective writing about their own learning processes.

17.        Role playing and other game-like activities involve students in active learning that yields rich readings, close attention to nuances of the text, and melds students into an engaged learning community. Such an atmosphere provides a useful context from which to address Romantic individualism, gender, and class in the novels. My students, in twenty-first-century Los Angeles, find it difficult to appreciate the power of unfamiliar social conventions, from Anne Elliot’s frustrating inability to voice her desire in Persuasion, to Fanny’s moral certainties in Mansfield Park, to Darcy’s misgivings about the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice. In these cases, the shared commonplace books, which quickly fill with pop culture Austen memes satirizing Regency gender norms, offer valuable springboards into more historically nuanced discussions of manners and textuality. In other words, by sharing these items on Tumblr, students make visible to themselves, and to each other, their historical distance from the novels, and can therefore begin to teach each other about contemporary material culture through posts on clothing, meals, etiquette, architecture, money, and many more aspects of culture.

Figure 1: Fashion illustration by Elizabeth Sanchéz after image in Fukai, Akiko, Tamami Suoh, and Kyōto Fukushoku Bunka Kenkyū Zaidan. Fashion: The Kyoto Costume Institute: From the 18th to the 20th Century. Köln; London: Taschen, 2004.

18.        Student-designed digital commonplace books both enable shared research and discovery and embody individual student’s various relationships to Regency culture. One example of a commonplace book that led through pop culture references to an exploration of material culture, in this case fabric and fashion, is the commonplace book “Bonnet Envy.” Elizabeth Sanchéz, who initially titled her commonplace book “My Dear Miss Elizabeth,” became fascinated by masculine fashion, and at the final (which was a ball thrown by the students for the campus community) she welcomed guests to the ball with a display of her watercolor fashion plates (see Figure 1). She also explained how to tie a cravat and offered guests a choice to wear either gloves or a cravat for the dancing, so that all guests could freely choose and signal their gender role for the dancing. The posts and aesthetics of her blog together embody her interest in period history, and her careful research, as in this image:

Figure 2: "Bonnet Envy" by Elizabeth Sanchéz.

19.        In contrast, student Nikolai Barkats’s commonplace book displays a widely different aesthetic and set of intellectual preoccupations. “Darcy’s in Town” focuses on pulp fiction, gaming, and modern Austen rewritings. This student became the class expert on Austen mashups, with a playful focus on gender and masculinity in the novels and their filmic and textual afterlives. Like Elizabeth Sanchéz, this student was also interested in masculinity in the novels, but his approach was quite distinct, as his choice of topics and format makes clear. Note the eye-popping background color, the pulp-fiction title and cover art, and the fascination with video games and other remix forms:

Figure 3: "Darcy’s In Town," by Nikolai Barkats.

20.        Another student’s site, Sara Koffi’s “Austen-not-Texas,” demonstrates a more traditional commonplace book structure, offering primarily quotations from novels and criticism and short, informal reactions. Sara used her commonplace book as a location to store her discoveries while reading, and her witty observations were lauded by the class for their insight and helpfulness. For example, here is Sara reflecting on Harding’s classic essay “Regulated Hatred,” and comparing how community at a small liberal arts college might be similar to the Longbourn neighborhood:

Figure 4: “Austen-not-Texas” by Sara Koffi.

21.        Finally, Erica Clifford’s blog “Jane Reigns” integrates all these aspects of the digital commonplace book, and culminates in a final digital essay exploring one aspect of material culture in Austen’s era. Erica’s work integrates popular culture references, historical and archival sources, quotations from novels and criticism, and, at the bottom of each blog page, a scrolling list of the posts by other students and other bloggers that she favorited or commented on. Her digital essay, posted near the top of her book, is a video published on YouTube and titled “Bread Pudding: A Socioeconomic Cultural Portrait.” This video exemplifies a possibility for undergraduate work that traditional essays often don’t achieve: undergraduate scholarship that is rigorous and wide-ranging while being potentially useful to an audience that goes far beyond her classmates. It is, therefore, a student research project that may have a life after being graded, as it offers an entry point into its topic for future readers, bakers, and/or students. Since Erica chose to make it publicly available on her Tumblr as well as YouTube, it will be only a browser search away for anyone with an interest in Jane Austen’s love of bread pudding.

Figure 5: “Jane Reigns,” by Erica Clifford (Click here for video)

22.        The aspect of Erica’s book that most excites me, beyond her rather wonderful essay on dessert, is the scrolling feed of other students’ posts with whom she interacted. The Tumblr platform, a popular social media site favored by slightly more women than men, actively encourages bloggers to share each other’s posts with the simple dashboard button “Quote.” Using this platform affordance, many individual Tumblr users produce very little original material but build extensive collections of reblogged materials that represent their own individual interests and tastes. In this sense, Tumblr is a modern, social commonplace book, adding the Web 2.0 culture of connection to John Locke’s conception of commonplacing. The many Tumblr themes available include citational links, so that when a blogger reshares another blogger’s post, the software automatically includes that link in the post, and alerts the original author. This creates a network of users who quickly form interest communities. Since I asked all my students to “follow” each other’s blogs, they also received notifications of each other’s posts, which further encouraged active sharing, and, at times, created real-time virtual communities of readers. Such real-time sharing was especially useful when students were reading critical articles. Finding a key passage, they would post it to their commonplace books with a brief commentary or an image from a film or other source. Other students also reading the article (usually the night before class discussion) would read and reshare the posted quotations as a study aid, so that by the time we were all sitting in the room together preparing to discuss the article, the class had already established a foothold for themselves from which to begin our consideration. In general, I participate in such discussions only by posting, or reblogging, or “liking”, content, as any other members of the class would do. My role is therefore to participate, or lead by example, rather than to guide or direct.

23.        Such social reading can happen, of course, with other kinds of informal reflective writing due before class. But what really excited me about this instance was that I had not explicitly assigned students to discuss the article ahead of time, and they saw their interactions on Tumblr as helpful for their own reading process rather than as an obligatory exercise. Sometimes students would write about the passage, as Sara Koffi does here. Sometimes they would share helpful study tools, as Elizabeth Sanchéz does here. The sense of community endeavor this shared blogging inspired brought the class together into a learning community connected by helpfulness and shared interests. It is, I think, no accident that this was the same group that collectively decided to throw a ball for the campus. I won’t describe the ball, as Cheryl Wilson and others have already written usefully about teaching dancing as a part of a course on Jane Austen, but the fact that the class chose, as a group, to create this event is probably my single favorite teaching experience ever, one that I do believe is connected to students’ Tumblr community building throughout the semester.

Figure 6: Invitation to the Ball

Tumblr Design, Participatory Culture, and Commonplacing as Curation

24.        This community building was facilitated by the time we spent in class referring to and learning from other’s Tumblr blogs. As their blogs grew, students’ expertise with different aspects of Tumblr became clear, and we often had short student-led technical discussions during class. One student explained the citational practices of the Tumblr community (it is bad form to reblog a modified meme without acknowledgement, for instance), which led naturally and usefully to a discussion of both academic citational practices and Austen’s own dense network of textual allusions, particularly in Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Other students showed the class how they achieved certain design aspects of their blogs, which increased the range of aesthetic possibilities among the blogs. Note the differing design aesthetics of Nikolai Barkats’ pulp-fiction inspired “Darcy’s In Town” versus the embowered “Jane Reigns” or the self-consciously antiqued “Universal Truths.” The students’ design freedom elevated this assignment over other familiar reading response assignments they might post to an LMS forum, and resulted in a sense of ownership of the assignment that created energy, community, and moved discussions into the realm of what network theorist Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture,” which includes the following characteristics:

  1. relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement,
  2. strong support for creating and sharing creations with others,
  3. types of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices,
  4. members who believe that their contributions matter, and
  5. members who feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least, they care what other people think about what they have created). (Jenkins 5-6)

25.        Here, Jenkins is describing what he believes is a significant cultural shift associated with Web 2.0 practice. Unlike broadcasting, print media authorship, or even early hard-coded HTML websites, Web 2.0 applications such as Tumblr, Twitter, and WordPress overlay one-to-many networks like books or traditional classrooms with the many-to-many networks of social media. In this kind of distributed network, all participants have not only the opportunity but the motivation to produce as well as consume, since their contribution embodies their individuality to the class community.

26.        Like today’s socially networked readers, gentry women of Austen’s period were not only consumers but also the producers of much artistic and domestic culture. Characters such as Georgiana Darcy or Jane Fairfax exemplify the accomplished woman in Austen’s work, in contrast to protagonists whose more modest accomplishments are much thematized in the novels. However, while Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse may not play and sing as well as others, they, like other women of their class and period, were valued for their “society,” the contribution that their presence would make to a gathering. Of course, we still delight in witty or wise friends, but we rarely think of ourselves now as valuable primarily for how our creative contribution adds to a collective whole. The press of such gendered obligation on Austen’s characters is one of the most important, and most subtle, aspects of the novels for modern students to grasp, precisely because it is so pervasive and so internalized. And, like any other disciplinary technology, this social obligation to contribute manifests itself by empowering characters to act accordingly—some more than others, of course. Similarly, when students form their own commonplacing digital community, they experience both the empowerment and the constraints of the technology that facilitates their community. Tumblr becomes a material manifestation of Foucault’s power/knowledge, with the affordances of the technology channeling student contributions and empowering them to create and share digital objects that amaze and delight them with their own accomplishments.

27.        Throughout the semester, the class would consult members’ commonplace books to find references, research topics, and design inspiration. To enhance this sense of student ownership of the assignment, I asked students to evaluate each other’s commonplace books twice during the semester, working from a rubric that we collectively developed early in the semester. We contrasted these activities to Emma’s tutelage of Harriet Smith in Emma, to Henry Tilney’s relationship to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, and to the themes of romance and moral education that intertwine in so many of Austen’s novels. The students’ commonplace books tend to exhibit vitality, energy, and good will that embodies many aspects of Jenkins’ participatory culture, a hallmark of our networked, Web 2.0 era, and a distinct contrast to the more hierarchical and elite publishing practices of Austen’s era.

28.        Digital pedagogies succeed at community-creation because they are, in fact, embodied learning practices, as I hope this article has shown. Hybrid assignments can illuminate forms of technology and labor precisely because they foreground the material conditions of reading and writing, including physical place, textuality, temporality, and economics. When students remix and otherwise make canonical texts their own, they open spaces to historicize technologies of textuality and in the process discover for themselves some differences between late eighteenth and early twenty-first century modes of life. Today, unlike Regency-era people, students rarely expect to produce the intellectual and recreational artifacts that occupy their time. Many of us are today passive consumers of cultural merchandise, but that is changing. Tumblr and other Web 2.0 platforms that encourage remixing and sharing cultural artifacts are part of a transformation that is taking place in parts of our society. While I distance myself from techno-utopians who imagine that internet technology is an unmixed social good, I do find that students bloom when their learning is connected to each other and to others on the web who share their interests. They also discover commonalities between Regency-era culture and their own lives that might otherwise remain unacknowledged.

Works Cited

Teaching with Commonplace Books.” This Gaudy Gilded Stage. 2007,, Accessed 4 Dec. 2016.

Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. George Justice. 4th ed., Norton, 2012, p. 28.

---. Persuasion. Ed Patricia Meyer Spacks. 2nd ed., Norton, 2013, p. 31.

---. Sense and Sensibility. Ed. Claudia L. Johnson., Norton, 2002, p. 127.

Barkats, Nikolai. “Darcy’s In Town.” Tumblr,, Accessed 4 Dec. 2016.

boyd, dannah. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Yale UP, 2014., Accessed 4 Dec. 2016.

Clifford, Erica. “Bread Pudding: A Socioeconomic Cultural Portrait.” YouTube. Accessed 4 Dec. 2016.

---. “Jane Reigns.” Tumblr,, Accessed 4 Dec. 2016.

Copeland, Edward. “Money.” Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, 2nd ed., Cambridge UP, 2011, pp. 127-43.

Goldstone, Andrew. “Commonplacing (Reading Response)”. 2012., Accessed 4 Dec. 2016. CC by-NC 3.0.

Harding, D.W, “Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen.” Regulated Hatred and Other Essays on Jane Austen. Ed. Monica Lawlor. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000.

Hogan, Bernie. “Pseudonyms and the Rise of the Real-Name Web.” A Companion to New Media Dynamics. Ed. John Hartley, Jean Burgess, Axel Bruns. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015, pp. 290-308.

Jenkins, Henry. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. MIT Press, 2009.

Koffi, Sara. “Austen-not-Texas.Tumblr,, Accessed 4 Dec. 2016.

Locke, John. Locke, John. A new method of making common-place-books. London: J. Greenwood, 1706. Houghton Library, Harvard University,, Accessed 03 Aug. 2015.

Looser, Devoney and Emily C. Friedman, eds. “Teaching Jane Austen.” Spec. issue of Romantic Circles Pedagogy Commons, Apr. 2015, Accessed 8 Aug. 2015.

Pasupathi, Vimala. “The Commonplace Book Assignment.” JITP: Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy,, Accessed 11 Mar. 2014.

Sanchéz, Elizabeth. “Bonnet Envy.” Tumblr,, Accessed 4 Dec. 2016.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.” Sense and Sensibility. ed. Claudia L. Johnson, Norton, 2001.

Shephard, Terrileigh. “Universal Truths.” Tumblr,, Accessed 4 Dec. 2016.

Stommel, Jesse. “Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Definition.” Hybrid Pedagogy, 2014, Accessed 6 Dec. 2015.

Taylor, Patricia. “Electronic Commonplace Book.” University of Connecticut First Year Writing Program. Accessed 3 Aug 2015., Accessed 4 Dec. 2016.

Wilson, Cheryl A. “Dancing with Jane Austen: History and Practice in the Classroom.Persuasions On-line v. 34, no.2, Spring 2014.


[1] I am grateful to the following students for their creativity and willingness to share digital commonplace books they created during “Jane Austen in Context,” Fall 2013, Whittier College (full citations above):Barkats, Nikolai. Clifford, Erica. Koffi, Sara. Sanchéz, Elizabeth. Shephard, Terrileigh. BACK

[2] Mr. Knightley to Mrs. Weston about Emma’s reading plans (Emma 28). BACK

[3] Adapted from Jade Davis, BACK

[4] This ball emerged as a student initiative, and they organized it themselves, including seeking funding from student government, assigning each other organizational responsibilities, learning dances to teach attendees, and sending out invitations. BACK

[5] This student chose to create an anonymous commonplace book, but, like all other students cited in this article, has since given me authorization to cite her by name for this article. BACK