Teaching Romanticism Blog

Gustatory Romanticism Update

UPDATE (12/13/11)

Last night, the Gustatory Romanticists met for a dinner party and attempted to adhere to the "Man of Taste" virtues and follow the decorum dictated by our various cookery and social experts. (Food is always an incredible way to gather people.) After we dined on red-wine braised short ribs, challah bread, mango salad, black bean salad, apple butter & ginger cookies, egg salad, mashed potatoes, some good wine, we moved to the eggnog, brownies, and a synopsis of final projects.

Though this graduate course attempt to infuse a little of Digital Humanities with a GIS/mapping collaborative project (that fell through), it turns out that Digital Humanities methodologies were already natural to these graduate students. One participant produced a short video of Presumption (very well acted and produced!), another studied Angelica's Ladies Library (with the help of UC Boulder's Kirstyn Leuner and Google Books), another looked at erotica and pornography (but I won't show you those images!), another focused on botany and women, several others used research from various disciplines (theology, child psychology, etc.).

After this super fabulous array of projects was thoroughly discussed, I ventured to query them about other types of courses, perhaps even one on late 20th-21st Century writing. Anne Carson's Nox and Jonathan Safron Foer's Tree of Codes came up; after a quick look at the visual aspects of these books, we talked about a class that focused on history of the book to ground discussions about these two texts.  Hmmm.....  They also asked for a graduate course on the Gothic, or to take an undergraduate course on the Gothic. Since I'm teaching that course now and it won't come back for rotation for another 2 years, it looks like they're on their own. Our graduate program struggles somewhat with the number of courses we can offer; this means it's unlikely we could hold a course on the Gothic.  Hmm....but it's got me thinking.


Original Post:

We've concluded our semester in this crowd-sourced graduate course on Romanticism, gustatory pleasure, aesthetics, and travel. It was a wild ride. But, I found that we lapsed into the old readings and the old paradigms fairly quickly. The mapping assignment went away because I couldn't find us a computer lab. And, the participants really, really enjoyed literature that I thought they would surely hate (The Prelude, The Vindications, for example!).

In the end, I realize that I could have offered them a course on Gothic Romanticism or Feminist Romanticism to their delight (hindsight, you know).  But, we did do something that I've never done before: This semester, I began inviting students to my apartment for dinners. A regular group of students is doing some non-credit bearing work on the Beard-stair Project. I cook for them; they eat; we talk. Worked well. So I decided to try it with our Romantics participants -- after all, most of the literature that we're reading extols the virtues of communal food consumption.

I introduced the class to my personal collection of British and American literary annuals and their precursors. Most of them had already visited our Special Collections and heard me chat about history of the book and New Historicism as methodologies for some intriguing research.

booksWe spent an evening noshing in my apartment and gathered around my coffee table littered with only half of my private collection. The only imperative was to read, wander, query through the books and talk to one another. To focus some of their searching, I supplied them with the Faxon and Boyle bibliographies (one with a list of authors, the other with bibliographic descriptions of literary annuals). They read through my PBSA article femininity and the material object as well as a draft of my forthcoming collection of Gothic short stories from British literary annuals. I lamented the fact that we don’t have an adequate database of all the poetry, fiction, non-fiction, images, title pages, authors, publishers, etc. of the literary annuals. Looking at the books sitting on my coffee table was daunting when I asked them to dig in.  Where do they start?

We used the Poetess Archive Database and the Forget Me Not Archive to search for famous authors or other poetry of the same theme. One student found a very unflattering engraving of Byron (which dashed all of their thoughts about his attractiveness). Others found references to Shakespeare intriguing within a severely truncated playbook of Romantic-era productions. Yet others found silly poetry and insipid engravings. But, we were traversing these literary annuals as a moment to decipher this concept of aesthetics, taste, pleasure, leisure in the Romantic Era. Who decides the literariness of Literature? Are there some gems buried in the annuals? (My answer is, yes, unequivocally.) And what’s the difference between reading these poems and writings in an anthology versus read them in their original? (We had to haul in extra light so everyone could read.)

I’m not quite sure how they perceived that day’s gathering or the efficacy of handling this type of collection. But, the final projects (as they’ve hinted at so far) are really interesting, far-reaching, exploratory, and a good portion delving into New Historicism strategies coupled with close readings. And a good time was had by all....

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Mid-Semester Round-up

Though it may or may not technically be mid-semester where you are, here in the Valley we've just sailed through Fall Break, have had mid-semester reports requested, stared down a few stacks of papers, and the leaves are still pondering a color change. We thought it might be try a new format, a few recent posts on technology, pedagogy, and the classroom from around the interwebs. If you have another favorite post or site from the past month or so, please do pass it along.

Mark Sample on reading Frankenstein aloud. A practical guide and reflection on how reading prose aloud might help enhance classroom discussion and analysis.

Barry Mills in Inside Higher Ed on "The Challenge of Technology." His comments are very apropos of Roger Whitsun's recent post here on teaching in a library and the information deluge we face as teachers and as students.

As many of you probably saw, Diane Hoeveler's NASSR-l request for suggestions on a Romanticism and Religion graduate course initiated a bevy of responses, and she kindly compiled the suggestions in a Word doc, which I've re-posted here as well.

Bridge Draxler talks about Using Twitter to help with thesis statements over at HASTAC.

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Biography in the Romantic Literature Classroom

I’ve just now had the chance to read Heather Jackson’s engaging essay “What’s Biography Got to Do With It?” in the June 2011 ERR (this was her plenary at the 2010 NASSR, a conference I sadly had to miss; from the papers in ERR, it looks like it was extraordinary!). I’d been meaning to get to this article since the issue arrived and I’m glad I finally did. Jackson looks back at the world of Romantic-era literary biography in order to think about why our own students (and the general public) often seem so stubbornly invested in talking about writers’ lives when we want them to talk about literary works, and she comes up with some provocative answers—for instance:

What we normally think of as literary biography, the large-scale, original, comprehensive, authored account of a writer’s life, has less to do with the evolution of any writer’s reputation than you might think, but the short, derivative, introductory, often anonymous summary that appears in prefaces and works of reference has more. […] When we ask why readers are not satisfied with the works just as they come and why they turn to biographical sources when they want more — why biography should be the default solution —we have […] the fact that ancient prefatory traditions have always organized information that way and thereby formed a habit that it may be impossible to break. (370)

“Is that a problem?,” Jackson wonders. I’ve been thinking myself a good deal about the role of biography in our (my) teaching of Romanticism, and it’s been a topic particularly on my mind this week: the bookstore’s been nagging me for the booklist for the honors seminar on “Romantic Lives” I’m teaching this spring, and we’ve just been doing The Prelude in my graduate British Romanticism seminar and “Tintern Abbey” in my undergraduate Romantic Poetry survey, so the idea, or problem, of the authorial life has been front and center in our discussions and in my planning for class. Reading Jackson’s essay prompts me to post some of my own thinking on the topic here, and to invite readers of this blog to conversation: what role does the biography of writers—either biography as a literary genre, or the idea of the writer’s life—play in your teaching of Romanticism? How is the writer’s life, or even the writer as personality or character, an element of the way you present the writer’s work to your students, or the interpretative frames you put into play? Do you assign biographies, or teach biography or autobiography as a genre, or talk about how and why the writer’s life became an object of interest? How do you deal with the power of mythic versions of author’s lives? How do you combat the rush to Wikipedia or other internet capsule biography as an answer to anything and everything?

Like many of us I'm sure, I find myself often frustrated by the way students wield as very blunt instruments supposed biographical “facts” they’ve gotten by googling, or heard from friends, or vaguely remembered from high school. What disturbs me is not so much the recourse to biography itself as the eagerness to reduce not only the complexity of the work, but also the complexity of the writer’s life, to a single determining biographical fact or myth. It’s strange, really, that students can imagine anyone’s life in the monodimensional terms in which they sometimes seem to imagine the lives of the authors they read. This retreat from complexity is no doubt partly an anxiousness about the work of interpretation (they're worried they don't know how to do it) but it also has parallels in the media attention given to each latest diagnosis granting a long-dead writer or artist a medical or psychological condition that “explains” his or her “genius”—an impulse to pathologize and explain away creativity that reflects both a lack of imagination and a fear of imagination. Still, I’ve come increasingly to think that in answer to what Jackson calls “our biographical woes in the classroom” (365) we need more biography in the classroom, not less. If students too often rely on reductive biographical readings, it might be because they don’t have enough exposure to more sophisticated, complex versions of biography, nor enough experience with more nuanced understandings of the interactions of life and text. In other words, if students are all too eager to fall back on biographical fallacy or weak biographical criticism, this might be an effect of the institutionalization (at the high school as well as college level) of a pedagogy so hyperanxious about the possibility of biographical contamination that it pretends to rule biography itself out of court. I say pretends because the author’s life persists as an organizing principle of our pedagogy in many often unacknowledged ways, as Jackson argues, and because of course we don’t presume any such strict separation of biography and criticism in our own work as critics. In our effort to convince students not to read everything as directly self-expressive, we give them the confusing message that the author’s life isn’t something to be read.

Curiosity about writers' lives isn't a bad thing for students to have if they know how to research those lives capably, if they can understand that writers were real people—and so not fully "knowable"—living in real historical circumstances different from their own, and if they can recognize that the authorial personality they imagine they encounter or the authorial voice they imagine they hear is a fiction, a product of specific reception histories and of particular desires and needs (their own, the writer's, a culture's). So how then to help students become more savvy about the uses of biography, and how to make curiosity about the author’s life work for us, as teachers of literature?  Here, we have an advantage as Romanticists, since so many Romantic literary works blur the boundaries between life and text in ways we can use to get students asking better questions about how life and work connect. For example: Frankenstein refuses straightforwardly autobiographical readings yet on so many levels seems to refract or transpose aspects of Mary Shelley’s own experience as writer, mother, daughter, and wife—and then reflects in such complicated ways on the problem of telling, or hearing, a life story—that it can lead marvelously into rich discussions of the complexity of the competing pressures Shelley experienced and the complicated nature of the way autobiography is woven, along with many other strands of meaning, into the web of the novel. Don Juan’s extraordinary along these lines as well. Conversely, explicitly autobiographical texts such as The Prelude or “Lines...Tintern Abbey” gain in significance for students when they think about the choices (of genre, of emphasis or omission, of language) the poet makes in presenting experience in a particular, public form, and when they come to see the poem as an argument about what that experience has been and what it means. This helps them shake their biographical literalism. In teaching “Tintern Abbey,” I usually foreground the dialogue with “Frost at Midnight,” and we consider Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal writing alongside these poems to help students think about public and private modes of writing the self.

I agree with Heather Jackson’s suggestion that students would benefit from a greater familiarity with biography as a literary genre, and I think full-length biographies of writers can be a useful contextualizing tool. In some smaller seminars, I’ve experimented with asking students to choose from among a list of modern biographies of writers we’re reading; in the assignments I give them for reports on these biographies, I ask them to pay attention to formal and rhetorical aspects of the biography, and we compare how different biographers represent the same episodes from a subject’s life. The goal is to have the students understand biography as representation, interpretation, and argument, rather than something simply to be mined for facts. The better biographies also gave students a vivid sense of the historical and intellectual contexts of the writers we were studying, and a sense of their existence in a particular time and place.  In larger classes, I’ve found myself using more biographical anecdotes about writers—which can feel kind of donnish, but which works both to help situate the writers in a historical context and as a lure for students, who might then feel engaged by the idea of the writer as a person who works through, in his or her writing, particular sets of more or less urgent personal and political and philosophical concerns, even if not necessarily in the mode of self-expression.

However, I still find all of this kind of tricky. There’s a part of me that’s very uneasy about giving authorial personality too much presence in the classroom, even if it’s in a more deconstructive mode emphasizing the textualization of the life. There’s the recognition that neither as an undergrad nor in grad school was I ever actually assigned even an excerpt from a biography as far as I can recall, so now I feel a bit on shaky ground when I try to do it. There’s the problem of time on the syllabus and in class discussion: how can we squeeze it all in? There’s the risk that students will still reach for biography as reductive explanation, or that they’ll want to turn class discussion into a debate, daytime-talk-show-style, on whether the writers we’re studying were good or appealing people, or that we’ll be reinforcing mythologies of the author or of genius. Then there’s what I’ve come to think of as the “five summers with the length of five long winters” problem—if you're teaching, say, "Tintern Abbey," practically speaking, in the limited discussion time you have, what do you do to describe that five-year gap? Do you talk about the gap between WW’s first visit and his return solely in terms given by the poem itself (entirely possible and effective)? Do you talk about the gap by discussing his evolving philosophical or political thinking in biographical terms, or do you place the poem in wider intellectual or cultural contexts? Do you talk about what he did and where he was specifically in those five years—how literal do you get about the “lonely rooms” or the “fretful stir/unprofitable” (in my experience, students often ask for more detail here)? Do you emphasize the historical resonances of the date (e.g., Corday/Marat)? Ideally, one pulls together these various registers, so that students can think about how Wordsworth negotiates a relationship between his life and broader sweeps of history. When that works, it’s great, but it’s hard not to feel like either the individual life or the historical sweep gets the short end of the stick. And I haven’t yet taken on a class where we talk substantially about the history of literary biography—though that will come in the spring, with the “Romantic Lives” class, and I'm wondering how it will work. More on that upcoming class--and on this topic--soon, I hope.

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Teaching Romanticism in a...Library?

This past August I was hired by Emory University as a Mellon Fellow for their Digital Scholarship Commons (DiSC). The Commons is funded by a grant, and is charged with increasing the opportunities for digital scholarship on campus. We also help develop two large-scale digital projects per semester. This semester, for example, we are involved in "Lynching in Georgia 1875-1930" (a project chronicling the many lynchings that took place in the state of Georgia) and "Commonwealth" (an update to the Postcolonial Theory website maintained by Emory University).

All of these developments are extremely exciting for me, and yet I have wrestled with the problem of what it means to teach Romanticism in my current position. My role as a Fellow doesn't cancel out my identity as a Romanticist. As one of my colleagues says "I'm a historian, who just happens to work in a library." Well, I am a Romanticist who just happens to work in a library. I don't teach formally, but I also feel that what it means to "teach" is being questioned in a University that simply hasn't recognized how radically social media has already changed education.

One of the things I mentioned in the job talk for my current position is that the role of the librarian has to change as well. The library is often seen as a place where knowledge is held, where professionals help students and academics find the knowledge they need. It's an important space, but a space nonetheless. What would it mean, I asked my audience, to think of the librarian as an advocate for digital scholarship? as someone who sits on dissertation committees or tenure and review boards? as someone who teaches?

I'm not someone who thinks that disciplinarity is over, yet I also feel that the future will force many of us to think of disciplinarity in novel ways. And I also feel that something dramatic happened in 2006 when Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig can created H-Bot, a computer that can answer basic history questions with Google. H-Bot, they claimed, makes multiple-choice tests obsolete.

So I write this post for two reasons. First, a provocation: what sort of role do teachers, and specifically teachers of Romanticism, take when many answers are available to students anytime and anywhere? Second, a reflection on my current delimma: what does it mean that I, a digital humanist and Romanticist working at the library, participate in the teaching of Romanticism? I hope to use the next series of blog posts, with conversations sparked along the way, to help answer that question.

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Gustatory Romanticism Course Begins!

The Romanticism course that you all helped to craft is live online and scheduled for its second meeting on Monday:

Course Description: The newly-established restaurant quickly became the preferred meeting place where critics, poets, artists, authors of the British Romantic Era discussed aesthetic standards. Then, they travelled abroad on the Grand Tour to discover the gustatory delights of foreign lands. Some returned from exotic locales with opium-induced, waking nightmares. Others indulged in dinner, opera, and artwork. Denise Gigante attributes this zest for taste to a quest for pleasure, a state of mind that the Romantics decidedly embraced. During the semester, we will read through, look at, map, and visualize the journey of the Romantic literary “(Wo)Man of Taste” through canonical and non-canonical authors alike, including Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Mary and Percy Shelley, Coleridge, DeQuincy, Wollstonecraft, Byron, Keats, Clare, Hogg, with quite a bit of visual pleasure included from Gilpin, Combe, Rowlandson, and Blake – all to reveal the relationship between aesthetic taste and appetite in Britain 1770-1837. Our discussions will be governed by Denise Gigante's theories of gustatory pleasures and supported by readings on the sublime, picturesque, and beautiful early in the semester -- in turn, leading us into the establishment of physical gustatory pleasures of taste in contrast against artistic definitions of literary taste. After an initial meeting in which we crowd-sourced what the students want to read, the schedule came together with primarily non-fiction essays and Shelley's Frankenstein as the pinnacle of our travel rewards. (Though some requested lots of Blake, some Charlotte Smith sonnet sequences, I couldn't quite get them to fit into our theme.) Our final days will be spent reading actual gourmands who were writing during the Romantic period -- most definitely authors outside our canonical Big 6.

The initial description and title for this graduate course were crowd-sourced via my Twitter community, made up of Romanticists and Digital Humanists, as well as the grand community of former NEH participants in Summer 2010.  As the semester moves along, I will regularly post to Teaching Romanticism: A Romantic Circles Pedagogy Blog, since that community was also helpful in crafting this course.

Since Digital Humanities and interesting digital projects are part of my work, I queried the students about introducing a mapping project similar to the project described in Erin Sells’ article on ProfHack/Chronicle of Higher Education about “Mapping Novels with GoogleEarth.” I couldn't obtain adequate computer lab time to create a mapping project for our class, but I left a single day open to see if we could make it happen. That project will collaborative and class-driving; I'm not even sure it will be graded. This is another area that I'd like to leave open to the course participants to discuss/decide. In any event, the mapping project (say of The Grand Tour by Mary Wollstonecraft, Wordsworth, or the Shelleys) would be really incredible to visualize. Also, these are teachers and teachers-in-training. Giving them permission to be creative and then providing them with the skills to take these kinds of projects to their students is the real-world kind of skills that I believe our program should be offering our students.


Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 2nd ed. Ed. Susan Wolfson. Longman, 2007.
Mellor Anne and Richard Matlak. British Literature 1780-1830. Wadsworth, 2005.
Gigante, Denise. Taste: A Literary History. Yale, 2005.
Gigante, Denise, ed. Essential Writings in Nineteenth-Century Gastronomy. Routledge, 2005.

Check out our Reading Schedule.

I invite comments and contributions (or anyone want to Skype in on any night?)

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Digital Pedagogy and Student Interaction: An Interview

The following interview was originally conducted by the Day of the Digital Humanities event hosted by the University of Alberta. I'm reposting it on Teaching Romanticism to give a sense of how digital pedagogy informs my own teaching. I don't really talk all that much about Romanticism, or even William Blake, until the end of the interview. I do think, however, that this interview provides an interesting look into the ways digital technology impacts our students and how they view digital assignments and applications like Twitter and blogs in the classroom.

The two students who participated in the interview, Pamelasara Head and Farhan Begh, lead class for the day. They were asked to research a topic (in their case William Blake’s influence on the practice of psychogeography), articulate a lesson plan with outcomes, then lead the class discussing their topic. I feel this model (along with my insistence that students tweet at least three times per class period) represents a form of digital humanities that places building a networked classroom environment as a central priority.

RW: We’ve been playing with various digital and social technologies in the classroom. How do you feel these technologies, and social media in general, have changed society?

PH: I think about this question in terms of online dating. When you date someone you have to really open yourself up to that person. With online dating, though, you have an easier time. You can talk to someone without worrying (as much) if they are going to reject you.

FB: Right, that’s my thought. You don’t have to confront the person in person. So, you might express something in the digital environment that you wouldn’t express in real life. I think this really changes dating because, as Pam said, it becomes easier but maybe it’s more difficult in another way to really get to know someone. After all, if you don’t see a person and talk to them, how can you really know if they like you?

RW: What about the digital environment do you feel really changes the stakes of online activities, like dating?

FB: For me, privacy and anonymity is key. In an online site, I can say stuff anonymously (at least to a degree). Either I can use a username that doesn’t really reflect my own name, or I can talk to people who I’ll never really meet in real life – so there aren’t any consequences. But it also gives you more pressure. You have this pressure to have more of an edge, to say something that is more radical or controversial than other people who are talking.

PH: Yeah, I’ve been studying personality theory recently, and personality theory says that how you act changes based upon the situational context. So, in a digital environment, it’s a totally different environment where there are different social rules. As people, we adapt to those different environments.

RW: How do you feel this change effects education? Is it a positive change? A negative one?

FB: I feel it’s mostly positive. You have more interaction, and digital technology gives you a more efficient way to interact. The internet gives you notifications all of the time. And more interaction furthers your knowledge and your opportunity to connect with other people.

PH: I agree. I get all of these updates on my smartphone almost instantaneously. If I need to meet with a study group, and I have an accident and break my leg or whatever, I can let them know immediately.

RW: And that would simply not be possible even five years ago.

PH: Right. And I think I’m unique because I didn’t even really start Facebook until recently. And even now I don’t really use it. But I have it there if I need it. And I think that’s really the advantage. You can connect with people whenever you want, so you have less of a chance to be late or to miss someone or have someone wonder where you are.

RW: Well, how does this impact attention? You know, many scholars have argued that the kind of deep attention needed for truly understanding a subject is much more difficult in an age where there is so much diversion: i.e. Facebook being open all of the time.

PH: Certain people do give into a Facebook addiction. My roommate has to check her Facebook every 10 minutes, and when she has a deadline – she actually gets someone to change her password so she doesn’t get too distracted. She changes her password several times a month! But, as I said earlier, I don’t really use Facebook all that much. So, I don’t really feel addicted or distracted.

FB: Well, I think you have to think about this issue not just in terms of Facebook but also other things like online television or newssites.

PH: Right! And it obviously goes back further than Facebook. Like when you watch television, you have commercials every 15 minutes. At least every 15 minutes, and it’s becoming such that less and less time exists between commercial breaks. People don’t watch commercials on TV, so we’ve trained ourselves not to pay attention every 15 minutes. I know people who can’t really pay attention for more than 15 minutes at a time, and they tell me it’s because they are so used to watching television this way.

RW: Let’s get more specific. How do you feel that this change in attention, in communication and in accessibility transforms the study and teaching of literature? In my class, for example, we have a constant Twitter backchannel to the class. Did you use Twitter in High school?

PH: No, no. I feel much more comfortable in your class than I did in high school, or even when I took English 1101 last semester. [Note: English 1101 is the freshman English course at Georgia Tech, and is followed by English 1102. Both of these courses are themed and my theme for 1102 was a course designed around adaptations of Blake.] In 1101, we used technology but not during class. We weren’t allowed to have our computers open during class. I feel that being able to use Twitter makes your class a more calming and relaxing environment. It’s okay to tweet your ideas about something and either be right or be wrong. It doesn’t matter what I say personally, because I know that someone will respond to me and correct me if he or she feels I need to be corrected. And I learn something rather than spend so much time worried that I'm not right.

FB: I agree. There is an ease in your class. We get to share our opinions on Twitter and on the web. On the other hand, I do notice that people are on other sites and are totally unaware of what you are teaching because they are reading Facebook or CNN.com or their email. There’s definitely more attention in a class that has no computer technology or doesn’t allow students to tweet. Further, I feel that about ½ of the class really sticks to Twitter and ½ of the class doesn’t really use it all that much.

RW: Why do you feel that some people don’t tweet? In regular classrooms, people sometimes don’t participate because they haven’t read the material, because they are shy, or other reasons. But it seems that people who are shy will use social media like Twitter because there is less pressure. So why are some people not Tweeting?

PH: I think some people just haven’t used it all that much. And I feel that some people get really uncomfortable multitasking. If they can’t listen and tweet at the same time, they felt that they’re going to miss something that will lower their grade later on.

FB: I feel that there are some people who participate in the oral conversation so much that they don’t feel they need to participate.

RW: Do you feel that knowing these technologies really gives you useful skills? The old adage of writing classrooms is that everyone needs to know how to write in order to be successful after graduation. Is the same true of Twitter, blogs and the other technologies we use in class?

PH: People should have experience with multiple types of communication. As technology accelerates, people are going to need to know how to move from one technology to another. And, it’s difficult, sure, but you need to get experience doing it.

FB: Right, you definitely have to keep up with the rate of technology. If you are programming with an old programming language, then you’ll have no idea what’s going on.

PH: For example, I’m currently applying for a summer internship, and people tell me that I need to show that I can use things like PowerPoint, Word, that I can code and use other basic digital technologies. Writing is great, and it’s definitely important, but it’s just not sufficient anymore.

RW: The idea seems to be that you need to be flexible. My parents, if they went to college, could pretty much guarantee that they have a stable career, once they graduate, for the rest of their lives. But that just doesn’t seem possible anymore.

PH: Well, I want to definitely be a geneticist for the rest of my life. I want to get a Ph.D. and run a lab. Maybe I’ll work in different research facilities or do different research, but I hope I won’t have to completely change my career during my lifetime.

FB: I think about it in terms of what Michael Crichton talks about in connection with Darwin’s theory of the edge of a cliff. So, he talks about this in Jurassic Park and in other books. We’re on this edge of a cliff and we have to adapt to everything that is thrown in our way. The dinosaurs didn’t adapt, and they died out. But if we don’t adapt to everything, we’ll be over the cliff. So, we basically have to keep changing ourselves just to exist.

RW: It’s very interesting because another group presented on William Blake and Web 2.0 the other day. And they argued that an essential part of Web 2.0 was filtering huge amounts of information. It made me think: isn’t that what we’re learning in this class? Blake’s particularly interesting because so many of his poems are really confusing. But it seems like he overloads us with information and we have to learn strategies for filtering that information.

PH: I think you’re right. Every time I look at a Blake poem I see something different. And we read all of these people who see different things in Blake. So, the interesting thing here is that we’re almost teaching each other to adapt to the huge amount of information we encounter every day just by reading Romantic poetry.

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Putting Together my Fall Class: Visualizing 19th Century British Poetry

Inspired by Katherine's discussion of her graduate class, I decided to chart the development of my fall 1102 undergraduate class. I'd appreciate suggestions on readings, projects, etc. The course deals with the entire 19th century, not just the Romantic period and was developed in conversation with Leeann Hunter. I'm planning on having this class be a paperless class, so any reading has to be available for free online.

Visualizing Nineteenth-Century British Poetry
The literature and arts of the nineteenth century were highly engaged in questions of vision and visuality. In this course, students will study poets and artists who contributed to the evolution of British visual culture, from the poetry of the picturesque and the sublime to the poetry of decadence and the grotesque. Along the way, we will examine how various visual artists imagined the poetry of the nineteenth century.  Projects will include a visual picturesque narrative, a multimodal analysis of poems and their illustrations, and a video reimagining a single poem from the course.

Currently, I'm looking at Wordsworth, Gilpin, Blake, Byron, Charlotte Smith, the Rossettis, Swinburne, Edith Nesbit, Arthur Symons, Aubrey Beardsley, and Tennyson. However, I'm still in the early stages of thinking through this course.

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New Graduate Course Help

This Fall, I'm teaching a graduate course in Romanticism. The last time I offered a graduate course (2 years ago on William Wordsworth), it was cancelled for low enrollment (only 7 signed up; I needed at least 10). This means that an entire generation of our MA graduate students haven't had any Romantic-era literature for their comprehensive exams. (The last class I taught in the graduate program was in 2008 and that was on Madness & Romanticism, based on an article I wrote for an Alexander Street Press database.) Most of the time, I hear them say that they had a Romantic-era survey in undergrad and don't need a grad course in Blake, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, or Coleridge to pass the exams. Grad courses specifically do not cater to the comprehensive exams, but it's been difficult erasing this culture from our program.  They will take a Victorian course and read all of Middlemarch and 3 or 4 Dickens novels, but Romanticism falls flat. For the Fall, I have no shame; I will resort to bribery and pop culture-isms to attract students to this course.

Yes, dear Teaching Romanticism Collection, I am asking for your help. I want to teach a course on the development of aesthetics in Romantic-era literature -- based on the summer NEH seminar with Stephen Behrendt. The readings will be based on those from the seminar plus any travel diaries, travelogues, ships' manifestos, letters that involve this idea of travel. The title:

Eat, Look, Go": Romanticism, Aestheticism, and the Sensualism of Travel

All of the usual suspects appear in the primary reading (MWS, PBS, STC, WW, DW, MW) but who else? Any suggestions? Perhaps we could create a map of their travel (staying with the digital theme that I typically incorporate). Or maybe I should kick it old school and just have them read, interact with the literature.  I'm not quite sure how to get eating in there, too.

Any suggestions?

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The inheritance of classroom culture

A recent episode of This American Life includes the account of David MacLean, who loses his memory in India. It's a terrific story for many reasons, and want to pick up on a detail that comes up along the way.

Having regained some of his memories and visited his family in Ohio, MacLean returns to his apartment in India.

I was alone, and lonelier than I thought I could be in a room filled with things that I had selected. There were books. I opened them and found my handwriting in the margins. Still nothing. I had read these books. And now I had to read them again. But why bother? If I lost my memory again, all that work would be futile.

I have a related feeling about undergraduate teaching, at the level of the class rather than of the individual. With greater and lesser degrees of tinkering, I use most of my syllabi at least twice, sometimes more. The first group of students and I spend a semester reading together, developing a slow-developing conversation in which we compile a set of shared readings of passages, understandings of how each person in the room reacts to texts, and so forth: a collective version of MacLean's marginalia, some of it recorded (in papers, message board conversations, and so forth), most of it not.

The next group of students, however, inherits none of that classroom culture, and to me, starting the new class feels like forgetting. I appreciate the pleasures of discoveries that feel new; for example, I love watching class after class find their own ways of talking about the narration of Wuthering Heights as a function of Lockwood's relationship to Ellen Dean. But must we forget everything a class has learned when the semester break comes? I wonder whether our courses can, like Keats's "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," recognize the wonder of "first looking" while also prizing the community implied by appreciating what has come before.

Our current practices enforce forgetting. Grinnell, for instance, is a Blackboard school; as far as I know, that software has no way to pass message board discussions from one group of students to another. Even if it could, institutional protections of student privacy would raise serious barriers to such sharing.

What, then, do I need to cultivate a new approach that allows both for new insight and for inherited classroom culture, that allows for the celebration of primary and secondary discovery?

My main answer is this: to be the teacher I want to be, I need to become a better computer programmer. I need to be able to create environments where students can record their learning, share it, build on it, structure it so that it welcomes and grows from the participation of their successors. I also need to work with institutional authorities to make good-faith sharing of academic thoughts easy for students and professors.

My first, modest effort to create this effect involved The Transatlantic 1790s, a database-backed site created by a small group of students and me (they writing content, I writing code) in 2004. The following year, a seminar read some of those students' work and contributed to the site's bibliography as part of the work the class. That all went well enough to make me want to do more: with more skill and experience, I could routinely bring together the learning of students in multiple classes, and then the learning of others, to inspire the cultural evolution that stems from inherited thoughts.

What happens when a group of students can recall the work of previous students they may not have met? I look forward to finding out.

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Frankenstein, Encore! (Or not?)

I , like Katherine, have also been teaching Frankenstein, in my case in the “Romantic Poetry and Prose” survey I’ve been conducting since September. It’s hard to imagine a version of that course that could dispense with Frankenstein.

For a start, the novel itself enacts a kind of retrospective postmortem on the Romantic period, with its quotations from “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Tintern Abbey” and Percy Shelley’s “Mutability.” At this stage in the academic year, I’m urging my students to look back and survey the literary history we’ve covered and, wonderfully, Shelley herself can look to be doing just wht I’m asking them to do.

Frankenstein is also--as all of us who have taught it know-- capable of seeming forever timely and relevant. This year, in my lecturing I followed, as I often do, the many scholars who have described the novel as Mary Shelley’s critique of the myth of solitary authorship and individual genius --a critique she enacts in the 1831 Preface especially as her recollections of the group ghost story contest, the books that fell into their hands that inspired it, the conversations about science to which she was “a devout but nearly silent listener,” all combine to diffuse authorial authority and sideline singular identities. (Mary Favret’s chapter on Frankenstein Romantic Correspondence still strikes me as the indispensable interpretation of Shelley’s project in these terms.) But this year I was able to refer to the film “The Social Network” as mounting a similar critique while it traces the lawsuits that call into question an account of Facebook as Mark Zuckenberg’s “baby” and nobody else’s. And, of course, rather more grimly, in thinking about Shelley as prescient critic of the costs of scientific progress my students couldn’t help but draw connections to the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan.

BUT . . . I also feel very slightly suspicious of my own attachment to the novel and worried about how often it’s taught in all manner of courses (with the result that very few of my students this year were Frankenstein-virgins.) So here is my question: what other novels do readers of this Blog assign or refer to alongside Romantic-period poems? What route do others take to supply the Prose for Romantic Poetry and Prose classes? In the autumn term I taught Castle Rackrent--a tonic dose of irony to offset all the sincerity of 1790s verse!. There are also great connections to be made, I think, between Edgeworth’s Preface and Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads. But Edgeworth didn’t shape our subsequent discussions the way it’s clear Shelley will be shaping them.

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