Why Teach Romanticism? Reflections on Course Objectives

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Diedre, Eric and Crystal have all given compelling reasons for a contemporary "in" to Romantic literature. Diedre's stunning example of a student connecting "The Negro's Complaint" to poets in Singapore was complemented by her admission that she is "(still) a historicist critic." Crystal's argument that we should not let contemporary texts replace the focus of the course on "primary sources themselves," is an important rejoinder to keep historicism at the core of what teachers of the Romantic period do.

How do we, though, justify a Romantics course when we aren't primarily teaching survey or period courses? Is there, in other words, a purpose to teaching Romanticism that isn't contained within a historical survey?

Here's my reasoning.

At Georgia Tech, we are tasked to teach topical courses as what our program director calls a "vehicle" for introducing multimodal composition. We don't just teach writing at Georgia Tech, we also teach other modalities: oral, visual, electronic and non-verbal. Part of my interest in collaboration is the way that social media applications can provide exciting challenges to the traditional image of the English student isolated at a desk, reading poems and writing alone. I am convinced that teaching multimodality can open up new ways of approaching Romantic texts that are collaborative and creative.

As I prepare my Spring sections of "Blake 2.0: William Blake and Digital Culture," I am struck by the different projects that Blake helps to inspire in Twentieth-Century culture both within and without digital culture. In the collection I edited for the journal ImageTexT on "William Blake and Visual Culture," I found a comic artist named Joel Priddy who wanted to create a short comic on both the visionary travels of William and the relative sense of isolation Catherine felt during his reveries. He called his short "Mr. Blakes Company."

Similarly, the do it yourself (DIY) magazine Make recently published an article where Gareth Branwyn researched Joseph Viscomi's work to conduct a series of "Relief-Etching Experiments" designed to allow people to make prints using a close approximation of Blake's method. I find each project refreshing alternatives to the standard academic essay. Furthermore, I feel that each provides innovative ways to discuss the conjunction of participatory culture and collaboration, and the individualism embodied in both the myth of the Romantic genius and the DIY movement.

But I also feel that, should I engage in projects like these, I need to conceptualize the purpose of such projects. Do I really feel that the technical projects offered by Branwyn and Viscomi get me closer to Blake's technique and, thus, to Romantic-era printing? And if so, to what end? I'm not a commercial printer or a graphic designer. Do I have my students read Priddy's comic to get a better sense of how comic artists envision his domestic life? Why?

Obviously, I have many questions here. I do feel that the organization of my department, and its emphasis on creating multimodal forms of response to literary texts provides new opportunities for understanding just what we do when we teach Romanticism. I also like my students to feel that they are not simply critically analyzing a work, but that they are also actively engaging in a constructive response to the work. On some level, I like my students to get the sense that Romantic authors can give a set of practical guidelines for students' own work. At the same time, I'm not an MFA teacher.

I feel that Blake, along with many other artists in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, can provide an interesting case for a practical or a pragmatic pedagogy for the Romantic period. In my pragmatic model, the history of the period is only one part of Romantic education. Another part is finding a way to understand the reason why Blake inspires creative responses, and to engage in such responses in a thoughtful and critical way. I want my students to do something with William Blake, or other Romantic visual and literary artists.

Despite my attempt at a definition, I don't really have my pedagogy fully worked out. I would welcome any suggestions for improvement, either by making my project more historical or by making my project more "practical."

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