Text.Play.Space : Creative Online Activities in English Studies
University of Wolverhampton, UK
This case study offers an account of some creative-critical online activities which appear as part of a portfolio of assessed online activities on an undergraduate course on the Victorians at the University of Wolverhampton. The activities are briefly described, and examples of how well students can respond to them are given. I argue that this kind of activity can only really work online and wouldn't in a face-to-face situation, and is thus one way that e-learning can open up new pedagogic possibilities in English Studies.
E-learning can enhance and expand both what and how we teach. The corollary of this is that it can also offer students new ways to learn. For the past three years I've been involved in using a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) as an integrated part of two third-level undergraduate modules I teach on the Victorians as part of the English Studies degree at the University of Wolverhampton. Students come to these courses knowing that there is going to be an online component, and also knowing that the work they do online is going to be assessed. Over a twelve-week teaching term the students take part in a number of online activities which follow on from the topics, discussions and debates that have started in the face-to-face classroom. Although the students all act as individuals in their responses to these activities, and are assessed as such, the space where they demonstrate their learning online is a collaborative one in Discussion Forums set up for each exercise. I repeatedly emphasise to the class and my assessment criteria support this--that they will be given credit not only for what they post in response to any given task, but also for how they interact with and respond to the postings of others. In this short case study I want to focus in particular on one kind of online activity that I have been able to bring into the mix. These have a different and distinctive feel to them, and that is because they ask for a kind of imaginative creativity as a way of demonstrating literary-critical knowledge.
Elaine Showalter says in the opening pages of Teaching Literature that she would like to see 'an erosion of the boundaries between literary criticism and creative writing' in twenty-first century teaching, and Veronica Austen has noted recently that 'rarely do students in literature courses have the opportunity to experience producing their own creative work.'(1) The following activities inhabit, and contribute to creating that creative-critical territory. In a majority of my online activities students enter Discussion Forums as themselves, but it is of course possible to be other then oneself in online space. You don't only--or even--need to enter a virtual world such as Second Life in order to take on an avatar or role-playing function in cyberspace. It is perfectly possible within a VLE, and the ludic and identity-swopping possibilities of subjectivity online can be harnessed to educational ends.
On the 'Victorian Vision: Literature and Culture c. 1830-1880' module, 'The Dickens Debate' is our online session which follows from an in-class consideration of Bleak House. The session guidelines inform the class that they are going to participate in a debate with the motion 'This House Believes that the Law is an Ass'. However, the distinctive difference from previous online sessions thus far on the course is that for this activity each and every student must enter the Discussion Forum as a character from the novel and respond to the motion, and everyone else who enters the Forum as such. Here's an example of what can happen:
Miles, Rosie @ 23/11/2006 12:52:49
Well, frankly, I believe that it is quite preposterous that you should even think of asking me such a question. Being the child that I am, I believe that any consideration of the law and the ethics which surround it is to grand an idea for my simple mind. And using such choice language to one so young is in fact quite uncalled for. I hope you are ashamed of yourself Dr Miles.
Quigley, Dominic @ 23/11/2006 16:27:40
Hey Mr Skimpole!
Ain't it a shame the law's an ass for us children -- as un' calls me sometimes an' as ye call y'self? Ye think t' law isn't an ass, as it doesn't punish ye for being a crook, for so ye are, wisher may die if ye're not!!!! I c'n be called a child, I dunnot know nothink, but I'm no thief!!!! Ye too moved me on!!!!! Ye're no child, ye dunnot understand children!
Schwab, Annie @ 24/11/2006 15:48:46
Lemme add the law is an ass, as it does nothink fur children like you an' fur children like me!!!!!
Schwab, Annie @ 24/11/2006 15:50:11
Sorry child, I would love to hear what you have to say but I can't actually understand what you are on about. Hang on, you look familiar? Are you the child with the smallpox? Aaaaah! Get away from me. I am obviously sympathetic to your affliction but please for the love of God stay away from me. Would money help? Well here is a shilling. Actually I am out of pocket at the moment. Mr Jarndyce..... Where are you....?
Quigley, Dominic @ 24/11/2006 16:53:42
I simply have scorn for these crooks, these mean villains who bother me with questions about people I ought to have met, about letters I ought to have read... The law is an ass indeed and Tulkinghorn is a true representative of that kind.
Jacquot, Emilie A. @ 23/11/2006 16:58:46
Ah--I see we agree on something at last Lady Dedlock! Though having cast me aside with no thought for what might become of me, you seem to feel that you are above the law.
You are a woman with no heart, and you need to be made to feel like some of us who have lost everything! I would like to see you rot in some stinking prison cell waiting for an execution which befits the type of woman you really are -- yes?
Conway, Naomi J. @ 23/11/2006 19:53:19
Oh, Mademoiselle Hortense, how dare you talk like that to a woman who was kind to you during so many years? You criticize her but you are not better: you betrayed her because of jealousy. Believe me: hatred and anger can just lead to suffering and unhappiness. Forget your resentment. And if I were you, I wouldn't rely on the law to get a revenge. You have time to die before the law coming to a decision. Look at my poor Richard: the more he works for the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce case, the less results he gets.
Comte, Melanie @ 23/11/2006 22:22:13
Madame I could not have been jealous of a young inexperienced girl had I not been cruelly cast aside. You say How dare I speak to a lady who was kind to me for so many years. Chut! You, I know, are a kind lady and probably treat your young maid with kindness and compassion. However, I say to you -- you do not know how cold and unfeeling Lady Dedlock can be. I only betrayed her, because she betrayed me.
One thing though -- you are correct when you speak of the law being so slow -- those pigs in chancery are no better qualified than you or I to play with people's lives and emotions the way they do.
Conway, Naomi J. @ 24/11/2006 22:31:09
Poor Hortense, you are so passionate and wild! If YOU had a heart you would not have helped Tulkinghorn, this wretch, to find out my secret. If YOU had been a good maid, you would not have troubled me even if I may have been unfair with you. Rosa is so young, so beautiful, she could have been my...you know what I mean. If YOU had thought about it twice, maybe you would have realised that the law is an ass, not because you are sent to jail for a murder, but because I am locked in depair in my own body, not able to say anything because the Law would not learn my secret without my entire family being dishonoured. Am I to be called a criminal for what I have done?? Dites-moi, mademoiselle Hortense...
Jacquot, Emilie A. @ 23/11/2006 22:23:01
Eh bien Madame -- may I say that if you had once treated me as a confidante, as I was in my previous post by a most gentile lady in Paris, I may have found out something about this -- locked in despair in your own body. How poetic you are Madame, how …eloquent is it you English say, yes?
I will now speak plain to you Madame -- that is, on the subject of you being a criminal for what you have done. Ecoutez-bien! I care not a bit for what you have done -- you are not the first self-made lady to fall. There are very very many in Paris, but none who I feel could be so cruel as to cast a faithful maid aside like you have to me. In my simple eyes, that is your crime. In my simple eyes, Tulkinghorn, as a representation of the English fetid law, is also, sorry, was also an ass -- he felt he could use emotional blackmail to his own advantage and he deserve to die -- oh yes he DID deserve to die.
But you also should pay for the way you have live your life Madame, and I suppose, ultimately you will, c'est vrai.
Conway, Naomi J. @ 24/11/2006 22:41:07
In order to do well here, students need to have a good grip on their character as presented in Bleak House. Of course Dickens works supremely well for this, as do other nineteenth-century novels, but the exercise could also work in a meta-textual way using works where the notion of character is called into question, thus drawing attention to the way that characters are constructed (and deconstructed) in different ways. Inhabiting the voice of a character effectively involves the student being aware of how that character has been put together in the first place.
The considerable cast of Bleak House meant that every student could pick their own character to play. My session guidelines had also stipulated the constraint that no character must be played by more than one person, which produced a healthy and benign sense of competition in that if a student really wanted to play a given character then they needed to make sure that they entered the Discussion Forum sooner rather than later to 'bag' them. This also worked to incentivize the class to join in the session quickly, and they also needed to be reading what was being posted in the Forum before they joined in in order to be sure that they weren't repeating a character.(2) Another secondary positive effect of the Dickens Debate session was that it encouraged more students to engage in detail with the novel itself. When 'The Victorian Vision' was only assessed by two essays a number of students would 'opt out' of bothering with a long novel like Bleak House because they weren't going to choose it as a focus for their assignments. However, once Bleak House had an online session attached to it, and the students knew that participating in all the online sessions could optimize their chances of gaining good marks for this form of assessment, then engagement with the novel increased all round, including in the face-to-face classroom.
I have also used the role-playing potential of Discussion Forums to bring characters into collision from different texts, where a similar attentiveness not only to the particularities of character, but also to the nuance of plot details and action, can be exploited to great effect. My final online session on The Victorian Vision course falls at towards the end of term, in December, and exploits the fact that the Victorians practically invented Christmas. I provide links to a number of websites which describe Victorian Christmas customs and practices as well as offering the class some of my favourite Victorian Kitsch websites as an end-of-term gift. The exercise? Once again the class are invited to enter the Discussion Forum in character, but this time they can be any character from any of the texts we've studied over the entire course. Aside from Bleak House these had included Gaskell's North and South, Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott', Webster's 'A Castaway' and Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret. Once in the Forum they were to tell their fellow characters what they were doing that Christmas, drawing on some of the resources they had been given if needed. The first time I tried this exercise was in December 2004 and the results went way beyond anything I had imagined:
Seasons greetings dear friends!
I have decided to send you all shorts for Christmas cotton that is, not alcoholic! My workers have been doing overtime to add the finishing touch--the special gold embossed 'JT --Pride of the North' monogram. I must reward them with extra fruit in their plum puddings.
The 'Modelled in Milton' range will be available from all high-class haberdashers over the festive season. On the advice of my dear Margaret (she undoubtedly has superior style and breeding), we have used a refined cotton yarn to suit the more genteel taste of our southern clientele--though my mother thinks that my relationship with Margaret and my reading of Thomas Carlyle has made me a little sensitive of late.
For Frederick, I will be sending a special lightweight version, more suitable for warmer climes; for Mr Hale, seven pairs so that he doesn't religiously have to wear the same pair every day; for Margaret, a pair made of the finest silk (I blush at the thought); and for my mother, an extra large version, to hold in all of her northern pride.
Mr. Tulkinghorn will receive a slim version to wear under his Chancery suit; Mr. Krook, an extra special pair from our fireproof range; Lady Dedlock, a pair in which to hide her secret (oops--too risqué!), and for Robert Talboys, a pair from our 'padded seat' range, especially equipped to cushion one's landing at the bottom of a deep well.
For all of those I have missed, I will be inviting you to the special Christmas opening of our new (fluff-free) canteen, which will feature a guest appearance by Mr. Charles Darwin who will be presenting his paper: 'The Origin of Christmas: Is Rudolph the Missing Link?'
Until then, I wish you all a wonderful laissez faire of a Christmas.
Wright, Anthony @ 13/12/2004 19:00:35
Oi wud loik to wish everyone a appy Krismus but oi don't know nuffin, so don't know how. The ouse at Tom-all-Alone's, that I used to live in fell down last week, so im livin under a bush now. oi ope u all can give a shillin to a poor crossin sweeper who don't know nuffin an aint dun nuffin rong. woops gotta go here comes that bludy copper again...
Hibbins, Graham @ 10/12/2004 20:53:38
Dear Jo, What great catastrophe for you!
You have reminded me of my former life of happiness at Thrushcross Grange. The magnificent fragrant spruce tree that fair reached the ceiling, decorated with beautiful coloured shapes of glass, tiny wooden crosses and flickering candles... Hidden in the boughs would always be a tiny little sweep holding his chimney sweeper's brush at a jaunty angle. How I wish I were there to see it this day.
Keep warm little Jo. Maybe some kind gentleman will find you a home where you will be well cared for.
Bridgman, Rosemarie-anne @ 10/12/2004 21:38:05
oim pleased oi cud elp u remember ur krismus but oi don't know no thrushcross gunge or no tree for that matter. oi only no the bush oi sleep under. oi do no ware someone doid tho n if u givus alf a crown like that othe nice wumun giv me oi cud sho u. she told me I new nuffin but er is ded now so...
Hibbins, Graham @ 14/12/2004 14:19:28
Christmas is a time when we all need to be charitable to the poor. I would like to make the long journey from Milton to Tom-all-Alone's to bring you some of our festive treats but unfortunately I have letters to attend to. I will ask Margaret if she can travel to you by train on the morrow.
God bless you,
Purcell, Justine @ 11/12/2004 14:18:05
thank you mister hale oi cannot tell a lie so don't know nuffin about no margret or no train oi just keep sweeping me crossin. wot r letters n wots god n will he bless me with muny? u see oi don't know nuffin...
Hibbins, Graham @ 14/12/2004 14:25:08
Poor little Jo, another soul excluded from Christmas because you don't have a place in the world. Well, neither do I, little Jo. I too am alone over the festive period. I am grateful that I have a home unlike you but I pay a high price for the roof over my head. Pay me a visit over Christmas Jo, it would be nice to see you were well.
Morgan, Sarah @14/12/2004 18:06:34
ello eulalie, not sure oi can come un see u at krismus, oi have to get up from me bush n sweep me crossin wen sun comes up n if I sweep it all day oi might earn a penny.
oi think oi saw u t'uther day near me crossin wiv ur purple dress n red air woz that u? oi remember everything bout wot people wear but I no nuffin really...
Hibbins, Graham @ 15/12/2004 12:10:47
Jo, I understand you are going to be cold and all alone this year. There is no need for that. Go and see my mother--she is always welcoming to charitable causes. I would suggest you tell her you are from an obscure African country--that way you will be assured of a decent night's sleep and a belly full of food.
Lawrance, Sally @ 12/12/2004 14:18:05
ello caddy oi did as u sed n wen n saw missus jellyby but she chased me out the ouse wiv me broom n said oi wasunt in need loik er African childers. can oi com roun to urs n spen kristmus wiv u? oi can danse a bit but oi don't know no music. oi wuden tell noone oi jus link evryfin oi don't know nuffin.
Hibbs, Graham @ 14/12/2004 14:35:49
There is a great joie de vivre about all of this, and it was clear that the class was having a ball. I actively encouraged them to be as witty and imaginative as they could be, within the 'believable' bounds of their chosen character, and alongside this there is an awareness of how character and plot details can be harnessed to the creation of altogether playfully new tales. Other encounters involved Margaret Hale trying to persuade the Lady of Shalott, Isabella, Caddy, Eulalie and Lady Audley that they should all join the Victorian Ladies Society (3); a reformed Heathcliff (post anger-management classes) trying to cheer up a rather miserable Tithonus; numerous invitations from one character to come over for Christmas dinner, with details of what they were eating; several characters from North and South enjoying a time-travelling deconstruction of how their characters had been (mis)represented in a recent BBC adaptation of the novel which had been on British television during the autumn of 2004; and even a Queen's Speech to the Empire with a brief lecture on the origin of the Christmas tree.
As part of a portfolio of online exercises on a course I think that such role-playing has an integral part to play. The creative alongside the critical, indeed, the creative as critical, is an enhancement of the possibilities for student learning in English Studies. Needless to say, perhaps, in the light of the above posts, these activities make a very positive impact on the students. In an evaluative questionnaire on all aspects of the VLE work which I give to every cohort one question asks whether any of the online activities were particularly successful. 78% of respondents in my most recent cohort explicitly mentioned the role-playing.(4) This kind of activity also exploits e-learning's potential to facilitate what D. R. Garrison and Terry Anderson refer to as 'its capacity to support reflective text-based interaction, independent of the pressures of time and the constraints of distance(5). Had I tried these activities in the classroom their nature would have changed: they would effectively have become drama workshops and would not have worked with a group of students unused to that kind of live role-play. But when the Discussion Forum becomes the virtual theatre to which the students bring their written, rather than spoken performances, they collaborate to produce a unique creative response to the texts they have been reading and studying with no sense of limiting self-consciousness. What they produce is also full of a dynamism which results from the whole being greater than the sum of its parts (however fine some of their individual performances are): they need and feed off each other's posts as spurs to their own further creativity. 'We need to start,' suggest Garrison and Anderson, 'by asking what e-learning will allow us to do that we could not do before' (6), and I hope that this case study has offered one response to that question from an English Studies perspective.
1. Elaine Showalter, Teaching Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), p. viii; Veronica Austen, 'The Value of Creative Writing Assignments in English Literature Courses', International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing 2: 2 (2005), p. 138.
2. My online sessions are also all timebound, in the sense that they start the day that I have a face-to-face class and then continue for a week. The class thus know that if they visit the Discussion Forum during this week then there will be considerable activity. There is a certain critical mass of activity necessary on a Discussion Board for it to be successful.
3. The Victorian Ladies Society can be found at http://www.victorianladiessociety.com/index.html. Well worth a visit with one's tongue planted firmly in one's cheek.
'I enjoyed the ones which involved you getting into characters, as I found this was interesting, and usually quite a fun way of gaining more understanding of character--although I also found it challenging trying to think of what the character would say.'
'When we had to be a character the sessions were successful and dynamic.'
'The Bleak House session [was particularly successful], because it was not only based on knowledge but creativity, which skill is equally important.'