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Teaching with Blogs: “The English 19th century Novel”

2012 August 20

Dr Charlotte Mathieson (University of Warwick)

Context

The English Nineteenth-Century Novel is an honours-level undergraduate module in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick, on which I teach 3 classes of 15 students in weekly 1.5 hour lecture-seminars. I set up a teaching blog for this module at the start of the 2011-12 academic year, having previously experimented with using a teaching blog for a first-year literary theory module. There are many ways in which blogs can be used in teaching, such as having students write blogs for assessment or class exercises, or as interactive forums for debate. In what follows, I focus on my experience of using a tutor-authored blog to support and enhance the work done in my classes; I have provided links to sample posts throughout.[1]

Using the blog

I see the main purpose of the blog as providing the opportunity to offer additional material and resources, to engage students with current affairs and different forms of media, and to improve their preparedness for class. The types of post divide roughly into three main areas, although there is a degree of overlap between each of these.

Preparing for class

The core structure of the blog is provided through class preparation posts – weekly seminar questions, which are sometimes accompanied by a reflective piece or other relevant material . The preparation questions appear at the same time every week and pick up on the key themes which we’ll cover in the next class. The use of preparatory questions isn’t anything new in itself and I’ve always supplied a hand-out at the end of the previous class to guide and focus reading, but I’ve found that blogging the questions allows for greater flexibility as the course evolves. Although I work to an overarching structure and know in advance the topics that we’ll be covering with each text, often I find the focus shifts in different directions depending on the students’ responses to texts and the issues that arise in class. Whilst giving a hand-out requires that the tutor has decided the preparation in advance of the previous class, blogging the questions mid-week enables greater responsiveness to the course as it evolves, perhaps picking up on an area of particular interest or difficulty or building on new links between texts that have emerged through the students’ discussion. I blog the questions whilst I’m preparing the next week’s class, so the preparation is always strongly tied in to what we’ll be covering; far from running the risk “spoon-feeding” students, I’ve found that I produce more challenging questions as a result.

Material to support and enhance the class

The second use of the blog is in providing additional material and resources that supports the work we’re doing in class – resources that aren’t essential or necessary, but will enhance some of the themes covered, open up new ideas, or offer sources of inspiration for essays. Often these posts direct students towards online Victorian studies resources, helping them to make the most of the wealth of material available . Other posts will expand on ideas or historical references that have arisen in class; these are things which aren’t essential to the core course material, but will be useful to those who are interested in finding out more –the Great Exhibition, for example, isn’t crucial to any of the novels we studied but nonetheless came up in discussion often enough that an additional blog post was useful for those interested to follow it up. I also make use of the material on my research blog, linking in to relevant posts where appropriate.

The blog is also an ideal format for providing visual stimulus and utilising a range of media forms. I include images of nineteenth-century art and illustrations wherever possible, or little snippets of Victorian culture that pick up on themes we’ve been discussing . The blog also allows for developing an engagement with contemporary cultural representations and discussions of the nineteenth-century. One of the framing questions for the module was why “the English 19th century novel” carries a certain cultural weight and what are the historical afterlives of the “the 19th century”? The blog was ideal for stimulating these questions through providing clips from film and tv adaptations, links to news articles, blog posts, and radio programmes: examples include a clip from a TV adaptation of North and South (link 10), a trailer and media discussion about Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights , and material from the Dickens bicentenary celebrations . In the words of this very blog, I wanted to get students thinking “beyond the academy” and the blog provided an ideal format to do this alongside the core course material.

Follow-up from class

The final use of the blog was to follow up from classes by blogging about student presentations (link 13). I had students conduct “critical perspectives” presentations in which they would present on a piece of critical reading, usually a journal article or book chapter, relating to that week’s text. I blogged brief summaries of the presentations so that the students would have a record of the essays discussed in their class, and to share knowledge between classes – a total of six pieces of criticism were covered across my three classes each week. I wrote up the entries after class, giving full bibliographic details and a short summary of the main ideas that had been discussed. This is one area where I plan to increase student participation next year, either by getting students to upload their own blog posts or writing the short summary as part of the presentation exercise.

Why Blog?

Much of what I’ve discussed here can be done on a website, and there is a Departmental page for this module containing key information, bibliographies, and essay titles. I find the form of the blog preferable for the uses outlined above, however, as whereas the website is a more static form, the blog can unfold alongside the lifecycle of the course – material can appear as and when you want the students to view it, and it’s much easier for them to see when something new has been added. One of the key things I have found that the blog helps with is in maintaining the momentum between classes – keeping nineteenth-century themes, topics and ideas on the students’ radar in the six days a week that they’re not in class – and the form of the blog helps to capture this. There’s also more space for providing the ideas and thoughts-based posts that wouldn’t sit so well on a departmental webpage.

One of the main advantages of using a teaching blog is that enables me to cater for a range of different interests and abilities; the take-it-or-leave-it format means that there’s the right amount of support, guidance, and extra material depending on how each student chooses to use and access it. For the students that found keeping up with the weekly reading enough of a challenge the preparation posts provided welcome guidance between classes, while students that were keen to explore further beyond the texts were provided with plenty more resources and ideas to fuel their interest. I didn’t expect everyone to read every blog post or follow every link, but the material was there for those that wanted it.

That said, the majority of students used the blog regularly and enthusiastically. I have no concrete way of measuring that the blog improved their overall performance or preparedness for class, but from what I observed in classes it was clear that they engaged thoughtfully with preparatory questions, followed up on further reading, and enjoyed the occasional bit of light relief. The student feedback, both in informal conversations and in official surveys, has been highly positive, and I have no doubts that I’ll be running the blog again next year.

I’ve found blogging to be an effective way of stimulating student engagement, opening up a whole range of different resources and materials to those that I’m able to offer in class. Added to that, blogging stimulates my enthusiasm as much as it does my students’, and I enjoy the challenge of writing interesting and informative posts. Blogging isn’t for everyone, and there’s little value in running a blog for the sake of it; my main advice to anyone thinking of starting a teaching blog is to be clear about how you’d use and sustain it for the duration of the course. At the same time, blogging doesn’t require prior experience or particular technical expertise and whilst the teaching blog builds on my own interest in digital technologies and social media, above all it’s fuelled by my enthusiasm for Victorian studies and my enjoyment in communicating this with students.

Dr Charlotte Mathieson is an Associate Fellow in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick, where she teaches and researches nineteenth-century literature. Her research explores mobility and travel in the mid-19th century novel, with particular interest in the novels of Dickens, the Brontes, and Eliot. More about Charlotte’s research is available at http://charlottemathieson.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter @cemathieson


[1] I close the blog down over the summer months as I like the blog to develop alongside the module over the course of the year, but I have opened up a selection of last year’s posts for readers of this blog to view. The blog will commence full action again at the start of October.

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