Ellen O’Brien is a second year PhD student at the University of Notre Dame, in Perth, Australia. Her research focuses on the representation of servants in English country house literature from the late Victorian period up to the Second World War. An MA graduate from Royal Holloway, University of London, Ellen frequently relies on social media to pretend that she is not, in fact, 14,000 km away from the nearest English Country House. Ellen can be found on Twitter @kindlecapers and via her University staff profile page.
The advent of new media has changed the face of the classroom. No longer a physical space with all the incumbent limitations, the rising popularity of online courses, such as the MOOCs series (Massive Online Open Courses) run by University of Sheffield, means there are new ways to connect with the field of Victorian Studies. In this post I will share my own experiences of MOOCs, and reflect on new media as an educational tool.
Several months ago, a friend sent me the link to an upcoming course titled ‘The Literature of the English Country House.’ ‘Why not?’ I thought. My supervisor was going to be away for a month, so there was a fairly even chance it would fit into my schedule. (#yolo). Free, and online, it was run through the University of Sheffield, and offered an introduction to the history and literature of the English country house. Starting with seminal works, such as Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst,’ it promised to explore the social contexts of Thomas More’s Utopia and Margaret Cavendish’s Sociable Letters, and to visit the ever-popular Pemberley of Pride and Prejudice, as well as the spookier halls in Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost, Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Dickens’ Great Expectations. It looked perfect.
You might wonder why someone half-way through a thesis about servants in country house literature would be so keen to sign up to a beginners’ course. I hope that by telling you a little about myself, you will see the appeal. I live in Perth, a city bound on either sides by the inhospitable Western Australian deserts and the slightly friendlier Indian Ocean. Perth is home to precisely zero fellow students of the country house– that I know of– and the nearest country house is a solid, vertebrae-destroying, twenty-hour flight away. This course was the perfect chance to connect with relevant scholars, and learn something about the increasingly digitized space of the University classroom.
I should point out that while the course was not strictly Victorian, three of the seven texts were written in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, a truly useful format for learning could be applied to any topic: it just so happens that Victorian studies lend themselves particularly well to new media platforms. Why that is, I could not say. Possibly, it is due to the popularity of neo-Victorian drama, and the wealth of reviews they invite, the enormous scope for blogs like The Victorianist, or the fact that nineteenth century serials lend themselves surprisingly well to Twitter reconstructions, such as the Our Mutual Friend reading project.
But back to the course. I was going to approach it in two ways: as a student, and as a teacher. As the former, I hoped the course would open up new avenues of enquiry, or at least lead me to a couple of useful journal articles. This endeavor was successful: by including more traditional forms of academic writing, it was possible to explore areas of particular interest through their carefully curated selection of articles.
The interactive and on-site nature of the course fostered a sense of immediacy, and of community. This might surprise people who perhaps assumed that MOOCs are unidirectional, distant teaching environments. Rather, they offer an immersive experience: three hours a week when my surroundings disappeared, and I inhabited the mental space of the course, conversed with other participants, and ‘visited’ the places under discussion.
When I lived in England, the field of Victorian Studies felt so much more immediate. The UK was a true hub for scholarship. There was a constant round of conferences and events, and it helped enormously to be surrounded by the material culture, whether that was the architecture, the public spaces, the exhibitions, the libraries, or even the seasonal cycle that frames so many works. The MOOCs course offered a return to that world.
Many segments were shot ‘on location,’ at Hardwick Hall, Chatsworth, Haddon Hall, and in archives and libraries. The increased visibility of the physical spaces was a reminder that we were learning about very real, tangible places, estates that provided employment for entire communities, and houses that sheltered generations of the same families. How can pictures on a lecture slide compete with such a backdrop?
In addition, this course offered the perfect chance to reconnect with an English university, to study the structure of an online unit, and to see which texts the lead educators had included. They used some that I’d never strictly considered part of the ‘country house’ tradition. It is also a long-standing dream to one day teach a course on the literature of the country house. I wanted to see how the experts were doing it– call it market research, if you will.
As a tutor, I was intrigued by the concept of an online classroom, and the ways in which social media would enhance the experience of scholarship. I would happily recommend course-appropriate MOOCs as a supplementary learning activity for undergraduates, because it encourages the consideration of new sources, texts, and reading practices. This country house course might, for example, inspire Australian students to seek career paths in more diverse fields, such as archival work, or typology. The highly personal nature of the course helped participants connect with a variety of professionals– from eighteenth century specialists, to restoration experts, to archivists– more people than they might perhaps encounter in a traditional classroom.
The more we branch into new media platforms, the more we see crossovers between existing ones: the ‘on location’ segments evoke the documentary work of Helen Castor with She-Wolves, or Suzannah Lipscomb with Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home, reinforcing the bond between lecturing, and documentary. The discussion sections are reminiscent of a Facebook comments thread, with the familiar ‘like’ and ‘reply’ functions. The use of convergent media platforms, such as Twitter (#FLHouseLit), connected participants, and the introductory ‘Book-Shelf Selfie’ aka the ‘Shelfie’ activity, brought the course into our own immediate, physical space.
This blend of old and new media is a winning combination. The implications for Victorian Studies are vast: there are now entire journals dedicated to the subject, such as Frontiers in Digital Humanities and Digital Literary Studies. With increasing concern about the environmental impact of travel and commuting, the shift online might have benefits in other directions. I didn’t print off a single page, which, compared to traditional courses, is a bloody miracle. These courses have an equalizing effect: the content is now available to those who can’t leave their homes, who can’t afford to enroll elsewhere or travel, to those who are full-time carers, or otherwise prevented from accessing more traditional modes of education.