Part 2: ‘Postcard project: Pilgrimage and Pedagogy’
Kristina L. Hochwender is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Evansville, where she also serves as the Director of General Education. Alongside her interest in literature for children, her research centers on the Victorian clerical novel, and particularly the ways in which the clergyman–in the words of Samuel Butler, “a kind of human Sunday”–mediates national and religious identities and crises in novels that captured the Victorian imagination. Some of her work on the clerical novels of Margaret Oliphant can be found on the Victorian Web (www.victorianweb.org ).
Read Amber Pouliot’s ‘‘Tourism as Pedagogy: Part 1′ for an introduction to the project here.
For many of my students, separated from nineteenth-century English literature by both time and space, Oxford and Wonderland can seem equally dreamlike, Bath as fantastic as Neverland. Most semesters, I rely on the usual ways to bring literature ‘to life’ – lively discussion, journals, investigation into context and criticism, and very occasionally, judicious use of social media. Students read with attention to structure, character, theme and literary device. They watch (and debate the quality of) film adaptations of their favorite works. But none of it quite prepares them for standing in the places where those works were born. This is the privilege that Harlaxton affords.
I had the great pleasure of teaching three courses at Harlaxton in the spring of 2016. As I planned my syllabi, I looked for ways to anchor the works we read in a tangible environment. Alongside traditional exams and essays, I wanted a student-centered, experiential assignment that would combine intellectual consideration with reflection, emotional response, and personal choice. Placing the Author’s Postcard Project fitted perfectly.
Students in each class were required to visit a place associated with the semester’s reading, and to create a 1000-word summary and reflection, with a shorter version submitted to the Placing the Author website. Students also submitted a photograph of themselves at the chosen spot. Each course syllabus identified several possibilities, and students were invited to propose others if they wished to do so. Since Harlaxton encourages exploration by organising both free and reasonably-priced trips to pertinent areas, students were easily able to fulfill the assignment, and many visited multiple sites. The assignment was worth around 10% of the final grade.
Every week saw students travelling, so information about where to go and what train to catch became part of the ‘pre-talk’ for many class periods. Such conversation was informal; if it touched on the readings, it did so lightly. Yet it served to remind us that the works we discussed in class – whether Romantic poets, Austen novels, or Victorian children’s literature – existed beyond the windows of our classroom. As the semester progressed, discovery and reflection continued to enlarge course discussion.
Almost immediately, students felt that they better understood the authors whose works they read. While students sometimes skip the biographical notes in their anthologies, during their Postcard Project, they worked to inhabit the author’s world by walking the same streets, visiting the same places, sitting at the same table. One student opted to walk three miles each way between the rail station at Alton, Hampshire, and Jane Austen’s residence at Chawton. For her, the walk provided a more intimate sense of Austen’s landscape and the pace of her time. A student visiting Grasmere was moved by the beauty of the Lake District: ‘Taking a glance at the surrounding mountains near Dove Cottage’, she wrote, ‘I can imagine Wordsworth using that view as inspiration’. Expressions like these were common. Walking where authors or characters had walked made the connection between intellectual and visual perspectives, between literary setting and physical terrain.
Students also began to consider the authors as people like themselves engaged in the process of writing. Often, students looked for the familiar in authors’ lives. A student at Newstead Abbey, Byron’s ancestral home, was attracted to Byron’s affection for his dog, while the student visiting Percy Shelley’s monument at Oxford was struck by his youth, noting that ‘he was just a few years older than me when he wrote “Ode to the West Wind”’. The same student was ‘inspired…to be more intentional about my own writing’. A student viewing Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein at the Bodleian, took heart from ‘a single page that was crossed over with scratches in revision’. ‘Seeing her imperfections’, the student wrote, ‘reassured me that in the imperfections something great can be created’. In nearly every case, this awakened sense of the author as ‘real’ and ‘like me’ led to a closer attention to the act of writing, both the author’s and the student’s own.
One of the most interesting results of the Postcard Project was the way in which it created dissonance between what the students thought they would see or feel and what they encountered. The student who visited Newstead Abbey because she loved Byron’s poem ‘Darkness’ expected the Abbey to be correspondingly gloomy and was surprised to find a friendly peacock and beautiful grounds. The student who visited Burghley House at the end of the semester felt more prepared for what she saw because she’d read Austen’s novels. At the same time, she called attention to the number of staff needed to run such a large establishment, something Austen’s novels ‘never really talked about’. Students who had spent time with golden summers and October ales in Howard Pyle’s Merry Adventures of Robin Hood visited Sherwood Forest on a cold, gray day, and found the romance severely diminished. Pyle, who never mentions winter, had also never been to Sherwood.
In the end, the Postcard Project served as the kind of high-impact, low-stakes assignment that enriches the classroom and extends beyond it. A minor disadvantage of making the Postcard Project into a formal class assignment is that students may have felt obliged to emphasize the positive and skirt past any dissonance in the written element. Gaps and complexities in student response did emerge in classroom, however, as well as in personal conversation, raising important issues about the texts. Students practiced writing and reflection, invested more deeply in the course texts, and developed a stronger sense of physical and social context. For me as the instructor, the benefit was clear. In end-of-term evaluations, students themselves often identified the Postcard Project as one of the highlights of the semester. It gave them the power, in one student’s words, ‘to paint a picture in person of a literary world’.
You can read the student postcards mentioned here in the Postcard Gallery of the Placing the Author site. The Postcard Project is ongoing and we welcome both contributions and suggestions for bringing the Project to new audiences. Please get in touch at email@example.com.