Using New Media to Understand 19th-Century Literature

Story posted November 20, 2003

The Internet might not seem an obvious tool to use in helping students learn about 19th-century British literature, but it made sense to Mark Phillipson, visiting assistant professor of English.

Phillipson spent several years both teaching English and working on Web content in Silicon Valley. While there, he noticed how interested and engaged his students were when using new media, so he saw the Internet as a way to get Bowdoin students involved in a course.

"I'm trying to get into the trenches with them," he said, "and give them a chance to do something with new media that isn't just passive consumption."

He also saw the potential to help students understand the Romantic writers through their use of the technology: in dealing with the excitement and anxiety created by new technology — the Internet — students could better understand the feelings Romantic writers had toward new printing and distribution techniques enabled by the industrial revolution.

"I wanted the students to experience a position they were studying," Phillipson said. "I wanted them to ponder a connection between the two times."

He approached the information technology staff and asked for a custom built Web site so the students could write essays, analyze poetry and comment generally on the authors and their work — all online. He asked for a site for eight students that was easy to post to, that made it easy to link between different pages, and that would reward students for their interactivity.

Their response: "What you want is a wiki."

"I'm trying to get into the trenches with them and give them a chance to do something with new media that isn't just passive consumption."

Wiki is a type of open source software that Bowdoin's information technology staff were able to customize for Phillipson's needs. Wiki Web sites are collaborative, which means that they depend on their users to build them and to help them evolve.

"They involve a good deal of trust," Phillipson said.

The reason is that on most Wikis, anyone can edit the text, add new text, post a link, or otherwise alter the site. The IT staff made a few changes to Phillipson's site, so that the text couldn't be changed by just anyone. They created a password system so that only Phillipson and the students in the course could make changes, but trust was still key, since any student could add to or alter any other student's entry.

One of the challenges for students was becoming comfortable with the technology. They had pressure to post several assignments a week, which required a great deal of attention and work. They knew that the work they were doing could be seen by anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

"They had a sense of the responsibility of that, the enormity of that," Phillipson said.

In the end, the technology worked well with the class, helping them learn about Romantic literature and relate to the time in which it was written, but also giving them the chance to use skills usually untapped in an English class and helping them build strong relationships with each other and with Phillipson.

"I learned a lot about romanticism; I learned a lot about my students, and I learned a lot about myself as a teacher," he said.

Just as the Internet created new paths for information, advances in printing and marketing in the early nineteenth century opened up authors' work to audiences they had never even considered before. Along with this came anxiety about what Phillipson called "uncertain control" over one's own words because of increased literacy and the availability of books to groups that hadn't previously had that access.

Lord Byron, one of the writers the students studied, struggled with trying to publish his work from a distance.

Byron
Lord Byron

He learned to submit to a process beyond himself in transmitting the words through the post to a publisher, to be mass produced for an audience he didn't know and couldn't control. He expressed in his poetry his faith that people would be able to understand what he meant even though he was separated from them.

The students in Phillipson's class also had uncertain control over their words because once they'd published their work on the Internet, anyone in the world could read it. They had to trust that their words would find their audience and be understood, just as the Romantic writers did.

"This is something that's exciting, I think, as well as anxiety provoking," Phillipson said. "What I wanted to have students taste was the exhilaration of that process as well."

There were benefits and challenges for both Phillipson and his students.

  • The multimedia aspect encouraged creativity, allowing the students to create graphical renditions of poetic text and to scan in photos and drawings to enhance their essays.
  • It allowed for more frequent, shorter expression of ideas than normally provided in a course: Students could post something as short as a sentence or a paragraph if they had something they wanted to say, rather than having to write a 5-page paper.
  • The collaborative nature of the site gave students a sense of ownership.
  • It also kept them engaged with other students. In fact, the students began citing each other's entries on the site.
  • It helped keep the students focused and their writing specific.

Phillipson said the tool was easy to use, but there were some downsides

  • After a while, he started to feel a little flooded with the quantity of entries posted to the site. He eased the pressure a little by giving specific assignments and telling the students which ones he would be looking at when grading. (Even with specific assignments, though, the students were interested enough in the material that they did much more writing than he'd asked for.)
  • The initial posting of text for the students to comment on was a tedious process, since Phillipson had to type it all in himself. He was also the only person with delete privileges, so deleting students mistakes could get time consuming.
  • There was a degree of nervousness in using the software because open source software is always in development and can be prone to glitches — but the nervousness turned out to be unwarranted in this case.

In the end, though, the project was worthwhile, and Phillipson plans to do something similar in another class. Plus, he said, it was fun.

"I'm very proud that Bowdoin did something like this. I think it's a good representation of Bowdoin," he said. "Something like this came together here, and really only could come together here."

The Romantic Audience Project Web site can be viewed here.

The Romantic Audience Project has been featured in the following news and media outlets:
Associated Press Wire/CBS News, September 27, 2004
Educause, pedagogical journal, September/October 2004
Romantic Circles, scholarly Web site, December 1, 2004
Washington Post (registration required), March 11, 2005

During the spring 2005 semester, a new group of Bowdoin students is building RAP 2. This second generation project is encouraging students to be in dialogue with their predecessors in the seminar.

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