Thinking Small

Although my outlook on life might be big, I’ve been thinking about small things lately:

1.  I just got back from the wonderful NAVSA conference in Montreal, Canada, where I presented on “Miniature Books” in the Victorian era.  You can read the abstract here.  The talk prompted a great discussion of the relationship between scale and portability in reading technologies (think iPad or Kindle) and made some great connections between Victorian and contemporary reading practices.  I also chaired a panel on “Print Contexts” and heard fascinating papers from Mia Chen, Jillian Hess, and Andrew Stauffer.  I was especially excited to meet Andrew who works on the NINES project at UVA –his presentation on the interaction with Felicia Hemans‘ poetry via readers’ marginalia was fascinating and made a compelling case for preserving hard copies of texts that might be destroyed in the wake of digitization.

2. I’m also thinking small when it comes to pedagogy.  I’m contributing a post this week to our Brittain FellowsTECHStyle blog” on the topic of using blogs in the classroom for short, low-stakes writing assignments.   These “mini” writing tasks help break down the intimidating process of writing an essay into small steps, and the blog format encourages free-writing and reader feedback.  Check back next week and I’ll cross-post my entry here.

3. I’m currently grading my English 1101’s’ “digital archiving projects” which are StoryCorps- style interviews that students conducted with important members of the Georgia Tech and Atlanta community.  The students edited their 20 minute interviews into 3-5 minute excerpts (small!) and we’re in the process of adding them to the SMARTech digital archives at the Georgia Tech library.  The end results are fascinating — I’ll post some samples under the “Sample Student Projects” link on my “teaching” page soon.

4.  And finally, I’m using the concept of less-is-more this week in my teaching.  Yesterday I turned my English 1101 class over to group presenters and let the students steer the direction of our discussion for the first 15 minutes (in the style of “the Zen Ten“). They all had plenty of interesting things to say about this article on the negative impact of texting and social media on the non-verbal communication skills of “digital natives.”  While they concurred that they spend “too much time” texting, they disagreed that this would impact their ability to communicate with the “silent language” of non-verbal communication.  It was a productive session– my own silence freed the students up to have a frank conversation with each other.

So, it’s been a big week with small things!


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Literary London

I just finalized my course description for this spring – here is the blurb for the course catalog:

This section of English 1102 will examine London as it is depicted in literature and as it functions as a center of literary production. Using texts including newspapers, diary entries, maps, poetry, and fiction we willcompare the “real” London with the fictional London and use that comparison to uncover the ideas, anxieties, and identities that the city inspires. Units will discuss issues such as urbanization, disease in the city, industrialization, immigration, and terrorism. Texts may include Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Woolf’s, Mrs. Dalloway, Eliot’s The Waste Land and McEwan’s Saturday as well as short selections from essays, poetry, and historical texts. Over the course of the semester, students will write papers and develop projects which will practice critical thinking and writing skills and which deploy all the elements of WOVEN (Written, Oral, Visual, Electronic, Non-verbal) communication.

I’m excited about the way the topic gives us the opportunity to think about the city itself as a location and a product of very particular social forces as well as considering the ways that London’s unique identity functions in literature.  I’m planning on doing a mapping project with Mrs. Dalloway and possibly a wiki-type project to “map” The Waste Land.  There are so many types of texts we can draw from– newspaper archives, early photographs, journal entries, and contemporary films such as 28 Days Later and Children of Men— come to mind.   I think I’ll organize the course around themes with each unit focusing on a type of research material and strategies for

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William Morris – the original Steampunker?

I’m spent the past few weeks researching the connections between William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement for the upcoming “Useful and Beautiful:  The Transatlantic Arts of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites” conference, so I thought I’d share my abstract here.

William Morris:  The Original Steampunker?

Although it may seem an odd juxtaposition, there is much about the aesthetic philosophy of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement which prefigures the contemporary concerns of the Steampunk genre.  In my paper, I argue that the values of the Arts and Crafts movement rose out of a similar moment in history as the one we occupy today – a moment in which we recognize that we have lost access to the workings of the commodities which surround us.  Drawing upon the work and philosophies of Morris, Iwill show that the nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts Movement and the contemporary steampunk share a common desire: to reinstate the craftsman at the center of art production.

When Morris and his contemporaries set out to find an authentic style to represent the nineteenth century, they were pushing back against the rise of industrialized manufacturing which favored piece-meal production and constituted a movement away from genuine, individual craft.   Drawing upon the works of theorists and reformers such as John Ruskin and Owen Jones, practitioners of the Arts and Crafts Movement prioritized simplicity of form and quality of materials, linking the purity of construction to a greater morality of art.    Morris especially emphasized the simplicity of such forms, working himself with hand woodblock printing and rejecting more modern techniques for mass-producing books by returning to older, more traditional methods of printing.

This desire to return to older techniques of production, which prioritize the individual craftsman and emphasize the craft itself, resonates with the ostensible goals of today’s Steampunk movement.  Originally a literary genre, Steampunk has exploded in the past decades into an artistic and cultural movement, spawning conferences, clothes lines, films, music groups, and, perhaps most fascinating of all, steampunk artisans. 

Drawing upon philosophical tenets which look remarkably similar to those of Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, steampunk artists produce artifacts which stress their individual craft.  From a computer retro-fitted into a nineteenth-century style, steam-driven (but still functioning!) machine to earrings made of tiny cogs, the  products of steampunk proudly display all their components, rendering visible that which modern technology hides away beneath smooth surfaces.  Indeed, those who try to define steampunk return again and again to the idea that the nineteenth-century represents the turning point at which we lost the ability to “make” our own products or to open them up and tinker with them.  In a type of protest against the minimalistic, sealed-off aesthetics of artifacts such as iPhones or Macbooks, the artistic work of steampunkers reinvokes the very concerns of Morris and his contemporaries, asking the question – what is lost, or, what do we as consumers of art lose, when industrialization and mass-production render the individual craftsman obsolete.


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Creativity and Digital Pedagogy

I’ve been thinking a lot about the capacity of the digital humanities to open up assignments in traditional English and composition classes to more creative possibilities.  In my first-year writing course this semester, my students are working on an identity project.  The first component was a traditional personal essay, a short 2-page piece on notions of identity.  I followed the paper with a second assignment:  a digital identity project.  This assignment allows the students to transform their original piece into a more creative interpretation of their identity trait, thinking specifically about how their chosen medium contributes to the message they are trying to convey.  One of the goals of the assignment is to push visual communication to the forefront and to allow us to discuss visual design and rhetoric.  Another goal is to force the students to consider how a given medium contributes to the message it is communicating and to choose a medium based on those qualities.  I’ve given them some suggestions for the medium (slideshow, short video, Google Map, photo collage, Pecha Kucha etc.) but I’m hoping they will surprise me with their creativity.

So far, the students have responded well to the assignment and have generated some interesting ideas.  However, many of them responded with anxiety at the the prospect of an open assignment that leaves them free to chose the medium and/or technology and the message.  I’ve explained to them that part of the assignment is about actually making this decision — a decision they will be forced to make many times in the future — and that selecting a medium and connecting design principles to questions of communication are skills that will serve them well.

But I’m also hoping that the open parameters of the assignment will tap into their individual creativity and encourage them to think outside of “what is required of me for this assignment” and to consider how their skills and interests can best contribute to a successful project.  In this way, then, I’m hopeful that the flexibility and openness that — at least in this instance — digital pedagogy provides, will serve to bring that creativity into the classroom.


One thing I haven’t touched on here is the possible clash between creativity and copyright, especially in a digital environment.  My students will be discussing this tomorrow, so that might be the topic of a follow-up post.

I will post some sample projects in a few weeks to showcase the students’ work.


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Why is a Victorianist teaching at Georgia Tech?

I was asked this very question during one of my first classes at Tech this week.  When I introduced myself as a scholar of nineteenth-century literature, my students looked puzzled:  what was a Victorianist doing at Georgia Tech?  And why, they asked, was I teaching a writing class focused on the concept of being “born digital”?  I found myself called upon to make the same connections in the classroom that I make all the time in my own research and, on occasion, at conferences and in interviews.

It’s easy to answer the question on a superficial level:  I’m not only a scholar of literature, I’m a scholar of language and, therefore, a scholar of communication.  I am also a writer and a researcher and all of these skills qualify me to teach writing (though it’s interesting that I — and the majority of my writing teacher colleagues — have never actually taken a writing class).   So that could answer the why am I teaching writing part, but it doesn’t get to the deeper connections between my expertise in Victorian literature and my interest in the specifically digital pedagogy associated with teaching writing at Tech.

When I think about what is so interesting about the nineteenth century, I think of the sense of excitement, of discovery and progress we get from the newspapers, letters, novels and essays of the period; the feeling that new and amazing things were happening that were pushing the Victorians faster than ever before into a technology-filled future of possibilities.  The way that technology like the steam engine and the printing press created networks of information and, almost overnight, transformed local and global communication, mirrors the way the internet and digital technologies have connected our contemporary world.

And so when I teach about our digital world and the way it has revolutionized communication, I am thinking about the Victorians and the new world opened up to them by train travel and the telegraph — a world that was transformed in notions of distance and time — and, commensurately, a world that seemed both promising and threatening in the possibilities it presented.  In my writing classes, then, we think about the basics of communication and rhetoric and how they work in all the different media and how they are transformed in the era of digital communication.

I’m also thinking about materiality and the way Victorians commodified and fetishized it  (museums,”Great” exhibitions department stores etc.),  and the way we are dealing with losing it through digitization.  In my “Born Digital” class we’re considering the ramifications of digitization on museums and exhibits, on book production, and on information storage.  This focus on materiality is also reflected in my work on Steampunk, a literary and cultural movement which anachronistically strives to restore the notion of craft to contemporary technology by refashioning it “nineteenth-century” style.

In so many ways, then, the excitement and the reservations of the Victorians regarding the explosion of technology in their time are mirrored in our own.  And it is in thinking about how the Victorians’ attitude towards the rapid transformation of systems like communication and information processing affected their ability to move forward  that we can reflect upon our own.

So when I walk into a first-year writing course focused on the digital era, I am bringing with me all of the Victorians’ excitement and all of their reservations about a world transformed by technology.  Think of it like this:  I may be wearing a corset, but that’s an iPhone in my pocket.

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Welcome to the Arcades.  I’ve created this space as a place for me to do some informal musing on topics related to my research and teaching, with the goal that frequent short writing will keep my ideas flowing and my writing skills honed.  In fact, just writing this introduction I’m having to think so much about the flow of my prose, what “voice” I should have in this space, how to organize spontaneous ideas into coherent posts – it’s already working!

I’ve titled this blog “The Arcades” because I envision it as a vast space to wander around, framed and supported by the many thrusts of my ideas and interests.  I also think of it as a Victorian space, a space designed to be both ornamental and eminently practical (many arcades were designed as shelters for pedestrians).  Arcades also make me think of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and — to bring in my interest in the digital — arcade games.  The picture on this blog’s header is of the Cleveland Arcade built in 1890 and captures the sense of space with structure that I hope this blog will be for me.

I’ll be writing about Victorian literature and culture as it relates to my research, but also as I see it intersecting with my other interests in Neo-Victorian and Steampunk literature, and my teaching in the digital humanities.  I can also envision posts dealing with general pedagogy, course design, and teaching with technology which are all topics I’ll be considering on a daily basis as I teach first-year English at Georgia Tech.  And finally, as a candidate on the job market, I will be chronicling my experience in the job search and using this site as a place to direct people who are interested in my teaching and research.

I’m also going to set myself some challenges related to reading and writing.  My first is my goal to complete a revision of an article draft that I have been working on this summer.  More on that to follow, but I will use this space to keep myself motivated about my writing and to set myself writing goals.  Secondly, I plan to write a weekly review on new journal articles and academic texts which relate to my research and to Victorian scholarship in general.  And finally, I have set myself a “Victorian Novel Challenge” — I’m planning on reading (or re-reading as the case may be) 50 Victorian novels (or collections of stories or poetry) by fall 2011.  I will post my reading list here and chronicle my progress in regular installments.  This would be a whole lot easier if I were a Modernist…

So, come on in, wander around, and say hello.  This is a big space, I wouldn’t mind some company.

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Work in progress

Welcome to my blog.  It’s still under construction but there’s definitely more to come, so check back soon!

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