Category Archives: Teaching

Using blogs in teaching

Making use of a teaching blog is something that I have done since I began teaching in 2008, but with the move to online teaching and learning over the last couple of months, I thought it would be a useful opportunity to write down some of my experiences around this as I prepare for reviving the blog for next semester. In this post I’m going to go through how I do and don’t use it, and some guidelines around practicalities.

The context: I currently use a module blog for my research-led module “Geographies of nation and empire: the Victorian novel 1850-90” which runs as a level 6 and 7 module in the School of Literature and Languages at the University of Surrey. The blog was last used in 2018-19 as my module rested while I was on sabbatical last semester. I’ve previously used a blog for level 4 students at the University of Warwick, and am planning to do so again for one of my l4 modules next year.

Firstly, it’s probably helpful to outline what I don’t use the blog for. Anything key to the module – handbooks, assessment guidelines, weekly slides and handouts – are all placed on Surreylearn (our VLE). Nothing essential to the running or assessment of the module features on the blog, preventing confusion about where to look for essential information, and meaning that the blog is not a required component to get through the module.

What I do use it for: supplementary resources, responses, and reading that complements and extends upon the module content. I post about such things as contemporary culture or news items relating to the texts we are studying; reflections  that extend upon discussions we have had in class, particularly those that I can connect up with material on my own research blog; and resources such as digital archives of Victorian studies material. With the latter especially, a blog post can provide illustrative modelling of how to navigate and incorporate digital archives and resources in a way that is more useful than just providing a set of links on the VLE. Throughout the posts, I intend to give students different ways into the material, or modes of linking across several texts through a key theme or topic. I also hope that it will spark interest and inspiration, and support students in developing independent and original approaches to topics.

While the blog is supplementary to the classes, there is a constant dialogue between the two: the blog posts refer back to discussions that we have had in class, and likewise I frequently reference posts or indicate that there will be an upcoming post on a topic during class time. This dialogue is important I think in creating a sense of continuity across the face-to-face and virtual space, something that has become even more essential as we move to hybrid models. I have also, at the request of students, increasingly used it as a space for pre-seminar questions/discussion points that they can prepare in advance.

Some practicalities and parameters: set up clear expectations and guidance on using the blog early on. Communicate clearly with students what the blog will be used for/not (as above), and when content will be posted: I keep to a weekly schedule that follows the structure of the module, and always try to post on the same day/time e.g. directly after class: most of the material is pre-drafted and a few edits can be made if anything has arisen in class. Indeed once you have run a module blog for one year, a lot of the content can be revised for reuse – over the summer I will restrict the settings of current posts so that the module will start again with a blank slate, and then edit and publish posts as we go along. I also make it as easy as possible for students to access content: provide links across the materials e.g. handbooks, VLE; have a “subscribe by email” option to make it easy to be alerted for new material.

As for student input into the blog: comments are open and welcome, although I typically find that students prefer to respond in a face-to-face setting rather than writing on the blog (this may change as we move towards more integrated use of virtual environments and is something I am reflecting upon). Students are also invited to contribute with a 500 word blog post as a formative assessment that can be posted on the blog if they wish (and settings can be altered so that these aren’t publicly viewable beyond the class).

Generally good blogging practice applies here as elsewhere – keeping posts to a manageable length, short paragraphs and sentences, lots of visual images and links, and ensuring that the blog layout (including font, size, colours, and use of media) is in an accessible format. If you are completely new to blogging there are lots of resources online, and I’d recommend Mark Carrigan’s Social Media for Academics (Sage 2020) as an all-round great resource including a chapter on communicating effectively.

I’m sure there’s much more to think about, and I’ll be continuing to do so over coming weeks, but hope that this might be helpful if you are thinking of getting started.

Little Dorrit – Cagliari lecture resources

Following on from the previous Bleak House post, here are links and images from the Little Dorrit class this week.

We started off with some context on the 18th century Grand Tour, and these two images as indicative of the sites and ideology behind the Grand Tour. The first image is by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni, who painted many Grand Tourists and this is typical of such paintings.

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This second image is “Picture Gallery with Views of Modern Rome” by Giovanni Paolo Pannini (1759) and shows many of the popular sites of Rome that would be visited by tourists.

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The travel guidebook that I showed in the lecture was a 1912 Baedeker’s Guide to Southern Italy, which I have blogged about here (and have another post on the Sardinia sections forthcoming) and there is information on the history of the guides here. I also showed this image of Cook’s tours and there’s some interesting history to the firm and you can also view some more images here.

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The image of the Alps is an 1862 painting by Russian painter Alexei Kondratyevich Savrasov, and I mentioned Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” (1817)as an indicative response to the Alps landscape.

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The final two images of Venice and Rome are a 19th century view of Venice (anonymous) and an 1823 engraving of St Peter’s Basilica and Castel Sant’ Angelo by Rossini. In the extract on Rome, Dickens refers to “the celebrated Mr Eustace”, writer of A Classical Tour through Italy.

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Finally, I have recorded a podcast about travel in Little Dorrit which is available here.

Bleak House – Cagliari lecture resources

For students at the University of Cagliari who attended my classes this week, here are some images and further reading that I referred to.

Bleak House

These two images are watercolours of the Great Exhibition by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, that I have written more about here:

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You can read a contemporary response to the Great Exhibition here, and the full text of Dickens’s “The Last Words of the Old Year” (quoted on the handout) can be read online here. I have also written about the ideas of “people and things” at the Exhibition in the context of Henry Mayhew’s novel 1851 and Bleak House.

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This image of the London slums is taken from this website on Victorian London where you can find some more contemporary writing about the slums and related issues.

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Dickens’s writing on the Niger expedition is discussed in the book by Tim Carens cited on the handout, plus a number of others including Grace Moore’s Dickens and Empire (2004).

Finally, this podcast that I recorded for the University of Warwick’s Celebrating Dickens project is of relevance to some of the issues raised, and on the Celebrating Dickens website you will find many other podcasts and videos of interest to Charles Dickens’s life and times.

Teaching with blogs

As some readers will know, as well as research blogging I also run a teaching blog for my classes on The English Nineteenth Century Novel. The blog has been featured in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online’s Teaching and Learning Showcase, where I write about how I use the blog and the advantages of doing so.

The showcase has featured a rich range of teaching methods, covering everything from digital resources, creative assignments, and field trips; if you’re a Victorianist who teaches then do take a look!

“The Waste Land” for iPad

Following on from my previous musings on this subject, the first scholarly edition designed for the iPad was launched yesterday – an app of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. I haven’t purchased it yet, and I won’t be rushing to (it’s £7.99 – pretty expensive as apps go, and it’s not a text that I teach or research so my decent and well-annotated edition serves me well enough) but the Guardian videocast (linked above) and description on the Apple Apps store give a good idea of the features. My first impressions are that it looks like a well thought out and potentially very useful material: the surrounding material includes critical commentary and annotations, recordings of the text by Eliot, Ted Hughes, and a filmed performance of Fiona Shaw’s reading, as well as facsimile manuscript pages. All of this is not only very helpful for student use, but especially so in the way that it’s been designed for use on the iPad – the ease with which you can switch between recordings, watch video alongside text, and bring up different recordings all make use of the iPad’s features and the simultaneity of different media the iPad allows for that you just can’t get as easily on a Pc.

WL app

(Screenshot from the Apple website, where more info and screenshots are available)

It strikes me that this would be a very useful teaching tool – recordings and manuscript versions are resources that I use in teaching Ginsberg’s Howl, and having such an app would handily cut out the sometimes tedious work of compiling resources before a class- no more trawling the internet to find the best recording, or trying to get a good photocopy of poor-quality manuscript pages, it’s all just there and readily available on an easily portable object. But the size of the iPad and it’s lack of connectivity to an external device means this isn’t going to work for anything more than a seminar, and even then it’s limited if you want the students to interact with their own copy of the material; and once the students leave the classroom it’s useless unless they own iPads (and if they did, would I recommend they buy the iPad edition over the printed text? Unlikely).

I also wonder at how far the usefulness of these extra materials goes; visual and auditory media might stimulate some aspects of seminar discussion, and having annotations for a complex text like The Waste Land are undoubtely valuable in freeing-up discussion time that might otherwise be spent simply explaining the many references and intertextual points; so with a text like this, you can cut out some of that textual work and move more swiftly to the critical analysis. But at the end if all this, it’s the text itself that really matters and the students’ interpretations and responses to that which I’m really interested in getting to in the seminar – the extra media and material provides the stimulus for that, but I wonder if having all of this in such a format enables or inhibits the individual response? Is this all that different to the usual scholarly annotated edition? It feels to me as though having all of this material compiled together might somewhat inhibit the student response outside of those parameters- there seems to be something formalised and thus limiting about the material being set in screen, as though this is all the “right” material that one needs to understand the text, perhaps? There’s also something about the barrier I feel this puts between the reader and text – from my brief experiences in reading on the iPad for my own research, I do feel at one remove from the text; without getting all nostalgic about the look and feel of a book, you can’t scribble notes or underline the etext, it doesn’t feel you can make it your own in the same way. And although there’s an ease to reading and moving around material quickly on the iPad screen, the easy skimming through the text further encourages a move away from slow and detailed reading and the response that such a reading generates.

Despite these reservations I’d certainly be willing to give this a go if there was a similar app for a text I teach, and it’d be interesting to see if this could enhance teaching and learning, and how students and tutors might use this as a starting-point for more interactive work.