I remember Thomas Austenfeld’s “Dante and Eliot” being my favorite course as an undergraduate English major. The most exciting part of the course involved a visit from the Eliot scholar Jewel Spears Brooker. As we spoke with Professor Brooker, I knew that the classroom wasn’t an isolated space, but became a collaborative environment with people from other parts of the country. I could tell that my professor did not just want to deliver information — he wanted to mentor us to become scholars capable of engaging with accomplished thinkers. I am dedicated to using all communication technologies to replicate the feeling I had that day: that literature is exciting and urgent, and that we can work together — students, faculty, and scholars — in order to understand the literary works we encounter.
Technology is changing how some scholars understand literary history. For instance, distant reading asks what happens when — instead of reading a small number of books with deep attention — we use computers to produce quantitative analyses of thousands or sometimes millions of books. I believe it is important to show students how to engage in this new scholarly environment. One of my most frequently employed and popular projects applies the digital humanities tool Voyant to novels that students have not read. Voyant analyzes the word frequencies of linguistic corpora and displays those analyses in a set of different graphic visualizations based upon word clouds. I required students to not read their novels before their analysis, something that alternately intrigued and befuddled them. The project is based upon an assignment by Florida State University professor Paul Fyfe, who talks about the project in detail in his essay “How to Not Read a Victorian Novel” (Journal of Victorian Culture. 16.1, 2011). The project created such interesting results for one student that they decided to actually read the novel outside of class. “I would love to do this project again as maybe a challenge to our reasoning and creativity skills by seeing how closely we can deduce the story. In fact, I’m curious, so I’m going to start reading Charlotte Bronte’s The Professor and see how well I did.” In addition to these warming anecdotes proving how technology can bring students closer to literary history, my students demonstrated their understanding that reading occurs on different scales: within individual eyes and minds; yes, but also within the data-relays of computer hard drives.
Using technologies like Skype or Google Hangout to allow students to discuss classroom material with actual living authors can be quite powerful. It can also model types of scholarly conversations we engage in everyday. For my Spring 2014 graduate course “Nineteenth Century Media Studies,” I asked prominent Romantic and Victorian scholars to Skype with my classes, and had students ask them questions about their work. The conversation with Ron Broglio of Arizona State University was a particular success, with discussion ranging from the history of the British National Ordinance Survey in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to philosophical and literary resistance against the model of picturesque perception embodied by the survey from William Wordsworth, Gilles Deleuze, and Alfred North Whitehead. Collaborating with other scholars in graduate courses introduces students to top figures in a specific field and models for them a shared form of pedagogy that illustrates the power of working with other people.
I believe that students gain the most from educational opportunities when they can see the fruits of their labor have impact beyond the classroom. My DTC 356 course engaged in a semester-long research project on data-tracking applications like FitBit, then produced infographics of their research and presented them to the English faculty. The ultimate goal for my Fall 2012 ENGL 366 course was the creation of a curated site of student material that would be featured in an article written by myself and the editors of The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. This site, along with a Google Hangout interview with the students and the editors was published in “Digital Literary Pedagogy: Teaching Technologies of Reading the Nineteenth Century” in the Fall 2013 issue of the Journal. In my evaluations for the course, one student said that I “adopted multiple means for classmates to communicate as well as offered a variety of assignments,” and that the student enjoyed my “knowledge on this era and literature” and my “ability to navigate certain areas of digital technology. Also, working with real editors was a treat.” I was pleased to see how closely this student’s comments mirrored my own goals as a teacher — to use technology to provide powerful experiences illustrating how literature continues to shape our world.