Blogging Bleak House

The centerpiece of my recent “Secrets and Sensations in the Victorian Era” Cultural Studies course was the weekly reading and blogging for Dickens’ Bleak House.  I incorporated technology in to the class in several ways, since I wanted students to be able to reflect on the ways elements of our own culture affect the way we learn and what we learn, and technological tools are a major aspect of today’s learning experience.  How, I wondered, would the Victorian era look to students who had such an array of technology at their disposal? Would they recognize that their easy access to texts of all kinds hampered as well as helped their research goals? Would it change the way they felt about the sometimes heavy reading material?

This pedagogical reasoning seemed to mesh nicely with the class material, in that I wanted to find a way to keep students interested in Dickens over the long haul; I also wanted to try to recapture for students the serial reading schedule by which the Victorians would have been constrained. Finally, because we talked about the ample discussion that would have surrounded monthly disbursements of the text—how the Victorians would have read this book—I wanted to give students a place to have that continuing discussion, and the blog idea was born.

Students read about six or seven chapters of Bleak House each week, approximately following the original publication schedule. Two members of the class posted an initial blog describing any new characters and recapping some plot lines. Students had to then post five responses to someone else’s blog during the week over the entire semester.

However, the project wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped, and I made a few changes the next time I incorporated a blog in a class. First, students in their initial posts ended up doing a lot of summary instead of character or thematic analysis, and while I encouraged interactivity in their initial posts—adding video clips, pictures, links to other sites, links to recordings—I didn’t make it part of their grades. However,  the next time I used a blog in a class checked to see that they added those items, and the students said that being able to incorporate so much inter-textuality was their favorite element of the blog.

And finally, while I asked students to respond to blog posts throughout the semester—our version of sitting around the fireplace continuing the conversation—I got very little out-of-class blog discussion and was bombarded with posts the final three weeks of class so students could fill their quota. Turns out students were so concerned about constructing an A-worthy post that they didn’t just hop on the blog and post a quick comment—and there ended up being no conversation, just monologues. I changed my grading again so that two short responses/replies counted as one post; then students began giving a combination of 2/3 longer thoughtful posts and 4/6 shorter replies to help carry the conversation.

 

Carla Kungl, Shippensburg University

 

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