Welcome to the Lyceum, a web-site designed to support the inquiries of all those interested in learning more about American literature, history and life.
While this site has been specifically designed to support the work of students enrolled in my nineteenth century American literature courses at Assumption College, all are invited to take advantage of the materials here. In the nineteenth century, people in small villages and big cities all over America flocked to their local lyceums to hear lectures and participate in debates. They wanted to make learning a regular part of their lives and they expected to have a good time doing it. I hope that this lyceum will recreate that kind of opportunity in a new way.
Below are some brief reflections on how and why I use the web in teaching. You'll find brief comments on my goals, the kinds of resources I use, my role as the teacher, and how I design the syllabus, classroom activities, and course assignments. I also offer a frank list of the advantages and disadvantages of teaching this way. For further discussion of teaching with the web, you can read the "journal reflections" written by my friend and colleague, historian John McClymer, as part of his work with Randy Bass's remarkable American Crossroads Project. As part of that project, Randy has provided a "Working Syntheses" page which includes the journal notes of participants, as well as his own attempts to incorporate the insights of project participants into a report on the project's findings. For practical information on using e-mail and web pages in your courses, see the "Tip Sheet" put together by Professor Norbert Auger on behalf of Assumption College's Teaching Learning and Technology Roundtable.
How I Teach
Why I Teach That Way
Some Thoughts on Using the Web to Promote Inquiry
I use the web in initiate students into the process, methods, pains, and joys of real academic inquiry.
Good research always begins with immersion in the material. When I began a recent sabbatical, I was worried about how to find a topic. My husband, a librarian in a research library, suggested that I just follow my curiosity and read everything on the general subject which drew my attention. He was right. After reading with cheerful abandon for some time, a clear path began to emerge. That is the kind of experience I want to provide for my students. The web makes an immersion experience possible because it offers quick access to a wide variety of primary resources for the study of American literature and history.
Introducing students to real inquiry also involves teaching them how to frame and pursue their own questions. To do that, I model the search process in class. That is useful because of what they see me do right--it's probably even more important that they have a chance to see my searches fail. I want students to learn the secret of research--the fact that the first question is almost never the right one, the fact that the first results are almost always unsatisfatory, and the fact that it is by looking at the "wrong" results that you can get to the next level. So when students only get one good "hit" out of three thousand and one responses on HotBot, I want them to think about what distinguishes the useful result from the others and use that as a place to start the next search. In addition to modelling, I also mentor. I typically go from one student to another when they're doing searches in class. I also try to make sure that periodic conferences are built in to the semester schedule so that I can provide guidance as students gradually develop their final projects.
I take advantage of the availability of primary source materials to give my students an "immersion experience."
If, someone asked you where you wanted to have dinner on your first night in an utterly strange city, it would be difficult for you to work up much enthusiasm about any particular option. On the other hand, you return to a familiar and much-loved city full of expectations about the places you hope to visit, the things you plan to do, and in my cse, the
At one time the literature courses I taught focused almost exclusively on a small number of canonical texts. Now the web has made it possible to let my students experience the culture of which those works were a part. In addition to reading a novel, for example, students can visit the Making of America site and read a newspaper or magazine which circulated the same year and touched on the same topics. Reading the reviews which the novel provoked can be a real eye-opener. Being able to see who got angry and why can tell you a great deal about what the novel said to readers of that time.
The web can provide access to many kinds of resources which are not readily available outside of major research libraries. In some cases, they offer materials which would otherwise be available in a single repository (especially to students). For example, when my class was reading Edward Bellamy's Looking Backwards last year, we became involved in looking into the kinds of alternative communities which Americans were forming during that period. We found it surprising, but useful, to encounter such things as Shaker Manuscripts On-Line - Prophecies, Revelations and World Outreach from the Early Shakers in our investigations.
By giving students the opportunity to sample popular culture rather than only the works from the canon, web resources can usefully complicate students' understanding of other times and places. It's one thing to read essays on "women's rights," for example, and another thing entirely to read the kind of story which appeared under that name in Godey's Lady's Book from April, 1850.
When I set out to design an assignment, I start by thinking about what aspect of the text will be most likely to confuse students in a way that prevents them from developing an understanding of the work. From that point, I go on to think about what primary resource materials I can supply that will allow students to build a foundation for their reading. One reason students are so resistant to Edith Wharton's novel, The House of Mirth, is because they find it hard to accept that Lily Bart's life as an unmarried woman should be so dominated by codes of etiquette. Lily's guardianis described as a "woman of the (18)50's" and presumably subscribes to the codes outlined in the conduct books so popular in that period. Lily's rich friends, on the other hand, are more concerned about whether people behave according to the "refined" rules of etiquette that ruled high society life in turn-of-the-century New York. And a third "code" comes into play in the novel as we meet Lily's cousin and loyal supporter, Gertie Farish, who lives according to the ideals articulated in the mission statements of the benevolent organizations of that day. Students who have had a chance to peruse conduct manuals, etiquette books, and reports of benevolent societies and social activists are more able to recognize the seriousness of Lily's plight and the social commentary offered by the novel. You can see the assignments I designed to help students make use of these materials in their work with the novel at An Edith Wharton Project at the Lyceum.
Whenever possible, I try to take advantage of the power of graphical materials.
I can remember all too clearly the frustrations involved in trying to teach Wuthering Heights to students who believed that a moor looked like a desert, or maybe a backyard garden. Passing around a tourist flyer helped--they noticed there weren't dunes and camels--but it didn't seem like an ideal solution. And passing around dim xeroxes of Hogarth's "The Rake's Progress" seemed like a good idea at the time in my eighteenth century literature course, but only because there wasn't any alternative. Some things need to be seen to be understood.
Graphics can help students understand that they are studying the work or conditions of "real" people rather than stick figures, even though those people may be of other times or places. When my students read Hamlin Garland's Main-Travelled Roads, I have them look for pictures of frontier farm life. (And although it sounds like--and is-- a very simple thing to do, seeing a picture of the person who wrote the book they are reading can help students realize that the author was a "real" person too. Pictures of Hamlin Garland sitting outside his tent during the gold rush, pencil and paper in hand, bring him to life.) Moreover, graphics can provide a direct kind of access not only to the physical conditions which prevailed in other times and places but also to the attitudes which went along with them. It's easier for students to grasp the real depth of feeling which the flow of immigrants provoked in some Americans, for example, when they look at political cartoons like these A View of Immigrants and "The Poor House." The class tensions that appear in much of the literature of the Gilded Age are easy to understand once one contrasts images of the Newport mansions with Jacob Riis's pictures in How the Other Half Lives. (If you want to see how I use this kind of material in the classroom, you can look at my page on Rich and Poor in Turn-of-the-Century America at the Lyceum.) While graphics can reveal the surprisingly sharp edge of a particular viewpoint, sometimes pictures can be even more valuable as a way of demonstrated complicated ideas or attitudes. For example, I have used Thomas Cole's paintings as a way of inviting students to contemplate some of the complex reactions which progress evoked in nineteenth century America.
The history of the book movement has brought a new consciousness of the value of the book or manuscript as an artifact. The idea is that physical evidence offers a particular kind of witness to the culture in which the work was produced. Although the web is a "virtual reality" environment, paradoxically it can provide students with better access to artifacts than the traditional classroom. For example, the following Broadside: $100 Reward could be useful in a discussion of slavery. The notebooks Walt Whitman kept while nursing wounded soldiers during the Civil War (complete with his bloodstained fingerprints) could bring a new dimension to discussions of Whitman's war poetry. And sometimes you can judge a book by its covers--it becomes easier to grasp the optimistic fanaticism of nineteenth century self-help books when you can see the pictures which beckoned readers. This page of Horatio Alger Resources would make a wonderful starting-point for a discussion.
The real point is that graphics can serve as legitimate evidence for making serious academic arguments. For example, a reader who wished to analyze the way that changing times affected the presentation and reception of a canonical work, for example, could use the following Pictures of Jim which are available at the University of Virginia's wonderful Huck Finn site. Although few faculty members outside of the arts have been received much training in interpreting and applying visual evidence, it is clear that this kind of source material will take on increasing importance as technology makes graphical resources more broadly available.
If you would like to see an example of an assignment that asks students to analyze graphical evidence as one way of developing an interpretation of a text, you are welcome to visit my page on Frederick Douglass's Use of American Iconography. To see how that project fits into our study of Douglass, you can turn to the page on Contextualizing Frederick Douglass.
I try to structure individual assignments to be manageable and meaningful.
In order to make short assignments manageable, I try to pose a focused question and a recommended format. In order to make final projects manageable, I try to use short assignments as building blocks. In order to insure that an assignment is meaningful, I try to raise questions which contribute to our progress in understanding the overall question of the course. For a look at some of my previous assignments and projects, you can visit my syllabus from Spring, 1998 or the syllabus from Fall, 1999. For examples of some assignments constructed by other teachers which I think of as useful models, see America in the 1890s: A Chronology and Humanities Time Capsules.
I also try to construct a structure for the semester which moves students through the inquiry process one step at a time.
At each stage, I ask students to report on their progress and consult regarding their next step. I often try to have students work in the first part of the semester on weekly assignments which immerse them in the material and help them find a particular interest. By the middle of the semester, I expect them to frame a specific research question and begin their investigations. Here is a description of the final projects students completed in one Nineteenth Century American Literature course: Final Project Guidelines (Notice that the preliminary proposals are due in March.) And here is the questionaire students completed before coming for individual conferences when beginning research towards those projects: Research Worksheet.
I give students regular opportunities to report on what they have found.
Each week, my student make informal reports on their research. If they have been using web-resources, they sit or stand in front of the class, showing us what they found and talking about why they thought it was imortant. My students' in-class reports provide a chance for me to encourage students to share what they have learned while also taking their thinking to a deeper level. Here are some of the questions I typically pose: What research methods worked or didn't work? What did you do when you encountered failure? What evidence enables you to determine that the source you are using is credible? And what does this evidence contribute to our inquiry? How does it: raise a new question, confirm or contrast with something we previously encountered, or provide a new way of understanding the topic?
Students sometimes find it a bit uncomfortable to come before the class to report, especially at first. If nothing else, it gives them practice in presenting their ideas in a public forum. However, it has more immediate pay-offs which students come to appreciate. Knowing that they need to report keeps their research focused on meeting the particular goal of the assignment. That helps keep them from getting lost in cyberspace. Most rewarding of all, students really enjoy showing off when they have found something special in the course of their investigations. The rapt attention of class (and teacher) provides the kind of immediate positive reinforcement which makes students think of research as something that they do well and enjoy doing.
I consistently design assignments and evaluation criteria intended to make sure that students read "intensively" and not just "extensively."
As texts have moved from the papyrus roll to the manuscript, then to the printed page, and now to the digitized image, an "economy of scarcity" has become an "economy of abundance." That evolution has profoundly affected how we read. Historian of the book David Hall has documented the way in which the move from a manuscript culture to a print culture gradually resulted in a shift from "intensive" to "extensive" reading. In a setting in which printed works were relatively scarce, readers approached the printed materials, whether sacred or secular, as precious objects. Samuel Goodrich, whose work as a publisher in the nineteenth century contributed to the "abundance" of printing, testified that reading had been a different kind of experience in his boyhood:
Books and newspapers . . . were read respectfully, and as if they were grave matters, demanding thought and attention. They were not toys and pastimes, taken up every day and by everybody, in the short intervals of labor, and then hastily dismissed, like waste paper. The aged sat down when they read, and drew forth their specatacles, and put them deliberately and reverently upon the nose . . . . Even the young approached a book with reverence, and a newspaper with awe. How the world has changed! (quoted by John F. Kasson, Rudeness & Civility: Manners in Nineteenth Century Urban America)
This tension between intensive and extensive reading creates a dilemna for teachers. Research requires extensive reading as a basis for intensive reading.
Working on the web has a tendency to foster extensive reading at the expense of intensive reading. There are a couple of reasons for this phenomenon. First, even if you have discovered the most remarkable web-site imaginable on the topic you are investigating, you always feel an irresistable urge to take a look around the next corner and find what else is out there. Maybe the next thing will be more amazing. Second, it is simply difficult to read long texts on a computer screen. No one fantasizes about curling up with a monitor to read Great Expectations on a long, rainy afternoon. (Look at the illustrations--maybe.) Third, investigating web sites instills the habit of pointing and clicking. Together, all these factors mean that web-based activities can have the effect of shortening our already-short attention spans.
With this fact in mind, I design assignments which consistently call for old-fashioned "close reading." Each time students read a work of literature or locate a resource on the web they are responsible for writing a brief summary and analysis in response. The ability to find superb material on the web is useless (and does not earn a passing grade) unless the student is able to offer a reasonable comment about its significance.
I use e-mail to make the course into a collaborative inquiry. Students share their progress on an ongoing basis and can consult regularly with me or with one another.
E-mail allows students to exchange information and ideas with one another. It also allows me to monitor their progress and tp develop a working mentoring relationship with my students. I respond to some mailings individually; other times I base class discussion on the mailings.
Sometimes I refer students to other students in the class as sources of information and advice. (put ex. here.)
I have learned the hard way I must warn students against always expecting a quick turn-around on e-mail. When someone submits a draft for advice at three a.m., s/he may not get back comments before the final version is due at nine.
Technological resources supplement--but don't replace--books and libraries. So I work to make sure students connect web research and traditional resarch.
This principle affects how I design the materials, activities, and assignments for the course. My course pages always include direct links to the college's library resources and academic databases; it also includes a telnet link to the American Antiquarian Society. During the semester, I invite librarians to offer classroom workshops on how to access library resources via the web, and I take students to the library for workshops using standard resources. When possible, I take my students on a "field trip" to the Antiquarian Society to see the kinds of resources and work which is part of the life of a major research library. When students submit their proposals for final projects , they are required to offer a plan which explains what kinds of resources they are seeking, why they are interested in those kinds of resources, and how they propose to find them. Unless they can present a compelling justification for focusing exclusively on web-based research, students know from both the proposal form and the project description that they are required to include traditional research in their proposals and final projects. And if you look at the final examination for my Fall, 1999 Major American Writers course, you will see that the resources I provide are designed to move students from the web to the library. I see the resources page as a kind of "sampler platter" that whets my students' appetite for reading and responding to the theories of scholars.
Technological projects offer an alternative--but need not be a replacement--for standard kinds of assignments. As long as the expectations and evaluation criteria are clearly equivalent, I find it useful to let students choose whether they will turn in research papers or web projects.
While resources and assignments change, evaluation criteria should remain essentially the same.
Style is no substitute for substance. An abundance of pictures, presented in an attractive layout, cannot take the place of analysis.
As the teacher of a course involving web-based inquiry, I see myself serving as an archivist, a mentor, and a coordinator.
I need to serve as an archivist, collecting useful resources which can serve as a starting point for further investigation.
I try to serve as a mentor, assisting student researchers as they: set up goals and timetables; frame good questions; devise effective inquiry strategies; locate promising sources; draft, evaluate, and revise their projects.
I also function as a coordinator, helping students bring together the results of their individual inquiries into a broader, yet unified discussion.
ADVANTAGES & DISADVANTAGES OF WEB-BASED TEACHING:
- The time and energy required.
- Teaching with the web requires you to acquire new pedagogical and technological skills. Learning always involves experiences of failure, and when you are teaching your failures will be visible. You have to be willing to live with that.
- Even if you do everything right, there will always come times when technology fails. The teacher is the technology of last resort. Be ready to talk when the connection dies.
- Because each student is pursuing his or her own investigation, your work as a mentor is multiplied.
- The time and energy required.
- If the course works, you won't know everything that all of your students know. That is also one of the biggest advantages.
- As my mother said when my husband and I bought our first home: "With a house, there's always something." That's also true with web-based teaching. You are never done building pages, finding new resources, sending e-mail, or constructing new projects. Again, this is also an advantage. The course keeps growing, and you learn to teach your students that research is always a work in progress.
- And did I mention the time and energy required?
- Your students can have access to a wide variety of previously unavailable primary and secondary resources.
- The plentiful supply of materials makes it possible for students to become immersed in the subject and pursue independent research projects.
- You can vary the pace of class periods in a way which keeps students actively engaged. A single session can be made up of a combination of lecture, discussion, research, and reports. Alternatively, different sessions can be devoted to different activities.
- The fact that students an pursue their individual interests in their own ways and at their own speeds seems to promote a sense of involvement in the course. Paradoxically, this seems to be especially beneficial both for those students who are below or above the class average. No one needs to be left behind or kept from moving forward.
- The experience of making unexpected discoveries and the opportunity of showing their results to their classmates, their families, and perhaps even the world at large reinforces students' involvement in their course projects.
- Although students do much of their work independently, the teacher has the opportunity to develop closer mentoring relationships with individual students. While the class as a whole is researching on the web or writing reports, the teacher can take advantage of the time for mini-conferences with individual students. E-mail provides additional opportunities for individualized consultations, and the relatively informal and personal nature of e-mail communication can allow discussions to be even more personal than face-to-face conversations.
- The fact that the work of the course is visible makes it easier to maintain high standards. Students can see the level of work being produced by their fellow students, and the ability to compare and contrast can make it easier for a student to recognize that his or her project is not yet sufficiently developed. Students can also benefit from using the work of other students as models (whether the "other students" are in the same room or out in the world of the web.)
- There is more discussion, Because of e-mail the course is going on all the time, even days the class doesn't meet.
- Finally we have the solution for the age-old problem of night-owl students who need to discuss a draft with early-bird teachers who need to discuss a draft. The answer is "asynchronous conferencing"--a fancy phrase for "you e-mail me at three in the morning while I'm sleeping and I'll respond at eight when you're finally in bed."
- Although you tend to work more, you also tend to enjoy it more. The variety of resources available now makes it more possible to shape courses which more directly reflect the teacher's own research interests. And students sometimes find resources in your own field you have never previously encountered--which is a source of real delight for both of you. The teacher can keep learning along with the students. This is why most of us went into teaching in the first place.