Digital Pedagogy: Twitter, Close Reading, and Learning/Teaching in Public

This is a quick overview of a variety of different digital pedagogy exercises and assignments I have developed for my traditional literature seminars and feminist, gender and sexuality classes at Stanford this past year.  Please take a look–feedback welcome!

Using Twitter for Crowdsourcing and Role-Play Exercises:

A Public Literary Twitter Role-Play: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (October 2012)

Literary Twitter Role-Play, Redux: Dorian Gray and Friends–A Decadent Soiree (March 2014)

My Queer Valentine: A Valentine’s Day assignment on queer literature, film, the arts, and popular culture

Close Reading and Communicative-Associative Reading:

An Image and Sound Interpretation of Wilde’s poem “The Harlot’s House”

A Collective Translation and Commentary for Charles Baudelaire’s “Hymn to Beauty”

Surrealist Visual Art and Literature, Collaborative Interpretation Exercise and “Exquisite Corpse Poem”

Thinking about Queer Genders and Sexualities, Then and Now: Bringing Past and Present Together

Learning and Teaching in Public:

Students’ Final Teaching Projects for a Queer Literature and Film Class: Turning Students into Teachers (developing their own Gender and Sexuality Studies mini-course and teaching materials for community groups, high schools, other college classes)

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Filed under MOOC musings

Reimagining the History and Future of Queer Studies in Higher Education: By Students, For Students

This coming academic year, the HASTAC alliance is launching an exciting new project, a loosely affiliated collection and cross-pollination of courses and instructors interested in studying, probing, debating, and reimagining The History and Future of Higher Education. Initiated by Cathy Davidson (who will also teach a Coursera MOOC on the theme alongside her face-to-face class), colleagues and students will be interrogating the topic from various angles and from our current perspective on the past and present moment of higher education–through a glass, darkly, so to speak.  This seems like an especially apt metaphor since many of us are actively engaged in rethinking the relationship of (computer) screens to face-to-face education.

I won’t be offering a whole course on this topic, but I’m excited to contribute a teaching cluster on a topic near and dear to my heart: the history and future of LGBTQ studies in higher education.  My Stanford course entitled Queer Literature and Film, on the agenda for next Fall and meant for undergraduates and graduate students in Comparative Literature and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, will turn into a collaborative, hands-on digital teaching project by students, for students in the last three weeks of the course.  Students will learn how to apply and build on what they themselves have learned in the course, in order to teach others as they would like to see our topic taught: the history, present, and future of queer representation in literature and film from the 1890s to 2013 and beyond.  In small groups of two or three, they will develop a “mini crash course” on the history and present of representations of LGBTQ people in literature and film, designed as a compact three-week syllabus package complete with texts, handouts, assignments, and visual or video excerpts.  It will most probably be aimed at high schoolers, incoming college students, and the general public, the populations most likely to benefit most from our material. The students’ general task starts here:

After having learned about important milestones and developments for LGBTQ representation in literature and film since the 1890s, what would you want others to know and consider when they first learn about these topics, and why?  Ideally, what should teaching the history, present, and future of queerness in literature and film look like, for your generation, and why? What would you [Stanford students] do in a course for others that this course has not yet done?  

The goal is to use what you have learned, making choices, picking the most important ideas and points, milestones, problems, conundrums in the history of LGBTQ representations in literature and film and build a pedagogical sequence out of it—use both new knowledge and research skills to put together an interesting, engaging package for others that “makes sense” as a brief unit and has specific teaching goals, to be defined and explained in your course rationale, to accompany the syllabus and materials you will develop.

Public function: aim your course at a specific audience (define it, research it). Put your course rationale in context with current debates and controversies about LGBTQ rights in the United States.

Each student-developed mini crash course will engage the students who develop it in textual research, teaches them how to construct a pedagogically structured syllabus that makes sense and helps learners learn and connect the dots through a set of self-developed teaching materials (such as a certain number of handouts to support the syllabus topics and texts) and a written-up rationale for the course.  There will also be a class conference in which the final projects will be presented and undergo a peer review process: each group ranks and gives constructive feedback on the other groups’ projects, then gets a chance to revise its own based on others’ feedback.  (Hey, we may even develop our own sets of badges for the in-class conference.)  Finally, there will be an official launch of our teaching units made freely available to teachers and other students on the web, advertised on social media and our various personal and professional networks. I’ll encourage simple web pages–they can do this without much technical skill.  I’ll coach students along the way, but much learning will take place in the group setting as well, by design.  Reflecting and strategizing on how to get from A to B and the possible choices and steps along the way, will be integral components of this work.

Talk about grades as motivators? I hope that the grade I give each student at the end will be just one part of a much larger set of motivating factors for students’ work in this course, as they will know from the beginning that everything they learn about the history and present of queer literature and film will be building blocks for their own teaching projects and writing at the end of the course, and as they experience the collective brain of their peers who will know and critique their work along with me.  The idea of teaching others in the most responsible, interesting way, and publicly so, with intellectual accountability, can be downright thrilling.  For the purpose of spreading the word on the finished products, I could imagine the students writing to and offering their mini courses to LGBTQ community centers and programs at high schools and colleges around the country.  And finally, I hope that my class will get a chance to interact with students in other classes on The History and Future of Higher Education, to contribute our hands-on example of reimagining at least a small portion of it from the student perspective.  I bet these students will know their stuff by the end of the course!

In a recent talk at MLA 2013, Cathy Davidson publicly called for greater pedagogical investment in what she wonderfully termed “critical contribution,” students’ public service to society’s knowledge and skills as a necessary sister art to that holy grail of a college education, “critical thinking,” whose primary focus is on the individual, not the collective brain.  I fully embrace this notion, and I’d also add to it a “learning in public” component: throwing the classroom open to the world is a powerful tool and motivator for the students themselves and gives their work a sense of purpose that can go way beyond grades. I see wonderful potential in critical contribution and learning in public, not just for the public who benefits from the students’ expertise but also for the students themselves, who will live and breathe the contrat social of teaching and learning.

I love the idea of a teaching unit/cluster instead of a whole course, by the way. “The course” is an increasingly questionable unit in the digital pedagogy realm because it is so narrow and ill suited to the “always available, always open” nature of the web.  In addition, by dedicating only two or three, admittedly precious, weeks of a face-to-face class in a regular semester or quarter to a teaching experiment such as this one, we can experiment from where we stand, with what we usually teach, and try to learn something ourselves as well.  Another wonderful contrat social: teachers as co-learners.

If this experiment goes well, what a powerful experience it will be for the students and for me, and how much better and publicly useful than anything I (as the initial teacher of the Stanford course) ever could come up with.  As we imagine the History and the Future of Higher Education, let’s think about what we teach already, let’s experiment with how it could or should be taught with digital means not only to translate it but to make it better, and most importantly—let the students have a voice in the future of their own education.

NOTE:  An update on the students’ completed assignment can be found here, and students’ teaching projects can be found here.


Filed under Literature musings, MOOC musings

A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age

Early this morning, the Chronicle of Higher Education broke the story of our “MOOC summit,” as we affectionately called it.  I am  proud to have been part of such a distinguished, smart, passionate group of education experts who want to pay attention to the most pressing issues of learning in the digital age.  We endorse students’ and learners’ rights wholeheartedly.  Please see our invitation and a link to participate in a public dialogue at the end of this document. 



Work on this Bill of Rights & Principles began in Palo Alto, California, on December 14, 2012. We convened a group of people passionate about learning, about serving today’s students, and about using every tool we could imagine to respond better to the needs of students in a global, interactive, digitally connected world.

The Internet has made it possible for anyone on the planet to be a student, a teacher, and a creative collaborator at virtually no cost.  Novel technologies that can catalyze learning are bubbling up in less time than it takes to read this sentence.  Some have emerged from universities, some from the private sector, some from individuals and digital communities.  In the past year, Massive Online Open Courseware, or MOOCs, have become the darling of the moment–lauded by the media, embraced by millions–so new, so promising in possibility, and yet so ripe for exploitation.

We believe that online learning represents a powerful and potentially awe-inspiring opportunity to make new forms of learning available to all students worldwide, whether young or old, learning for credit, self-improvement, employment, or just pleasure.  We believe that online courses can create “meaningful” as well as “massive” learning opportunities.

We are aware of how much we don’t know: that we have yet to explore the full pedagogical potential of learning online, of how it can change the ways we teach, the ways we learn, and the ways we connect.

And we worry that this moment is fragile, that history frequently and painfully repeats itself. Think of television in the 1950s or even correspondence courses in the 1920s. As we begin to experiment with how novel technologies might change learning and teaching, powerful forces threaten to neuter or constrain technology, propping up outdated educational practices rather than unfolding transformative ones.

All too often, during such wrenching transitions, the voice of the learner gets muffled.

For that reason, we feel compelled to articulate the opportunities for students in this brave electronic world, to assert their needs and–we dare say–rights.

We also recognize some broader hopes and aspirations for the best online learning. We include those principles as an integral addendum to the Bill of Rights below.

Our broad goal is to inspire an open, learner-centered dialogue around the rights, responsibilities, and possibilities for education in the globally-connected world of the present and beyond.

I.  Bill of Rights

We believe that our culture is increasingly one in which learning, unlearning and relearning are as fundamental to our survival and prosperity as breathing. To that end, we believe that all students have inalienable rights which transfer to new and emerging digital environments. They include:

The right to access
Everyone should have the right to learn: traditional students, non-traditional students, adults, children, and teachers, independent of age, gender, race, social status, sexual orientation, economic status, national origin, bodily ability, and environment anywhere and everywhere in the world. To ensure the right to access, learning should be affordable and available, offered in myriad formats, to students located in a specific place and students working remotely, adapting itself to people’s different lifestyles, mobility needs, and schedules.  Online learning has the potential to ensure that this right is a reality for a greater percentage of the world’s population than has ever been realizable before.

The right to privacy
Student privacy is an inalienable right regardless of whether learning takes place in a brick-and-mortar institution or online.  Students have a right to know how data collected about their participation in the online system will be used by the organization and made available to others. The provider should offer clear explanations of the privacy implications of students’ choices.

The right to create public knowledge
Learners within a global, digital commons have the right to work, network, and contribute to knowledge in public; to share their ideas and their learning in visible and connected ways if they so choose.  Courses should encourage open participation and meaningful engagement with real audiences where possible, including peers and the broader public.

The right to own one’s personal data and intellectual property
Students also have the right to create and own intellectual property and data associated with their participation in online courses.  Online programs should encourage openness and sharing, while working to educate students about the various ways they can protect and license their data and creative work.  Any changes in terms of service should be clearly communicated by the provider, and they should never erode the original terms of privacy or the intellectual property rights to which the student agreed.

The right to financial transparency
Students have a right to know how their participation supports the financial health of the online system in which they are participating.  They have a right to fairness, honesty, and transparent financial accounting.  This is also true of courses that are “free.”  The provider should offer clear explanations of the financial implications of students’ choices.

The right to pedagogical transparency

Students have the right to understand the intended outcomes–educational, vocational, even philosophical–of an online program or initiative.  If a credential or badge or certification is promised by the provider, its authenticity, meaning, and intended or historical recognition by others (such as employers or academic institutions) should be clearly established and explained.

The right to quality and care
Students have the right to care, diligence, commitment, honesty and innovation.  They are not being sold a product–nor are they the product being sold.  They are not just consumers.  Education is also about trust.  Learning–not corporate profit–is the principal purpose of all education.

The right to have great teachers
All students need thoughtful teachers, facilitators, mentors and partners in learning, and learning environments that are attentive to their specific learning goals and needs.  While some of us favor peer learning communities, all of us recognize that, in formal educational settings, students should expect–indeed demand–that the people arranging, mentoring and facilitating their learning online be financially, intellectually and pedagogically valued and supported by institutions of higher learning and by society.  Teachers’ know-how and working conditions are students’ learning conditions.

The right to be teachers
In an online environment, teachers no longer need to be sole authority figures but instead should share responsibility with learners at almost every turn.  Students can participate and shape one another’s learning through peer interaction, new content, enhancement of learning materials and by forming virtual and real-world networks. Students have the right to engaged participation in the construction of their own learning. Students are makers, doers, thinkers, contributors, not just passive recipients of someone else’s lecture notes or methods.  They are critical contributors to their disciplines, fields, and to the larger enterprise of education.

II.  Principles

The following are principles to which the best online learning should aspire.  We believe the merit of specific courses, programs, or initiatives can be judged on the strength of their adherence to these principles and encourage students and professors to seek out and create digital learning environments that follow and embody them.

Global contribution
Online learning should originate from everywhere on the globe, not just from the U.S. and other technologically advantaged countries.  The best courses will be global in design and contribution, offering multiple and multinational perspectives.  They should maximize opportunities for students from different countries to collaborate with one another, to contribute local knowledge and histories and to learn one another’s methods, assumptions, values, knowledge and points of view.

The function of learning is to allow students to equip themselves to address the challenges and requirements of life and work. Online learning can serve as a vehicle for skills development, retraining, marketable expertise.  It can also support self-improvement, community engagement, intellectual challenge, or play.  All of these functions are valid. The best programs and initiatives should clearly state the potential contexts in which they offer value.

Students should have many options for online learning, not simply a digitized replication of the majors, minors, requirements, courses, schedules and institutional arrangements of conventional universities.  The best online learning programs will not simply mirror existing forms of university teaching but offer students a range of flexible learning opportunities that take advantage of new digital tools and pedagogies to widen these traditional horizons, thereby better addressing 21st-century learner interests, styles and lifelong learning needs.  Ideally, they will also suggest and support new forms of interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary inquiry that are independent of old gatekeepers such as academic institutions or disciplines, certification agencies, time-to-degree measurements, etc.

Hybrid learning
Freed from time and place, online learning should nonetheless be connected back to multiple locations around the world and not tethered exclusively to the digital realm.  This can happen by building in apprenticeships, internships and real-world applications of online problem sets.  Problem sets might be rooted in real-world dilemmas or comparative historical and cultural perspectives.  (Examples might include: “Organizing Disaster Response and Relief for Hurricane Sandy” or “Women’s Rights, Rape, and Culture” or “Designing and Implementing Gun Control:  A Global Perspective.”)

Learning is emergent, a lifelong pursuit, not relegated to the brick walls of an institution or to a narrow window of time during life; it has no specific end point. The artificial divisions of work, play and education cease to be relevant in the 21st century.  Learning begins on a playground and continues perpetually in other playgrounds, individual and shared workspaces, communities and more.  Learning can be assessed but doesn’t aim itself exclusively toward assessment.

Both technical and pedagogical innovation should be hallmarks of the best learning environments.  A wide variety of pedagogical approaches, learning tools, methods and practices should support students’ diverse learning modes.  Online learning should be flexible, dynamic, and individualized rather than canned or standardized.  One size or approach does not fit all.

Formative assessment
Students should have the opportunity to revise and relearn until they achieve the level of mastery they desire in a subject or a skill.  Online learning programs or initiatives should strive to transform assessment into a rich, learner-oriented feedback system where students are constantly receiving information aimed at guiding their learning paths.  In pedagogical terms, this means emphasizing individualized and timely (formative) rather than end-of-learning (summative) assessment.  Similarly, instructors should use such feedback to improve their teaching practices.  Assessment is only useful insofar as it helps to foster a culture of success and enjoyment in learning.

Experimentation should be an acknowledged affordance and benefit of online learning. Students should be able to try a course and drop it without incurring derogatory labels such as failure (for either the student or the institution offering the course).  Through open discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of programs, the industry should develop crowd-sourced evaluative guides to help learners choose the online learning that best fits their needs.

Courses should encourage interaction and collaboration between students wherever it enhances the learning experience.  Such programs should encourage student contributions of content, perspectives, methods, reflecting their own cultural and individual perspectives.  Online learning programs or initiatives have a responsibility to share those contributions in an atmosphere of integrity and respect.  Students have the right and responsibility to promote and participate in generous, kind, constructive communication within their learning environment.

Open online education should inspire the unexpected, experimentation, and questioning–in other words, encourage play. Play allows us to make new things familiar, to perfect new skills, to experiment with moves and crucially to embrace change–a key disposition for succeeding in the 21st century.  We must cultivate the imagination and the dispositions of questing, tinkering and connecting.  We must remember that the best learning, above all, imparts the gift of curiosity, the wonder of accomplishment, and the passion to know and learn even more.

* * *

DATE:  January 25, 2013


John Seely Brown, University of Southern California and Deloitte Center for the Edge
Betsy Corcoran, Co-founder, CEO, EdSurge (
Cathy N. Davidson, Distinguished Professor of English and Interdisciplinary Studies, Co-Director PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge, Duke University, and cofounder Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (
Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Lecturer in Comparative Literature, Stanford University; blogs about literature and digital pedagogy at
Todd Edebohls, CEO of careers and education service Inside Jobs (
Mark J. Gierl, Professor of Educational Psychology, Canada Research Chair in Educational Measurement, and Director, Centre for Research in Applied Measurement and Evaluation, University of Alberta, Canada
Sean Michael Morris, Educational Outreach for Hybrid Pedagogy ( and Part-time Faculty in the English and Digital Humanities Program at Marylhurst University in Portland, OR
(Jan) Philipp Schmidt, Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU, and MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow
Bonnie Stewart, Ph.D candidate and Sessional Lecturer, Faculty of Education, University of Prince Edward Island, Canada; blogs at
Jesse Stommel, Director of Hybrid Pedagogy ( and Director of English and Digital Humanities at Marylhurst University in Portland, OR
Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity (, Google Fellow and Research Professor in Computer Science, Stanford University
Audrey Watters, Writer, Hack Education (

* * * * * * * * * * * *


To join the discussion, visit one of the many platforms where this Bill of Rights and Principles is being published and blogged about (each of us, and each of the platforms, will likely create a different sort of engagement).  We invite further discussion, hacking, and forking of this document.  On Twitter, please use the hashtag #learnersrights when you share your versions and responses.  Finally, and most importantly, this document can’t be complete (can never be complete) without continuous and dynamic contributions and revising by students.  We invite students everywhere to read this beginning, to talk about it, to add to it.

Additional resources:

We have not included reading resources here but invite you to add the ones most meaningful to you in the public, crowd-sourced version of the Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age, at  Collective contribution is the principle we espouse in this document.  We look forward to your participation.



Filed under MOOC musings

Married to the MOOC (Part 1)

(Note:   This is the first, slightly amended part of  a  paper I gave in the “Literature and Digital Pedagogies” session at the MLA (Modern Language Association) conference in Boston in January 2013.  The abstracts and overall description of the session can be found here.  Further installments will be added soon.)

In the Fall of 2011, my husband Sebastian Thrun, then a professor of Computer Science at Stanford and a Google Fellow working on self-driving cars and Google Glass, decided to take his Artificial Intelligence class online.  Little did he know what sort of an avalanche he would kick loose, resulting in what the New York Times sensationally dubbed “The Year of the MOOC.” Sebastian sent a single email to a professional organization announcing that his colleague Peter Norvig and he would offer the AI class on the internet in parallel with Sebastian’s Stanford class, with the same materials, deadlines, and expectations but open to anyone, anywhere in the world, for free.  The virtual students were given the chance to  measure themselves against the Stanford students.  They would have to pass the same quizzes and exams.  They would receive not official credit, but a certificate of completion from Sebastian and Peter, two well-known experts in the field of AI.

Within just a few days, thousands of students signed up; the New York Times picked up the story and enrollment soared; within a few weeks, 160,000 students had signed up from all over the world: all ages, backgrounds, nationalities.

So all of a sudden, without much warning, I found myself married to the MOOC.

Sebastian and Peter recorded most of their lectures and quizzes at night in our basement, when our then four-year-old son was asleep upstairs.  The recording equipment included an ingenious low-tech set-up of an ordinary household camera mounted on a tower of wooden building blocks borrowed from our son’s play room.  But history was in the making: “AI class”  officially became the largest class ever taught up to that point, with students participating from almost every single country in the world.

Enter the frenzied press coverage of the past year.  It was hard to keep up with the headlines, interviews, stories, and op-eds.  There were weeks when Sebastian seemed to be interviewed almost simultaneously by WIRED, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the HuffPost, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and various bloggers.  Not a month seemed to go by without some national media announcement of a new venture capital investment or a new non-profit in higher education: MITx, Udacity (the company my husband co-founded with David Stavesn adn Mike Sokolsky), edX, Coursera, Udemy, Codecademy; the list goes on.  And of course, the original inspiration behind many of these—definitely behind Udacity—has been the success of Khan Academy in K-12 education, as summarized Sal Khan’s original TED talk (which has over 2 million hits on youtube by now).

All the media hype around MOOCs—the idea that they are a dangerous disruption to the higher education ideals in this country, that universities as we know them will be going down the drain, that the for-profit model sells out all true intellectual value–tends to drone out the really exciting, difficult, and important issues we should all be talking about.  These include students’ rights, equal access to higher education, new and smarter forms of digital pedagogy, global connectedness, the role of the humanities in all this, and also, of course, increasingly, academic labor issues, which are not to be underestimated.  As someone who has lived different career roles as graduate student, Assistant Professor, and Lecturer in the embattled Humanities (which come with their own darling doomsday scenarios), I am very supportive of faculty rights discussions, especially concerning adjunct labor.  But the students, our primary care and concern, the reason why we went into teaching in the first place, have yet to enter the conversations about MOOCs in full force, to speak themselves, to speak with us, to be heard, not be addressed as  mere numbers or recipient addenda to our conversations about money, scale, tactical problem-solving.

A quick word about MOOCs, since that word gets thrown around so much these days.  Udacity, Coursera, edX and so forth have dominated the talk about MOOCs this year, but most people still don’t know or acknowledge that MOOCs are actually not new.  The term was coined by Dave Cormier at University of Prince Edward Island in Canada in 2008, and the concept emerged out of the open educational resources movement and the connectivist movement.  George Siemens and Stephen Downes, also Canadians, first applied the term to a connectivist MOOC—or cMOOC (George Siemens’s coinage)- they taught in 2008; they based their work, in turn, on David Wiley’s work on openness and Alec Couros’ early open (2007-2010) courses at the University of Regina.  Bonnie Stewart, also of University of Prince Edward Island, has blogged eloquently about the mainstream media’s early erasure of that history and the main differences between the two pedagogical approaches, and she was gracious enough to share some of her insights with me in an email conversation.

To lay out the differences briefly, one might say that in cMOOCs, the network of participants largely generates the contents of the class or project in distributed fashion, that is on a common course platform as well as in a myriad of other digital venues, in real time, together.  By comparison, the courses that run on Udacity, EdX, Coursera, Udemy, etc., and which are now commonly called xMOOCs by people who know and care about this history, are comparatively closer to the traditional teacher-centric model of teaching, where predetermined content gets delivered through a specifically developed platform, or more often a taping of the physical classroom or prof’s office, and you see and hear talking heads (one or more).  Commonly now, you may also see a hand writing or drawing on a tablet with accompanying voiceover, as if a personal tutor is sitting next to you, explaining something one on one.  In the better xMOOCs, the lectures are short and stopped often for interactive quizzes, where you are prompted to practice and demonstrate what you have learned before the lecture moves on.  Lectures are rewindable and usually, you can try more than once and until you get it right: teaching to mastery, instead of instantly penalizing for errors and failure.

Most xMOOCs to date remain STEM-oriented, and specific skills or problem-solving strategies and knowledge are taught and assessed for correctness.  This approach is clearly a problem for the humanities though: in our kind of teaching, there are usually no “correct” answers; most often we aim to open up more questions than definitively answering one. There are prearranged quizzes and exams with real deadlines; this is often where a lot of participants fall off the bandwagon (attrition is a problem—under 10% of most sign-ups currently actually finish a course).  For a sense of community, there is some form of monitored and curated peer interaction, usually in discussion fora in which TAs and teachers are active together with participants answering questions. Sometimes, there are real-world study groups or meet-ups, often organized by the students themselves. Most recently, Udacity has also started taking their cameras into the real world and sometimes other countries, to illustrate and motivate mathematical, statistical, or other science problems in the real world, with real-world applications and everyday materials—and sometimes these have even included our son’s Legos, which mysteriously went missing one morning …

But as this illustrates and most of you probably know, MOOCs are still the domain of science and technology, with very few forays into the humanities, such as Al Filreis’s enjoyable Modern Poetry MOOC out of UPenn through Coursera, which I also took (but did not finish).

So back to our dinner table at home.  There are some of immediately obvious critiques and the pitfalls with this pedagogy from the literary and cultural humanities perspective:  the current MOOC tools and methods are still rather primitive and at least in the humanities, just don’t cut it yet. Assessment is a big obstacle right now: not only do multiple choice quizzes and 300-word uncurated peer-graded essays with primitive rubrics not cut it, they also don’t even capture what is possible and desirable to do digitally in the humanities, and they do not assess the interactive and multimedia work that goes on in blogs, on social media, in tools like Omeka or collaborative presentations or crowd-sourced annotated bibliographies, for instance.  And the MOOC technology doesn’t give us many tools to do what we do best, discuss and crowdsource interpretations of texts—and maybe those can’t even be scaled.  But much more importantly, for me, current MOOCs with their rigid structure and format do not allow traditional humanists to play with innovative forms of reading and writing digitally—both receptively and productively—that would really allow us to exploit the uniqueness of the digital media environment.  The challenges not just for digital technology, but also for digital pedagogy, are huge and daunting, and just starting to be explored.

All this MOOC talk got me, a traditionally trained humanities teacher with a PhD in English and a passion for teaching literature and feminist and queer studies seminars, very excited and intrigued.

So what could this mean for someone like me—not someone trained in the Digital Humanities or even very versed in sophisticated online tools?   This past Fall, I set myself a challenge: I was going to figure out, in some small way, how digital pedagogy could work in the messy, real world, in a regular face-to-face humanities seminar, and I wasn’t going to be daunted or discouraged by the mega-MOOC or the fact that I’ve never taken a DH class in my life.  If the humanities are going to have a voice in this tidal wave of transformation, we better figure out some better, smarter ways to harness technology to our own ends—not someone else’s, and to get creative and bold, and hands on.  Of course, the Digital Humanities as a field is over 20 years old at this point and has developed a whole array of important areas and methods of study and teaching, but not too many have really infiltrated the typical seminar format and the way most literature classes are taught.  But we need to think through creative opportunities and challenges of digital pedagogies for traditional literature and language teaching as well, which is still the bulk of English and language departments’ courses, to explore the benefits and challenges of a hybrid format (a regular classroom with some online components), and perhaps then also increasingly in MOOCs.

So this past Fall at Stanford, I decided to take my seminar in Comparative Literature and French, “Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents,” partially online, to learn by doing.  I am not a techie kind of person by any means, and really new to the whole digital pedagogy idea.  I didn’t even know how to use WordPress before I started (and now here I am blogging on it like a pro).  I wanted to practically try out, experience on the ground and step by step, not just plan and speculate, how an ordinary, humanities teacher  can use digital components and social media (Twitter, Facebook, maybe Tumblr and Storify, nothing overly complex) to teach regular humanities students right here, right now.  The technology in this course needs to support and enhance the contents, not the other way around: no gimmicks for gimmicks’ sake.

What I wanted to do with my Stanford class was to really think about new ways of doing things digitally that would enhance what we already do well and value highly as our three pillars: close reading, critical thinking, critical writing.  I could not solve all three at once, so I started with the first, close reading, and just told myself I wanted to explore digital tools and design exercises with students that would harness the ways we can read, write, think, show and tell differently online: with sound and images, collaboratively or individually, in a playful creative or a scholarly analytical style, with variety, with simple tools, and open to new things.  I talked about my experiences and hopes at the beginning of that class in a recorded workshop at Duke University recently, kindly hosted by Professors Cathy Davidson and David Bell, the wonderful folks of HASTAC, the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge, and the John Hope Franklin Center for the Humanities at Duke University.

You can look at our class blog at your own leisure–there’s a lot of material there, and it’s a shared space to which both the students and I have contributed, and I also have some of meta teaching reflections on this blog, right here.  In my next post (or one of my next posts), I will take you through three examples of group close reading exercises I did with that class, that represent the kind of work and play I’d love to do more of.

And another class I’m teaching right now, Introduction to Comparative Queer Literary Studies, also at Stanford and flying solo without a whole tech team or a VC-funded company behind me, is now live online as well and will grow exponentially in the next few weeks.  In that particular class–because of the subject matter and particular potential vulnerabilities of the students taking it (LGBTQ and straight)–I am facing a whole other set of challenges around ensuring students’ privacy and personal comfort zones while enabling our collective contribution to public knowledge about queer literature and theory: an important balancing act between utmost pedagogical care and the pitfalls of doing public intellectual (and for some, perhaps emotional) work.  I believe ours may be the first LGBTQ-themed college or university class that consciously reaches out to the public.  It is important work, and it’s a privilege and an honor to do it.  I’ll try to do a good job.  Students, too, I know.

I will be blogging more about the ongoing challenges and excitements of taking the traditional humanities online and getting ourselves involved in the conversations around MOOCs.  Stay tuned.

All of this is a work in progress, just like any good marriage.

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MLA Special Session: Literature and Digital Pedagogies

MLA SPECIAL SESSION (chosen as part of the Presidential theme this year):

 795. Literature and Digital Pedagogies

Sunday, 6 January, 1:45–3:00 p.m., Fairfax A, Sheraton

Session Organizer:  Petra Dierkes-Thrun

Session Chair:  Anais Saint-Jude

General Description

In the wake of the recent successes of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in computer science and technical fields, it is time to think about what these new developments might mean for the humanities in higher education. While digital humanities experts have developed important new areas and methods of study and teaching, this session aims at traditionally trained teachers of literature and cultural studies who want to think through the most important creative opportunities, challenges, and necessary critiques of digital support systems and methods for traditional literature teaching. The major organizing questions for this panel are:

  • What could, should, and shouldn’t we do digitally, as traditional literature teachers, to make the humanities newly relevant and exciting to our students and ideally also the larger public in the 21st century?
  • How might established literary and cultural theory best meet emerging digital pedagogical practices?
  • What are some concrete creative ideas and practical opportunities for teaching literature digitally, as well as other theoretical or conceptual problems and developments that we should discuss today, so that our teaching can be smarter tomorrow?

Papers Presented

1.      “Teaching Modernism Traditionally and Digitally,” Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Stanford University

This paper will lay the groundwork and map out major pedagogical questions for the whole session before turning to concrete practical examples for digital strategies and resources for teaching comparative literature in a blended (hybrid digital and in-class) format.   The first part of the talk gives an insider’s perspective of last year’s Artificial Intelligence” MOOC taught at Stanford by Dierkes-Thrun’s husband Sebastian Thrun in the Fall of 2011, the formation of Stanford-originated for-profits such as Udacity (Thrun’s company) and Coursera, or non-profits such as edX, and the ensuing MOOC media craze, which has generated some unhelpful hype.

The second part of the talk turns to the questions, opportunities, problems and open intellectual and pedagogical issues that the current MOOCs format, which is surely due to change, pose for  traditional humanities teaching.  Can and should the three pillars of a traditional humanities seminar in a college or university–close reading, critical thinking, and critical writing in a relatively small, intimate classroom setting–be adapted for a “massive”, “open” audience?  What is applicable to the humanities, and what isn’t, from the current MOOC STEM course model, especially when it comes to the teaching of literature in addition to, or outside of, the seminar format?  For instance, what about the problem of (non-automated) grading, the chances of the one-on-one tutoring model (and rewindability) of short video lectures involving a hand and a pen, and new ideas more specifically tailored to literature teaching, such as the demonstration of close reading on video; different speakers offering competing interpretations of a text; comparisons of different translations of a literary text in hypertext; audio versions of poetry or drama, multimedia links and digital tools put right into the student’s reach; crowd-sourced, collaborative student projects; social media discussion forums built into the course and extending it across geographic and temporal boundaries, etc.

Taking the position that we have a lot of positive things to learn from MOOC strategies, and that digital pedagogy has to improve vastly before it can be successful in the humanities, the paper finally suggests some concrete examples in which a blended digital and classroom format can yield very positive results for students and the community at large, offering lessons from Dierkes-Thrun’s traditional humanities seminar and partially online class at Stanford this Fall, Oscar Wilde and the French DecadentsThe aim is to showcase exciting new possibilities of this format for literature teaching, while demonstrating some obvious potential pitfalls and encouraging more creativity and experimentation with close reading and community exercises such as a visual and sound interpretation or even a literary Twitter role play.


Petra Dierkes-Thrun’s talks at Duke University: “How to create a Humanities MOOC” and “Oscar Wilde’s Afterimages”

Salman Khan’s TED talk (February 2011)

2. “Digital Resources and the Medieval-Literature Classroom,” Robin Wharton, Georgia Inst. of Tech.

Before introducing any new teaching strategy, whether it involves technology or not, we must ask ourselves: what is the pedagogical imperative? After all, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. So, this paper will begin by trying to answer the question: what can multimedia resources, particularly digital or new media, provide that texts alone cannot? One possible answer stems from my belief any introduction to literary texts should include an introduction to literary studies as a discipline. My own domain, medieval studies, has long since entered the digital age.  Increasingly, the web houses important new media tools for medieval scholarship, such as the Middle English Compendium, and pedagogy, such as the invaluable TEAMS digital editions. A number of medieval scholars maintain individual and group blogs and Twitter accounts, experimenting with new modes of scholarly communication. I propose first to consider briefly the extent to which literary scholarship has become a multimedia affair, and the need to help students become familiar with how any discipline evolves with the assistance of and in response to digital and new media.

I would then like to examine how we might use digital technologies to bring literary texts to life for our students by immersing them, both texts and students, in rich historical context. We can access traces of that historical context online via digital images and archives, and other web-enabled technologies. As part of a unit on Chaucer, for example, my students and I might use Google Earth to take a virtual tour of Canterbury Cathedral, and plot the route Chaucer’s pilgrims might have followed in their literary journey. Exercises like this help students understand the text, an act of imaginative generation, nevertheless had a connection to a real historical context. More than six hundred years later, the historical context endures in fragments, like the text itself, that have been incorporated into our modern cultural environment. The conversation about what texts and artifacts have become versus what they may once have been can provide a point of access for close reading and analysis that moves students beyond plot and character summary.

Finally, I propose to close with practical discussion of how, in additional to integrating multimedia resources as secondary material to supplement primary texts, we can use digitized versions of primary sources to enrich students’ learning experience. Multimedia resources can be essential tools in an introduction to textual scholarship. Very few of us are lucky enough to work at schools with ready access to literary and manuscript archives. Fortunately, a number of projects are working to make archival materials available in digital form. Digitized primary texts and collaborative composition tools like wikis also enable the possibility of student-authored, crowd-sourced editions and translations of less widely-known primary sources that can then be used as teaching resources in other classrooms. In undergraduate classes such projects can be a welcome relief from formulaic essays in which many students reproduce well-worn arguments about “what {insert name of author here} was really thinking.”

3.  “Toward a New Hybrid Pedagogy: Embodiment and Learning in the Classroom 2.0,” by Jesse Stommel (Marylhurst University) and Pete Rorabaugh (Georgia State University)


All learning is necessarily hybrid.  In classroom-based pedagogy, it is important to engage the digital selves of our students.  And, in online pedagogy, it is equally important to engage their physical selves.  We live simultaneously in the realm of physics and data; maybe we forget that the latter is still governed by the former.  In the book Hybridity, Marwan M. Kraidy writes, “hybridity has proven a useful concept to describe multipurpose electronic gadgets, designer agricultural seeds, environment-friendly cars with dual combustion and electrical engines, companies that blend American and Japanese management practices, multiracial people, dual citizens, and postcolonial cultures.”  For Kraidy, and for us, the term “hybrid” is powerful exactly because it resists easy signification.

The smart phones and iPads we carry, the GPS we depend on, the YouTube clips we share at parties, all shape our understanding of the world. We don’t put the technology away when class is over. This is the realm of the Posthuman, which Sherry Turkle’s discusses in her 2010 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. Turkle forces us to reconsider the lauds many of us heap on digital culture; however, whether a more general hybridity is healthy for us or not, we cannot argue with its present ubiquity.

At its most basic level, the term “hybrid,” as we’re using it here, refers to learning that happens both in a classroom (or other physical space) and online. In this respect, hybrid does overlap with another concept that is often used synonymously: blended. We would like to make some careful distinctions between these two terms. Blended learning describes a process or practice; hybrid pedagogy is a methodological approach that helps define a series of varied processes and practices. (Blended learning is tactical, whereas hybrid pedagogy is more strategic.) When people talk about “blended learning,” they are usually referring to the place where learning happens, a combination of the classroom and online. The word “hybrid” has deeper resonances, suggesting not just that the place of learning is changed but that a hybrid pedagogy fundamentally rethinks our conception of place. So, hybrid pedagogy does not just describe an easy mixing of on-ground and online learning, but is about bringing the sorts of learning that happen in a physical place and the sorts of learning that happen in a virtual place into a more engaged and dynamic conversation.


Three papers (some with media enhancement).  There is no formal respondent; instead, audiences are invited to help us break new scholarly ground together.  These papers should provoke a lively audience discussion ranging from exchanges of concrete pedagogical ideas and best practices, to more conceptual, fundamental, and controversial reflections on the chances and dangers of teaching literature digitally.


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Oscar Wilde’s editorship of The Woman’s World: An Overview

(This entry is reblogged from my current class teaching blog,, and is aimed at students.)

By Petra Dierkes-Thrun

 During the brief period of Oscar Wilde’s editorship of the Victorian periodical The Woman’s World from November 1887 to July 1889, the women’s fashion magazine formerly named The Lady’s World was programmatically renamed, and in fact completely overhauled, under Wilde’s direction. “Turning ladies to women,” to use Richard Ellmann’s descriptive phrase of the new magazine, involved a revision of the magazine’s content, layout, as well as the targeted reading audience (Ellmann, 291). In the summer of 1887, Cassell’s Publishing House had appointed Wilde the new editor of The Lady’s World (a shilling monthly with colored illustrations, described as “A Magazine of Fashion and Society”), after 12 issues of The Lady’s World had already appeared (the first one in November 1886; see Mason, 218 ff.).  In a letter to the publisher, Wilde wrote about his substantial plans for overhauling the magazine:

It seems to me that at present [The Lady’s World] is too feminine, and not sufficiently womanly.  …  [I]t seems to me that the field of the mundus muliebris, the field of millinery and trimmings, is to some extent already occupied by such papers as the Queen and the Lady’s Pictorial, and that we should take a wider range, as well as a high standpoint, and deal not merely with what women wear, but with what they think, and what they feel. (Hart-Davis 1962, 67 f.)

As Wilde envisioned it, the new magazine was to be “the organ of women of intellect, culture and position,” with articles on literature, culture, the arts, society, and even politics, concentrating on women’s position in these areas (ibid., note 3).

Both The Woman’s World and its predecessor, The Lady’s World, must first and foremost be seen as commercial enterprises whose publication and circulation took place within a specific historical, economic, cultural, and sociopolitical context.  The Lady’s World and The Woman’s World were part of a developing market of women’s periodicals that were just starting to constitute their own special niche, while still being part of a strongly gendered world of Victorian periodicals.  While the predominantly male press addressed current and controversial topics of politics, religion, finance, and economics, the female press consisted mainly of topics in the arts, belles lettres, fiction, fashion, music, and gossip. The large market of family periodicals, aimed at both male and female adult readers as well as (to a certain extent) children, was also marked by an exclusion of “material regarded as potentially controversial and inappropriate for women” (Brake, 128).  In conjunction with a general explosive growth of the publishing industry, “the last two decades of Victoria’s reign were years of unparalleled expansion in publishing for women … not less than forty-eight new titles entered the field between 1880 and 1900″ (White, 58).  The new and complex evolving market of women’s periodicals was by no means uniform; following the laws of the market, there seems to have been a magazine for just about every woman, in every situation in life: working girls and lower-middle class working mothers supporting their families, middle-and upper-class housewives concerned with the social and economic management of their households and mainly interested in home topics (the hugely popular genre of “housewife” periodicals came to dominate the market), upper-class society ladies, in all their different ranks of the aristocratic and mercantile hierarchy. The picture is a complex one, and so the image of  “‘womanliness’ the magazines sought to produce was always contradictory and entangled with other differences–especially those of class, nation and religion” (Beetham, ix).

Within a Victorian market especially geared toward female consumers and their generically presumed topics of interest, cultural and socioeconomic constructions of what it meant to be female–what one had to do, to wear, to think, to say, and, above all, to buy–must be seen as important interventions into the debate around gender issues and male and female roles in society.  Despite the overall complexity of this marketplace, it one can easily make some general observations about certain recurring themes and features. In what Beetham calls the “Ladies’ Papers” of the 1860s to early 1890s, for example, the concentration on the topics of beauty (still led by the ideal of female beauty that persisted in high art), fashion and genteel household management and domesticity, as well as society columns, in Beetham’s opinion all “combined to create a femininity of surface rather than depth, of appearance rather than moral management” (Beetham, 90).

Interestingly enough, The Lady’s World and The Woman’s World can be seen as emerging from just such an upper-middle class market that had educated, upwardly mobile women as its marketing target, whose roots or affinities, however, still lay with London society (which was still very much hierarchized by aristocratic rank and affiliation). However, The Woman’s World, although practically re-entering into the same market as its predecessor, took a very different stance towards its readers. Brake’s excellent overview and comparison of the two magazines’ content and layout cites evidence that The Lady’s Worldclearly followed a “construction of women as leisured, domesticated, interested in society gossip, seemly accomplishments, sport, clothes, and a modicum of culture” (Brake, 136).  Sos Eltis recounts the regular columns of The Lady’s World as follows: “Regular monthly features were ‘Fashionable Marriages’, ‘Society Pleasures’, ‘With Needle and Thread: the Work of Today’, ‘Five O’Clock Tea’ (an account of the latest fashionable tea-parties and receptions), and ‘Pastimes for Ladies’, of which typical examples were shell- and pebble-painting, mirror-painting, or, for the more adventurous, sleighing” (Eltis, 8).  Wilde himself observed in a letter to Mrs Hamilton King that The Lady’s World was “a very vulgar, trivial, and stupid production, with its silly gossip about silly people, and its social inanities” ([? Sept 1887], Hart-Davis 1962, 205). Women were mainly addressed as consumers, as the intricate fashion plates, and the elaborate advertising sheet showed. It seems that it was mainly “the presence of commerce in the arguably literary to which Wilde objected” (Brake, 137). As chief editor, however, Wilde was not immune to the commercial context. Not only had he originally taken on his job as an editor because he urgently needed the money, but he also let the publishing house use his name as advertisement on the cover.

Against the open commodification of the female readership of The Lady’s World,The Woman’s World does not only try out a different format, but a different politics of content as well. In The Woman’s World, “women are constructed as serious readers who want (and need) education and accculturation[sic]” (Brake, 142).  For such a magazine, the name The Lady’s World, alluding to the tradition of women’s magazines that aimed at “re-making the lady” (Beetham, 89), was no longer a fitting description. At the particular urge of Mrs. Craik (a well-known authoress at that time, and part of Wilde’s circle of acquaintances), the new editor was persuaded to change it into The Woman’s World (Ellmann, 292).

The format of the new magazine were slightly enlarged numbers (48 instead of 36 pages), with a variety of both regular columns and solicited articles, the overwhelming majority of which were written by women. Wilde obviously used his wide circle of personal acqaintances to ask women of some standing in the cultural life of London to contribute to the magazine, but he also quite frequently included little-known female writers (whom he thought promising), and chose contributors according to specific topics that he wanted The Woman’s World to address. In Ellmann’s words, “Wilde had eclectic tastes and tried women of very diverse interests; the magazine took on a miscellaneous look which it never lost” (Ellmann, 292). But the dominant feature of the magazine was its concentration on the work of women in the public sphere (especially in the arts), both in the fact that its material was mainly written by women, in Wilde’s championship of women writers in his Literary Notes, and in the actual content of the articles.

Some prominent subjects in the twenty-odd issues under Wilde’s editorship are, significantly, higher education for women, the political status of women and the debate about the ‘woman question’, the question of female moral leadership, the debate surrounding scientific theories of women’s physical and mental inferiority to men, and the relation of the sexes in marriage and in society in general. The magazine also made a point of describing and addressing new professions for women (like medicine, teaching, nursing). Regular columns include reviews of current theater productions or famous actresses, articles about great female figures in the arts (e.g., Christina Rossetti [Feb 1888], Russian painter Mary Bashkirtseff [June 1888], and poetess Carmen Sylva [March 1888]), and about women’s life in different historical societies and cultures (e.g. “A Pompeian Lady” [Oct 1888], “A Lady in Ancient Egypt” [Nov 1888], “Roman Women at the Beginning of the Empire” [Sept 1888]). There are regular travel reports written by women, topics of arts and crafts interest (e.g. about embroidery or lace-making), a serial fiction story, and short stories and poems by women writers like Olive Schreiner, or Violet Fane.  Ireland featured prominently in The Woman’s World (in travel reports, arts and crafts, and literary notes) and here, too, Wilde “made sure that there was a place in the magazine for Irish women” (Coakley, 192), among them, of course, his mother, Lady Wilde, as well as some of her friends. For female authors’ contributions to The Woman’s World, individual “signature is mainly in the form of forenames and surnames […],  a form which invokes the convention of the professonal (male) writer” (Brake, 139).  The prominent announcement of names on the cover also functions as an important advertising function. According to Brake, “[t]he personalizing of journalism and the trailing of names associated with the disappearance of anonymity and the advent of the new journalism are far more pronounced in The Woman’s World; these new features credit the reader with more knowledge of authorship in general and also make more explicit the commodity identity of the periodical (it is commercial and for sale) and the consumer position of the reader whose discretion in purchasing the article is wooed through the renown of named contributors” (Brake, 135).

The most obvious important overall change to the magazine under Wilde’s editorship was the cover layout. The Lady’s World’s cover was a female figure (elevated like a mythological goddess on a pedestal), disinterestedly holding a book in her left hand, while gazing into her own image in a mirror in her right hand (an image of woman which in and by itself seems telling). Under Wilde’s editorship, not only does the title of the publication change, but the cover also announces and advertises its editor, and some of the most well-known contributors of articles. The fact that the title page of The Woman’s Worldprominently displayed the name of Oscar Wilde and uses his name to advertise itself, geared readers’ expectations towards the subject-matter of art as associated with Wilde’s name. The new layout, accordingly, evokes the context of Aestheticism as an art movement: having gotten rid of The Lady’s World’ssymbolic goddess, it is markedly abstract and vaguely aestheticized, in art nouveau fashion. Aestheticism as an avant-garde art movement also featured prominently in the magazine.

The arrangement of articles within the single issues of The Woman’s World, and the omission of certain columns that had been there before, were also significant. Instead of opening each issue with the monthly fashion report, as The Lady’s World had done, it was moved to the end of the magazine. There were no music and no gossip columns. However, to a certain extent, the idea of ‘gossip’ was retained, although elevated to a higher cultural level, through a change of form from social into literary discourse in Wilde’s Literary Notes. In another letter, Wilde had announced: “I am going to make literary criticism on of the features of the Woman’s World, and to give special prominence to books written by women” (Hart-Davis 1985, 70-1).  From these notes (which appeared regularly only in the first five issues [Nov 1887-March 1888], and then again from issues 14 to 21 on, in slightly modified form [Dec 1888-July 1889], it is clear that Wilde took his task of literary criticism of women’s work very seriously, and treated it on an equal plane with that of male writers.

Moreover, Wilde tended to review books by women which were interesting for their novelty of subject-matter, or beauty of style, or trying out new boundaries of writing.  One comment from a review of Lady Bellairs’s book on Gossip with Girls and Maidens in the second issue [Dec 1887] may stand in as symptomatic for Wilde’s liberal views here: “I am afraid that I have a good deal of sympathy with what are called ‘empty idealistic aspirations’; and ‘wild flights of the imagination’are so extremely rare in the nineteenth century, that they seem to me deserving rather of praise than of censure.”

From this short overview of the magazine’s layout and selection of articles under Wilde’s control, it seems to me to have become sufficiently clear that Wilde was consciously following an agenda of promoting and championing a construction of women as intellectually, culturally, politically, and even scientifically interested readers – serious intellectual beings who would find in The Woman’s World “an organ through which they can express their views on life and things,” as Oscar Wilde wrote in a letter to a potential female contributor to the magazine (Letter to Helena Sickert [27 May 1887]; Hart-Davis 1962, 69).

As Arthur Fish, Wilde’s editorial assistant for The Woman’s World, professed in an interview in 1913, Wilde lost interest in his editorial work over time.  His regular work fell off after the fourth issue, as Wilde gradually delayed producing his editorial features for The Woman’s World.  He seems to have been hard pressed to live up to the tight publishing schedule and a lifestyle of regular office work .  Still, Fish writes, the general outlook and impact of The Woman’s Worldwas remarkable in hindsight:

The keynote of the magazine, indeed, was the right of woman to equality of treatment with man, with the assertion of her claims by women who had gained high position by virtue of their skill as writers or workers in the world’s great field of labor. All the contributions were on a high literary plane. … Some of the articles on women’s work and their position in politics were far in advance of the thought of the day and Sir Wemyss Reid, then General Manager of Cassell’s, or John Williams the Chief Editor, would call in at our room and discuss them with Oscar Wilde, who would always express his entire sympathy with the views of the writers and reveal a liberality of thought with regard to the political aspirations of women that was undoubtedly sincere.  (Fish, 18)


Beetham, Margaret. A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Woman’s Magazine 1800-1914. London: Routledge, 1996.

Brake, Laurel.  Subjugated Knowledges: Journalism, Gender and Literature in the Nineteenth CenturyNew York: New York University Press, 1994.  (See chapter on “Oscar Wilde and The Woman’s World,” 127-47.)

Eltis, Sos. Revising Wilde: Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Fish, Arthur. “Oscar Wilde as Editor.” Harper’s Weekly (New York), Oct 4, 1913, pp. 18-20.

Gagnier, Regenia. Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Hart-Davis, Rupert (ed.), The Letters of Oscar Wilde. London: Harcourt Brace, 1962.

—— (ed.).  More Letters of Oscar Wilde. 1985. Repr. London: Harcourt Brace, 1986.

White, Cynthia L.  Women’s Magazines 1693-1968. London: Joseph, 1970.

Wilde, Oscar (ed.). The Woman’s World. London; New York : Cassell, 3 volumes (1887-1889). Microfilm. New Haven, Conn.: Research Publications Inc. (History of women periodicals ; reel 247)

Wilde, Oscar. Essays, Criticisms and Reviews. London, privately repr., 1901. [Unauthorized edition. Wilde’s editorial contributions for The Woman’s World from November 1887 to June 1889.] Microfilm. New Haven, Conn.: Research Publications Inc., 1977. (History of women, reel 5572)

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A Public Literary Twitter Role-Play: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

On Friday, October 26, 2012, my Stanford class tried out a new and slightly crazy idea: a one-day public literary Twitter role-play, impersonating characters from The Picture of Dorian Gray.  The idea had come to me spontaneously one morning as I was musing about what new kind of close reading activity I could develop for my “Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents” seminar at Stanford:The Picture of Dorian Gray is such a canonical text, we should get the public involved … It should be a creative and fun group activity, combining individual analysis with readerly and writerly collaboration … Could we do this on social media?  What if we brought The Picture of Dorian Gray in dialogue with Huysmans’ A rebours and Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus (two other French novels we had been reading, which importantly influenced Wilde’s novel)?  We could have them talk back to Dorian … ‘A Day of Reckoning for Dorian Gray’! I should write this up as a Twitter role-play exercise.”

And that’s exactly what I did, chuckling like a happy fool.  I couldn’t wait to share this with my students and eventually the public.  This would be fun!

My Stanford course this quarter is a traditional humanities seminar on the relationship between Oscar Wilde’s work and authors such as Baudelaire, Huysmans, Rachilde, Mallarmé, Gide, Lorrain, and others, with face-to-face classroom discussion, papers, readings, office hours, and all that.  But we are also experimenting with online learning elements and a partially open M(inimalist)OOC format around the theme of close reading, as our website  describes and I also discussed in a recent workshop at Duke University.  The Twitter role-play is another creative way to imagine close reading and collaborative practices online. You can find my assignment prompt  here.

Only three of my students had had a Twitter account in the beginning, so it seemed a tall order at first.  After a Twitter test run with students under the hashtag #digwilde went well, however, I bravely tapped my professional network of academic listservs (chiefly the 19th-century studies list VICTORIA 2,000+ members and the Modernist Studies Association discussion list) and posted the link on Facebook and Twitter, inviting colleagues, their students, and anyone who cared to participate, to join us on October 26.  I told them this would be their long-awaited “chance to talk back to Dorian” and dangled what I hoped would be a tasty morsel in front of their digital eyes: “if you’re lucky, Dorian will ‘personally’ reply.”

I am not aware that this kind of thing has ever been done before and had no idea whether it would actually take off on Twitter—after all, inviting open public participation throws you on the public’s mercy.  I was convinced it was worth a try, however.  Like so many of my traditional humanities teacher colleagues not originally trained in digital humanities, I have been a late convert to Twitter, but now I use it regularly and happily for professional and intellectual purposes.  It is a great source of information, certainly, but for me one of Twitter’s most wonderful aspects is its spontaneous interactivity with interested and knowledgeable strangers on topics of mutual interest.  New ideas are sparked via these interactions; wise and thoughtful observations, hilarious and clever commentary happen here, engaging brains and hearts.  Most often, one leaves with a sense of having learned something worth contemplating, and being thankful for the open format.  I knew Twitter was right for this new kind of exercise.

The Twitterverse did not disappoint.  On October 26, our role-play attracted enough public interest to keep it going all day long.  There were hundreds of tweets and more than 50 participants, many of them tweeting repeatedly, from different countries (too many interactions, in fact, to capture in the somewhat ordered Storify archive I created not long afterwards).  Popular characters were Lord Henry, Basil, Sybil, Alan Campbell, Jim Vane, and minor characters such as the opium den owner and Dorian’s manservant, as well as Des Esseintes from Huysmans’ A rebours and various protagonists from Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus, all giving Dorian a piece of their mind. Two students and I (and sometimes new participants) tweeted back taking turns as Dorian Gray, collectively making the point that Wilde’s Dorian is, indeed, a “complex, multiform creature.”  Other unexpected and wonderful things happened during the game that none of us could have predicted.  For instance, after several hours of back and forth between the Dorian Gray, A rebours, and Monsieur Vénus characters, people started mashing up the novel with other Wildean works such as Salomé, as well as with other 19th-century novels (e.g. Jane Eyre, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde):

Another pleasant surprise was that a major Rachilde scholar, Melanie Hawthorne, made an appearance as Raoule from Monsieur Vénus (she had edited the very edition we’d been reading):

And then there were the individual hilarious exchanges of wit and snark between the characters themselves… so many of them!  Here’s just a little glimpse. Witness  Raoule de Vénerande (from Rachilde’s novel) and Dorian:

Or this exchange, between Sybil and Dorian, about art, artificiality, and botox:

My students commented afterwards that it was wonderful to feel connected to other readers and students at different institutions studying the same material, and that they had gained some new comparative insights across 19th-century texts.  The Twitter format is interesting here because it really forces readers to approach textual analysis differently: in tweets of 140 characters or less, one must be creative to make a good or witty statement effectively; one writes and reads, in fact, together with unknown others who may have new insights or questions.  And to impersonate a well-known literary personage, one must imagine and creatively imitate that particular character’s style and point of view. The role-play also bridged the gap between our collaborative (openly accessible), but more static class blog, and the spurting intensity and spontaneity of a social media discussion, making us feel more connected to the world and enhancing our class blogging experience in turn.

The Twitter role-play was such a success with participants and such plain, raucous fun that I really hope the idea takes off and gets adapted by others.  In fact, one enthusiastic participant from the Maine Humanities Institute tweeted that her organization wants to take up the idea for their Great Expectations study day, with Pip tweeting back in response:

Future Twitter role-plays might pop up in other contexts, perhaps, e.g. in political, economic, or other cultural arenas.  Remember that brilliant spontaneous hashtag impersonation during the debates, @InvisibleObama? What about impersonating characters and collaboratively writing Twitter scripts for “Personages from History Debate American Politics”; “A Day of Reckoning for Goldman-Sachs”; “[Insert popular movie characters of film x] against [the producer and director of popular movie x]”; or my personal favorite, “International Writers United against Pesky English Grammar”?  I’d like to challenge you right now to start your own for Digital Writing Month!

What can we learn when we don’t control the rules or outcomes of others’ writing? What can we learn from one another when we are freed from the shackles of our own online identity and give ourselves permission to play?

I’ll be @petradt, and I approve your message.


Filed under Literature musings, MOOC musings

Getting Ready for a Wilde Ride

“Getting Ready” was my chosen title for the blog post I was going to write last week, as I was finishing up the syllabus and website for my new class Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents—if I hadn’t been too busy actually getting ready, that is.  I knew before even meeting my students, on the first day of our Stanford fall quarter yesterday, that this class would challenge me in new, exciting, and perhaps (I’ll admit it) somewhat terrifying ways, and so I spent quite a lot of time preparing for it.  It is the first class I’ve ever decided to open up to the public, and the first time I’m blogging about an ongoing class experiment, letting not just my students but the larger public in on what usually happens behind a closed curtain.  My pedagogical bag of tricks is wide open, visible, vulnerable, filling, emptying, and shaping itself as I go.  (Scary.  Awesome!)

Let me clarify and say that the class is only partially and not fully open—a M(inimal)OOC, so to speak—for several reasons.  The most important one is that I want to experiment specifically with new forms of digital close reading that involve the public (such as crowdsourced close readings of poems and hyperlinked interpretations that do not use words but rather images, audio, and other media to transpose and interpret a literary text), but the course still needs to stay manageable and controllable for the sake of my Stanford students, who are my primary care and responsibility this quarter.  We want to experiment, to interact, to try out new things, and it’s OK to fail from time to time, but this still needs to be a meaningfully non-chaotic university class, if you know what I mean.  We’re not completely ready for MOOC MOOC Land in the humanities quite yet, if you ask me, especially since most of us still have very little idea how to handle the formidable questions and challenges around assessment in a MOOC.  (I’m learning a lot about those challenges and pitfalls by taking a Coursera class right now, Al Filreis’s Modern Poetry MOOC.)

As far as my own class experiment is concerned, I decided to develop this completely from the ground up, with minimal tech support and minimal digital tools and skills, effectively making Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents a technically M(inimalist)OOC  as well as a M(iniscule) one in anticipated size.  I want to practically try out, experience on the ground and step by step, not just plan and speculate, how an ordinary, traditionally trained humanities teacher like myself can use digital components and social media (Twitter, Facebook, maybe Tumblr and Storify, nothing overly complex) to teach ordinary, traditionally taught humanities students right here, right now.  The technology in this course needs to support and enhance the contents, not the other way around: no gimmicks for gimmicks’ sake.

So, as I prepare for this new adventure and am starting to send out notices about the course to my network of colleagues, academic listservs, and Twitter, I want to keep it pretty simple and focused. I cannot solve all the problems there clearly are with humanities MOOCs, and I certainly cannot handle thousands of students all by myself, nor do I want to, right now.  I am most interested in figuring out what the digital tools (limited as they still are!) allow a traditional humanities teacher like me, and typical humanities students like my students (most of whom, when I asked today, did not have Twitter accounts yet) to do, with relatively little financial or technical support, in the real, messy, wonderful world of a rather typically organized analog classroom.  We need to think about and experiment with many different ways we can use the new digital technologies online—and not just focusing on assessment, as most of my humanities colleagues (and I) agree, multiple choice and short essays just don’t cut it for us anyway.  Let’s start dreaming up new exercises, new collaborations, new ways of teaching deep research skills, that draw on the unique structure (and make students aware of the many pitfalls) of the internet.

As I’ve written previously, I feel  energized and deeply interested by the new possibilities the recent MOOC experiments have opened up: the untrodden new avenues and as yet unrealized chances for the humanities to disseminate their knowledge and skills more democratically and globally.  But I also think that digital teaching in humanities courses will only be successful if it helps us do two opposite kinds of things at the same time: one the one hand, it needs to support and enhance the inherently humanistic classroom activities we already do well and passionately believe in—teaching close reading, critical thinking, and critical (skilled, persuasive) writing, the central pedagogical goals in most humanities classes—and on the other hand, it needs to show us notoriously skeptical humanists new (dare I even mention better?) ways to teach those things.  If I—as a humanist who believes in the power of close reading as a tool to develop attention to detail, empathy, and ultimately a democratic mindset through complex, often paradoxical  interpretations that students must learn to negotiate—if I, as such a humanist, discover that the digital toolbox opens up innovative ways of doing close reading, critical thinking, writing (you name it), what’s there not to be excited about? What do we stand to lose by trying to think this through, rather than not trying at all?

Because, you know,  after all “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” (Oscar Wilde).

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Salome in the Comics

I recently finished an academic article on a very interesting 1986 comic book version of Oscar Wilde’s Symbolist play Salomé (1891), entitled “Salomé in the Comics: P. Craig Russell’s Intertextual Adaptation from Strauss and Wilde.” In the spirit of open-access scholarship, it will be published in the upcoming special issue on Salomé in the online journal The Oscholars, published by The Rivendale Press (UK).

The article is archived here as a pdf file, freely available to download (all copyright is the author’s and hence reserved).  Here is an excerpt:

The Dance of the Seven Veils is another example of Russell’s interpretive grappling with both Wilde’s play and Strauss’s opera.  At first, the dance—a non-verbal, drawn-out, yet crucial moment in the action—presented a true problem for his visual translation.  “Now, how do you show this in comics? It had to be a purely visual moment.  It couldn’t just be pictures and throwing off veils” (Comics Journal, 56). Working with Strauss’s detailed notes for the opera’s dance scenario, Russell decided to “use[] the dropping of each veil as a chance to comment on or advance the action.” For example, as Salomé throws off her veils, Russell inserts a sequence (interspersed with her dance) in which the soldiers carry and then throw the body of the dead Narraboth over a steep cliff (Fig. 6). “Instead of seeing the body bang against the rocks we see [Salomé’s] veil lightly fall on the floor.  That’s neither in the play nor the opera.  That’s what I played with, moving back and forth between the characters and the actions.  And keeping it silent.  I planned to have it work as a visual element in the story and make it almost a visual dance, not a literal dance of drawing her dancing.”  Russell also interspersed the sequence with pictures in which Salomé is shown dancing in Narraboth’s blood, symbolically linking Salomé’s sensuality with the death of her first victim, and using it as a foreshadowing of her next victim (Jokanaan).

Fig. 6

The last veils symbolically fall on the executioner’s axe (Fig.6) and in the following panel (Fig. 7), there is another close-up of Salomé from below through the grid, this time as a naked silhouette dropping the last veil) right in front of Jokanaan’s cistern.  As she throws up her last but one veil to the moon, it forms a question mark, and as she takes off the very last veil, Salomé is fully framed by the cistern grid (in front) and the large, full moon (from behind), affirming Wilde’s and Strauss’s connection between moon, femininity, and fatality one last time.

Fig. 7

Here Salomé is at her most powerful visually, a commanding presence who, we know, is already plotting her ultimate triumph and revenge.  Even though Russell agreed with Wilde’s and Strauss’s initial presentation of the princess as an innocent, pure creature, he also gave his own interpretation of her relationship with Jokanaan a unique, surprisingly conservative twist.  Russell, who calls himself a libertarian, thought of Salomé in terms of Ayn Rand:

 I was looking at her from the perspective of an Ayn Randian viewpoint of sexuality: one responds sexually to what one holds as their highest ideal.  I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but it’s an interesting take.  You can understand a person’s moral basis by what they find sexually exciting.  […] The tragedy of it, of course, is that her highest ideal rejects her. […] John the Baptist has seen a dichotomy between the mind and the body—that the mind is pure and the body is vile—which Salome doesn’t at all.  Her body only responds to what her mind sees as pure.  […] she then has his head severed from his body.  She projects onto him the dichotomy he’s projecting onto both her and the world.  Of course, Ayn Rand is turning over in her grave at the idea that Salome could be seen as an Ayn Randian heroine or a projection of her rather strange view of sexuality. (Comics Journal, 56-57)

[To read the full article, please click here.)

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Close reading: A love letter

I live in Silicon Valley, where many close friends have a strong technology or science background.  I’ve heard them talk about the “beauty” of math, the “elegance” of code, when it is “perfect”, “bug-free”, “brilliant”.  These are aesthetic judgments of appreciation for the power of the human intellect (the brains that dreamed up math, that came up with code) that resonate deeply within me, not because I’m good at math or know how to code, but because I am a literature reader, teacher, and theorist.  Like these friends, I know and appreciate the wonders of deep immersion into an abstract world not of my own making.

The analogy of doing math and reading a demanding piece of literature may seem a little far-fetched at first, but consider this: numbers and formulae are nothing else than signs that make meaning. They build it, sustain it, transfer it, can inhibit it, obscure it, or let ideas shine with clarity.  Ideally, they communicate, they enable further thoughts or morph into the realm of the practical, letting us do or say things that we did not think of before.  They enable communication with other human beings that can, ideally, make things better, reach further, be tested, corrected, made alive through new sets of eyes.

Reading a piece of important literature deeply, closely, is just like that.  Entering into a demanding, intriguing, perhaps even forbidding old or new text feels like opening a door to an unknown room or stepping into a new landscape.  It demands focus and self-control, a strong grip on what I know and what I realize I want to learn.  I have to orient myself, find my footing, take in the big picture, zoom in on details, let ideas and observations suggest themselves, hop around, note things that don’t immediately make sense, acknowledge things I recognize.  I need to concentrate, be still and open to let thoughts rise and bounce around, look closely, wonder, work with what I’ve already understood to approach what I don’t yet understand, recall tools I need for comprehension (such as the form and function of a rhetorical figure, a meter or rhyme scheme, my knowledge of the 19th-century novel, a philosophical concept, a feminist theorist who may help me interpret specific aspects of the text, etc.), all in order to connect a network of observations and ideas that ultimately (ideally) build up a rich picture in my mind.

In the college or university classroom, my own scene of collective close reading, successful moments or sustained close readings of literature have spawned amazing new insights and connections for me and my students.  Like a string of math or code done well, they are hard work, but they are very rewarding.  They make us feel like we’ve conquered (albeit not mastered forever) a little corner of the universe where things now make more sense, connections have become obvious, learning has happened. They create empathy with other worlds, other contexts, other histories, other individuals.  They show us that we are not, in fact, the masters or mistresses of Everything, and that our views are among many possible ones with which we have to negotiate in good faith.

In my upcoming Fall quarter course at Stanford, the biggest task I’ve set for myself is to try to use the new media to model and expand close readings of the kinds we do in the classroom in a larger public forum, and not to do this in the form of teacher-centered lectures. My students and I will experiment with taking some of our close readings online and invite the world to think, talk, and be still with us to take in words and let us ask questions we didn’t know we had before.  New digital tools will help us do this in (some) new ways, but the core of what literary close reading can and must do individually and together shall remain: making meaning.

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Filed under Literature musings, MOOC musings