End of semester

Sorry for the long silence. No excuse for it either, except a prolonged end-of-semester accumulation of jobs that needed to be done. I just finished grading the final pile of essays for the year, only a last week of catch-up seminars and question hours to go,and then a week of oral exams. I have never done a full day of oral exams, let alone four days in succession, so I am a little worried, but I look forward to talking to all the students on their own. 

As for grading, Gloria Monday at the Times Higher Education writes that she used to read every essay in detail, but now she just “whip[s] through the first page and a bit, read[s] the conclusion, skim[s] the odd section in the middle.” The recklessness of it. I am still young and idealistic enough to be a little shocked by this confession, even if it is pseudonymously made. I do read every paper, often twice, and use elaborate assessment sheets to provide feedback. I am beginning to develop some sort of routine, however. I find myself writing the same comments more and more often, especially on subjects such as structure and argument. If I’m not tempted to sit outside in the sun and fill out the sheets by hand, I can just copy paste them into the sheets. And I now use the timer on my mobile phone to remind myself not to spend too much time on an essay. It really works, and it is almost fun to beat the buzzer on an essay. The life I lead…

More nerdy news: I discovered last.fm the other week. It’s a site where you can tell the interface that you like Keith Jarrett, and then it will present you with a streaming radio station filled with music that is similar to Jarrett’s – based on the preferences of other users. Unlike some book recommendation sites that I just like because they are so serendipitous, this site has so many users that it really works. It’s how I discovered the Tord Gustavsen Trio and Arild Andersen, for example. 

Using a blog as teaching tool – evaluation

At the close of summer, I wrote a post on my plans to use a weblog in my MA course on gender theory in the first semester (see also this later post). I received a lot of very useful and encouraging comments, and took the plunge. The semester ended just before Christmas, student essays are trickling in now: it is time for an evaluation.

“Theories of Gender and Culture” was a 15 week MA course with twelve students who met once a week for a two-hour seminar. Because gender theory was new to most students, and because I put some difficult texts on the Syllabus, I was looking for a way to keep students engaged with the material outside class. I made a group blog on which students (and I myself) could write blog posts, and comment on each others’ posts. I posted a discussion question each week, in which I asked students to apply the theory of that week to a cultural object. (Here is an example of such a discussion question.) Students had to write responses to three discussion questions, they could pick which ones to answer. I also created the categories “queries” (for any questions that students were struggling with during the week) and “gender notes” for observations on gender in daily life, the news, commercials — anything. For more information, see also the document on the Course Blog that I put in the Blackboard module for the course. I also posted “household notes” on the blog, with information on the course, presentations schedules, etc. The sidebar was filled with a “recent comments” widget, a twitter widget with links to interesting websites or online articles that we happened to come across during the course, and link lists to personal websites of theorists, to organizations, databases, online journals and theory sites.

There were several ways in which I hoped the blog could aid the learning process:

  • to provide a space for students to tackle the material outside class
  • to enhance critical and analytical thinking
  • to foster a sense of community
  • to enhance class discussion
  • to practice writing skills

The evaluation that follows is based on my own experiences as well as an anonymous online survey (via Blackboard) among my students, submitted by 10 of the 12 students.

Continue reading

Wikipedia as an academic source

Brett over at Sound and Fury needs our moral support. He’s been informed by a colleague that he has a reputation among students as “the guy that fails folks for using Wikipedia”, and now wonders whether he is doing the right thing.

I think Brett’s right, and hey, he should be proud of his reputation! I tell students not to use Wikipedia as a source in their essays too. I have had discussions about this in class with students who felt that it would be cheating not to acknowledge that they went to Wikipedia for inspiration first. They admit they use Wikipedia because it is accessible and easy to read. I admit I often use it, too — when I want to know what on earth fan fiction is, for example.

When I was a student and Wikipedia did not yet exist, I guess the equivalent was the encyclopedia that sat in a bookcase in my parents’ living room. I used it, sometimes, to look things up; sometimes even to serendipitously leaf through the Ce-Dr volume (I admit it — I should have had better things to do on my weekends). But I never used it as a source in my essays. An encyclopedia just isn’t an academic source. Nor does it become one when it goes online and grows into a collaborative effort.

Anyone can go onto the internet and find Wikipedia. Students should know their way around bibliographies, databases, libraries. That is one of the skills they are taught, and one of the skills that future employers will expect them to have mastered. That is what I tell my students.

In my next discussion in class, I am definitely going to cite these words of Wikipedia’s founder.


  • Interestingly, Wikipedia itself has an entry that lists academic publications that use Wikipedia as a source. They claim they did not include academic studies of Wikipedia.
  • Blogging the Renaissance did some random Wiki-testing last year.
  • Early Modern Notes was there first, as always.

Course blog

I made a course blog for the Theories of Gender and Culture course – it’s still under construction, but here it is. Update: the blog has now gone into stealth mode – only registered students can read and contribute.

I had a really good meeting with our technology-and-education person Yolande Spoelder yesterday. She made me think about the didactic side of the blog – how am I going to use it in teaching — and had all kinds of useful questions and advice. First a bit on the technical side of things, more on the didactics below.

We decided to use the Edublogs site that Dave pointed out in the comments to my previous post. I could have installed a WordPress Multi-user blog on my own server space, but the edublogs.org URL just sounds better than an earmarks.org one, and – to be honest – I was a little worried that I might accidentally install the MU blog over Serendipities. There, I said it, I’m a weasel.

The edublogs system works really well. You register, name your blog, and you’re done. Students register as users on the edublogs site and then you can add them to your blog as subscriber/author/editor. The only disadvantage I discovered so far, is that you cannot fiddle with your theme. You have to choose one of the themes on offer — there are 85 themes to pick from, so that is not a real problem. But then, if there is something you would just like to tweak a little, you can’t. There’s no access to the templates, only the standard theme options to choose from. Which is just as well, perhaps, because otherwise I would spend to much time fiddling.

I went for the Fauna theme at first, but then discovered that it does not show the names of post authors. I consider that a problem on a multi-user blog. I posted a query on the edublogs support forum, and got an immediate reply — so their support system is good as well. That didn’t solve the problem yet, though, so for the time being I switched to the Regulus theme, which Yolande discovered does show author names.

I wrote an initial post to introduce students to the workings of the blog, but after talking to Yolande yesterday, I know I will have to do more thinking on the ways in which I can make the blog work in the learning process. I’m still working on the course content, but it’s time to make that step to the didactic forms I will be using during the course. Here are some of the things I need to think about:

  • (How) will the blog postings be graded?
  • Do I want students to reflect on their progress in their postings?
  • How do I ensure a lively discussion on the blog? A clear set of rules could create a straightforward context, but perhaps it could also formalize things too much? Perhaps the atmosphere during the seminars is also a major factor in the success of the blog.
  • Will I/the class give feedback on students’ writing as well as on the content of their analyses, if one of my aims is to get students to practice their writing skills? And how would that work?

Yolande had some great ideas, based on her experience with the use of Wiki’s in education at the Vrije Universiteit. You could, for example, open with a broad question on how students would define sex and gender and their relation to literary criticism, and use the answers in class to explore their ideas. Then, at the end of the semester, after having read all the theory, I could come back to that question, and ask students to reflect in a post on how their ideas changed during the course. I think that would work really well.

Another suggestion she made, was to integrate the blog into the writing of the final essay for the course. Students could post their outline, or their introduction, so that other students could give feedback on their work. Those posts would have a clear goal: to improve their final essay, and it would give the blog a clear function in the process.

Lots to think about still, but at least the course blog is there now, waiting for input!

Using a blog as teaching tool

I am thinking of using a blog in the master’s course on theories of gender that I’ll be teaching next semester. I haven’t done this before, so I am exploring the whys and hows of using blogs in education, and reading other people’s experiences on the web. I am full of questions (especially where the hows are concerned). These are my thoughts so far:


  • The main reason I would like to use a blog is to get the students writing and thinking critically, also outside the classroom. A course on gender theory invites critical reflection, and active reading. It would be great if students could post their comments, ideas, or questions, to have other students react. Also, it would be a good forum to continue class discussions after hours. I have tried to do this before using the discussion function in Blackboard, but students are reluctant to use it. I think a blog might be more attractive, because it is easier to access, new content is signaled by RSS feeds, and it is just a lot less messy than the discussion board overview in Blackboard.
  • I think the comment function could be very useful for stimulating debate among students, and might give students who are more confident writers than speakers a different way of partaking in the discussion.
  • The blog could be a receptacle for all kinds of links to online journals on gender and feminist criticism, other weblogs and institutions. Students could contribute their own links, explaining in a post why this link should be added to the list.
  • It could lead students to read more blogs on gender and feminist criticism, widening their learning context.


  • I’m not sure which platform to use – I’m used to my WordPress blog, but I have no experience with other kinds of blog. Could I run the blog on the same domain as this one, but in a subfolder, or is that not a good idea? Are there (free) blogs that do not require you to buy server space? I found this useful list of multi-user blog options at Incorporated Subversion, but I’m still not sure.
  • I would like to create one blog with multiple users, so that all students can post and comment. I have read some advice against this, though – group blogs only seem to work with experienced bloggers. Should I encourage students to create their own blogs for the course, perhaps? I still prefer the original idea of one blog for the course.
  • Should I assess entries and comments as part of students’ grades for participation? My gut feeling says no, and an article by Jeremy Williams and Joanne Jacobs on blogs in higher education suggests that the contributions of students who blog only because they have to, “detracted from the overall quality of the experience for some students.” On the other hand, it might just encourage some students to contribute who otherwise would not. Perhaps the solution is to tell them they have to contribute one post, but it will not be graded?
  • Problem: because a blog is public, and will be around in Google for years to come. Perhaps students should choose an alias? Those in the course would know who’s who, but the world need not know.

There’s a myriad of posts on the use of blogs in education out there. Here are some of the sites I read and found useful:

  • A PhD research by Anne Bartlett-Bragg at Sydney University in 2005 suggests that blogging can help students to think and write critically.
  • An exploration guide on using blogs in education by the TLTgroup – many, many useful links.
  • Jonathan Hewett at Hackademic has posted his presentation on the use of a blog to help students reflect on their practical journalism, as a tool to help them learn, rather than to publish presentations.
  • A huge post on blogs as a teaching tool with lots of useful links at Information Visualization. It takes some time to load, but it’s worth the wait.
  • An article on using blogs to teach philosophy at the Academic Commons.
  • Two posts on how not to use blogs in education at Blogsavvy (part 1, part 2). This is one of the sites that advises against using group blogs.

The dangers of novels

I am preparing a first-year lecture on the novel, centered around Pride and Prejudice. It is part of a course that introduces students to literary genres, and hands them the basic tools they need to analyse literature. Therefore, in my lecture I will concentrate on the ‘rise of the novel’ (to speak with Ian Watt), on money, consumerism, and the novel in many senses (see also my little Library Thing to the right), on private and public spaces, and on late eigtheenth- and early nineteenth-century reception of the genre. My explorations of the latter issue made me think about the similarities and differences between historical anxieties about new media.

Taking off from a scene in which Mr Collins (the officious clergyman) is invited to read to the Bennets and finds himself confronted with a novel, my lecture will deal with contemporary views of the novel as belonging to the private sphere, to women, and to recreation rather than instruction.

Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but on beholding it, (for every thing announced it to be from a circulating library,) he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels.

This invites the question of why Mr Collins never reads novels. His choice of a sermon as more suitable reading material gives a hint of his views on the novel. An essay by Vicessimus Knox, in his Essays Moral and Literary (1778) supports this hunch. Knox deplores “the great multiplication of novels” in his time:

Such books, however pernicious in their tendency, are the most easily attained. The prudence of their publishers suggests the expediency of making them conveniently portable. Every corner of the kingdom is abundantly supplied with them. In vain is youth secluded from the corruptions of the living world. Books are commonly allowed them with little restriction, as innocent amusements; yet these often pollute the heart in the recesses of the closet, inflame the passions at a distance from temptation, and teach all the malignity of vice in solitude.

There’s a striking contrast in this passage between the public availability of these books, because of their small size and cheap price, as well as the existence of the circulating libraries Mr Collins so detests, and the private consumption of the novel “in the recesses of the closet” where vice flourishes “in solitude”. It reminded me of a Dutch government commercial that warn parents about the things kids may get up to, in solitude, in the recesses of their bedrooms, when surfing the world-wide web. Parents who think their kids are safer in the private sphere of the home than on the city streets are mistaken, the commercial warns – street vice enters the home through a little cable.

Knox’s pinpointing of the novel as the cause of degeneration and his nostalgia for a time when “there was scarcely a Novel in the kingdom” evoke a broader pattern. I am fascinated by the historical specificity as well as the transhistoricality of cultural fears about new media — I am sure someone wrote a book on this subject already.

Knox, for example, nostalgically recalls the times when there were only romances:

[Romances] were rather favourable to virtue. Their pictures of human nature were not exact, but they were flattering resemblances. By exhibiting patterns of perfection, they stimulated emulation to aim at it. They led the fancy through a beautiful wilderness of delights: and they filled the heart with pure, manly, bold, and liberal sentiments.

Pure, manly, and bold indeed – but this is not how romances were perceived in the early modern period, when they became more widely available after Caxton’s introduction of moveable type. Helen Hackett in her wonderful study of Women and Romance Fiction writes that satirists in the early seventeenth century mocked “foolish female readers of romance” who got carried away by what they were reading (well, and there’s Don Quixote, of course). A similar contrast between effeminacy and bold manliness, between virtue and vice, instruction and passion also regulates discussions of the new medium of the commercial theatre in the sixteenth century, as Laura Levine has shown in her Men in Women’s Clothing: Anti-theatricality and Effeminization, 1579-1642.

I had a discussion with friends about the online world of Second Life (note the emphasis on consumerism and self-fashioning on their home page) a while ago. Those who thought this kind of virtual world is dangerous used familiar arguments of the loss of identity, the dangers of performance and role-playing, the importance of social interaction in the real, public world versus the dangers of living your life “in the recesses of the closet”, to speak with Knox. Different media and different historical cultures shape different fears, but it seems as if exploring the world from the comfort of your armchair is still as dangerous as it was in 1778.

Cultural histories

I am scouring the internet this morning, looking for an introductory book on English and American cultural history. I want to use it as a companion to a first-year course that introduces students to the highlights of English and American literature in a thematic, chronological order.

A random week from the course would for example focus on discovery, colonisation and trade in the early modern period, and combine a reading of a literary text with, say, a contemporary travel report, with images of travel, colonisation and trade. Or, a week on the metaphysical poets would introduce the poems together with texts from Bacon or Hobbes, or images from Harvey’s publications on the circulation the blood. (Mmm, both these random weeks just happen to be early modern — the course ranges from Anglo-Saxon texts like Beowulf to the present.)

What I am looking for is a cultural history of England & America that takes a similar approach, focusing on themes, offering images, to give student a broad view of cultural historical developments, and not only of dates, wars, and kings and queens. As a student, I read F. E. Halliday’s England, A Concise History, but I remember it as rather old-fashioned. Halliday would say things like: “And England was mistress of the seas once again” — if I remember correctly. The book has been updated since, and is now even subtitled “From Stonehenge to the Atomic Age,” so perhaps I should reconsider my views? Do any of you know a book that is concise like Halliday’s, but has more attention to culture, also deals with America (1620s and later) and is a bit more modern – new historical – gender conscious – etc.? I guess I am asking for the impossible, but you never know!

Teaching Literature

I’m in a big, anonymous building, where endless hallways keep appearing around corners. I am supposed to be teaching a class, but I am not armed with books, and I have not prepared anything. I am looking for the room where students are waiting for me, but there are only locked doors. I feel terrible, and I know that even if I find the room in time, I will not know what to say.

The semester has not even started, and I’ve already had my first anxiety dream. Staring at the ceiling, I decided that apart from preparing the content of my classes, I should also learn more about the techniques of teaching itself. I surfed to my favourite used books store and ordered a pile of books on teaching literature.

The first book on the pile was Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003). I learned a lot, and will write a short review here. Also in, still to be read, are:

  • Wilbert J. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers (1994) — which comes warmly recommended by Showalter
  • Richard L. McGuire’s Passionate Attention: An Introduction to Literary Study (1973).
  • Milla Cozart Riggio, ed., Teaching Shakespeare through Performance (1999).

The crucial thing that all these books make you think about is not what you are going to be teaching your students, but how you are going to teach them. I have taught before, and found ways of teaching that work well for me — I try to stimulate discussion, questions, students’ critical engagement during lectures as well as seminars. I have some tricks up my sleeve to achieve this. Some of those tricks I invented, others I learnt from my own experience as a student. The good thing about these books on teaching is that you learn new tricks, and start to think critically about your style of teaching. They also make you consider what you really want to be teaching your students: is it knowledge, is it the skill of reading literature, the skill to talk or write about it, or is it to make them think critically, to form their own opinions about life? Or is it all these things? And how do you achieve that?

Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature discusses theories and methods of teaching literature, and looks at different methods for different genres (poetry, drama, fiction, theory). She lets you share not only in her own experience as a teacher of English literature, but also in the wisdom of a wealth of her colleagues. Throughout the book, Showalter cites stories and ideas from other university lecturers. I met with many different styles of teaching in her book, and was able to define my own style by comparing it to others’, and by taking from them what I liked. I also enjoyed the advice on stimulating active learning even in lectures with large groups of students (such as a shift of material or approach every fifteen minutes, buzz groups, problem-solving, and Q and A sessions to keep students engaged throughout).

I hope my subconscious read along with me, because Showalter’s Teaching Literature does not only provide many ideas and examples of ways to teach literature, but also acknowledges the anxieties that come with the profession (in her dream, Showalter is six weeks late for class; others discover that they need to teach in Latin!). Emphasising the joys of teaching as well as the worries that come with it, the book really made me feel more comfortable, and gave me lots of ideas to work with. I look forward to the start of the semester, and hope to be blogging more frequently. Reviews of the other books on the pile will follow. In the meantime, you are warmly invited to share your teaching wisdom and/or anxiety dreams in the comments!

Update: New Kid on the Hallway has a great post on student motivation today, with lots of inspiring comments. I was particularly thrilled by Tiruncula’s idea to make small groups within a class ‘responsible’ for a particular theme throughout the term, enabling them to function as experts in discussions. I love it!


I’m back! And this is why I have been so quiet of late: as of 1 September, I will be a lecturer in the English department at the

University of Amsterdam! (Go see their slideshow — I will be working at the Bungehuis, on slide 6!). I landed a job before even finishing or defending my PhD thesis. I have been — and still am — working like mad to complete the thesis before August, leaving me one month to dive into Chaucer, Dickens, Austen, and all the other texts that I will be teaching. I am really looking forward to my new job! I get to teach a Shakespeare course, and will be teaching an MA course of my own design in the second semester. I am thinking of a course on “Bodies and Selves on the Early Modern Stage.” Will you let me pick your brains again when the time comes?

The Medieval-Renaissance drama lecture at Utrecht University worked out nicely, thank you for all your suggestions and ideas. The professor in medieval lit. and I decided to read Faustus next to a Dutch medieval play, called Marieken van Nieumegen. The two plays make a wonderful pair. Marieken (little Mary) is seduced by the devil, who tells her he will teach her the arts, and makes her perform her academic tricks in a pub in Antwerp. Unlike Faustus, Marieken is saved. She repents and returns to the Christian faith when she sees a performance of a miracle play in her hometown of Nijmegen. In my seminar, we compared the role of dramatic performance within the two plays, and read the differences in the context of the theatrical practices of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. I really enjoyed the discussion, and I think the students did, too.

So, that is where things stand with me. I will try to return to a more regular blogging and blog-reading rhythm, because I missed you all!