End-of-semester overload

Brain overload. I’ve got three final papers and two projects due in a week and a half. Oh, and I’m going away to spend the Easter weekend with the kiddos, so I don’t expect to get much done until early next week.

I’m feeling frantically deranged. I need to be amused. I need soft and furry kittens.

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Field Trip: Thornfield Hall…

…by way of Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, Maine.

What lucky timing, that our semester devoted to the works of the Brontës happens to coincide with the release of the latest film incarnation of Jane Eyre! Jane has been adapted for film and for television numerous times, and in our Brontë class at UMA, we’ve watched and discussed many of them. This was our chance to take a class trip and view the entire movie together.

I’ve never been to Railroad Square Cinema before. It’s a funky little three-screen theater that adjoins a Mexican restaurant. The whole place has a fun atmosphere – lots of color, lots of fun little touches, and one of the best bathrooms I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy.

Afterwards, we all convoyed to our professor’s house for a lovely lunch and discussion. Tarragon chicken salad, cheese, crackers, olives, sweet potato chips, and amazing brownies. Of course, you can’t properly discuss an English novel adaptation without tea, and we had that, too. I took pictures, but looking at them now, it would be unkind to show my noble classmates with forks in their mouths, so I will let these images stand in for our lovely meal (many, many thanks to Professor Jill Rubinson!).

And check out the whimsical tea bag. I almost wanted to take it home and let it dry as a memento.

So. The movie. Well, we couldn’t reach a consensus. Some thought Jane was too flat and dispassionate. The relationship with Rochester seemed to proceed too quickly toward love. And her time with the Rivers family was way too brief. What really comes through in the book is Jane’s independence, yes (which I think translates well to the film version). But twinned with that independence is her utter loneliness. She’d never been part of a loving family, and her kinship with the Rivers siblings grows to become profound. What the film edited out is the fact that they are, indeed, long lost kin. In the book, Jane insists on sharing her newfound wealth with her family; in the movie, it almost seems like she’s offering to buy them and adopt them as her own. Maybe the producers thought it too much of a coincidence for modern viewers, or maybe there just wasn’t enough time to develop the relationships.

That’s one of the hard things about adapting a three-volume novel into a two-hour film space: so much has to be compressed in order to meet the demands of the form. Other things gain importance – the gorgeous, moody music score; the austere, tightly constructed dresses and earthy looking hand knit shawls; the interior shots of the great halls, and fine houses and manor kitchen; the mossy stone walls that surround the gardens. And of course, brooding, imposing Thornfield Hall. Visually, the movie is stunning.

But was Rochester brooding and imposing enough? Was there enough of a mysterious build-up for the unveiling of poor, crazy Bertha Mason Rochester? Did we really get a sense of St. John’s religious fervor? Hmmm…maybe not so much.

And Jane, dear spirited Jane. As a little girl, she’s feisty and passionate. She fights back against her horrible cousin’s attacks. She survives Lowood School and finds employment for herself. She goes out onto the wild moors by herself and endures a storm and a dark night of the soul (in the book this extends over several days and nights). She starts a school for the daughters of the poor cottagers. Let’s face it, the girl’s got grit, and a streak of proto-feminist independence. Yet in this movie, three different men scoop her up in their arms, making her look decidedly like a Hollywood damsel-in-distress.

Something I really missed from the book was being privy to Jane’s thoughts as she looks out at the sky from the top of Thornfield Hall. In the book, it’s a real shout-it-from-the-rooftop speech, even though it’s completely internalized as Jane’s musing conviction that, basically, women want what men want and feel as men feel, that women want more than to be confined to making puddings and knitting stockings. No less an authority than Adrienne Rich called this passage Jane’s “feminist manifesto.” Yeah, well that’s not in the movie. There’s a bit of a proxy moment, where Jane looks out the window while talking to Mrs. Fairfax, but it just doesn’t carry the same weight.

I think my classmate got it right when she said we judge it harshly because we read and discussed and wrote about the book. We can’t help but compare. Plus you end up comparing it to all the previous film and tv versions, too. But I will go on record to say, I loved it. I’ll see it again and I might even buy it. It’s the best version of Jane Eyre I’ve seen, although I haven’t seen near to all of them.

Hmmm…I’m suddenly having the urge to watch all the available adaptations, in chronological order. My poor husband. Loading up the Netflix queue…first up, this 1934 gem:

(Jane Eyre with platinum blond hair?!)

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A nontrad I love

On this rainy, blowy day, I’m working on my final project for my Brontë class. Thankfully, we’ve been given a lot of freedom on this. My classmates’ projects, if I remember right, include Victorian fashion, the geology of the moors, and Victorian food (yum!). One classmate has been doing her project all semester, maintaining and adding to a Brontë Sisters Facebook page that’s a lot of fun. My project will focus on letters, either written by the Brontës or incorporated into their novels.

I’ve been reading The Brontës: A Life in Letters  by Juliet Barker to find some gems for the project and came across this passage, written by Charlotte in a letter to her friend, Ellen Nussey. At this point, Charlotte and Emily are at Pensionnat Heger, a school in Brussels:

“I was twenty-six years old a week or two since – and at that ripe time of life I am a schoolgirl – a complete school-girl and on the whole very happy in that capacity. It felt very strange at first to submit to authority instead of exercising it – to obey orders instead of giving them – but I like that state of things…”

Yes, my friends. Charlotte Brontë was a nontrad! She started her schooling, such as it was, a little later in life, after previously being part of the work force as a governess. Counts as a nontraditional student in my book.

Charlotte Brontë, book in hand, studies for her finals

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Brontë and Bechdel and Books, OH MY

Ah…post conference relief! The First Annual Undergraduate English Conference happened yesterday. I made a wreck of myself in advance of giving my paper, and of course, it all went pretty well. I don’t know why I get so wound up – at 48 I ought to be over that kind of worry. But apparently, I’m not. I’ll probably always get nervous standing and speaking in front of people, even if most of them are younger (or much younger) than I am. So yes, my hands shook a bit, but my voice held steady. Good enough, right?

The intro to my paper. That swirl at the end of the paragraph is my visual reminder to look up at the audience - not sure I pulled that off. The filled-in O's came later, a form of contained doodling

Our Brontë panel discussion was great. I didn’t know how I’d handle questions from the audience, but between all of us, I dare say we did a fine job. Afterwards, one of the professors in the audience came up to us and said something like, “That’s just what you want at an English conference – a spirited discussion!”

Inside the brochure, with a listing of the panelists. I should have taken a clean copy. Again with the doodles...

While listening to the other students giving their papers, it occurred to me that we rarely have this opportunity to hear (or read, for that matter) our classmates’ work. Even in an online class, formal papers are often submitted directly to the instructor rather than posted to the discussion forum for all to see. I liked hearing all the panelists’ different approaches and writing styles as much as their essay topics. The flip of that is also true: there’s something to be said for the affirmation you get from sharing work with others that usually only gets read by your teacher. (Sure, I sound calm and philosophical now. Where was this composure two days ago?)

The highlight of the day was the keynote speaker, Alison Bechdel. UMA has hosted other author events but I rarely get the chance to attend. The last ferry leaves at 4:30, so a late afternoon event for everyone else means an overnight stay for me. But it was worth it.

Now here’s someone who doesn’t seem to get nervous in front of a crowd. Despite having a wardrobe malfunction in the spectacles department, she maintained her poise. She switched eyeglasses, then took them off, then arranged them at an angle on her face and carried on. There’s a lesson there.

She did a slide show along with her talk – makes sense that a cartoonist would bring the visuals. She showed us how a cartoon comes together, all the way from laying out the panels in Adobe Illustrator to working out text placement to penciling in the artwork to applying the ink. We got to see some photo mock-ups of herself that she used to create drawings, so she could get the angles and perspective right. It’s extremely detailed work. As she said, “Just do that a thousand or fifteen hundred times and you’ve got a book.”

I loved Fun Home, which, in extreme shorthand, is “about her father.” Alison is working on another memoir now, this one “about her mother.” But what I love is that her work is really about her: her place in her family, her moment in history, her identity as a lesbian, her process as a cartoonist. It’s all reflective and reflexive, but not self-centered. She’s looking outside of herself as a way in, or maybe she looks within to interpret the world around her. Anyway, it’s fabulous and I’m a new convert.

Alison Bechdel signing

 

I didn’t take pictures during her talk. I was in the front row and figured that would be distracting. But I took the liberty during her signing. I bought her newest book, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, and she signed that.

And I brought along Fun Home, and she signed that…and drew a quick little self-portrait…and added an impromptu personal notation – “click click click” – let’s just call that an inside joke. Or that’s what I’m going to call it :) I had my moment of connection with the famous author/cartoonist and I went away pretty well pleased.

Alison Bechdel signing my books

signing - glasses off

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I’ll be fine

Remember I mentioned the First Annual English Conference hosted by my school, University of Maine at Augusta?

Well it seems I did submit a paper for consideration after all. And apparently it’s been accepted. And yes, members of my class have formed a Brontë Sisters panel, so we can read and discuss our papers…in front of people…and answer their questions.

A few days ago I saw a mock-up of the schedule for the conference. There it is – Colleen Conlan, The Passions of the Two Mrs. Rochesters. It’s with an equal measure of pride and dread that I see my name and paper listed…first.

Yes, that’s right. I’ll be giving the first paper during the first panel of the very First Annual UMA Undergraduate English Conference.

So now I’m getting nervous. Last night I even had a version of that dream where you’re naked in front of people and can’t do anything about it. So yeah, I’m a little worked up. (I’ll be fine)

See, I’m not keen on public speaking. I’m a wicked blusher, even at 48, and my voice sometimes gets a little trembly. But I’m trying to convince myself that this isn’t really public speaking, it’s just public reading. I like to read, right? (I’ll be fine)

And I’m reminding myself that it’s good – actually quite good – to go first. Then there’s less of that horrid anticipation, only half-listening to the current speaker because I’m obsessed with the fact that that it’s my turn after the guy after this woman. This way, I’ll be able to get my paper out of the way, and then relax and really enjoy the rest of the conference (I’ll be fine)

I’m quite excited about the keynote speaker, Alison Bechdel. Last week I bought and devoured her graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. As implied by the title, it’s sad and it’s funny, and it’s so smart. I’m always a sucker for the kind of introspective and observant little girl that Bechdel was and brings to the page. As a way of appeasing my anxiety, I’m trying to think that I’m sort of a warm-up act for the keynote. Some day I can tell my grandchildren, “Yes, my dears, it’s true! I once opened for Alison Bechdel!” (I’ll be fine)

Seriously, though, I’m also excited about our panel and about my part in it. I’m eager to hear my Brontë co-panelists’ papers. I also recognize names of classmates from prior online classes among the other panelists, so it will be good to see and hear them in person. In reality, my paper is one small contribution to what will probably be a pretty cool day. Giving papers…sitting on panels…hearing the keynote speaker: it all sounds so collegiate, and such a great way to end my experience at UMA.

I might blush, I might even quaver, but I’m not likely to faint, and I’m certain I won’t die. I’ll be fine.

 

 

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Online Learning and Online Teaching Part 3

Without further ado, I give you the final installment of my interview with Jodi Williams and Sarah Hentges, two professors at University of Maine at Augusta who teach online classes to distance learners all over the country and even the world. I’m very grateful to both of them for sharing their thoughts here. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

What are the benefits of teaching online?

Jodi: For the most part, Maine has a pretty homogeneous population, if students were in the classroom face to face and we just drew from that population, while there may be age differences, it would be a pretty similar population in the library field. Online, we have students from around the United States, with varied, rich backgrounds and we have students from around the world. How wonderful to have a student living in Africa, sharing her Archival class project, time at a Muslim Document center in the Sahara working with 13th century documents, with students here at UMA. Or a student in California who is working for “about.com” sharing her work and job experiences with the class. A multicultural, divergent population makes the online classroom a wonderful rich experience for everyone.

Sarah: Of course the number one benefit is being able to reach students where they are physically, students who would not otherwise be able to attend classes. I also find that students who take live classes enjoy the flexibility of an on-line class. On-line classes require just as much time, if not more, and a different way of learning. For some, this is not possible. For others, they really get a lot out of the on-line experience. I have found that, in some ways, I can get more information across in an on-line course because we don’t get as easily sidetracked, there are no snow days, and the forum is consistent. I think that I have been able to build some relationships with students through on-line classes and I have seen many students learn a lot in my classes. In these ways I don’t see a big difference between the two modes.

Is there additional work for you in preparing and conducting online classes?

Jodi: There is, to keep up with emerging technologies, effective strategies for teaching and learning, engagement and of course the ever changing, shifting and missing pieces of the web that come and go term to term. Though teaching a live class I would have similar changes that need to be made. The work might not be so much in the preparation for me, it feels old hat now, but more likely it is in the upkeep where there is more work than a face to face class. For example, last term I taught an ITV class and likely prepped 15-20 hours for each 3 hour class. It was my first time teaching this course at UMA and in this new to me format, but there was a lot of preparation time.

Sarah: There is a lot more “front-loading” that has to happen in on-line classes. I also find that I need to be much more thorough, clearer, more organized, and more on top of questions and on-line discussions. I have not yet taught an on-line course that was 100% ready when the class began. And since I always adapt and change classes, this may always be the case. Thus, I always have to stay ahead of my students and work to get materials up in a timely fashion. I also find that I need to be on-line a lot more when teaching on-line (obviously!). It is not always easy for me to get into the habit of checking BB regularly though I try to do so as often as I can. It also takes a lot more time to respond to students’ writing since everything must be written. However, I have developed strategies to be able to respond more quickly (and changes to BB have helped me do this) and I find that I really enjoy reading what students have to say. If students do the work, I think that they will get a lot out of an on-line course. Students who do not put forth the effort will not get as much out of the class. Of course, this really is not different for on-line classes compared to live classes.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to add?

Jodi: I like to think of online vs. hybrid vs. face to face not as one is better than the other, but rather each has its own pros and cons that allow students with different needs to obtain their education.

Sarah: I think that too many teachers who teach on-line don’t really think about the work load, the timing of assignments or the ability to use different kinds of pedagogical strategies. In talking with students and in getting feedback about my classes I have seen that some teachers do not require enough work, do not provide sufficient materials, and do not put in the effort to engage students. On the other hand I have also seen that many teachers load the students up with an unreasonable amount of work and expect them to meet deadlines that are too rigid and too dependent upon whether other students do their work or not (such as replies to other students’ posts). I think there needs to be a better definition of on-line work load. I generally translate the hours a student would spend in class into one set of assignments and then assign the same general workload for papers and assignments outside of class time.

I also don’t think that enough of us really think about the best way to deliver material and to engage students with that material. Many of us in the liberal arts do not believe that on-line teaching can be effective. We want the on-line classroom to be like the live classroom. However, it cannot be the same experience. It must be adapted, rethought, and seen as a different but potentially equally valid form of education. I am afraid that too many students read and respond, watch a video (maybe) and then write a post, read and then take a test. I would guess that tests are over-used in on-line courses. I think there is a lot of potential for civic engagement, for instance, in on-line courses and try to ask students to engage in their local community through their on-line class work. I think we need to think about the ways we can make on-line learning work for us and always think about what is best for our students…wherever they are.

 

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Online Learning and Online Teaching, Part 2

My interview with Jodi Williams and Sarah Hentges, about online education from the professor’s point of view, continues below. You can read Part 1 here.

How do you keep your students engaged in an online class?

Jodi: This is a tough question. I like to think my students are engaged and that is something I work at MORE than just about anything else in teaching online. I think more than content, who you are and grounding the students in a real person, real place and engaging them to the content is THE MOST IMPORTANT thing I do. The easier question to answer is what I don’t do to keep my students engaged in my online class. My personality is very much a part of how I teach, my sense of humor, my approachability, my openness, my willingness to be challenged respectfully, the concept that information is NEVER to be feared.  I get to know each of my students. Our program has more than 250 students and for the most part I know each of our active students, or a little bit about each one. This is challenging, as many times I never meet them until graduation. For me, the engagement factor is evident in the number of students who fly in from around the country to come to our graduation party and to walk each Spring at Commencement. Sometimes we have more students who come for graduation than students who come from on-campus programs. THAT says a lot to me from an assessment perspective on engagement of students.

Sarah: This is certainly a big challenge and, in part, I rely upon students’ interest in learning to help keep them engaged. Like in all of my classes I try to choose materials that are interesting and relevant. I try to provide as many examples as I can through web links and YouTube. I try to give a variety of assignments that challenge students to think about the materials (and themselves) in a variety of ways. I try to make up for the lack of face-to-face interaction by making videos (mostly with PowerPoint and mostly without frills) where I discuss the material. Students often recognize my passion for my work and my subject matter so I think and hope that at least some of this passion comes across in the videos. I also try to make myself available via e-mail or phone for any questions and I try to give specific and detailed feedback to writing assignments.

What is the biggest challenge in teaching online?

Jodi: Knowing when a student isn’t getting it. You have to rely on a student coming to you. I reach out to students through journals in my classes, but that is relying on self-reporting for them to tell you they aren’t getting it or that they are struggling. I can, of course, tell by the work they are turning in what intellectually they are or are not getting. But the visual cues in an online class are absent. It is less rich in some ways and much richer in others.

Sarah: The biggest challenge for me is not being able to interact with my students in the same ways as I do in (and out of) the classroom. It is difficult to get on-line students to understand where I am coming from, to understand that I am flexible and open-minded and that what I most want them to do is to learn. I try to meet students where they are in all of my classes so sometimes it is difficult to get students to understand this when they cannot see me. I expect that every student will get something different out of my courses and course material depending upon who they are and where they are in their life and in their education. I like to challenge students and I do not provide all the answers. This does not always work as well in on-line classes where students are used to more traditional teaching methods, assignments, and feedback. For instance, I have a policy that anything that is posted on a discussion board or on a public blog will be responded to publicly. In some cases I will send a private message to a student but it is often necessary to respond to students’ posts publicly so that we might all learn from the experience. So, I had a student who posted some really racist comments on the discussion board and I very carefully explained the problems with the comments without making any personal attacks. We are all raised in a racist culture so the issue was not about the individual. However, the subject matter is complex and the issues are very easily misunderstood so some students did not understand. But the same thing happens in live classes as well.

I guess the other challenge is using the latest and best technology. Recent changes to Blackboard have allowed me to better design my courses. The first on-line class I taught was frustrating because I could not make the technology meet my vision. This caused some confusion for students. Also, I had never used the grading function in BB so students could not get the immediate feedback they wanted. I have since learned better techniques and have gotten more used to the technology but I am not a techie and often feel out of my element. In the future I hope to add some Skype or other technologies that will allow for more “face-to-face” opportunities.

Please come back tomorrow, where we’ll wrap things up and talk about the benefits Jodi and Sarah see in teaching online, and more.

 

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