Monday, 4 January 2010

Web 2.0 for teaching -- my first experiment (1)

Towards the end of last semester, I made my first serious attempt to use some of the material from Bill's Web 2.0 course in my undergraduate teaching.

Some of you may remember that, as part of that course, I started developing a wiki suitable for use by my special option students. The main aim of the wiki was to get the students collaborating on editing some seventeenth-century texts by women. One of the points I make repeatedly during this course (which is on women writers, 1580-1700) is about the importance of taking the editing process into account when reading women's writing from the early modern period. Our week 5 seminar is entirely devoted to the issue of editing. The idea behind the wiki was that students' understanding of editing would be much improved if they tried it for themselves.

Ideally I would have introduced the wiki at an early stage in the semester -- and definitely in time for the week 5 seminar. That I didn't manage this is partly due to lack of time, partly to the fact that I had reservations about requiring students to register to contribute to a Google wiki. (And now you'll probably tell me that registration isn't necessary for wikis ...)

I might have dropped the idea altogether but for two things. One was that I found I had to replan my week 10 seminar, which I hadn't been happy with in previous years, and suddenly realised that the editing exercise -- if it worked -- would bolster exactly the area of the seminar that had seemed thin before. The other was my realisation that I could run the exercise by inviting students to collaborate with me on a Google doc, without any need for separate registration.

So I went ahead. The seminar was on Aphra Behn: both her prose work Oroonoko and a selection of her poetry. It's rather a lot to fit into one seminar, and I've always found in the past that discussion of Oroonoko totally crowded out the poetry. It doesn't help that the selection of Behn's poetry in the anthology we use is rather meagre. My hope was that the online editing exercise might focus students' minds both on the poetry itself and reinforce some of the ideas about editing we'd addressed early in the semester.

I skimmed through Behn's poetry, and found two texts that looked promising. One was a rather scurrilous poem, advising the Earl of Kildare against his intended marriage to (in Behn's view) a loose woman; the other was a verse letter addressed to Behn's fellow-poet (but social superior) Anne Wharton. I chose the first because it's such a contrast to the rather pious, worthy poetry the students would have been studying earlier in the semester, the second because it's a rare and interesting example of two women from this period reading and complimenting each other's work and can also be used to raise issues of how women writers in this period relate to the male-authored canon (since the premise for the exchange between Behn and Wharton was an elegy Behn had written on Wharton's uncle, the poet Rochester).

I found texts of both these poems on the web (non-copyright sites!), and pasted them into my Google doc. Then I wrote a few basic instructions, warned the students, and issued my invitation to collaborate on the document. And waited to see what, if anything, would happen next.