“Fresh Threads of Connection”: Blogging the Victorians

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One thing that struck me as I combed through our 2017 Graduate Alumni data last spring was how many graduates from our M.A. program currently have jobs that require them to write for the web in some way or other. For some alumni, their main professional responsibility is web content or social media management. For many others, writing on the web is an increasingly important part of their regular duties — as anyone working in higher education already knows.

Armed with this information, I decided — for the first time — to incorporate a course blog into a graduate course, my seminar English 825 “Economic Women.”

This spring, each student in my class will write one post of around 500 words on a topic related to our week’s reading for our publicly available blog. The post should be written for a general audience and it should be engaging, interesting, and entertaining (and all without the use of cat videos). To give students a taste of how I envisioned our blog, I’ve shared posts with them from the British Library, the Smithsonian, and BRANCH: Britain, Representation, and Nineteenth-Century History.

This assignment is relatively low stakes in terms of the course grading scheme, but it’s high stakes in other regards. The blog is deliberately public, and I advertise each post on Twitter, tagging the author where possible. While most writing that students complete is read only by their instructor, these posts are read by people they know (me, their classmates, other faculty) and by people they don’t (the blog’s had hits from the UK [hello, mum!], India, and Cameroon). Awareness of this real-life audience adds a level of accountability often absent from classroom writing — and students have risen to the challenge with some style.

But this assignment has also produced unexpected benefits for me as teacher. I’ve been surprised by how differently I read submitted blog posts from traditional academic papers. I automatically review the posts with an editor’s eye as much as an instructor’s, copy-editing prose more extensively and sending posts back for revision. Partly in jest (I don’t get out much) and partly to simulate writing in a professional environment, I respond to students’ posts in my editorial persona.

While I initially created this assignment with a view to my students’ future professional writing lives, I soon realized that the blog posts have other advantages. Writing about Victorian Literature for a non-scholarly audience allows students to engage in the public humanities: an important endeavor at this particular cultural moment. And articulating the importance of nineteenth-century literature and history for a general audience encourages students to articulate the value of this kind of scholarship for themselves.

Perhaps most delightful consequence has been the connections that students themselves have developed in their posts. Writing short posts for a general audience allows students to explore the nooks and crannies of our readings: from St John Rivers’ “situations vacant” approach to marriage in Jane Eyre to the poisonous flower that Helen Graham uses to propose to Gilbert Markham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to the link between Victorian scares over food adulteration and Goblin Market to Elizabeth Gaskell’s unique language of flowers.

Without the blog, I don’t think any of us would have begun to think of Anne Bronte’s Helen Graham as the nineteenth-century forerunner of Gillian Flynn’s Amy Elliott Dunne.

Middlemarch (which we’ll be reading in April) is famously a novel about social networks and webs — the “threads of connections” that join us all. George Eliot didn’t quite have the internet in mind when she wrote her masterpiece but writing on the web, as much as about webs, lets students explore different social, cultural, and literary threads — and perhaps even pick up a connection or two along the way.

Follow English 825’s blog at https://english825economicwomen.home.blog.

Anne Longmuir, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies

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