This essay narrates a recent pedagogical experiment in which I used various digital assignments to teach Austen’s Northanger Abbey among other novels in the British Gothic tradition of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like Marcia McClintock Folsom, I wanted the course to “help students measure [Austen’s] achievements by identifying what is inventive and experimental in the distinctive qualities of her prose.” But in order to understand the distinctiveness of Northanger Abbey, Austen’s most overtly parodic novel, students need familiarity with conventions and expectations of the tradition in which Austen was writing. Digital assignments enabled students to develop this familiarity through experiential learning and, in turn, transformed the course in ways I could not have predicted.
For the purpose of this undergraduate course, I locate the British Gothic tradition as originating with Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and culminating with Stoker’s Dracula (1897). The goals of the course are to read and enjoy these action-packed novels, to gain an historical knowledge of the era of their production, and to develop a working understanding of the conventions that characterize the Gothic novel as distinct from other types of novels. These conventions include labyrinths, deliberately archaic language, ancestral prophecies, medieval castles, the novel as found manuscript, and animate objects such as talking portraits and walking skeletons. Such conventions reappear in different forms throughout the novels of the period. The overarching aim of the course is to suggest that Gothic textuality gains its compelling energy from a constant oscillation between repetition and critique of these conventions.
Given the popularity of recent Gothic texts, including The Walking Dead, Twilight, and many others, students quickly forge continuities between modern Gothic texts and the British Gothic tradition I teach. While such continuities are useful to spur student interest in the subject, they can also distract us from the specificity of the assigned novels, particularly during class discussions in which students sometimes reflect an uncritical assumption that recent texts, with which they are more familiar, are more self-conscious in their repetition of Gothic tropes than the novels on the syllabus.
In order to recognize the self-consciousness and parodic energy in early novels of the British Gothic tradition, readers need to enter into the texts as active imaginative participants. Austen’s Northanger Abbey, therefore, is a pivotal text for the course. The novel brings together questions of audience, interpretation, and parodic repetition formally and thematically through the hermeneutic education of its Gothic reader-as-heroine, Catherine Morland. Using Catherine as inspiration, I designed a set of linked activities to provide students an experience that would mirror Catherine’s education.1 In the novel, Catherine must learn to distinguish between textual and social convention in order to be able to form meaningful relationships. In the class, students learned interpretative strategies by participating in digital media interventions into their own reading and writing processes, interventions that transformed the often solitary occupations of reading and writing into collaborative, social, and even team-based games.
Finding a new reader: Digital natives visit Northanger Abbey
The plot of Northanger Abbey thematizes interpretation—both within and beyond the covers of the physical book—as a necessary skill for negotiating the complexities of the social world. But what does such interpretation mean to the eighteenth-century Catherine Morland or to the twenty-first century reader of Austen? How do the layers of parody in the novel enrich and shape readers’ interpretations? How does reading itself become an activity fraught with dramatic tension? In order to explore these questions, students in my course wrote parodies of individual paragraphs in Northanger Abbey so as to understand how Gothic conventions embody intertextuality in Austen’s novel. They then attached these parodies as marginal annotations to a shared digital version of the novel on the course website. In doing so, they created a shared intertext of their own, in which their collective act of reading, itself, became legible as the kind of interpretive performance which the novel celebrates.
This parody assignment is just one example of how students can learn to analyze Austen’s style by putting ideas and terms from lecture into practice. While students in my upper division classes are not new to close reading, they are learning Gothic conventions and narratological terminology such as free indirect style for the first time. Often, the interpretations enabled by close reading can seem magical to students who have not yet learned how to break down chapters and paragraphs into their component parts in order to discover for themselves how the text produces the effects they experience upon a first reading. A parody assignment motivates textual analysis by giving it an experiential focus. Students post their imitations on the website, and then in class they read and discuss the original text and their own parodies in small groups. As students read and share classmates’ writing, they increase their attentiveness to Austen’s prose. For this assignment, for example, students were asked to imitate, or parody, paragraphs or passages from the second half of the novel that exhibited Gothic tropes they recognized from one of the earlier novels on the syllabus. They chose passages featuring dark and stormy weather, tyrannical male characters, emotional female characters, castles (or abbeys), and labyrinths—all conventions that the class had identified earlier in the semester.
Generally, the students sought to modernize the prose in order to increase its comedic effect, though after the group discussions most modernizers agreed that Austen’s prose was funnier. Students also usually exaggerated the Gothic convention that stimulated their parody in order to increase its comic effect. This magnification was generally due to their sense that the convention was less conspicuous in Austen’s prose than in, say, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.
Students completed this parody assignment on an electronic text edition of Northanger Abbey that I mounted on our course website. The assignment thus served multiple purposes in the course. As an early, low-stakes digital assignment, it gave students an initial experience interacting with the platform in which they would produce more extensive assignments later. The side-by-side layout2 (see Figure 1), in which Austen’s text is in one column and the students’ own writing next to it, suggests an equalization of the relationship between author and reader, a relationship that the self-conscious narration of Northanger Abbey is also exploiting for both comic and thematic effect. For example, the first sentence of the novel opens the frame between narrative levels through a kind of collective free indirect style (similar to the multi-voiced ironic opening of Pride and Prejudice) that joins readers’ love of plot and characterization to the naïve egoism of the unlikely romantic heroine Catherine: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine” (5). Readers are immediately involved in the process of interpretation by being included in that confident grouping “no one” whose point of view opens novel. Yet we are also, literally, “no one” in the world of the novel, in direct opposition to the named heroine whose pretensions to individuality and importance are skewered in the following paragraphs. Readers are thus part of the novel even as we are excluded from it; we are always already known, not only targets of parody but actually constituted by and through the parody itself.
The writer of the parody in Figure 1 emphasizes the heightened emotional intensity of the scene, compresses the events of multiple sequential paragraphs into one, and focuses on the ridiculousness of Catherine’s delusions as well as Henry’s sophomoric enjoyment in teasing her. In other words, Catherine Morland’s naïve reading, as well as Henry’s voyeuristic puppeteering, are the vehicles for Austen’s parody of Gothic tropes. Austen’s parodic scene, then, becomes the fodder for students’ own parodies of Austen’s prose.
Both the writing and discussion of parody in the novel became particularly interesting for students because of the online presentation of their work and the resulting consciousness that it would have an audience both within and beyond the classroom. The more hesitant writers among them liked the fact that they could read other students’ contributions before they wrote their own. The more extroverted liked that their work was shared with the whole class and, in fact, anyone on the Web. This public quality of digital assignments turned out to be a major motivator for students. Rather than writing for the professor, they wrote for each other, knowing that other students would actually read their work—and that their work would be available online for some time after the end of the semester. Even low-stakes, short assignments like this one, then, gained importance as students discovered they had an audience.
In this parody assignment, students were focused on audience at multiple levels: most of the characters in the novel are readers with differing interpretive abilities, students read the novel itself, and students regularly read each other’s work online. Sharing the work online allowed them to discover their interpretive differences from each other. As John C. Bean notes in Engaging Ideas, students often “write to the teacher even when they have been assigned a ‘real world’ audience” to imagine for an assignment (45). But he adds that student work can quickly transform “when teachers stress the importance of imagining the needs of the reader” (45). Students, in other words, were placing themselves in the position of Henry Tilney. Their parodies were motivated by thinking through how other readers in the class would respond to particular passages from the novel. Very few students tried to simply mirror Austen’s prose; most wrote in order to appeal to their classmates’ sense of fun, often by placing scenes in familiar campus settings (the campus dining commons were a favored site for Gothic surprises). But many students also wrote for an audience beyond the campus, often by finding parallel settings in the United States and updating the action of the novel to those locations (Las Vegas, for example, became a stand-in for Bath.)
This additional level of awareness of readers beyond the campus resulted, unexpectedly for me, from the medium of publication for students’ parodies. Our WordPress site was publicly available on the Web and findable by anyone through a simple Google search. Therefore, my college’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) asked me to carefully attend to students’ rights to privacy. I encouraged, but did not require, students to use pseudonyms for their postings on our website. Students retained the option to use their own names if they wanted public credit for their work. In order to motivate students to think carefully about their free choice in this matter, I asked them to submit a brief, private reflection to me describing how and why they decided to post under a pseudonym, under a partial pseudonym, or under their full name. Frankly, I assigned the reflective piece mainly to fulfill IRB’s requirements. But in retrospect, I realize that asking students to think carefully about how they chose to present themselves to a Web audience focused their attention on their own potential readers, and therefore motivated them to think critically about how their writing would appeal to that audience rather than just to me. The online parody assignment, in other words, brought together all these levels of audience into one space where students were able to consider the novel’s thematic focus on reading in light of their own reading practice, their fellow students’ reading, and the needs of the readers of the website.
Perhaps because the class was focusing so much on the relationship between narrative structure and audience, as students wrote their parodies of Gothic conventions they began turning the ideas back on themselves and their relations to their own potential future readers after the end of the course. What would it mean for them to live their (online) lives with critical distance? How might they shape their online personas to help them achieve their personal, educational, and/or career goals? Surprisingly, such questions were new to many in the class, despite my prior assumptions about the digital savvy of this generation.
Those of us who use digital media casually are, my class came to believe, twenty-first century analogs of Catherine Morland, who “had never any objection to books at all” as long as “nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them” (7). Students arrived at this conception by considering their own Web practices in light of the terms “digital native” and “digital literacy.” “Digital native,” a phrase coined by Marc Prensky in 2001, describes students born during the digital age, who “are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet” since they grew up using the Web as an integral part of their daily lives (1). Prensky argues that, due to this habitual use of digital media and the Web, digital natives have fundamentally different learning styles from the preceding generations, including an affinity for multi-tasking and instant information retrieval, an aptitude for networked learning, and a preference for game-style assignments (2). Prensky goes on to argue that while digital natives are aware that they tend to share these preferences, they are not conscious of a causal relationship between their Web usage and their ways of understanding the world. My students felt that Prensky’s neologism, which argues a causal relationship between media consumption and hermeneutics, applied usefully to Catherine. Therefore, they dubbed her a “textual native” in recognition of how her affinity for Gothic novels bleeds into her interpretations of her own life.
Yet Catherine’s habitual use of text is not enough, according to Austen, to transform her into a critical thinker about those texts. The plot of Northanger Abbey turns on Catherine’s vulnerability due to her naïve reading skills in both social and literary contexts. As students began thinking about which skills Catherine needs to develop, they realized that Austen plots Catherine’s education in a way that engages readers of the novel in a similar educational process: they, too, were learning how to recognize the power of convention, whether literary, digital, or social, to shape their perceptions and judgments. What Catherine lacks, students felt, are the critical properties exhibited by Henry Tilney. Unlike Catherine, Henry knowingly creates Gothic scenarios for his own enjoyment. Catherine, on the other hand, does not have this creative intellectual freedom as her imagination is constricted by her uncritical reproduction of Gothic tropes as her primary interpretive strategy.3 Students analogized the critical freedom that Henry embodies to the literacies of active participants in—rather than passive consumers of—digital media. People who participate in gaming culture, use such social media as Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr, or frequently check facts on Wikipedia may be active or passive users of the content they access.
What amazed me was that, during the class discussion of this distinction between Catherine and Henry’s reading styles, students wanted to apply the distinction to their own Web practices. While I have given parody assignments in previous semesters, discussion of the novel has never before lead in this direction. The major difference this time was that students were publishing their parodies on our class blog site. Merely moving a writing assignment from traditional paper submission to Web publication deeply transformed students’ perception of the novel by enabling them to find meaningful parallels in their own experience for the questions of reading and interpretation that the novel foregrounds. Many began to see their own digital media usage as similar to Catherine’s naïve reading. This perception sutured students into the novel’s hermeneutic questions, bringing a sense of relevance and urgency to students’ understanding of Gothic, as well as digital media, conventions.
Noticing the niceties: Rewriting the Gothic
On the spur of the moment, due to students’ analogy of active and passive readers of texts to users of digital media, I decided to assign an anthologized excerpt of Roland Barthes’s polemical essay, “The Death of the Author.” This is not an essay I had ever before assigned in a Gothic literature course, yet since the discussion had evolved from Gothic conventions to the role of the reader relating to a (digital) text to a distinction between active and passive reading, the essay turned out to be a touchstone text for the rest of the semester. Students—as they always do when I teach this text— initially reacted violently to Barthes’ provocative rhetoric. The discussion during our next class began with many voicing strong opinions based on their own previously unacknowledged assumptions about canonicity, value, and authority. Students felt that Barthes was dismissive of the genius of great writers of the past and that his goal of liberating interpretation from the limitations of authorial, or authoritative, touchstones would result in meaninglessness.
But as we worked through the essay in light of students’ own parodies of Northanger Abbey’s parodies of Gothic conventions (themselves parodies or imitations of imagined medieval rhetorical strategies), students began to be able to conceptualize the endless iterations that characterize fiction. Students realized that Barthes’s description of Greek tragedy applies equally to Northanger Abbey, which is also woven from “words with double meanings that each character understands unilaterally . . . ; there is, however, someone who understands each word in its duplicity and who, in addition, hears the very deafness of the characters speaking in front of him—this someone being precisely the reader” (1325). This passage beautifully explicates the scene in which Henry, Eleanor, and Catherine discuss the definitions of “nice,” a fashionable term whose changing meanings enable Henry to display his linguistic precision, his witty “niceness” about language. Catherine, of course, misses the pun, and Eleanor must interpret for her. Eleanor concludes the discussion by turning Henry’s joking critique of Catherine’s slang use of the word “nice” back onto Henry. She applies the Johnsonian definition of “nice” as overly attentive to detail to Henry’s linguistic play itself: the word “‘ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise,’” she says to her brother, in a nice bit of aphoristic retaliation for Henry’s witticisms (109). The scene focuses readers’ attention on the mismatch between Henry’s agile wit and Catherine’s naïve inexperience, posing Eleanor as a necessary interpreter between the two. But, as Barthes points out, the real locus of this scene is the reader herself, who hears Catherine’s deafness, admires Eleanor’s social adroitness, and chuckles at Henry’s wit.
In most critical editions of Northanger Abbey, this scene is well-annotated, enabling readers to understand the layers of iteration and parody that create its humor. But reading this scene in light of students’ ongoing analogies of Catherine’s reading habits to their own sometimes uncritical use of social media brought new energy to their interest in wit, wordplay, and authorship. Henry, the class agreed, would have many followers on Twitter, since his conversational style lends itself to the highly-abbreviated format of 140 characters. Eleanor would also have followers, though not as many, since her class and gender would limit how much publicity she would seek and also because she would be focused on retweeting and explicating Henry’s tweets. Catherine would have the fewest followers of the three, since she would primarily choose to lurk, or read without often posting, on Gothic writers’ fan networks.
Students’ commitment to comparing Catherine’s interpretive practices and verbal acuity to their own experience of Web tools and social media, in other words, enabled them to quickly grasp the subtlety with which characters’ verbal styles would impact their social networks. In the past, in teaching this scene, I have struggled to detach students from the idea that Henry’s wit is merely evidence of a kind of class snobbery that can feel both antiquated and an interpretive dead end. But this time, since the class (with my active encouragement) had developed a strategy of frequently imagining the novel recontextualized into social media, they were quick to read Henry as a hipster4 and thereby begin to account for the variations in characters’ styles of discourse as a direct result of the characters’ reading practices and abilities to achieve critical distance from their own interests.
In Northanger Abbey, Catherine must learn to identify literary and social conventions as such in order to learn to navigate the possibility of other characters’ insincerity. Catherine’s education in differentiating between conventional versus sincere expression, framed slightly differently, leads to a new understanding of literary realism as itself a set of generic conventions. In other words, denaturalizing Gothic conventions allows us also to denaturalize realism’s conventions and become, like Henry Tilney, critical readers of not only Gothic fiction but also Austen’s realism. Thus, Northanger Abbey’s literary realism depends on the knowing, or parodic, deployment of non-realist conventions as vehicles for educating characters into the intellectual habit of critical distance from their own lived experience, an experience which becomes the touchstone of realism. Characters model a form of social being, in other words, in which we all live as though we are reading and writing our own lives.
Because students were thinking about the novel in reference to their own Web presence as both readers and writers, they were prepared to understand how Austen’s parodic foregrounding of unrealistic literary conventions could construct Catherine Morland’s social world as a background that seems, by implicit contrast, realistic. Of course, I could have introduced this topic in lecture, and cited scholars debating interpretation in the novel, but the experiential learning embedded in the parody assignment resulted in discussions in which students arrived at such ideas themselves. Digitally publishing their parodies as shared marginalia therefore helped students realize that just as the novel’s narrative structure constructed them as implied readers, they too (re)construct the text every time they read it. In other words, the presentation of students’ words alongside Austen’s words liberated the novel from the page and brought it into students’ lived experience. The class began to perceive the novel less as a great work of literary history and more as a living text through which they could explore questions of interpretation and representation that matter to them.
Once they became invested in the novel as a means to explore ideas of clear relevance to themselves, students were then more motivated to read the criticism to discover how published scholars arrived at and supported their arguments. Students thus moved away from engaging with criticism as a way to try to unearth ideas about how to approach the text and instead moved toward reading criticism in order to study how various scholars built their arguments. They were, in other words, reading criticism critically, rather than reading it to look for answers
This transformation led me to redesign the next unit of the course. I had planned to initiate a brief role-playing game as a way to understand narrative structure through experiential learning. But since I was trying to teach by allowing students’ own questions to drive our exploration of the novels, I shifted the syllabus and made the game the focus, rather than a small component, of the next unit of the course.
Collaborative writing as role-playing: The Gloominton Game
After the surprising discussions in the first segment of the course, I realized that this class would be heading in directions I might not predict. That knowledge was both exciting and terrifying. What is my role as professor if I am not piloting the ship at every moment? Somewhere deep inside I felt like I was not doing my job if I was not in control of which ideas and concepts would become most central during the course. In designing the course as an experiential recreation of Catherine Morland’s education, I thought I had relinquished any concept of myself as the all-knowing “sage on the stage.” In fact, I had not been aware that I ever cultivated such a sense of my professorial role. Yet, like Henry Tilney, I was discovering that the interests of my students did not always suit my own conversational designs. In teaching at a liberal arts college, I have long had the luxury of leading discussion-based courses. But what this semester was teaching me was that those courses had not always been learner-driven. When students’ questions and interests drive the discussions, then my role morphs from discussion leader to facilitator.
For example, when students alighted upon the active/passive reader distinction, I responded by offering them additional reading—the excerpted Barthes essay I described above. And instead of groaning under the burden, they arrived in class the following day primed for a lively debate. This learning sequence is best illustrated by Jackie Gerstein’s diagram of the experiential flipped classroom:
In this diagram, Gerstein maps out the learning flow of a “flipped classroom” in a higher education classroom. This teaching concept had always appealed to me, but I found myself frustrated by the assumptions underlying this model. While experiential learning cycles make a lot of sense to me, as a literature professor, I rebel at the assumption that reading is an ineffective learning strategy, an idea that undergirds much current scholarship in multi-modal teaching.5 Many experiential leaning enthusiasts consider reading to be a passive and ineffecive strategy for learning (note its absence in the above learning cycle). I am certainly a verbal learner, and novels and poems have been some of my greatest teachers, just as they are Catherine Morland’s teachers. And such learning-through-reading is not an isolated preference: my students had focused on precisely this theme in their student-directed discussions of Northanger Abbey. Why, I thought, should reading sit at the bottom of a learning pyramid? One of the course’s explicit goals, in fact, is to “read and enjoy” Gothic fiction!
Aye, and there’s the rub. Students have often commented on my course evaluations that they love the books we read, and they love the discussions we have, but they nevertheless differentiate reading in a literature class from reading for fun, even when they might choose the same books. Something about the experience of reading the book, when placed into an educational context, changes. Students feel pressure to notice the important things, to highlight the “right” passages, to correctly analyze the why and how of a text, to avoid the kinds of blunders that Catherine Morland—or, even worse, John Thorpe—make when discussing novels.
Is this difference in the pleasures of the text a question of active reading versus passive consumption and therefore yet another modern manifestation of Catherine Morland’s naïve reading practices? I don’t think so. I think the cause of the difference is based on fear of assessment. Readers engage with texts in multiple disparate ways: we notice patterns of metaphors and representations, we consider historical and cultural contexts, we imagine lives and times different from our own, we remember paradoxical phrases and wise insights, and we read on for the sheer satisfaction of discovering what happens next. But in the traditional literature classroom, while all these pleasures may be part of the analytical process we bring to bear on a text, students often feel that they need to silence such pleasure in order to achieve an authoritative tone in their both their verbal comments in class and their essays. Class discussions, in fact, can magnify students’ feeling of vulnerability to judgment by both professor and peer.
In order to implement the course objective, then, to “read and enjoy” Gothic fiction, while trying to reduce students’ understandable tendency to read assigned texts looking for the correct or important or externally-determined meanings, the key assessable project for the second unit of the course was a role-playing project that expanded to four weeks. Despite my doubts and misgivings about relinquishing control for such an extended segment of the course, I nonetheless decided to devote much of each class session in this unit to a role-playing game rather than to my usual mixed discussion format.
The game we played was inspired by reading about Jerome McGann’s “Ivanhoe Game” in Radiant Textualities, and based on Mark James Morreale’s brilliant assignment in MLA’s Approaches to Teaching Gothic Fiction. In my version of this interpretive game assignment, students were given a historical setting and a cast of characters. They then built their own Gothic narrative by writing a collaborative, jointly-authored text following the conventions of an epistolary Gothic novel: students wrote first person narratives from the perspective of any character they chose.6 The narratives took the form of letters, medical chart notations, diary entries, etc. Each student could contribute only one entry at a time, and each entry was supposed to build on the previous entries. Figure 3 shows an early entry:
In this post, a student wrote a diary entry that tries to summarize the plot events already alluded to by other characters and to create the shared upcoming event of the ball. In other words, in the midst of play, the student felt the responsibility to gather up the various threads of narrative that had already been established and signal two foci for the developing plot: the ball and the ransacking of the town. I quote this letter since it embodies what I think is one answer for a literary classroom to the idea that reading is an inefficient means to learn. This student was participating in an activity, an active learning mode with high likelihood of memorability. The written role-playing game actualizes Barthes’s elevation of readers as locus of a text by turning each reader into the producer of the next segment of the text. Readers experienced the pressure of responding to those who contributed before them. They also felt the productive potential of conventions in imagining and shaping their own contributions.
Nevertheless, as the game continued, the plot became impossibly complicated since each entry tended to add yet another plot event or romantic triangle or foreshadow an additional upcoming catastrophe. When we had more than fifty contributions—roughly two per student—I intervened and redirected the focus from enacting Gothic epistolary conventions toward reconceptualizing the set of “found documents” into a coherent Gothic narrative. Small groups of students each took a complete copy of the already-written entries and then edited, rewrote, reshaped, and added to the draft in order to produce their own Gothic novella. This change in game play stimulated a rich discussion on authorship, ownership, and the ethics of revising other students’ contributions. Initially, students were reluctant to rewrite letters originally contributed by students not in their immediate group, though such revisions would clearly be necessary in order to streamline the multiple competing plotlines into a coherent narrative arc. We discussed these hesitations for quite a while, and students continued to express their reluctance to edit other students’ work. I was, frankly, surprised by how strongly a few students felt. Since this was a collaborative group project, it was crucial that we arrive at consensus about this issue, or else the revision phase would be impossible.
The turning point in the conversation arrived when one student reminded the class of our discussion of Barthes’s essay, which we read in relation to Henry’s witticisms in Northanger Abbey. In that discussion, students recognized that layers of imitation, parody, quotation, and iteration are characteristic of Gothic textuality, and are, in fact, emblematic of reader’s active roles in the production of textual meaning. The class, at that moment, seemed to reach a new conception of authorship and textuality in which all texts are in some theoretical sense collaboratively sourced. They began talking about how, as they were each writing their segments of our joint text, they were thinking about other texts and writers. Our collaborative text went from looking like a monstrous, unshapely mess of competing plotlines, what one student called “spaghetti narrative,” to looking like an example of how different readers rewrite texts differently as they read them. This insight removed the last vestiges of reluctance to edit, and groups set to work revising the collective text into their own versions.7
At the end of the Gloominton Game, students submitted their group-edited Gothic fictions online, wrote individual reflections on the project, and then each group presented its project to the class. The student reflections turned out to be central to how I graded the project, since students wrote copiously about their group dynamics, the frequency with which they met, and the extent to which they collaborated on the revision process. The process itself fascinated students, and even students who were reluctant or modest contributors to class discussion wrote extensively about the collaborative role-playing/writing game. I should mention here that students did not feel they were competing for grades; the competitive aspect of the game was focused on how much each group could improve the initial draft in order to make their narrative “the best.”
Since my students found such experiential learning so absorbing, I have elected to follow Shari Stenberg and others in my approach to writing about it: rather than abstracting and theorizing my practice, I have narrated the experience of the semester in an effort to show “the specific practices and processes through which [my] professing and professorial development [took] place . . . in order to open possibilities for reflection and revision” (xx). In other words, I have focused on process, just as my students did in their role-playing editing game. This narrative unfolding tries to recreate the experience of teaching a course that is constantly adapting to students’ interests as well as to the limitations and frustrations of the technologies we employed.
Like my students, I find myself stimulated to do my best when the competition is friendly and the rules of the game are fun. In fact, I now believe that gamification, or the application of the elements of play to undertakings usually considered serious, may be the most historically accurate and generically appropriate way to teach the British Gothic tradition. The novels’ reliance on self-conscious imitation and critique foregrounds the rules of their own construction, as though they are each performances in an enduring game of charades. Northanger Abbey in particular represents (and parodies) interpretation as a mode of engagement with the world in which reading teaches readers how to recognize and navigate various types of conventions. This process is very similar to the application of game rules to non-game activities. Even simple role-playing games motivate students to become more active, intentional learners, just as Catherine Morland learned to become more intentional in her social interpretations. For is not interpretation, itself, a game whose rules we are all always learning?
Digital role-playing games have an additional and entirely pragmatic educational benefit: I no longer perceive any competition between the seductiveness of social media and the pleasures of discussing eighteenth-century fiction in the classroom. I used to ban computers and cell phones from my classroom in order to dissuade students from multi-tasking during class discussion. Cultivating a distraction-free environment was particularly important when teaching Jane Austen’s novels, as it is all too easy for discussions of Austen to remain tethered to plot and neglect discourse and style. Until this experiment with digital assignments, my classroom had been, for students, a zone of digital deprivation, where students were unable to use the technological aids upon which they usually rely. But now, rather than striving to prevent students from engaging in electronic distractions during class, I see new ways to transform the distractions themselves into platforms for learning: students can collect research on Tumblr blogs, they can Tweet comments during films, and they can access their digitally annotated electronic texts on their smartphones. Through digital assignments, students learn to make connections between their own use of the Web and the formal, generic, and hermeneutic questions posed by Gothic fiction. Such a method helps students understand the novels more deeply by foregrounding their awareness of themselves as active agents in producing the meanings of a text. And it also demonstrates to us all the continuing relevance of Austen and the British Gothic tradition.
Please see the syllabus for the course discussed in this essay.
1. The length of the historical period covered in the course did not allow me to assign in full all the novels that Catherine reads, but we did read excerpts from all of them, as well as other, later texts.
2. The CommentPress plug-in to WordPress, a free and user-friendly blogging site, was designed to encourage reader engagement and feedback to electronically published texts. It enables readers to post comments indexed to specific paragraphs of a lengthy text.
3. While students did acknowledge the gender implications of such a difference, they were more interested in exploring the difference itself.
4. “Hipster” is a term my students were all comfortable using for people whose aesthetic sensibility defines itself through parodic re-embodiment of mainstream trends.
5. This assumption, that reading is a passive activity, is now widely challenged (Strauss). However, the prevalence in educational materials of references to the “learning pyramid” or “cone of learning,” both of which feature reading as the least effective teaching strategy, suggests that those doing pedagogical research based on this premise still maintain credibility in some arenas.
6. This type of assignment would be useful with any of Austen’s Steventon novels, all of which exhibit epistolary features, such as Darcy’s pivotal letter in Pride and Prejudice, and Elinor’s assumption in Sense and Sensibility that Marianne must be engaged to Willoughby since she engages in an open correspondence with him. Such elements are richly suggestive that the novels may have developed out of an epistolary novel tradition.
7. The student novellas are available on the course website, “English 337: Gothic Fiction Zone.”
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Ed. Janet Todd, Barbara M. Benedict, and Deirdre Le Faye. Cambridge: CUP, 2006.
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2010. 1322-26.
Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Wiley, 2011.
“English 337: Gothic Fiction Zone.” Whittier College Blogs. 12 June 2013. http://blogs.whittier.edu/eng337/
Folsom, Marcia McClintock. “The Privilege of My Own Profession: The Living Legacy of Austen in the Classroom.” Persuasions On-Line 29.1 (Win. 2008).
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