Avast, me hearties, and an ahoy to those of you whose distance-teaching semesters are winding down. Why are you reading this? Please go feed your sourdough starter instead. (And then, please help me to understand how to feed mine. That burping thing it’s doing right now—is that good? Bad? Oh why did I accept this unassuming jar from a well-meaning friend?)
Here at my little liberal arts college, we’re on trimesters, which means we’re just finishing up our fourth week of the term; the party is far from winding down. It’s a special term for me because it’s my first term teaching a single-author class on Emily Dickinson, my favorite poet.
The course is an upper-level English class that is also cross-listed with gender studies, and I have majors and minors from both departments, as well as conservatory students who know Dickinson best from singing settings of her poems, plus a few folks who just straight-up like Dickinson (from physics majors to film studies majors to math majors!). I started thinking about how I wanted to teach this class over a year ago and spent many months casually reading and dreaming and brainstorming. Three weeks before the class was to begin, of course, I got the same call to move classes online that we all did. For me, that meant throwing a lot of what I had planned out the window. However, I was lucky in that we were heading into an extended spring break and I had a few weeks to figure things out. I know those of you on semesters did not have that luxury! While I had to let go of some in-person things I was really excited about doing (so long, working with the Franklin Variorum on library reserve each week), luckily, there are so many Dickinson resources that are digitized and free for the taking (check out her digitized manuscript books!) that it has been easier to teach this class online than it would many others.
This is not a post about all of the ins and outs of how I redesigned my class, how I made big decisions (i.e. how to do grading during a pandemic; what kinds of assignments felt appropriate; how to emphasize technological accessibility and equity as much as humanly possible; whether to go asynchronous vs. synchronous), what I decided to keep, and what is and isn’t working now. I feel like those conversations came so fast and furious in March that my head is still spinning from them, and maybe yours are, too. I decided to go mostly asynchronous (with one optional Zoom class once a week) because I was concerned about equity issues with respect to how, and when, and how often students are able to access technology wherever they’re living right now.
Speaking of technology—I am not very technologically inclined. I use a dumbphone with a QWERTY keyboard; I am not on social media; I have never made a meme. In short, I am the perfect person to have by your side if you are sifting through dusty, crusty manuscript boxes in an archive, but I’m not the first person who comes to mind when one thinks “innovative online teaching, yes!” So rather than try to go all bells and whistles (or even one bell and half a whistle) with my asynchronous class, I got all 2008 (maybe even that is way too late) and decided to do online discussion forums . . . for the VERY FIRST TIME. Yes, there is a reason my brain is so at home in the nineteenth century.
Digging for gold . . . in the nineteenth century (but not the California Gold Rush kind)
I’ve written before on this blog about using archival materials to help get students more invested in the nineteenth century. I’ve placed a particular focus on using databases like America’s Historical Newspapers, which our library subscribes to, and luckily these databases are still available for students to use if they wish. I have had students do presentations on nineteenth century African American newspapers; I have also asked them to use digitized newspapers, among other sources, to become (in the words of one assignment) “archival experts.” These assignments have been in either paper-writing formats or in presentation formats. When I was imagining adapting one of these assignments for my in-person Dickinson class, I was figuring we would do some kind of archival expert presentation once more. Once I knew we were going to be doing spring term at a distance, I briefly considered Zoom presentations before I decided to go asynchronous. I kept coming back to thinking about not only how students would be able to access technology, but also how fatigued and freaked out they might feel—since that’s how pretty much everyone feels. I decided I needed to loosen the assignment up, make it asynchronous, and re-brand it so that it sounded less intimidating than something involving the words “presentation” or “expert.” Thus, the Dickinson Treasure Hunt Forum was born. I mean, what sounds more fun that hunting treasure?
In addition to the Franklin edition of Dickinson’s poems, plus a bunch of articles and archival materials (Rufus Griswold’s 1847 anthology The American Female Poets, anyone?), we are reading the Johnson edition of Dickinson’s selected letters and the Brenda Wineapple biography of Dickinson (and her literary friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson), White Heat. I knew I wanted to create an assignment that would help students become as intrigued by reading these secondary materials as they would be (I hoped) by reading our primary text: the poems. Here’s the assignment I came up with, verbatim from the assignment sheet:
Dickinson Treasure Hunt Forum
On most Thursdays, three students will each post a discussion question about something interesting they have found in the additional readings for the week. These readings include the biography White Heat, Dickinson’s letters, and any other assigned or supplemental readings that have to do with Dickinson’s life in the nineteenth century. Read until you find something that piques your curiosity. Once you’ve got something, see if you can find out more about it. (For example, you could read the poem “I felt a Funeral in my Brain” and decide to find out something about funeral practices in the nineteenth century, or you might read the name of one of Dickinson’s correspondents—Samuel Bowles, Helen Hunt Jackson, Josiah Holland, others—and decide to try to find out more about them.) Share your treasure with us, and then ask the class a question about it. (Try to relate the question to a poem we’re reading that week if possible.)
So, pretty simple. I did not (as I normally would) limit the students to scholarly or archival sources only. Most of them have found their way to good websites like the Emily Dickinson Museum or Smithsonian magazine. Some have even shared links to multiple scholarly articles–unbidden! My goal this term was to ease up a little bit, knowing students would have more on their minds than finding sources. I think that since many of them are English majors, and most of them are juniors and seniors, they are so used to finding good sources by now that they are doing it as if by reflex.
Yarrr, what treasure be found!
So far, students have investigated these things, which they have found mentioned (sometimes in detail and sometimes in passing) in White Heat, Dickinson’s letters, or both:
- Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson went to school for a year
- Amherst native Frazer Stearns, who was killed in the Battle of New Bern in 1862
- Pressed flowers, included in some of Dickinson’s letters
- Opera singer Jenny Lind, whom Dickinson saw in concert
- Firefighting in the nineteenth century (with a shout-out to Dickinson’s dad)
- The Pelham Hills, a setting dear to Dickinson’s heart
- William Cowper’s poem “Light Shining Out of Darkness”
- W. Higginson’s poem “The Snowing of the Pines”
- Dickinson’s eye ailment and eye doctors in the 19thcentury
- Harriet Prescott Spofford’s creepy 1862 short story “Circumstance” (please don’t read this at night)
After students post their treasure-hunt finds, they pose a question or questions, and the rest of the class has several days to post responses. I’m asking for everyone to post a total of three times in this forum. Right now we’re having a pretty in-depth discussion about daguerreotypes (see below!). In the age of smartphones (not that I would know anything about said age) and endless selfies, the idea of daguerreotypes is proving intriguing indeed.
I’ve been pleased to see how excited students are by their finds. I am particularly impressed with the ways students have taken some of these items and personalized them. For example, this week, we read Dickinson’s famous letter to editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson in which he asks her for a picture of herself, and she basically says, “Nope, sorry, I don’t have one”—which is not true; she does have one, but it’s from 15 years before!—“but I’ll describe myself to you instead.” Then Dickinson writes, “I am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur – and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves.”
One student, intrigued by this lack of a photo and how Dickinson got around it, first investigated what daguerreotypes were; next, found images of Dickinson (the one verified daguerreotype from 1847, plus two other images that are in hot contention as Maybe-or-Maybe-Not Dickinson) and provided as much historical information as she could find about them; and then charmingly created her own description of herself in the style of Dickinson’s.
Finally, the student challenged us all to come up with our own descriptions of ourselves, as if we were writing to Higginson. Here are a few I got permission to share:
- I have quite a few portraits, but do not deign to send them – I am small, like the bobolink, but solid, like the chestnut – though hopefully not as susceptible to disease. My hair – as capricious as the wind – and my eyes, like the residue at the bottom of a mug of instant hot chocolate, forgotten about – and left to harden overnight.
- I, too, am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is not so much spun-gold as it is straw – my eyes, I think, are wide, and match the sky – when it is Blue, as are they, and likewise with its Grey. My teeth so slightly twist, like they desire to face and speak to one another in my mouth, and my Hands – I think, are light and small like the butterfly and are always spinning something.
- I am lanky, like the ostrich legs, and my hair is bright, like the sun at noon – and my eyes, like a vanilla tootsie roll wrapper that a child unwrapped and tossed on the floor.
- I am small and swift like the gazelle, my eyes darting gold brown leaves, my hair meandering in waves alongside a riverbank.
- I am gangly, like the colt, and my hair is like the skunk’s back – and my eyes, like the one frog in the pond who has decided not to tell his name to the whole damn bog. (Well, OK, this one was mine!)
This is just one example of the kinds of enthusiasm students are bringing to this assignment. For me, it’s rewarding to see students get invested in learning about Dickinson’s time, but it’s even more exciting to see them personalize what they’ve found in such hilarious ways (perhaps especially during such a dire and difficult time).
I think this assignment could be easily adapted to any single-author course, which might be where it would work the best. The reason students are getting so into this is, I think, that we are very focused in our research—there is much to explore, but it all comes down to Dickinson, so we can go deep. And there’s so much to pick and choose from that it’s easy, I think, for everyone to find something to pique their interests. I’m wondering how it would go if I tried it in the fall when I teach my course on nineteenth century African American writers, which is, though not a strict survey, still a course that covers 7 or 8 writers during a 10-week term. Without the single-author focus, would this still work as well? (And will this fall course be taught online, or in-person? Like my first loaf of sourdough bread that doesn’t suck, that remains to be seen.) I may try it and see. If you try the treasure hunt in your own classes (whether they are single-author or survey, in-person or online), let me know how it goes!