Friday, 19 November 2010

A plagiarist speaks

Monday, 25 October 2010

What am I Doing This Week?

The biggest single item in my diary this week is an assessment workshop in London. I’ve been booked on to this event by virtue of my new role as Head of Education for EDACS, and will be joining four other participants from the Colleges of Arts and Law and Social Sciences. The workshop is a good opportunity for us to find out about innovative and productive assessment methods in the humanities: e.g. non-essay-based forms of assessment. In practical terms, however, the workshop with take a day and a half (including travelling time) out of my normal working week, adding extra pressure to the days when I’m still in Birmingham. (I’m really grateful for the understanding of my Voicing Women student, who agreed to move our seminar to Monday morning in order to avoid a clash.)

I’m hoping to use the travelling time efficiently by doing at least some of the following:

· Preparing notes for my first-year lecture on early modern rationales for writing

· Writing a review of The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing and the Orlando Project website for the journal Renaissance Quarterly. Renaissance Quarterly is one of the leading international journals on early modern studies, and it was an honour for me to be asked to contribute to it. Reading The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing has helped me to keep up to date with recent developments in my research field, and the comparison with the online Orlando resource has given me food for thought about the future of paper- and web-based academic scholarship.

· Reading Virtue Rewarded, or The Irish Princess (1693). This little-known novel (did Richardson know if it, I wonder, when he subtitled Pamela?) is set in Ireland during the Williamite wars of the late 1680s and early 90s. It’s of interest to me as it’s relevant to a chapter I’m currently writing on the Anglo-Irish poet and translator, Mary Monck. This new paperback edition has only just been published, but will be much easier to read than EEBO pdf images, which is what I’ve had to work from up to now. (Though with the clue – ‘Virtue Rewarded’ – in the title, I won’t exactly be kept in suspense about what happens to the Irish princess!)

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Reviving This Blog

I've felt rather conscience-stricken over the past few months -- actually, ever since I finished Bill's course last year -- about how little I've been doing with this blog. I haven't quite known what I could usefully be doing with it, especially since so many of our number now meet and chat on Twitter. But now I've had an idea.

I've been thinking hard over the past few weeks about what we can do in response to the student satisfaction agenda. This is clearly an issue which is going to become even more pressing over the next few years, as fees increase and humanities departments such as our own come under more and more pressure. It's also clearly not the kind of problem which is amenable to being 'solved' in any straightforward way. But there are things we can do.

One thing I plan to experiment with over the next few weeks is using my office notice board a bit more imaginatively. Colour. Pictures. Chat. Something very like blogging, in fact.

I haven't quite worked out all the details, and one thing I'm especially concerned about is how long this activity is going to take. So it may prove to be a rather shortlived experiment. But I'm planning to start this week, and will hope to merge the hard-copy blog with this online version. So you may soon start seeing more activity on this site. Well, maybe.

Monday, 18 October 2010


Just a few weeks ago a colleague (whom I won't name) made the case that as university teachers we shouldn't be taking plagiarism so seriously. 'Plagiarism is a useful life skill,' went the argument. 'We aren't actually doing our students any favours by taking such a draconian attitude towards it.'

Here's an interesting articulation of a very different point of view:

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Staging Post

A colleague and I went out to dinner last night to celebrate the end of one more batch of marking. This is the picture she took of our marvellous Italian puddings! The torta della nonna (at the back) was mine, and every spoonful was delicious.

This doesn't mean that the marking is over, at least for me, but the end is in sight. And with such generous-spirited and convivial colleagues, the whole process is rendered considerably easier.

I am now, however, back in my office, and am about to get busy with the next marking task. It's the hardest one of all, but in a week's time -- I tell myself! -- it really will be over.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Research and Exams

As some of you already know, I spent 10 days earlier this month at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. The Folger is a familiar name to anyone working in early modern studies, especially literary studies, and perhaps the real surprise is that this was my first visit. But, oddly, this year is the first time I've needed to work directly on Folger manuscripts, and thus have been able to make a cogent case for research funding. A successful application to the British Academy was critical in making this visit possible.

One of the hardest things in organising this visit was choosing the right time for it. The money all had to be spent between July 2009 and June 2010, and because of other commitments the two most obvious times for the journey -- last September and the Easter vacation -- weren't possible. As a result, it was very difficult to find a 10-day period when I could reasonably be away from the department. The time I identified fell between the start of the summer term, when I had to hold a revision lecture and several seminars, and the start of the exams. I was concerned in advance about whether it was really a good idea to be away from the university during this rather tense period.

My view now -- having come and gone, survived the volcano and coped with all those anxious student questions -- is that I could hardly have been away at a better time. Being so far away, and on a funded trip, meant that time which otherwise might have been spent inefficiently on email and admin had to be stewarded for research. I also don't underestimate the beneficial effects of Washington sunshine just before the stressful exam period. I'd recommend it (or the equivalent) to anyone.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

testing, testing

Having trouble posting another entry. This is a test post.

Conference catch-up

I'm so out of practice in blogging that I'd quite forgotten I hadn't posted about my recent conference experiences.

A colleague and I travelled to Venice earlier this month for the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America. This is one of the key events in early modern literary studies, but I'd never actually attended it before. I will admit that the venue was an extra incentive.

I never look forward to travelling before I do it, so didn't have high expectations of this trip. So I was very agreeably surprised at how things went. Most importantly, the panel session in which I took part owas a great success. The room was packed out, and we even had to bring in extra chairs. I am always very self-critical when I give papers, but I felt that this one was one of the best I've presented lately. It may have helped that I was speaking on a topic which was largely new to me: hence there were fewer stray facts to get in the way of my argument.

Lots of people I know from different stages of my academic life were at the conference, so there was lots of catching-up and sharing news and ideas, typically over pizza or ice cream. And there is even talk of three of us joining forces to offer a panel at next year's meeting in Montreal.

All in all, worth doing, though somewhat stressful beforehand. I must remember this for next time.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Web 2.0 for teaching -- my first experiment (3)

So, to take stock. How do I feel my first use of Web 2.00 for teaching worked out? Would I do it again? If so, what would I do differently?

Despite the shaky start and the relatively poor participation figures, I felt very encouraged by this Web 2.0 exercise. Week 10 -- as I'd always realised -- was rather late in the semester to be trying something new with the students. Many of them, by that stage of term, had already decided to write their essays on texts and topics we had addressed in earlier weeks, and so had little incentive to try anything new. On the other hand, I was very impressed by the commitment of those students who, despite not intending to write on either Behn or editing, did take the trouble to participate in the exercise. We saw the beginning of some very interesting discussions within the Google doc itself, and these helped to stimulate a very well-informed debate in the seminar. And the student who chose to write on editing issues got the opportunity to try out some of her ideas, to benefit from feedback, and to ask questions.

If the course runs again next year, I do intend to try a version of this exercise again. I will avoid the email address problem by setting up a new Googlemail account exclusively for teaching purposes. More importantly, I will introduce Web 2.0 exercises much earlier in the semester: possibly as early as week 2. I am also toying with the idea of spending three weeks on Aphra Behn next year, planning separate seminars on her poetry, prose and drama, and using a version of this year's Web 2.0 task in the preparations for the poetry week. Revised in the light of this year's experience, it should work better a second time.

So I am heartily encouraged by my first experience of using Web 2.0 for teaching, and fully intend to try again.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Web 2.0 for teaching -- my first experiment (2)

So what did happen?

Within seconds of sending my invitation to the students, I became aware of my first mistake. Because I'd never previously included myself in the invitees' list for a Google doc, I hadn't realised -- obvious though it now seems -- that the invitation which arrived in my addressees' inboxes would have come from my own Googlemail address. I now use my Googlemail account exclusively for personal correspondence, so although students' getting access to it wasn't really a problem, it was something I would have preferred to avoid.

It took a few days for anyone to post to the Google doc, and responses, when the came, were less plentiful than I might have hoped. Out of a seminar group of twelve students, five responded to the Google doc. One of the first postings was rather disappointing: the student had some useful comments about certain aspects of the poetry, but seemed to have forgotten all the issues of textual authority we'd so painstakingly discussed in the seminar itself. At that point, I began to wonder whether this Web 2.0 exercise had been any use at all.

I wrote back to this post, without commenting on the textual issues but asking a few questions about the content of the texts. To my surprise another student posted later in the same day, raising exactly the issues of authority, accessibility and the visibility of the editing process that I'd hoped our discussion would highlight. A third student raised some biographical issues, while a fourth discussed the problems involved in preserving original features of the text and the role of the editor in shaping readers' responses. Yet another student added further biographical information about Wharton and Rochester, and even linked to a document of her own in which she'd produced a sample edition of the poem to Wharton.

At the seminar itself, we had such an animated discussion of Behn's poetry that it all but squeezed out discussion of Oroonoko. And one student subsequently wrote her assessed essay on the issue of editing women's writing. This was the first time in all the years I'd taught the course that anyone had chosen to answer the 'editing' question.

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.