Teaching Collaboration around Romantic Individualism

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

As a scholar and a teacher, I enjoy experimenting with both individual and collaborative projects. I tend to feel that the humanities are unique in their ambivalence about collaboration. On the one hand, the web is offering humanities scholars many opportunities for collaboration; on the other hand, I always find myself wondering how much a collaborative article, project, or book will "count" when it comes to hiring or tenure.

The topic is especially interesting for someone who teaches the Romantic period, since Romanticism is often associated with individualism. And yet, Romantic authors also expressed collectivist sentiments. As Beth Lau points out, even famously individualistic male Romantic writers struggled with individualism:

In a number of poems, Wordsworth describes his initial penchant for solitary nature worship giving way to love of other human beings. [...] Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner is one of the most powerful works ever written on the horrors of solitude and the problems inherent in overwheening individualism, and Shelley's Alastor is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of solopsism. John Keats increasingly wished to do 'some good in this world' instead of merely writing lush, escapist poetry. Even Byron, whose early poems featured such gloomy, misanthropic, solitary heroes as Childe Harold, the Giaour, and Manfred, ended his career with the comic satire Don Juan, which is very much concerned with people in society. (224)

I feel that a similar argument could be made about William Blake. While he frequently celebrated his individual vision and the originality of his work, Blake also stressed the importance of "self-annihilation," elaborating in his poem Milton that "We are not Individuals but States: Combinations of Individuals" (32.10; E131). And we must not forget the frequent, though often unmentioned, participation of Catherine Blake in the production of William Blake's illuminated books.

The problem with emphasizing collaboration and collectivity in Romantic courses is not only the historical association of Romanticism with individualism, but also the institutional makeup of the humanities. Most humanities courses still overwhelmingly favor individual success and failure. As David Parry recently noted on the blog AcademHack, collaborative projects are extremely difficult to assess but enormously important to teach. "I want to encourage and evaluate students for who they are," Parry explains, "but on the other hand I see as part of my job to teach students how to work in groups."

Parry's proposed solution to this delimma is to give each group the ability to fire one of their members. The rejected member is then required to complete the group assignment alone. While I feel that Parry's plan could work quite well for his course, I would like to move in a different direction that I feel is more conducive to the ambivalence many writers had with individualism during the Romantic period.

I'd like to use this blog to plan a course around digital culture and Romantic Individualism. My central focus in this course will be William Blake, since I am primarily interested in the artists and critics who have transmitted Blake's work from the Romantic period to the present and their impact on the image of Blake as an individualist writer. I would also like to use the course to experiment with collective subjectivities: in the content of the course, in the course's exploration of the William Blake's subjectivity, and in the makeup of the assignments and their assessment. Future posts will chart possible assignments, readings, ideas for discussion and class projects. I would also like to hear suggestions and criticisms from teachers, scholars, or anyone who visits this site. What are your thoughts about the usefulness of collaborative projects? Do you have any successes or failures to share?

Lau, Beth. "Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice." A Companion to Romanticism. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. 219-26.

Pedagogies Blog Categories: 

Parent Section: 


Parent Resource: 

Pedagogies Blog


Dear Roger, It would be

Dear Roger,
It would be terrific to hear more about the assignments and class projects you are developing to encourage your students to think about collectives as well as individuals. Back when my classes were capped at 40 rather than 80 (the English major at Toronto is the most popular in the whole of university, which is both a wonderful thing and a terrible thing), back when I found group projects a bit easier to orchestrate because I would have fewer groups to deal with, I tried out an assignment that had as one of its sources of inspiration the debating societies of the late 18c, societies that would in fact host debates not just about political pamphleteering, but also, alongside those debates, debates about novels like _Werther_. The group performances that students mounted as part of their work for this assignment were really imaginative and quite fascinating. I'll paste into this comment an excerpt from the instructions the students received.

Guidelines for your critical coffeehouse
This assignment gives you the opportunity 1. to use your imaginations (imaginations get rusty otherwise), 2. to do some research . . . , 3. to get to know one another by working in small groups of four or five each, and 4. to entertain and instruct your classmates.
Each group will script a debate . . . Your cast of characters should include either real personalities from the period, public figures, writers themselves perhaps, or characters who originate in the readings we’ve been doing but who for purposes of this assignments take on lives of their own. (NB if your cast includes real people from eighteenth-century history, make sure that they’re still alive when the book they’re discussing is published!) The subject of your characters’ conversation should be, in large part, the novel that the class is reading the week of your performance. . . .
. . . Their conversation should give us an idea of what it is in the novel we’re reading that might have seemed controversial--a matter for debate--to the novel’s original readers. Think of this as the literary equivalent to the battles from the Civil War era or even (closer to “our” period) the Napoleonic Era that those people who call themselves “ re-enactors” spend so much energy restaging. For the purposes of this assignment, you’re re-enactors too. You’re re-enacting a battle in Britain’s public sphere--its “republic of letters.”

This looks like a fascinating

This looks like a fascinating project Deidre. It's also a great way to get your students to do something besides write essay after essay of textual criticism. I'm all about having different sorts of projects for our students. I also really like how you integrated collaboration into the culture of the Romantic period itself. It sound like it would be really fun to see what the students came up with.

My program is particularly amenable to collaborative projects. We have about 25 students per class, and most of them come from science and Engineering backgrounds. So they have a basic understanding of collaborative work.

I'm actually going to use the blog to develop an overarching collaborative project for the class. I thought about using the class to create a crowdsourced book on Blake. One of my former colleagues Zach Whalen did this in an introductory Graphic Novel class, and the result was quite stunning: http://teaching.zachwhalen.net/comics/content/approach-webcomics. I think it would be a fascinating exercise, but I'm not sure how successful it would be.

I'll blog about crowdsourcing in the future, and the idea of crowdsourcing a book and other types of projects.

Roger, I'm looking forward


I'm looking forward to hearing more about your course--this sounds quite interesting. And Deidre, what a fantastic assignment for your students (one I might be borrowing in the future!). I'll share a very quick tale of two collaborative assignments, one a moderate success and the other a total failure (and neither of which were as an ambitious in getting students to think about collaboration/collectivity as the assignments you've described).

In my undergraduate Romanticism survey, I've moved from having students do individual poetry annotation assignments to a wiki-based collaborative annotation, inspired by Mark Phillipson's Romantic Audience Project:
A small group of students is responsible for working together to annotate a poem I've posted on our class wiki; they identify allusions and gloss difficult lines, fill in background information, and comment on words, figures, patterns and sound effects they find striking or puzzling. Since it's on the wiki, they can also comment on each other's comments, and link to other sections of the poem or other comments on other poems—so one student's observation can spiral into quite a productive conversation, with links outward. This annotated text then serves as a resource for the whole class when we discuss the poem.

That kind of collaboration is really a pooling of resources and labor in a way, but it lets what had been individualized work now nicely augment and model the kind of collaborative reading we do in class discussion, and my students have enjoyed it and done great work. In a literary theory class I taught last spring, though, I had a very disappointing experience with what I had thought would be a brilliant pedagogical gambit—a wiki-based collaborative glossary of terms and concepts, a sort of mini-wikipedia. In this course, students gave presentations on each theorist we discussed, and they were required to contribute terms and definitions to the glossary with their presentation (e.g., "New Criticism," "ideology," "base/superstructure," "signifier" etc.); the idea was that other students would also be contributing terms they thought were important, and that all the students would work collaboratively over the course of the semester to refine, contest and elaborate definitions of key terms and ideas. In my vision of how this would all work, students would find this a tremendously useful resource. Instead of my defining terms for them all the time, they would not only do the critical thinking necessary to get the definitions started, but also see that such definitions are unstable and evolving and contentious—so I imagined the entries on "ideology" or "author" for example turning into a record of our evolving thinking on those topics as we encountered different theorists and arguments over the course of the semester. Alas, crowd-sourcing doesn't work so well if you can't really get the crowd to participate. I don't think I made the requirements tough enough, so students just posted a bare minimum when they had to, and I think students were reluctant, understandably, to add to or to edit or to critique definitions others had posted. The material was intimidating enough already, and I think this just felt too public for them. Nor did I find a good way of keeping the postings helpful and usable without myself doing more intervening than I had wanted. So the whole thing kind of fell apart. But I'd love to hear about similar projects that had worked, so I know better how to do this next time!

Eric, I really like the


I really like the idea of wiki projects. And your projects look fascinating! One of my colleagues here at Tech actually did his dissertation on Media Wiki and Wikipedia. He has his 1101 students engage in a semester-long Media Wiki project. He also developed a very different rubric for evaluating Wikis, one that included frequent observations of the wiki by the instructor, who rates how many times a student commented on a change, the quality of their comments, and the amount of research they integrate into their changes.

He talks about methods for integrating Media Wiki into writing courses in a blog post here: http://britts.lcc.gatech.edu/blog/2010/08/using-mediawiki-in-the-english.... The post is mostly geared towards the Georgia Tech community, but it can also be adapted to other schools. The post is part of a series he's doing throughout the year, so definitely check back if you are interested in what other people are doing with wikis.

I think the issue of participation is key, as you say. The difficulty of using wikis is, like most digital technologies, they require forms of assessment that aren't immediately available to teachers who use primarily print-based, individual models of grading found in most classrooms.

I am, though, interested why the poem-wiki worked so well and the theory-wiki did not. Is it simply an issue of different classes? Are students more interested in creating markup for poems than they are in creating a critical introduction to theoretical concepts? Or is there something else about the differences that can lead to insights about designing wiki projects?

Roger, Thanks for the


Thanks for the link to the blog about teaching with wikis! That's useful to me, and I'm sure to others. I've used wikis with success in composition courses too. As for why the poem-wiki worked and the theory-wiki did not, I think it may have to do with the particular classes, and certainly a lot of it was that I just didn't structure the theory-wiki assignment very well. But I also think the projects were really asking students to do quite different kinds of work. The poem-wiki, as I noted in my earlier comment, asked students to do the kinds of intellectual work they already do in close reading assignments and in class discussion; it just gave them a different platform for that work, one that I think encouraged more collaboration. The theory-wiki, by contrast, was asking for something really quite different from any of the assignments the students in the class were used to seeing. That's what I thought was exciting about it, but also why it threw the students for a loop. It's also just easier I think if you're a student to make your poetry annotation public for the class than it is to try to define "ideology" on a class wiki, knowing your definition might be subject to critique or revision by your classmates. Even if the professor stresses that the point is collaboration and grappling collectively with difficult concepts, there's going to be understandable anxiety and reluctance on the part of the students who know the rest of the class is going to be reading (and even editing) what they write (as opposed to just hearing their ideas in class discussion or even a presentation, for example).

I blogged about a

I blogged about a collaborative course that stresses the collaborative process of writing during the Romantic period and also asked students to risk collaboration in the classroom. But, the full TechnoRomanticism course is available here: http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/harris/TechnoRom_F09/News.htm

I have a brief article coming out with Journal of Victorian Culture in Spring 2011 that addresses the failures and successes of this course. It certainly was a lot of fun to teach and it shook up my ideas about pedagogy (and led to the post on playfulness).

Eric, Roger and everyone else, please post and continue to think aloud on this topic. Very interesting!