(Re)Visioning Literary Education Online

And first Hephaestus makes a great and massive shield, […] /
the god creates a world of gorgeous immortal work. /
There he made the earth and there the sky and the sea /
and the inexhaustible blazing sun and the moon rounding full /
and there the constellations, all that crown the heavens. […] /
And he forged on the shield two noble cities filled /
with mortal men. (Homer XVII.558, 564-567, 572-573)

I see the future of education, like Achilles’ shield: a detailed and exciting world that runs the scope of human progress. If critics like Janet Murray see their visions of tomorrow come to fruition, virtual education — alongside how we experience literature — will eventually encompass all the nuances of humanity. In her 1997 work Hamlet on the Holodeck, Murray theorizes the future of arts and entertainment: an immersive virtual experience where the distinction between reader and writer dissolves and all genres come together to form the cyberdrama in which participants use the text-film-drama-game in whatever way they see fit. At the center of the cyber-Hephaestus’ forge is the unique machine that might someday create a virtual Achilles’ shield: the computer.

However much computers have to grow before they immerse us in virtual worlds, they have become integral components of education today. We faculty feel the pressure from students and administrators alike to begin using computer technology more in our teaching, leaving many of us feeling like the lumbering Hephaestus himself, rather than one of his beautiful creations. My work in the humanities and computer over the last decade has been leading toward what I call World.Lit, a fully online literature course that aims to be as effective in its learning outcomes as a traditional classroom approach.

In my experience teaching world literature in the classroom, as a hybridized online/classroom, and online, I have found that the largest obstacle has been letting go of traditional classroom approaches of lecture and discussion in order to facilitate a successful online experience that is as enriching and fruitful as a face-to-face one. In teaching online, I had to revaluate what I knew (or thought I knew) about teaching and learning in order to make myself feel confident in the approach, and — more importantly — to allow my students to excel to the best of their abilities in the new, and sometimes intimidating, environment of the online classroom.

In contemplating, designing, and implementing World.Lit, I still find myself preoccupied with two important questions:

The challenge of teaching a sophomore literature survey has traditionally been one of textual literacy: a successful student’s learning to think about and discuss the survey’s primary texts. Those taking an online literature course have the additional challenge of learning and applying digital literacies even before they can concentrate on the real course material. This case study will examine how I approached these issues with World.Lit. I briefly review assignments that have worked for my approach, and some that have not, and point to my web site LitMUSE for specific assignments and policies that have developed over several years of teaching World.Lit.

For the complete article, see Teaching Literature and Language Online.


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