Studying Digital Culture through File Types

I am revamping “Introduction to Digital Studies,” my program’s overview of digital culture, creativity, and methodology. One approach is to partially organize the class around file types, the idea being that a close reading of certain file types can help us better understand contemporary culture, both online and off.

It’s a bit like Raymond William’s Keywords, except with file types. A few of the file types that seem especially generative to consider:

  • MP3 (Jonathan Sterne’s work on MP3s is the gold standard to follow)
  • GIF (especially the rise and fall and rise of the animated GIF)
  • HTML (a gateway to understanding the early history and ethos of the web)
  • JSON (as a way to talk about data and APIs)

This list is just an initial start, of course. What other culturally significant file types would you have students consider? And what undergrad-friendly readings about those file types would you recommend?

What are the bottlenecks of Davidson Domains?

Schnitzer, Jannis Andrija. Siggi’s Bottleneck. Photograph, April 10, 2010. Flickr.

A bottleneck is a great conceptual metaphor to describe those pedagogical moments where a significant number of learners get stuck. Identifying bottlenecks is the first step toward designing learning pathways through those bottlenecks. I’m borrowing the idea from the Decoding the Disciplines  project at Indiana University. As Joan Middendorf, one of the project leaders, puts it, “Bottlenecks are important because they signal where students are unable to grasp crucial ways of knowing in our fields.” The question of bottlenecks is a central concern in the opening weeks of the Davidson Domains Digital Learning Community.

Let me backtrack. What is Davidson Domains? What is the Davidson Domains Learning Community?

Davidson Domains

Davidson Domains is a pilot program that gives faculty, staff, and students a “domain of one’s own”—an online space for blogs, exhibits, research, creative work, portfolios, web development, programming, and more. Users name their domain and maintain control over it. Faculty and students can create a domain for their courses, but they can also use it outside of coursework. The Davidson Domains pilot is a partnership between the Digital Studies program, Davidson’s Center for Teaching and Learning, and our instructional technology team. The pilot is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The mission of Davidson Domains is to enable faculty and students to:

  • Develop technical and critical web literacies;
  • Forge a digital identity through online publishing;
  • Reclaim ownership and control over one’s digital footprint;
  • Explore the possibilities of blended learning and social pedagogies.

Underlying this mission is a fundamental concern of the liberal arts: to raise technical, philosophical, artistic, economic, and political questions about the role of the Internet on ourselves, our communities, and our practices.

We quietly launched Davidson Domains a year ago and have seen dramatic growth. To wit:

The number of accounts on Davidson Domains in September 2014: 0

The number of accounts on Davidson Domains in May 2015: 255

The number of accounts on Davidson Domains in September 2015: 500

And we’re about to add capacity for 500 more accounts, making Davidson Domains available to nearly half the campus community. We haven’t tied the roll-out of Davidson Domains to any particular year of students (say, all rising seniors) or program (for example, the First Year Writing Program). Rather, faculty and students are developing their Domains Across the Curriculum (DAC) based on interest and need. Given that we’ve registered 500 accounts in 9 months, that’s a lot of interest and need.

Davidson Domains Learning Community

We kicked off Davidson Domains in December 2014 with a two-day workshop led by Jim Groom and Tim Owens. Jim and Tim are pioneers of the “domain of one’s own” movement and co-founders of Reclaim Hosting, our partner providing the actual domains. My collaborators at Davidson, including Kristen Eshleman, Anelise Shrout, and Katie Wilkes, have worked tirelessly with faculty and students on Davidson Domains as well. But this formal and informal faculty development isn’t enough. We don’t simply want a bunch of people using Davidson Domains, we want to build a community of practice around Davidson Domains.

This desire for—as Etienne Wenger describes a community of practice—a group “of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” is the impetus behind the newly formed Davidson Domains Learning Community. Approximately 25 faculty, staff, and students will meet as a group throughout the semester to think through the rewards, challenges, and possibilities of Davidson Domains. Smaller affinity groups of 3-4 people will also meet on their own to explore more focused topics, for instance, using domains to foster student dialogue or to support longitudinal constructive student projects.

We’ve learned over the past year that faculty have recurring questions about Davidson Domains, which include:

  • How do domains fit in with other technologies (like Moodle)?
  • Where do we find good models?
  • What’s the balance between student agency and scaffolding?
  • What about privacy and copyright?
  • Can we preserve the work on domains?

We hope to answer these questions for our faculty and students, or at least begin conversations about them. But I also have my own questions about Davidson Domains, more conceptual in nature:

  • How does total and free access to online domains change teaching, learning, and research in a liberal arts environment?
  • What happens when a community asks the same questions together, and repeatedly, over the course of the semester?

These questions are not simply idle musings. They are research questions. The first tackles the underlying premise of the entire domain of one’s own movement, while the second tackles the notion of a learning community. Working with Kristen Eshleman, Davidson’s Director of Digital Learning Research & Design, I aim to systematically explore these questions, with the Davidson Domains Learning Community serving as our object of study.

The Bottlenecks of Davidson Domains

Which brings me back to the question of bottlenecks. The affinity groups have a topic to discuss during their first meeting, the notes of which they’ll share with the rest of the learning community. That topic is the question of bottlenecks—the essential skills, concepts, and ways of thinking that stump us:

What are the bottlenecks for you or your students for working with Davidson Domains?

As David Pace and Joan Middendorf point out, there is a typology of bottlenecks. Understanding what type of bottlenecks we and our students face makes it easier to design ways of overcoming them. Bottlenecks might be:

  • technical (getting the technology itself to work)
  • procedural (knowing how to enact conceptual knowledge)
  • affective (affective perspectives or emotional responses that hinder us)
  • disciplinary (discipline-specific knowledge and practices)

For example, one faculty member told me she struggles with what she calls “Internet shyness”—this is a kind of affective bottleneck. Another faculty member noted that the text- and image-heavy nature of blogs worked against her teaching priorities, which in the performing arts depend upon embodied knowledge. That’s a disciplinary bottleneck. Our students, I’m sure, will face these and many other bottlenecks. But until we articulate them, we’re unable to move forward to address them. (I guess this is the bottleneck of bottlenecks.)

We are just getting started with the learning community, and I can’t wait to see where we end up. I believe that Davidson Domains are essential for the liberal arts in the digital age, and this community of practice will help us explain why. I’ll record our progress here from a more conceptual perspective, while the nitty-gritty progress will show up on our learning community site. In the meantime I’ll leave you with the slides from our first plenary meeting.

Source: What are the bottlenecks of Davidson Domains?

Electronic Literature Think Alouds
2015 ELO Conference, Bergen

ELO 2015 PosterI’m at the Electronic Literature Organization’s annual conference in Bergen, Norway, where I hope to capture some “think aloud” readings of electronic literature (e-lit) by artists, writers, and scholars. I’ve mentioned this little project elsewhere, but it bears more explanation.

The think aloud protocol is an important pedagogical tool, famously used by Sam Wineburg to uncover the differences in interpretative strategies between novice historians and professional historians reading historical documents (see Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Temple University Press, 2001).

The essence of a think aloud is this: the reader articulates (“thinks aloud”) every stray, tangential, and possibly central thought that goes through their head as they encounter a new text for the first time. The idea is to capture the complicated thinking that goes on when we interpret an unfamiliar cultural artifact—to make visible (or audible) the usually invisible processes of interpretation and analysis.

Once the think aloud is recorded, it can itself be analyzed, so that others can see the interpretive moves people make as they negotiate understanding (or misunderstanding). The real pedagogical treasure of the think aloud is not any individual reading of a new text, but rather the recurring meaning-making strategies that become apparent across all of the think alouds.

By capturing these think alouds at the ELO conference, I’m building a set of models for engaging in electronic literature. This will be invaluable to undergraduate students, whose first reaction to experimental literature is most frequently befuddlement.

If you are attending ELO 2015 and wish to participate, please contact me (samplereality at gmail, @samplereality on Twitter, or just grab me at the conference). We’ll duck into a quiet space, and I’ll video you reading an unfamiliar piece of e-lit, maybe from either volume one or volume two of the Electronic Literature Collection, or possibly an iPad work of e-lit. It won’t take long: 5-7 minutes tops. I’ll be around through Saturday, and I hope to capture a half dozen or so of these think alouds. The more, the better.

Intrusive Scaffolding, Obstructed Learning (and MOOCs)

My five-year-old son recently learned how to ride a bike. He mastered the essential components of cycling—balance, peddling, and steering—in roughly ten minutes. Without using training wheels, ever. That idyllic scene of a bent-over parent pushing an unsteady child on a bike, working up enough speed to let go? It never happened. At least not with him.

I’m not sentimental for that Norman Rockwell moment, because I had it several years earlier with my older son. I spent hours running behind him, steadying him, catching him. What made it so difficult for my older son to learn how to ride a bike? Precisely the thing that was supposed to teach him: training wheels.

The difference between the way my sons learned how to ride a bike was training wheels. My older son used them, and consequently learned how to ride only with difficulty. His younger brother used a balance bike (the Skuut in his case), a small light (often wooden) bike with two wheels and no pedals. As the child glides along, thrust forward by pushing off from the ground, he or she learns how to balance in a gradated way. A slight imbalance might be corrected by simply tipping a toe to the ground, or the child can put both feet on the ground to fully balance the bike. Or anything in between.

With a pedal-less bike you continually self-correct your balance, based on immediate feedback. I’m leaning too much to one side? Oooh, drag my foot a little there. Contrast this with training wheels. There’s no immediate feedback. In fact, there’s no need to balance at all. The training wheels do your balancing for you. Training wheels externalize the hardest part of riding a bike. If you’re a little kid and want to start riding a bike, training wheels are great. If you’re a little kid and want to start to learn how to ride a bike, training wheels will be your greatest obstacle.

If you think of riding a bike in terms of pedagogy, training wheels are what learning experts call scaffolding. Way back in 1991, Allan Collins, John Seely Brown, and Ann Holum wrote about a type of teaching called cognitive apprenticeship, and they used the term scaffolding to describe “the support the master gives apprentices in carrying out a task. This can range from doing almost the entire task for them to giving occasional hints as to what to do next.” As the student—the apprentice—becomes more competent, the teacher—the master—gradually backs away, in effect removing the scaffolding. It’s a process Collins, Brown, and Holum call “fading.” The problem with training wheels, then, is that fading is all but impossible. You either have training wheels, or you don’t.

Training wheels are a kind of scaffolding. But they are intrusive scaffolding, obstructive scaffolding. These bulky metal add-ons get in the way quite literally, but they also interfere pedagogically. Riding a bike with training wheels prepares a child for nothing more than riding a bike—with training wheels.

My oldest child, I said, learned how to ride a bike with training wheels. But that’s not exactly what happened. After weeks of struggle—and mounting frustration—he learned. But only because I removed the all-or-nothing training wheels and replaced them with his own body. I not only removed the training wheels from his bike, but I removed the pedals themselves. In essence, I made a balance bike out of a conventional bike. Only then did he learn to balance, the most fundamental aspect of bike-riding. I learned something too: when my younger son was ready to ride a bike we would skip the training wheels entirely.

scaffoldingMy kids’ differing experiences lead me to believe that we place too much value on scaffolding, or at least, on the wrong kind of scaffolding. And now I’m not talking simply about riding bikes. I’m thinking of my own university classroom—and beyond, to online learning. We insist upon intrusive scaffolding. We are so concerned about students not learning that we surround the learning problem with scaffolding. In the process we obscure what we had hoped to reveal. Like relying on training wheels, we create complicated interfaces to experiences rather than simplifying the experiences themselves. Just as the balance bike simplifies the experience of bike riding, stripping it down to its core processes, we need to winnow down overly complex learning activities.

We could call this removal of intrusive scaffolding something like “unscaffolding” or “descaffolding.” In either case, the idea is that we take away structure instead of adding to it. And perhaps more importantly, the descaffolding reinstates the body itself as the site—and means of—learning. Scaffolding not only obstructs learning, it turns learning into an abstraction, something that happens externally. The more scaffolding there is, the less embodied the learning will be. Take away the intrusive scaffolding, and like my son on his balance bike, the learner begins to use what he or she had all along, a physical body.

I’ve been thinking about embodied pedagogy lately in relation to MOOCs—massive open online courses. In the worse cases, MOOCs are essentially nothing but scaffolding. A typical Coursera course will include video lectures for each lesson, an online quiz, and a discussion board. All scaffolding. In a MOOC, where are the bodies? And what is the MOOC equivalent of a balance bike? I want to suggest that unless online teaching—and classroom teaching as well—begins to first, unscaffold learning problems and second, rediscover embodied pedagogy, we will obstruct learning rather than foster it. We will push students away from authentic learning experiences rather than draw them toward such experiences.

After all, remember the etymological root of pedagogy: paedo, as in child, and agogic, as in leading or guiding. Teachers guide learners. Scaffolding—the wrong kind—obstructs learning.

Sacred Heart Mission photograph courtesy of Fernando de Sousa / Creative Commons Licensed. Scaffolding photograph courtesy of Kevin Dooley / Creative Commons Licensed.

Remarks on Social Pedagogy at Mason’s Future of Higher Education Forum

Photograph of a CrowdOn November 2 and 3, George Mason University convened a forum on the Future of Higher Education. Alternating between plenary panels and keynote presentations, the forum brought together observers of higher education as well as faculty and administrators from Mason and beyond. I was invited to appear on a panel about student learning and technology. The majority of the session was dedicated to Q&A moderated by Steve Pearlstein, but I did speak briefly about social pedagogy. Below are my remarks.

This morning I’d to share a few of my experiences with what you could call social pedagogy—a term I’ve borrowed from Randy Bass at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University. Think of social pedagogy as outward facing pedagogy, in which learners connect to each other and to the world, and not just the professor. Social Pedagogy is also a lean-forward pedagogy. At its best a lean-forward pedagogy generates engagement, attention, and anticipation. Students literally lean forward. The opposite of a lean-forward pedagogy is of course a lean-back pedagogy. Just picture a student leaning back in the chair, passive, slack, and even bored.

A lean-forward social pedagogy doesn’t have to involve technology at all, but this morning I want to describe two examples from my own teaching that use Twitter. Last fall I was teaching a science fiction class and we were preparing to watch Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Since I wasn’t screening the film in class, students would be watching it in all sorts of contexts: on Netflix in the residence hall, on a reserve DVD upstairs in the JC, rented from iTunes, a BluRay collector’s set at home, and so on. However, I still wanted to create a collective experience out of these disparate viewings. To this end, I asked students to “live tweet” their own viewing, posting to Twitter whatever came to mind as they watched the film.

In this way I turned movie watching—a lean-back activity—into a lean-forward practice. And because the students often directed their tweets as replies to each other, it was social, much more social than viewing the film in class together. Over a 5-day period I had hundreds of tweets coming in, and I used a tool called Storify to track rhetorical and interpretative moves students made during this assignment. In particular, I categorized the incoming tweets, bringing to the surface some underlying themes in my students’ tweets. And then we began the next class period by examining the tweets and the themes they pointed to.

My next example of a social pedagogy assignment comes from later in the semester in the same science fiction class. I had students write a “Twitter essay.” This is an idea I borrowed from Jesse Stommel at Georgia Tech. For this activity, students wrote an “essay” of exactly 140 characters defining the word “alien.” The 140-character constraint makes this essay into a kind of puzzle, one that requires lean-forward style of engagement. And of course, I posed the essay question in a 140-character tweet:


Again I used Storify to capture my students’ essays and cluster them around themes. I was also able to highlight a Twitter debate that broke out among my students about the differences between the words alien and foreign. This was a productive debate that I’m not sure would have occurred if I hadn’t forced the students into being so precise—because they were on Twitter—about their use of language.

And finally, I copied and pasted the text from all the Twitter essays into Wordle, which generated a word cloud—in which every word is sized according to its frequency.


The word cloud gave me an admittedly reductivist snapshot of all the definitions of alien my students came up with. But the image ended up driving our next class discussion, as we debated what made it onto the word cloud and why.

These are two fairly simple, low-stakes activities I did in class. But they highlight this blend of technology and a lean-forward social pedagogy that I have increasingly tried to integrate into my teaching—and to think critically about as a way of fostering inquiry and discovery with my students.

[Crowd photograph courtesy of Flickr user Michael Dornbierer / Creative Commons Licensed]

Building and Sharing (When You’re Supposed to be Teaching)

These are my notes “Building and Sharing (When You’re Supposed to be Teaching,” a lightning talk I gave on Tuesday as part of CUNY’s Digital Humanities Initiative. Shannon Mattern (The New School) and I were on a panel called “DH in the Classroom.” Shannon’s enormously inspirational lightning talk was titled Beyond the Seminar Paper, and mine too focused on alternative assignments for students. Our two talks were followed by a long Q&A session, in which I probably learned more from the audience than they did from me. I’ll intersperse my notes with my slides, though you might also want to view the full Prezi (embedded at the end of this post).

I’d like to thank Matt for inviting me to talk tonight, and to all of you too, for coming out this gorgeous evening. I’m extremely flattered to be here—especially since I don’t think I have any earth-shattering  thoughts about the digital humanities in the classroom. There are dozens and dozens of people who could be up here speaking, and I know some of them are here in this room right now.

A lot of what I do in my classroom doesn’t necessary count as “digital humanities”—I certainly don’t frame it that way to my students. If anything, I simply say that we’ll be doing things in our classes they’ve never done before in college, let alone a literature class. And literature is mostly what I teach. Granted I teach literature classes that lend themselves to digital work—electronic literature classes, postmodern fiction, and media studies classes that likewise focus on close readings of texts, such as my videogame studies classes. But even in these classes, I think my students are surprised by how much our work focuses on building and sharing.

If I change point of view of the title of my talk to my students’ perspectives, it might look something like this:

Building and sharing when we’re supposed to be writing. And at the end of this sentence comes one of the greatest unspoken assumptions both students and faculty make regarding this writing:

It’s writing for an audience of one—usually me, the instructor, us, the instructors. This is what counts as an audience to my students. They rarely think of themselves as writing for an audience beyond me. They rarely think of their own classmates as an audience. They often don’t even think of themselves as their own audience. They write for us, their professors and instructors.

So the “sharing” part of my title comes from my ongoing effort—not always successful—to extend my students’ sense of audience. I’ll give some examples of this sharing in a few minutes, but before that I want to address the first part of my title: the idea of building.

Those of you who know me are probably surprised that I’m emphasizing “building” as a way to integrate the digital humanities in the classroom. One of the most popular things I’ve written in the past year is a blog post decrying the hack versus yack split that routinely crops in debates about the definition of digital humanities.

In this post, I argued that the various divides in the digital humanities, which often arise from institutional contexts and professional demands generally beyond our control—these divides are a distracting sideshow to the true power of the digital humanities, which has nothing to do with production of either tools or research. The heart of the digital humanities is not the production of knowledge; it’s the reproduction of knowledge.

The promise of the digital is not in the way it allows us to ask new questions because of digital tools or because of new methodologies made possible by those tools. The promise is in the way the digital reshapes the representation, sharing, and discussion of knowledge.

And I truly believe that this transformative power of the digital humanities belongs in the classroom. Classrooms were made for sharing. So, where does the “building” part of my pedagogy come up? How can I suddenly turn around and claim that building is important when I just said, in a blog post that has shown up on the syllabus of at least three different undergraduate introduction to the digital humanities courses?

Well, let me explain what I mean by building. Building, for me, means to work. Let me explain that.

In an issue of the PMLA from 2007 there’s a fantastic series of short essays by Ed Folsom, Jerry McGann, Peter Stallybrass, Kate Hayles, and others about the role of databases in literary studies. Folsom’s essay leads, and in it he describes what he calls the “epic transformation” of the online Walt Whitman Archive, which Folsom co-edits, along with Ken Price, into a database (1571). All of the other essays in some way respond to either the particulars of the digital Walt Whitman Archive, or more generally, to the impact of archival databases on research and knowledge production. It’s a great batch of essays, pre-dating by several years the prevalence of the term “digital humanities”—but that’s not why I mentioning these essays right now.

I’m mentioning them because Peter Stallybrass’s essay has the provocative title “Against Thinking,” which helps to explain why I mean by working, which Stallybrass explicitly argues stands opposed to thinking.

Thinking, according to Stallybrass is hard and painful. It’s boring, repetitious, and I love this—it’s indolent (1583).

On the other hand, working is easy, exciting, a process of discovery. It’s challenging.

This distinction between thinking and working informs Stallybrass’s undergraduate pedagogy, the way he trains his students to work with archival materials and the STC. In Stallybrass’s mind, students—and in fact, all need to do less thinking and more working. “When you’re thinking,” Stallybrass writes, “you’re usually staring at a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen, hoping that something will emerge from your head and magically fill that space. Even if something ‘comes to you,’ there’s no reason to believe that it is of interest, however painful the process has been” (1584).

Stallybrass goes on to say that “the cure for the disease called thinking is work” (1584). In Stallybrass’s field of Renaissance and Early Modern literature, much of that work has to do with textual studies, discovering variants, paying attention to the material form of the book, and so on. In my own teaching, I’ve attempted to replace thinking with building—sometimes with words, sometimes without. And I want to run through a few examples right now.

In general, these examples fall into two categories:

[And here my planned comments dissolved into a brief tour of some of the ways I incorporate building and sharing into my classes. The collaborative construction category is more self-evident: group projects aimed at building exhibits or formulating knowledge, such as my Omeka-based Portal Exhibit and the current cross-campus Renetworking of House of Leaves. I described my creative analysis category as an antidote to critical thinking—a hazardous term with an all but meaningless definition. In this category I included mapping projects and game design projects that were alternatives to traditional papers. I concluded my lightning talk by noting that students who pursued these creative analysis projects spent far more time on their work than those who wrote papers, and while their end results were often modest, these students were far more engaged in their work than students who wrote papers.]

Full Prezi

Works Cited
  • Folsom, Ed. “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives.” PMLA 122.5 (2007): 1571-1579. Print.
  • Stallybrass, Peter. “Against Thinking.” PMLA 122.5 (2007): 1580-1587. Print.
  • Stroube, Sam. Radiohead Crowd. 2006. Flickr. Web. 20 Jan. 2009.

On Reading Aloud in the Classroom

One of the greatest mistakes we make in literary studies—and as teachers of literature—is privileging one form of literacy above all others. Namely, literacy as silent reading.

In our classrooms, we view reading aloud with disdain. Asking students to take turns reading a text aloud offends our sensibilities as literature professors. It’s remedial. Childish. Appropriate for an elementary school classroom, perhaps, but it has no place in our hallowed halls of higher learning.

How odd it is, then, that so many academic conferences in the humanities consist of nothing but rooms full of professors looking down at papers, reading them aloud. I can only imagine that this form of reading aloud is valid in our eyes while students reading aloud in our classes is not, because it is pedagogically and historically aligned with that realm of culture in which it is legitimate to read texts aloud—the realm of the sacred, the rite of the scripture, the ritual of someone we presume to be intellectually and spiritually superior exulting and professing before the masses. Which explains why we deem it acceptable for ourselves to read passages aloud in class, so long as it is done in a tremulous, dramatic voice.

Reading aloud is a right reserved for the professor.

And how wrong this is. How drearily, dreadfully, dismally wrong this is.

Sheridan Blau argues in The Literature Workshop that one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of readers is rereading. And reading aloud—reading out loud—is in turn one of the most powerful ways of rereading. It’s active, performative, and engaging, an incredibly rewarding strategy for understanding difficult texts. And it’s a technique too easily tossed aside in the undergraduate classroom—and in the graduate student classroom for that matter.

Not every professor has abandoned this seemingly elementary technique, of course; for example, my ProfHacker colleague Jason Jones has long defended the value of reading aloud. And last week in my Science Fiction course I was reminded of exactly how indispensable—and fun—reading aloud can be for students.

This course is an upper level class full of English majors. And I mean full. There are 53 students enrolled, just about double my usual size of 27 students. And yet I try to lead this class with as much discussion and participation as a graduate seminar. We’re only three weeks in, but I’m delighted so far that I’ve been able to involve so many students, and hear so many voices over the course of our 75-minute sessions.

Because my class last Thursday went particularly well, and because it highlights the value of students reading aloud, I want to walk through two activities we did. Both led to vigorous discussions that helped to illuminate some questions troubling my students about Volume I of Frankenstein, our first novel of the semester.

Victor Frankenstein robbing a grave.
Victor Frankenstein robbing a grave. Woodcut by Lynd Ward (1934)

Reading Frankenstein Aloud

I picked the following passage to read aloud in class, because it contains some of the most telling imagery concerning Frankenstein’s loss of humanity as he attempts to create life. It’s a rich paragraph, complicating the reductive and moralistic dictum that Frankenstein was “playing God.”

From Frankenstein (1818), Chapter 3, paragraph 9:

These thoughts supported my spirits, while I pursued my undertaking with unremitting ardour. My cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement. Sometimes, on the very brink of certainty, I failed; yet still I clung to the hope which the next day or the next hour might realise. One secret which I alone possessed was the hope to which I had dedicated myself; and the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places. Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay? My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless, and almost frantic impulse, urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit. It was indeed but a passing trance, that only made me feel with renewed acuteness so soon as, the unnatural stimulus ceasing to operate, I had returned to my old habits. I collected bones from charnel houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation; my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.
  1. We began by reading the passage aloud using what Blau calls the “jump-in” method. I’ve heard other people call it popcorn-style. We simply bounce around the room, with students voluntarily jumping in to read a few sentences to the class, after which somebody else jumps in, as if taking the baton from the previous reader. The professor doesn’t interrupt or call on anybody to read; the reading is totally student generated.
  2. After we finished reading the passage, we took nominations for the most important sentence or phrase from the paragraph—the sentence or phrase most pivotal or rich with interpretive potential. Peter Elbow would call it “the center of gravity” of the paragraph. The students shouted out these lines, and I typed them into this Google Doc, displayed live on the projection screen in the front of the lecture hall.
  3. With no debate of the nominees, we voted (by hand count) for the most significant of these ten lines.
  4. Finally, we had a class discussion, in which supporters of each line defended their vote. We didn’t discuss every line, especially since there was one clear “winner” and two runner-ups. But even limiting our debate to three lines of the paragraph gave us three entryways into the passage, three facets which, when angled just right, revealed something new about Frankenstein—or rather, Shelley’s indictment of Frankenstein.

I’m convinced that such a productive discussion wouldn’t have occurred if the students hadn’t first reread the passage aloud. I’m likewise convinced that merely asking students to reread the passage silently before the exercise wouldn’t have yielded such rich interpretive fruits. It’s the reading aloud that does it. The vocalization for the students who did the reading, the texture of the voices for the students who listened, the attentive anticipation of everyone as they awaited the next reader to jump in from the seat next to them or from across the room.

Hand of the Creator, Creature. Woodcut by Lynd Ward (1934)
Hand of the Creator, Creature. Woodcut by Lynd Ward (1934)

Reading Aloud and Touching Frankenstein

We read yet another passage aloud, again jump-in fashion, afterwards. My goal this time was to pinpoint the precise moment when Victor Frankenstein goes from praising his act of creation to being repulsed by it. I was motivated by a student’s blog post, in which she had wondered why Frankenstein suddenly became horrified by his creature, when he had worked so hard to create it. To answer this question of why, we need to know when he became afraid.

So our class read aloud, popcorn style, from the first three paragraphs of Chapter 4:

IT was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!—Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.
The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.

After we finished reading this passage aloud—again, a fundamental kind of rereading—I asked students to point to the exact word when Frankenstein’s attitude toward his creation changes from delight to revulsion. Literally—I asked students to point with their finger to the spot on the page where this transformation occurs. They had to physically touch the page with their index finger, and leave it there, while we consider the class’s various answers.

I’ve borrowed this pointing method from Peter Elbow, who uses it in the context of teaching composition. In Elbow’s method, peer readers help their fellow writers by pointing to words that resonate with them. But pointing works just as well when reading literary works. There’s something about that tactile connection with the page that for a moment is far more meaningful to the student than anything he or she might have underlined or highlighted. And here, in this exercise, pointing forces students to make a choice, to take a stance with the text. There’s no hemming and hawing, no vague determination that the transformation in question happens somewhere on page 85 or wherever.

Of course, with Frankenstein there is no single correct answer of when his disgust takes shape. It is a contested question, minor perhaps, but yet our tentative answers, backed with literally physical evidence in the form of the finger on the page, opens up the text. Questions of tone and narrative perspective arise. Irony enters in. Even punctuation, as when a student convincingly argued that the reversal occurs in the em dash between “Beautiful!” and “Great God!”

None of these considerations would have been as easily accessible to us without, first, reading the passage, and then, rereading it. And more precisely, rereading it aloud. When students read aloud they become voices in the classroom, authorities in the classroom, empowered to speak both during the reading and even more critically, after the reading.

[Sky Spoke to Fairies photography courtesy of Georgia Brooke North / Creative Commons Licensed]