This semester, students in my English 1102 course, “Poetry, Art, and Science in the Age of Wonder,” worked in groups to develop interactive online exhibits that mapped Romantic literary texts by drawing out their relationships to the scientific developments of the period. I love assigning these projects as part of my courses. My students, most of whom are freshman, almost always create amazing sites. Their websites are intellectually rigorous and creative; they feature student-authored, research-based analysis of literary works. These websites also allow students to draw on sources — including literary works, visual materials, and expert scholarship — that are newly available online. Additionally, hyperlinked mediums mean that students can make new connections between texts, disciplines, and historical periods. In undertaking these websites, many students realize that there is much yet to discover about the Romantics and that there is also a contemporary audience eager to read and think more about literature, be that audience one of academics who are browsing the web looking for more information or enthusiasts who are pursuing their favorite writer, artist, or topic.
These assignments get students excited about their work in the course. At the end of the semester, each class always asks to see the projects the other classes completed, and I can tell by looking at my web statistics that many go home for the holidays and share their websites with their families.
In many cases, the students actually carve out unique research niches with these websites. For example, one project this semester on Humphry Davy’s poetry and his experiments on Nitrous Oxide appears to be the most comprehensive and reliable website on that topic of its kind. Likewise, another group decided to create a digital book about representations of sex in scientific discourses, complete with an index. Another project collected poems about astronomy from the period that might be useful for further study, and yet another collated data from literature as well as history and created charts that try to make sense of the material effects of developments in Romantic science. All of the projects can be accessed here. In short, I’ve found that using new media and project-based learning can provide students in literature courses with not only a versatile toolkit they can use in whatever discipline they choose to pursue, but also an exciting opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to literary studies.