Last month I had the pleasure of attending the joint conference of the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada and the Victorian Studies Association of the Western United States, whose theme this year was Victorian education. As the conference Storify attests, we gathered for two days of conversation about research and teaching on a wide range of associated topics, including Victorian food education and activism; the relationship between queer identity and instruction; representations of embodied learning; religious and imperial education systems; and the production of school textbooks. The great weather in beautiful Vancouver—defying forecasts for unremitting drizzle—made those two days even more delightful.
I usually attend conferences to present on, and hear about, new research, so it was a treat for me to attend one that incorporated an impressive number of talks on pedagogy into the programme too. Having taught a workshop on Victorian illustration as part of a seminar on science and print for the past two years, I was especially eager to attend the panel on teaching and illustration. Lisa Surridge and Mary Elizabeth Leighton’s talk on the pleasures and perils of teaching students how to identify different kinds of Victorian illustration processes was both inspiring and practical. Drawing on their own experiences, they gave some great tips on how to make identification exercises more effective, as well as providing sample lists of books they use to teach illustration processes; of other materials they needed for workshops; budget information; and sample PowerPoint slides. Their remarks on running linocut workshops (hint: bring band-aids!) brought back searing memories of my brief, pitiful career as an illustrator at Alison Harvey and Julia Thomas’s own fabulous illustration workshop in Cardiff last year, but their tips will definitely change (read: improve) how I organize examples for students to study next time I teach on historical illustration techniques—and may even convince me to take a stab (har har) at running a linocut workshop myself.
Susan Jaret McKinstry’s talk on the same panel, about teaching Victorian literature and culture by asking students to create illustrations for their reading material, was equally inspiring, particularly since it highlighted the wonderful possibilities of collaborative teaching across departments and disciplines. McKinstry discussed her work with experts in digital media and in historical photoreprographic processes, and described how teaching collaboratively had helped both parties introduce students to new ways of thinking and doing. In one course, students created tintype portraits of characters from a Victorian novel, using a camera purchased from eBay (at this point, the panel audience all started checking eBay listings on their phones…). In another course, McKinstry’s students collaborated with students studying digital design to create digital image interpretations and criticisms of Victorian literature. This kind of work is, McKinstry stressed, not always easy, and both sides of the collaboration often come to the table with preconceptions about what constitutes valuable labour and skills that can be difficult to work through. However, the results sounded absolutely worth it.
Marcelle Kosman and Colette Colligan’s afternoon digital pedagogy workshop introduced me to the possibilities of podcasting as a part of humanities teaching practice. Colligan discussed how she uses podcasting assignments in her classes, and presented a variety of examples from her students’ work, including a spectacular rap of Reading Gaol. Kosman, a PhD student at the University of Alberta who co-runs Witch, Please, a fortnightly podcast about Harry Potter, then taught participants how to create our own podcasts using Audacity open-source software for multi-track recording and editing. I can’t say that anyone else will ever want to listen to the horrifying mess of noise I created that afternoon as I experimented with layering and editing sound. However, I feel much more confident in my ability to use the software, and inspired to experiment more with using technology outside my comfort zone in my teaching.
Another of the conference’s big highlights for me was Janice Schroeder’s keynote lecture, ‘A Thousand Schemes’: Education and Boredom”. Drawing on Caroline Levine’s recent work on form, Schroeder urged us to think about the formal structures of Victorian education, and asked us to consider whether boredom is endemic to Victorian—and to contemporary—forms of education. A real ah ha! moment came for me during this lecture, when Schroeder pointed out that often when we talk about pedagogy we talk about form—the lecture, the seminar, the small group—as if it is the same as, or more important than, content. As well as demonstrating some of the possibilities of applying and extending Levine’s thinking, Schroeder’s point convinced me to be more self-reflexive when thinking and talking about how I teach: why that form, now?
I’m very grateful to the organisers, Heather McAlpine, Ryan Stephenson, Kristin Mahoney, Diana Maltz, and Amy Cote for all of the hard work they put into the conference, and to the Wellcome Trust for funding my attendance so I could spread the word about the history of medicine and Victorian sex education—I learned so much, and can’t wait for the next joint conference!