Learning Management Systems have come a long way since we first started using Moodle and Blackboard on our Campus — even further since our MOOC fiasco some years ago. Now, we have Canvas, which seems to be more robust even in its infrastructure. I use Canvas instead of a WordPress blog because it streamlines grading, and, more importantly, students use the running tally of their grades to see where they are at any point in the semester. There are still some bugs, though, with one annoying bug in general: I can only make public the syllabus for a course (e.g., Digital Dickens), not the assignments or discussion post prompts.

This means that cool or interesting assignment prompts that I’d like to share can’t be easily shared from the course website. Another step is required to open up the pedagogy. Because constructing assignments, prompts, and instructions is a skill in and of itself, it’s important to share our materials widely…and then provide acknowledgements if we borrow those materials.

I’ve been thinking about this openness (or forced lack thereof by our institutional LMS) a lot since myself, Rebecca Frost Davis, Jentery Sayers, and Matthew Gold are coming round the corner towards completing the Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities collection with more than 600 teaching artifacts mentioned and/or annotated for the project (coming in January 2018, but available now for your perusal in GitHub!).

For this semester’s dream course, I finally got to teach Digital Dickens to a group of 9 students — yes only 9! This class is capped at 25 students, but since it’s considered one of our vaunted special topics courses, it was allowed to run.

So far this semester, we’ve been to a printing workshop to set type for printing on a 19th-century iron press. We’re writing materials in a commonplace book for sharing with each other (some students also including a hand-made index). We are visiting Stanford’s Special Collections (just down the highway from SJSU) and annotating a page from one of the artifacts on display (thanks, Mark Sample for that annotation idea!). And, today, students submitted a Lab Report on reading by candlelight (inspired by Ryan Cordell’s scriptorium assignment).

As students accustom themselves to the material text and ignore the Siren song of plot analysis, they’ve turned into print culture scholars, bibliographers, and textual scholars — it’s been a BLAST!

As a taste, below is the prompt for the Lab Report: Reading by Candlelight. (Like Ryan, I tried to get SJSU to let us do this on campus, but unlike Ryan, that was an extremely firm no from anyone and everyone at SJSU. oh well!)

Students are using a facsimile serial of Great Expectations printed by Stanford in 2008 and distributed weekly via snail mail to anyone interested; they no longer run that program or have copies of the facsimiles, so students using these facsimiles and taking them home is fairly trusting on my part. All of this is in preparation for creating a digital exhibit of the serials for Bleak House that are housed in SJSU Special Collections. So, in the end, we’re doing Digital Humanities without really doing Digital Humanities. Read below for the assignment and then part of one students video embedded in his response.

Lab Report (#2): Reading by Candlelight

You have now had a chance to submit your first lab report. This second lab report focuses on an activity intended to replicate the reading experience of a 19th-century reader. For the reading material, use an issue of Great Expectations currently in your possession. Find a darkened room. Safely, light a candle or a bunch of candles. Do not use any form of artificial light in this experiment. Spend at least 30 minutes reading your issue of Great Expectations.

Your choice of types of candles, position in the room, number of candles, seating arrangement, and more will also determine your class standing. More candles inevitably means an ability to purchase and burn multiple candles. An ability to be the only person in the room also indicates your social class. Consider what role you will play in this scenario and your access to the surrounding space and materials.

Before you report on the experience, you’ll need to record a few details about your selections:

  1. Describe the physical features of the room in which you will perform your reading experiment.
  2. Describe the natural light and/or windows in the room (including window coverings).
  3. Describe your position in the room: where are you sitting in the room? what are you sitting on? where is the candle sitting in relation to your position? How close is the reading material to the candle(s)?
  4. How many candles are you using? Are they new candles? What are the candles made of? Embed an image of your candle set up at this point.

After you have concluded the 30 minutes of reading, record your responses to the following:

  1. Based on your choices, what social class did you take on to perform this experience?
  2. What time did you begin your reading experiment? What time did you end?
  3. Did the natural light fade or increase during your 30 minutes?
  4. How far away from the candles did you need to hold the reading material in order to read?
  5. Did the candles emit any smoke? What color was the smoke? Did the smoke interfere with your reading ability?
  6. How did you position the reading material? In your hands? on the table or some other device to prop it up?
  7. How much time did it take you to read a column of text?
  8. How much of the Great Expectations issue were you able to read in 30 minutes? (Describe in terms of columns of text or number of pages.)
  9. Did you find yourself skipping words that you could not easily read?
  10. Did you read sequentially or did you glance through the issue first before embarking upon the reading?
  11. Were you able to see the engravings in detail? How long did you look at an engraving?
  12. How close to your eyes did you place the reading materials in order to see details in the engravings or to read the words?
  13. How did the paper quality impact your ability to clearly see the words and the images?
  14. How did the paper quality impact your ability to clearly read the words?
  15. How did the page layout (or aesthetics) impact your ability to read the issue?
  16. How did the quality of the type impact your ability to read the issue?

You may certainly cut and paste these questions into your response and answer each one sequentially in complete sentences. Avoid simply responding yes/no. These questions should inspire you to describe and expound on the experience. We will discuss your findings at our first meeting after Spring Break.

This assignment idea inspired by Dr. Ryan Cordell’s “Lab #3: Simulating the Scriptorium (Links to an external site.).”

Jordan Denton, A Student’s Response