Transforms media theory classroom into fine arts lab, students into publishers, curators and webmasters
Accolades such as “groundbreaking” or “revolutionary” are rarely garnered for achievements in teaching. University of Colorado Boulder English Assistant Professor Thora Brylowe, however, brought an especially innovative approach to the plainly titled course, “ENGL 2036: Introduction to Media Theory in the Humanities,” which she taught last fall.
Applied styles of learning can be an effective means to engage students and achieve positive outcomes-driven results, meaning knowledge that can be measured quantifiably, demonstrated by a skill or set of skills, and applied toward the creation of a capstone project, or in Brylowe’s case, three of them. But how does one design an effective, applied learning-based course for the English classroom, or in content-driven, typically essay-heavy courses?
Enter Brylowe. In the ENGL 2036 section that she taught this past Fall, she aimed to explore “the history of media and mediation, from the early modern period to the present, with an emphasis on hands-on project-based learning.” The course, so far, sounded uncommon, but not exactly groundbreaking.
Then she told her students they’d complete three separate projects of significant scope over the course of the semester, each in collaborative fashion. The results would be experienced by the public in three distinct media formats: books, pictures and the internet.
First, she told her students, they’d create, from start to finish, a hardcover book – from the early phase of selecting content, to the final stage of being able to pick it up and read it, like any book in the library. Next, they’d comb through a collection of early modern prints donated to the CU Art Museum, choose visual content, and curate an exhibit there with the help of Hope Saska, curator of collections and exhibitions. Last, they would partner with a class at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada, to create an online special-collections exhibit and archive using material from Special Collections in Norlin Library.
She wanted to lead her students on an investigation of “the historical development of knowledge technologies, focusing on print and digital modes,” wrote Brylowe in her syllabus. To that end, she pledged to “depart from the lecture/discussion format and put into practice the tools and techniques we study.”
“I’m a historian,” said Brylowe, though her field is British Romanticism. “I want to think about the initial occasion for producing a piece of literature. Who were its readers? Who cared about it and why? And why do we keep holding onto it? In order to do that, you have to look at the original material form. So that’s where I take this idea of embodied practice, where you can have some sense of people’s lived experience by doing the labor that they did.”
To tackle the first and perhaps heftiest endeavor of producing a book, a custom anthology of William Blake, Brylowe first spent two weeks teaching the poet’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, chosen by Brylowe since Blake, himself, was a printer, engraver and Romantic writer.
The students selected the pieces they wanted to anthologize, and with the help of the nonprofit Book Arts League in Lafayette, Colo., which provided the facility, printing press, mentorship and time, designed the layout and set the type by hand. Many of the volunteer staff at the Book Arts League work at CU’s Norlin Library. The students then printed, bound and cased the book.
Holding up the finished book, a beautiful, blue, clothbound, hardcover, Songs of Inexperience, by William Blake, titled by her students both as a tribute to the original text studied in class and as a “signal to their lack of knowledge at the start of the project,” Brylowe added, “now my students can say, ‘If you look in the library catalog, Special Collections actually has this book with a call number. I made a book which is now housed there.’ I wanted that to be something the students could have.”
I want my students to understand that mediation has a history. That what we do on a word processor has some kind of history to it involving a tremendous amount of labor on the part of human backs and hands. That’s what makes literature possible.”
For the second project, the museum exhibit, her students first looked at a set of prints from the early modern period, which were donated by a benefactor and housed in the special collections, and chose the ones they found interesting.
“They researched them,” said Brylowe, “and came up with an idea for a cogent exhibit about how prints mediate narration. Some of the prints depict historical events, and some of them are literary,” she said of the images dating from around 1550 to 1820.
“They wrote labels and summaries,” she explained. “The works were framed. The exhibitions manager explained what he did and how you manage crumpled up pieces from the 17th and 18th centuries that had been in a drawer, and before that a book, and were not in great shape, and explained the various ways that people frame archival material. Then the labels went through the museum’s rigorous copyediting and regulation process,” said Brylowe. “It went up on the wall, and we had a catered opening. They made a professional museum exhibit.”
Like the Blake book, her students can now visit the museum catalog today, view the entries they wrote for their exhibit and declare, “‘This is my original research,” said Brylowe, “‘and it’s in the world now.’”
Had Brylowe not received a call that summer from fellow Romanticist Miranda Burgess, however, who’d be teaching her own media theory course that coming fall at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Brylowe’s class may have never gotten off the ground. Burgess asked Brylowe if she were interested in a class collaboration using web, distance-learning technology and Skype. “I signed on immediately,” said Brylowe.
Together, Brylowe and Burgess formulated the cooperative project that became the third assignment for Brylowe’s course. The two professors arranged viewings of the special collections archives on their separate campuses for their classes. Then, nations apart, the students selected pieces, photographed them, shared their selections with each other and agreed on a cohesive collection.
Brylowe and Burgess taught their students the academic research process and set up a website template on Wordpress. The two classes, thereafter, co-produced an online exhibit titled “First Impressions: Books and Papers from the Hand-Press Period.”
Since there were no papers to measure, final grades for Brylowe’s students were determined largely by peer and self-assessment and by a jury of members of the campus community, including Dean Steven Leigh and Associate Dean Valerio Ferme from the College of Arts and Sciences.
It’s exciting to see faculty conceptualize their courses so imaginatively. Her and her students’ dedication to the class, and the joy they had taken from it, were evident.”
“Professor Brylowe’s class was a great example of how we can apply the resources we have on campus to the classroom, such as the art museum and the personnel in the Norlin Library,” said Dean Leigh. “It’s exciting to see faculty conceptualize their courses so imaginatively. Her and her students’ dedication to the class, and the joy they had taken from it, were evident.”
“My work is about practice,” said Brylowe. “I’m interested in the process of mediating creative work and the idea that there’s labor involved. I want my students to understand that mediation has a history. That what we do on a word processor has some kind of history to it involving a tremendous amount of labor on the part of human backs and hands. That’s what makes literature possible.”
“There are different ways to understand knowledge literary transmission, other than one author begets another author who begets another, and we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, so I’m interested in the material transmission of that, and in the cost involved in terms of both resources and biopower.”
“I think the students were happy,” Brylowe admits. “They learned how to do ‘this stuff.’ But it was the process of research,” which, as she explained to her students, she engages in every day, comparing their experience to her work on her current project, a book about paper in the Romantic period.
“I have to figure out how to determine the content of paper. I have to think about my archive. What is the sample I’m going to use to complete this project?” she said. “So here are these research questions. Here’s this archive,” much like the prints her students exhibited in the museum, online, and in the Blake compilation.
“I said to my students, here’s a bunch of stuff. Do something with it,” said Brylowe. “I knew they could do it. They complained at the beginning, but I told them, ‘This is research. There’s nothing difficult here. It’s about doing it.’ So I trusted them, and they did well. They have great ideas, and they do things in unexpected ways. If you let them, the collaboration will unfold.”
Asked what she’s up to next, Brylowe said she received a grant from the English department with Associate Professor Lori Emerson, who runs the Media Archeology Lab. They plan to purchase printing and engraving presses for a Media Ecology Archeology & Technology Lab affiliated with the MAL. Next fall, Brylowe will teach a first-year seminar called “Saving the World” that addresses the central question, what does it mean to curate?