An Open Letter Concerning the Tablet Initiative at Fresno State

Dear President Castro:

We are now just over a month in to your new tablet initiative here at California State University, Fresno, and—with some reservations and stipulations concerning the university’s focus on diffusing this technology to faculty and into its classrooms—I am writing to urge you to continue to invest time and resources into this program. However, I believe that the initiative’s current incarnation—at least with as much that has been made available to the public—is potentially problematic. Presently, as reported by Associate Vice President for University Communications and Integrated Marketing Shirley Armbruster (2014), the guiding question of the tablet initiative seems to be how can we accommodate new technology (i.e. tablets) in the classroom, (p. 22).But I think the question we should be asking is how can we evolve pedagogy and curriculum to leverage the meaning-making potential of new technologies in (and out) of the classroom. So far as I can see, there are already hints of strategies to address the latter question coming to the surface, and I believe that continued faculty support in terms of evolving curriculum and especially pedagogy will be absolutely crucial in getting this new technology to be successfully adopted, diffused, and put to constructive use throughout the university. Certainly, as Troy Tenhet’s (2013) dissertation An Examination of the Relationship Between Tablet Computing and Student Engagement, Self-efficacy, and Student Attitude Toward Learning reveals, we should not take for granted that just because students have tablets in their hands means they’ll automatically engage with tablets academically. With this in mind and to the means and ends of using tablets in the classroom constructively, let me explain some of my aforementioned reservations and stipulations more fully.

The biggest issue I see with incorporating tablets into the classroom is in having faculty transition from a direct instruction approach to teaching to a constructivist approach to teaching because, as I will explain shortly, leveraging the power of tablets in the classroom requires a constructivist approach to teaching. Of course this is not an issue for those faculty who already embrace a constructivist approach, but not all faculty share in this pedagogical framework. While the general troubles of a direct instruction approach are beyond the scope of this discussion, I believe the relationship between direct instruction and high technology is relevant. According to Reiser & Dempsey (2012), direct instruction is teacher-centered learning where the teacher acts as the “sage on the stage” who fills students—seen figuratively as empty vessels—with knowledge (pp. 45-46). It is the teacher who has access to knowledge, and students only have access to that knowledge through the teacher. The trouble with this approach in relation to high technology is that the technology becomes nothing more than a digital notebook for students to take dictation from the “sage,” something they could do with the technology of a $2.00 spiral-bound notebook and any number of low cost Pilot G-3 gel pens. At best, direct instruction would leverage high technology’s ability to help students drill on material they need to memorize in order to pass an objective test, but that task could also be easily accomplished with a buck’s worth of flash cards. So suddenly there’s quite a contrast between a pen and paper budget and a tablet budget which Armbruster (2014) reports to be to the tune of $850 (p. 23). Fresno State Tablet CaseSo in terms of classroom use, $850 worth of high technology becomes roughly an $847 investment to majorly glorify what ink and paper can already do or, at least, dress what a cheaper laptop can already do with new designer clothes for the 2014 iFall Fashion Season. Now in all seriousness, I don’t mean to suggest that tablets do not have a place in the classroom in particular or in education in general: tablets have a great deal of potential to allow students to work on solving real and meaningful problems (i.e. problems that matter to them) but only if a teacher is able to structure their class in such a way that fosters that kind of learning. I grant that supporting faculty in the physical use of tablets and mobile computing applications through faculty expertise is important—though I’m quite interested in knowing more about specifically who these faculty experts are (“DISCOVERe”). Too, the support through TILT and through LEAD workshops is also important. But I believe it’s equally if not even more important to support faculty in making the shift from learned based off of teacher-centered, direct instruction to learning that is constructivist, putting the students on center-stage. Therein lies the greatest challenge to get this technology to be successfully diffused, adopted, and put to meaningful use where student learning that persists beyond the classroom is (or at least should be) our antecedent purpose.

There exists a well-established framework for the adoption and diffusion of new technology theorized by Everett Rogers (n.d.) which asserts that there are five qualities of new technologies that are determining factors as to whether or not and how expediently that technology will be adopted. I’m certain that the Tablet Task Force, headed by Provost Lynette Zelezny, has already come up with a diffusion strategy that discusses the 1) relative advantage of tablets (over previous technologies like paper notebooks and laptops) and 2) the simplicity and ease of use of tablets, and the faculty cohort established earlier in the year demonstrates the task force’s way of addressing 3) the trialability of this innovation. I’m certain that other organizations have piloted similar programs, so there should be available a set of 4) observable results, but I have not yet seen references to any studies or outcomes presented by you or the university in support of this initiative—this is something I urge you to keep in mind as you move forward, for if both students and faculty have no way of accessing any observable results from this innovation, they will be less likely to embrace it. The fifth item from Rogers’ list is by far the most contentious item for our purposes as it serves as a sort of cross-section between both the new technology and the pedagogical framework required to leverage the new technology.

Rogers (n.d.) suggests that in order for a new technology or innovation to be adopted and diffused throughout an organization, it must also be compatible with existing values and practices. For faculty who are not presently in the camp of constructivist pedagogical practices—which I’ve submitted as absolutely necessary to take advantage of tablets in the classroom in a meaningful way (i.e. activities that are full of meaning-making potential)—there will be a significant conflict with the existing values and practices of direct instruction. This is not just about adopting tablets and new software applications in the classroom but about adopting a whole new way of operating within the teacher-student dynamic; therefore, investing in and implementing faculty programs to urge and support a transition to a constructivist framework for teaching and learning is absolutely crucial if we want this technology to successfully diffuse throughout the university and not be a waste of money and resources.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that a support system—albeit perhaps indirect—is not already in the works, but as a graduate student who is outside of the opaque Tablet Task Force and not a part of the faculty cohort, it is difficult for me to make any of these determinations outside of what is released to the general student body and public. When, for example, I see a series of Learning for Excellence and Development (LEAD) activity workshops throughout October that are centered around topics like “How to use Google Drive,” “Docs and Sheets,” an introduction to Lynda.com (the lessons therein generally of a direct-instruction nature), etc., my perception mirrors the overall point of this letter: I’m happy to see such an investment in faculty support for new technologies, but I’m apprehensive that these support programs are too focused on the technology itself rather than how to shape instruction to leverage the meaning-making potential of these technologies. As your tablet initiative moves forward, I hope you will also include a forward-thinking support system for faculty needing to make the transition from direct instruction to a constructivist approach to pedagogy and curriculum design. President Castro, you were quoted in an article as having said that one of your goals for this tablet initiative is to “build a sustainable program that keeps the cost of attending Fresno State affordable” (Schaffhauser). Without the support for the aforementioned transition to a constructivist framework, this program will not be pedagogically sustainable nor will students really save money or learn any better than they presently are: this expensive technology will be nothing more than an $850 drop in the bucket where a $3.00 trip to Dollar Tree for school supplies would suffice. Letting technology drive pedagogy and curriculum is like putting the cart before the horse. Instead, let’s create a sustainable system that privileges meaning-making in the classroom and thus make meaning-making drive the technology.

Sincerely,

Jeremiah Alexander Henry
California State University, Fresno
MA Literature Candidate
Teaching Associate
President, Sigma Tau Delta


References

Armbruster, S. (2014, Spring). Fresno State’s DISCOVERe Tablet Program. Fresno State Magazine. Retrieved from California State University Fresno University Advancement website: http://www.fresnostate.edu/advancement/ucomm/magazine

DISCOVERe — Fresno State Tablet Program. (n.d.). Retrieved from California State University, Fresno President’s website: http://www.fresnostate.edu/president/discovere

Reiser, R. A., & Dempsey, J. (2012). Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Rogers, R. (n.d.). Diffusion of Innovations: Part 1. Retrieved from Iowa State University Department of Sociology website: http://www.soc.iastate.edu/sapp/soc415Diffusion1.html

Schaffhauser, D. (2014, August). Fresno State Intros Tablet Program with Device Grants for Students. Retrieved from http://campustechnology.com/Articles/2014/08/21/Fresno-State-Intros-Tablet-Program-Supplies-Device-Grants.aspx

Tenhet, T. (2013). An Examination of the Relationship Between Tablet Computing and Student Engagement, Self-efficacy, and Student Attitude Toward Learning. n.p.: ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing.

Trends in Educational Technology, Journal #4

Constructivism

First and foremost, I will absolutely acknowledge my bias toward the reading from Chapter 5. Since day 1 in the teaching associate program for this university’s Department of English, I have taken a constructivist approach to teaching and instructional design (as do my mentors). Reiser and Dempsey also show their bias with sentences like “Some of the negative response to constructivism was due to statements like ‘learners construct their own reality’ and ‘assessments should be goal free’ that traditionalist appropriately perceived as over the top (my emphasis)” (46). I understand that phrases like “learners construct their own reality” sound ambiguous and not quantifiable, but—as Kenneth Burke writes about in his book Language as Symbolic Action, the nature of language is such that the words we use to name things, describe things, and communicate things, at once is a selection and a deflection of reality. This is what Burke refers to as Terministic Screens and, by extension, The Negative. For example, in the United States, we refer to the America’s separation from British colonial powers as the American Revolution whereas across the Atlantic, the same historical event is referred to as the American Rebellion. Like it or not, language does construct our reality. Though learn through a variety of means, we learn largely through language. So learners do construct their own reality through language vis-à-vis terministic screens.

“Like all approaches, constructivism solves some problems while perhaps creating others” (47). I hear Dr. Bohlin in the back of my mind asking, “Really? Do all approaches create problems?” I understand that this is merely a transitional move so that Reiser and Dempsey can bring up their concerns with constructivist approaches to instructional design, so I’ll let that one go for now.

Incidentally, I agree with their primary concern: are students prepared to have the “hardest work” and “most interesting decisions” put on their plate (47)? I think having an awareness of these questions and working through them forces teachers to become more aware of their audience, a rhetorical move that teachers themselves ask students to do in reading and writing classrooms. Having said that, one way to further address this concern is to work a system of a “gradual release of responsibility” so that at the beginning of your curriculum (on the large scale) or of your lesson (on the small scale), you gradually release the responsibility of making the “most interesting decisions” and the “hardest work” as your students become ready for those tasks. But this does require teachers to pay attention to who they’re teaching.

Trends in Educational Technology, Journal #3

The Problem with “Increased Performance”

While I still have certain linguistic and rhetorical problems with starting a topic at the level of definition, I am pleased to see Chapter 1, “What Field Did You Say You Were In?” take up the question as to what we mean when we attempt to define the field Educational Technology (or, rather, Instructional Design and Technology by using terms like “improve performance.” According to the 2008 take on the definition, the phrase “improve performance” seems to mean the ability for learners to apply what they learn (4). (I realize I’m using MLA style documentation for these journal entries, but since this is informal writing, I’m using the style that’s familiar to me so that it’s easy for me to appropriate citations and such for later uses).

That being said, the word “performance” is still rather contentious, especially when the authors conflate student performance in an educational setting with performance in the workplace. Do the authors really mean to conflate “performance” in a workplace under a capitalist business model with “performance” in an educational setting where, arguably, capitalist business models do not serve the best interests of academics? Is the motivating factor behind academia a for-profit one? I’m doing my best to suspend my disbelief and to read with the grain here, but I have to say that Reiser and Dempsey are already on shaky ground. Perhaps what they describe as “meaningful performance” later in Chapter 2—“thus, there should be a high degree of congruence between the learning environment and the setting in which the actual behaviors are performed [in the “real” world]”—is what they mean when they conflate “improved performance” as hand-in-hand in educational settings and in the workplace (11). With this, I wholeheartedly agree and foster this very constructivist practice in my own writing classrooms. My students never read, write, and think solely for their English teacher: we collaborate together concerning topics and issues that matter to them, and they are always given the opportunity to research and, think, and write about what is important to them (just like how writing exists in the “real” world where no one actually writes a 5-paragraph essay).

Trends in Educational Technology, Journal #2

Educational Technology and Rhetoric

One trend that I’ve noticed as I’ve begun to converse and network with other teachers is that teachers frequently default to a mode of communication that is response-centered rather than understanding-centered. In other words, teachers tend to listen to respond rather than listen to understand. I believe this happens because teachers are frequently put in the position of being asked questions and having answers expected from them. I’ve observed the communication style of my colleagues in this course to hold true to this. To be clear, though, I don’t mean to use this space as a place to vent or complain but rather to use this situation as a springboard into a brief discussion about where I see opportunities for educational technology to shine.

Listening first to understand rather than first to respond is a communication style that is not new: rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke and Psychologist Carl Rogers were talking about this back in the 50s. Both Burke and Rogers submit that in order for all parties in an argument to be able to move forward toward a solution (a solution, for Burke, being movement toward peace), we must make our first priority to understand each other so that we can move toward common ground (peace).

That being said, I want to return to one of the important points from this Forbes article where Shapiro suggests that educational technology has great use outside of the classroom where it can be used to communicate “objective” knowledges, the kind of formal knowledge Heidegger described as stuff that fills the empty vessels of our students’ minds. Educational technology allows for this kind of knowledge exchange to happen outside of the classroom which enables us as teachers to foster healthy rhetoric in the face-to-face classroom where we can make it our first priority to get our students to seek to understand ideas by asking questions, seeking ambiguities, feeling comfortable in spaces of uncertainty where the real thinking happens, rather than pressuring them to have the “right” response on a test.

I see this as one of the most powerful and compelling implications for instructional design and technology, and it is my personal goal to continue to think about how I can design my curriculum and evolve my pedagogy to allow me to continue to trend toward making my classroom a rhetorical space where we privilege grey areas and approach problems from a position of inquiry where our goal is to seek a sense of mutual understanding before we pass judgment when our impulse is merely to respond.

Trends in Educational Technology, Journal #1

Things Before Definitions

My inner rhetorician keeps telling me that definitions come after things, after experience. We see instances of things, we come to a general sense as to their qualities, then we attempt to abstract a set of common qualities into a definition. In other words, definitions do not come first: things come first. So when it comes to defining “educational technology,” I honestly believe I’ve observed and experienced too few instances of “educational technology” to be able to arrive at a definition. But this isn’t an exercise in futility. This thinking allows me to do something that is crucial to my own pedagogy, and that’s to get learners to take inventory of their knowledges, attitudes, and assumptions about the topic they’re learning. The definition I came up with in class is as follows:

Any technology that has had, presently has, or has the potential to have an effect on literacy events or literacy moments between any permutation of teacher and student subjects, I would consider as technology that is educational technology. What I mean by any permutation of teacher/student subjects is, for example, teacher/teacher, teacher/student, and student/student exchanges, as well as literacy moments or events exchanged between a reader and a text or a reader and herself. This ranges from a pencil or a fountain pen to the printing press to overhead projectors, tablets, and Twitter.

During this activity, I found out that my assumption about “educational technology” primarily concerned instances of educational technologies—that is, specific pieces of technology that can be used for educational purposes. Though my attitude is certainly open to expanding that definition to include the following, my assumptions had not presently accounted for educational technology as a field of study involving theoretical practice—that is, development, design utilization, management, and evaluation of technologies in learning environments (http://www.aect.org/standards/knowledgebase.html).

The only problem on my radar thus far is the phrase I often see come up when talking about education, this business of “increasing student (or teacher) performance.” Technology is “educational technology,” by definition, if it helps to “increase student (or teacher) performance.” As a language lover (and critic), I’m left asking myself the not-so-obvious question of what we even mean by “student performance.” Exactly what constitutes student performance, and how do we quantify student performance? It’s a slippery phrase that I’m quite interested in deconstructing, and I hope this course will help me—in the context of educational technology—do just that.

Mindfulness Practices in and out the Classroom

A Pedagogical Innovation: Mindfulness Practices in and out the Classroom

I first feel compelled to offer a disclaimer that the innovation I have am offering is not a technological innovation in the “high tech” sense nor is the thing itself an innovation; rather, I am offering an innovative use or application of a practice that is not traditionally associated with pedagogical practices in the West. This practice which I will herein refer to as mindfulness gives both teachers and learners tools to, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “keep one’s consciousness alive,” to be conscious of walking when walking, of breathing when breathing, of reading when reading, of writing when writing (11-12). In his book Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation for Beginners, John Kabat-Zinn offers a friendly definition of mindfulness: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (4). Although mindfulness is “the heart of Buddhist meditation,” the bearing of mindfulness on secular and pedagogical paths has little if anything to do with Buddhism or becoming Buddhist, but, as Kabat-Zinn offers, “it has everything to do with examining who we are, with questioning our view of the world and our place in it, and with cultivating some appreciation for the fullness of each moment we are alive . . . with being in touch (emphasis added)” (3-4). I realize that this must sound rather new-agey­, and the connection of mindfulness and pedagogical practices and instruction design remain unclear, but once we begin to pay attention to the particular things we want teachers and learners to do in and out the classroom, mindfulness practices become a means and an end with those goals. That being said, I am offering a handout developed by Dr. Asao Inoue (University of Washington, Tacoma) and myself that, in its present form, is tailored for the writing and composition classroom; however, mindfulness practices can be used in any classroom across the disciplines and grades, and its widespread application and ease of adaptability make this innovation easily adoptable, but I will speak in more detail to the adoption and diffusion of mindfulness in the classroom following the handout.


Reading and Writing as Mindful Practices

“Some people, especially the very young, are good at noticing things that the rest of us don’t see or have ceased to notice. Growing up, we all become increasingly desensitized to the world around us; we tend to forget the specific things that get us to feel and think in particular ways.” (Writing Analytically 15)

Listening. We take the act for granted, but what do you do when you listen to a text, or another person speaking to you, or something on your PC? What is happening in your head as you listen to someone else say something to you? What is happening in your mind as you read these words? Are you fully and undividedly listening to the words on this page as you read them in your head? Chances are, if you are like almost everyone else on the planet, your attention is divided to some degree. You may be reading these words, but you are also thinking of other things.

“…we aren’t the victims of declining intelligence, but of habit. That is, as we organize our lives so that we can function more efficiently, we condition ourselves to see in more predictable ways and to tune out things that are not immediately relevant to our daily needs.” (Writing Analytically 15-16)

Have you ever read a page or even a chapter from something, finished reading or paused, then realized that you don’t know much of what you had just read? Your mind was multitasking as you were reading. This multitasking of the mind actually keeps you from reading academic and dense texts carefully and critically, even to the point of not really knowing what you just read.

“Moving along the roadway in cars, we periodically realize that miles have gone by while we were driving on automatic pilot, attending barely at all to the road or the car or the landscape. Arguably, even when we try to focus on something that we want to consider, the habit of not really attending to things stays with us.” (Writing Analytically 16)

If you are like most people, there are other voices in your head as you read a book or this page – or do anything in your daily life, really. These voices, we might say, are an ongoing, running monologue to yourself about anything and everything, your own voice speaking to you in your mind as read these words, telling you that you are hungry, or that you should have worn that green shirt today, or that you don’t really understand the point of this class, or that you’re anxious about a job or dating prospect, etc. This is normal. Everyone’s mind does it. In fact, one might say it is how our minds work, but they don’t always work this way. Occasionally, our minds are silent for a moment. In that moment, we aren’t thinking of anything. There is no monologue. When this happens, we are the most aware and alert to things around us, including words. Many have found ways to silence the monologue intentionally so that a deeper awareness of what is happening in one’s life, such as reading a text, can occur, a deeper awareness of what these words mean and don’t mean, what they could mean, and what might be underneath them, assumed by the writer, tacit or implied. This kind of listening to words we read in silence takes practice, but it’s easy to begin doing.

Mindful Reading

Mindful reading is reading when your mind is most calm and silent – that is, reading when the monologue has stopped. The key is to find some practices that will help you stop the monologue, at least for a time, so that you can read a text more carefully, more focused, more aware of its nuances and possible meanings. To mindfully read a text, do the following before you begin any session of reading:

  • Find a quiet, distraction-free place with little or no ambient noise or motions in the background. This is important. Sounds and sights around us in small ways take our attention away from a text when we read, even when we don’t realize it. Silence and the absence of motion in the environment are your friends when trying to silence the monologue and find focus and awareness when reading.
  • Create a comfortable, upright bodily position in which to read. If we are going to read with purpose, it makes sense to get our bodies into a position of intention. When you are upright and your back is straight, your diaphragm has more freedom to articulate your lungs—physiologically, you can get the most oxygen to your brain, helping your body stay alert. It’s not really a good idea to read lying down. That bodily position is not conducive to alertness and awareness, which is important for carefully reading a text. When you lie down your body begins to shift into rest and relaxation mode. This might work well for you for casual or leisurely reading, but reading academic texts is a different kind of act with different purposes requiring a different type of agency, namely more focus and attention than you might be used to giving while reading.
  • Spend 2-5 minutes just breathing mindfully. There is lots of research that shows the benefits of mindfulness practices. One of the benefits is helping one to focus just on the body so that the mind’s monologue subsides. There are several ways to mindfully breath, but to start, try sitting in your comfortable, upright position, closing your eyes, and breathing in through your nose, deeply and slowly, then out through your mouth slowly and completely. As you breathe, notice the feelings in your body, in your nose as the air comes in, in your belly and throat as you exhale. Just pay attention to those physical sensations. When your mind begins to talk to you, notice the thought and let it go. Don’t pursue it or worry about it. Notice and release it. It’s okay to have thoughts during mindful breathing. If you practice this, you’ll find it easier to clear your mind, but clearing your mind is not the point. The point is to focus on your body, on your breathing. Just be right there in the moment, breathing.
  • If you can, ring a bell or chime and focus on the sound. By focusing on the sound of the bell as it fades, listening to it, following the sound as it gets softer and softer, you will notice that your mind becomes quieter. Your mind is busy listening to that sound as it fades, searching for hints of its tone. You can repeat this several times. The reason this activity works to help quiet your mind and move you toward a more focused awareness is because of the silence. The silence is actually more important than the sound of the bell. In a sense, you are really listening to silence, which helps your mind settle and focus.

The interconnectedness of mindfulness practices and reading and writing well go hand-in-hand, but I believe using mindfulness practices as a way to prime teachers and learners for literacy events—which require both physical and mental presence—can be endlessly effective across the disciplines (including STEM fields which also require highly focused thinking and attention to detail). As I mentioned, the widespread adaptability and application of mindfulness practices make the odds of this innovation being adopted highly likely; simply put, it is simple and easy to apply to your pedagogy. But this is not the only reason why I believe mindfulness practices will be readily adopted by those who give it a chance.

Mindfulness practices have a distinct relative advantage over pre-existing technologies, namely that mindfulness practices are not replacing anything! They merely offer a set of tools for teachers and learners to achieve focus and peace which enables more productive and meaningful intellectual and physical labor. We are at risk to lose nothing other than the short amount of time we spend attending to ourselves in advance of our labor, but if mindfulness practices can help us be not only more productive during our labor but to feel better about our labor throughout the process, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Mindfulness practices are also compatible with existing values and practices with one small caveat. You’ll notice that I am careful with my language by naming these tools “mindfulness practices” rather than meditation. The word meditation carries with it spiritual connotations, and it is not the intent of these pedagogical tools to get teachers and learners to have a spiritual experience (although if they want it to a spiritual experience, that’s perfectly fine too); rather, this is a pedagogical tool to help teachers and learners become more aware of what they are doing when they are doing it, to truly be alive and present in the moment.

Seeing as though mindfulness practices only take time—a few minutes per day to begin with—there is no real monetary cost. There is only the opportunity cost of a few minutes’ worth of time, but again, if mindfulness practices can help us be more productive and at peace with the time that follows, the return on investment of that few minutes is exponential. Of course it goes without saying that since implementation of mindfulness practices in the classroom is essentially free, so too can be your own personal trial of mindfulness practices. With an open mind and a few minutes’ worth of time, you can quite easily keep a journal in which you reflect on the quality and intensity of your intellectual and/or physical labor in tandem with mindfulness practices then observe the results thereof over time. You can have your learners do this as well. In fact, having learners (and teachers for that matter) reflect on the quality and intensity of their labor—to be aware of these things—not only makes the effectiveness of mindfulness practices quantifiable over time, it is the only way to identify what goes well and what doesn’t go well so that we can seek improvement with our labor. Observing ourselves, indeed, is at the very heart of mindfulness.


The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation. Trans. Mobi Ho and Dinh Mai. Vo. Boston: Beacon, 1987. Print.

Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York, NY: Hyperion, 2005. Print.

Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. “The Analytical Frame of Mind.” Writing Analytically. Mason: Cengage Learning, 2012. 1-38. Print.

MA Literature Thesis – Prospectus

Prospectus

Meta-Thesis

At its primary level, this thesis aims to explore areas of incongruity (or tension, “friction zones,” etc.) between the Judeo-Christian narrative and narratives that are strictly and decidedly outside of the Judeo-Christian narrative as they appear together in two representative pieces of Victorian literature: Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (although, as required for additional context, this thesis will likely reference other primary works by these authors as well). In my survey of recent scholarship from this literary period, I believe the interplay of the Church and that which is decidedly not a part of the church (i.e. pagan and folk narratives and customs) is oft overlooked, yet its potential to reveal ambiguities in the literature and points of contention in the culture that has generated these texts cannot be overstated. Furthermore, seeing as though influences from 19th century British Empire continue to echo throughout its former colonies—including the United States—I believe this analysis has the potential to offer insights not only into Victorian culture but beyond it as well.

Chapter Outline

At this point in time, I see my thesis taking shape with four to six chapters as follows:

  1. An introductory section of (1-2 chapters) that
    1. clearly defines contentious terms (Judeo Christian Narrative, Pagan, myth, legend, folklore, etc.)
      1. Contextualize with historical moment of these terms – what do these terms mean for the Victorians?
    2. constructs the theoretical lenses that will drive the analysis of the subsequent chapters
      1. Methodological approach:
        1. Exegesis
        2. Hermeneutical (revisiting or revising this tradition of looking at literature from the viewpoint of interpretation)
      2. Theoretical approach?
        1. Historical? Cultural?
        2. Structuralist (myths have structures)
        3. Post-structuralist (structures exist and characters either exist within them and are accepted or can not)
        4. Terministic screens – language selects and simultaneously deflects reality
          1. Think about Tess and her terministic screens re: Angel’s parents.
        5. reviews relevant scholarship and anticipates entering into scholarly dialogues thereof
          1. Literature review and scholarly dialogue – incorporate into introduction of body chapters.
        6. A body section of 2 chapters
          1. Analysis primarily of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King contextualized with recent scholarship (that asks…what? Refer to 1a)
          2. Analysis primarily of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles contextualized with recent scholarship (that asks…what? Refer to 1a)
        7. A conclusion section of 1-2 chapters that
          1. reconciles and synthesizes analyses from the previous chapters including
            1. textual analyses that show not merely similarities but distinct differences within those similarities and the significance thereof
          2. (maybe, though this might be the labor of future work) push the overall thesis toward relevance in 2014
            1. narratives as flexible movements toward understanding, inclusion, and peace
            2. vs. narratives (JCN particularly) as rigid movement the Truth, toward inclusion (with a decided exclusion and thus separation).

 

Working Theses

Body Chapter 1 (Tennyson)

The importance of religion in both Tennyson’s day and the Medieval culture which he is invoking cannot be overstated. The culture that generated the Age of Chivalry which Camelot is intended to epitomize lived its religion in its daily life. Rituals, proselytizing, praying, and engaging in the sacraments were every day occurrences. Jim Rhodes explains that religion was “an integral part of work, play, and significant events in the calendar year.” Knights, who were at the center of the Arthurian milieu and the culture that generated it, held piety as one of the primary tenants of their chivalry. The Romance genre, including Arthurian Romance, was not merely escapist literature, either: Richard Kaeuper explains how Romance literature and the chivalry which it glorified was in practice a two-way exchange between authors and audience. “Knights, in sum, say that they have read this literature, show[ing] that they have read it by using it in their own writings.” So bearing in mind that a central tenant of chivalry is Christian piety—in the literary, practical, and social senses—the mythological and pagan images that contribute to the construction of Arthurian Romance while simultaneously contradicting its ideals deserve much more attention than they have received in recent scholarship.

As other scholars have pointed out, at least part of Tennyson’s purpose in producing the Idylls is clearly aimed at social commentary. Perhaps as a reaction to Victorian anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty, Tennyson—through a re-working of nationally sacred narratives—explores these problems thematically and symbolically in Idylls of the King most specifically in the idylls “The Coming of Arthur,” and “Merlin and Vivien.” In particular, these two idylls reveal how the Celtic and pagan aspects of the Arthurian milieu are overshadowed and deemphasized—even marginalized—by the privileging of the impossible ideals propagated by the Judeo-Christian orthodoxy and chivalry by the denizens of Camelot. I suspect that the un-sustainable nature of Camelot and her ideals, chivalry being a chief ideal among them, and the disproportionate valuing of the Judeo-Christian value system over paganism (in a culture that has its roots in Celtic, Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, and Greco-Roman paganism and folklore) are interrelated, perhaps leading to the cultural system’s undermining and eventual destruction of itself. Exploring these tensions may reveal why there was such cognitive dissonance and anxiety in Victorian England’s national consciousness with regard to England’s own unsustainability during a period of vast and unprecedented change.

Body Chapter 2 (Hardy)

Subjection and oppression in Victorian England indeed happens on a variety of fronts, and I contend that Hardy exposes several of these fronts in Tess of the D’Urbervilles: the subjection of women and their sexuality to Victorian cultural scripts is visible from the onset of the novel; there is the subjection of the natural world and rural landscapes (and the people who live and work there) to mechanization, industrialization, and urbanization (by the people who wield this new power); and there is the subjection of pagan values from country denizens like Tess by the Christian orthodoxy. While all of these aspects happen symbolically throughout the novel, I propose that each front is also figuratively represented by specific characters: Tess represents the dwindling rural and pagan world while Alec represents encroaching urbanization, mechanization, and a corrupted sense of the Christian orthodoxy. Hardy situates Angel Clare in the middle of this subject-object friction which shows that the only way to survive in the fault line of fin de siècle England is through close self-examination (demonstrated by Angel’s character growth throughout the novel). Ultimately, a synthesis of these distinct readings of Tess has the potential to uncover a crucial message embedded in Hardy’s narrative—that a sense of rape is occurring on all three of these levels. With this reading of Tess, Hardy forces us to reflect on the trajectory of 19th century sexuality, spirituality, industrialization, urbanization and their effects on Anglo Saxon and Celtic England, leaving us to question the nature of the existing and the emerging hierarchal power structures from his time.

A Note on my Intertextual Approach (working thesis for conclusion section)

An obvious point of inquiry I anticipate and wish to address is my choice to take with this thesis a comparative approach, and my reasons for doing so are multifold and will likely be made fully manifest in either a comparative chapter or a conclusion chapter . I want to show that this analysis is not just an esoteric peculiarity in one author and one point in time. By taking a comparative approach across multiple authors and genres, I hope to show that this analysis both deep and wide into the literature of the time. The two texts represent different points in time both in their content and in their publication dates. Idylls, published in 1859, concerns Arthurian Romance and legend, Tennyson’s oar in the conversation of the Victorian Medievalist movement. Tess, published 32 years later, concerns life mostly in rural southwest England (what Hardy refers to as Wessex) roughly during the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society, i.e. relatively close to Hardy’s own time. Both texts, however, I would submit as being timeless in their own rights: Tennyson recounts narratives that are nationally timeless, and Hardy’s narratives—Tess being no exception—are frequently absent of specific date stamps, yet they use a sense of both the ancient and recent past to illuminate the narrative’s present. Thus I see potential in these texts’ ability to illuminate each other from the sense of their respective timeframes and their timeliness. Further, a textual approach to both texts has the potential to reveal complimentary connections between the texts’ forms (Idyll and novel) and their own intrinsic tension points between the Judeo-Christian narrative and non-Judeo-Christian narratives.

Working Bibliography

Ahern, Stephen. “Listening to Guinevere: Female Agency and the Politics of Chivalry in Tennyson’s Idylls.” Studies in Philology 101.1 (2004): 88-112. Print.

Allingham, William. William Allingham, a Diary. Ed. Allingham, Helen Paterson and Dollie Radford. New York, New York: Macmillian and Company, 1907. Web. 10-Dec-13.

Barnes, Ian. “Druids.” The Historical Atlas of the Celtic World. London: Chartwell Books, 2009. 126-27. Print.

Bevis, Matthew. “Tennyson, Ireland, and ‘the Powers of Speech’.” Victorian Poetry 39.3 (2001): 345-64. Print.

Bonaparte, Felicia. “The Deadly Misreading of Mythic Texts: Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 5.3 (1999): 415-32. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California, 1969. Print.

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Carroll, Alicia. “Human Milk in the Modern World: Breastfeeding and the Cult of the Dairy in Adam Bede and Tess of the D-Urbervilles.” Women’s Studies 31.2 (2002): 165. Print.

Davis, William A., Jr. “The Rape of Tess: Hardy, English Law, and the Case for Sexual Assault.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 52.2 (1997): 221-31. Print.

Ebbatson, Roger. “The Plutonic Master: Hardy and the Steam Threshing-Machine.” Critical Survey 2.1 (1990): 63-69. Print.

Gray, J.M. “Introduction.” Idylls of the King. New York, New York: Penguin Putman Inc, 1983. Print.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’urbervilles. 1891. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Harland, Catherine R. “Interpretation and Rumor in Tennyson’s Merlin and Vivien.” Victorian Poetry 35.1 (1997): 57-69. Print.

Hughes, Linda K. “Illusion and Relation: Merlin as Image of the Artist in Tennyson, Doré, Burne-Jones, and Beardsley.” Merlin: A Casebook. Eds. Goodrich, Peter H. and Raymond H. Thompson. Arthurian Characters and Themes (Act): 7. New York, NY: Routledge, 2003. 378-409. Print.

Humma, John B. “Language and Disguise: The Imagery of Nature and Sex in “Tess”.” South Atlantic Review 54.4 (1989): 63-83. Print.

Kaeuper, Richard. “The Societal Role of Chivalry in Romance: Northwestern Europe.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Ed. Krueger, Roberta L. Cambridge Companions to Literature (Cctl). Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2000. 97-114. Print.

Machann, Clinton. “Tennyson’s King Arthur and the Violence of Manliness.” Victorian Poetry 38.2 (2000): 199-226. Print.

Moore, Dafydd. “Tennyson, Malory and the Ossianic Mode: The Poems of Ossian and `the Death of Arthur’.” Review of English Studies 57.230 (2006): 374-91. Print.

Nash, Tom. “Tess of the D’urbervilles: The Symbolic Use of Folklore.” English Language Notes 35.4 (1998): 38-48. Print.

Phillips, Catherine. “‘Charades from the Middle Ages’? Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and the Chivalric Code.” Victorian Poetry 40.3 (2002): 241-53. Print.

Ramel, Annie. “The Other in Tess of the D’urbervilles: The Alter/Altar of Sacrifice.” Ranam: Recherches Anglaises et Nord-Américaines 36.1 (2003): 99-109. Print.

Ranum, Ingrid. “Tennyson’s False Women: Vivien, Guinevere, and the Challenge to Victorian Domestic Ideology.” Victorian Newsletter 117 (2010): 39-56. Print.

Rhodes, Jim. “Religion.” Chaucer: An Oxford Guide. Ed. Ellis, Steve. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 81-96. Print.

Roberts, Helene. “Divided Self, Divided Realm: Typology, History and Persona in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.” Pre-Raphaelitism and Medievalism in the Arts. Ed. Cheney, Liana De Girolami. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1992. 29-52. Print.

Schur, Owen. Victorian Pastoral: Tennyson, Hardy, and the Subversion of Forms. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1989. Print.

Stevenson, Catherine Barnes. “Druids, Bards, and Tennyson’s Merlin.” Merlin: A Casebook. Eds. Goodrich, Peter H. and Raymond H. Thompson. New York, NY: Routledge, 2003. 361-77. Print.

Stevenson, Kim. “‘Crimes of Moral Outrage’: Victorian Encryptions of Sexual Violence.” Criminal Conversations: Victorian Crimes, Social Panic, and Moral Outrage. Eds. Rowbotham, Judith and Kim Stevenson. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 2005. 232-46. Print.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. Idylls of the King. New York, New York: Penguin Putman Inc, 1983. Print.

Trending from War to Peace

I’ve just read something completely transformative in terms of how to deal with what might be at first glance negative situations. Rick Hanson describes an internal set of triggers that lead to negative cascades (and how to overcome this problem). For example, imagine that you’re home cooking dinner for you and your partner. Earlier in the day, you asked your partner to stop off at the store for some milk which you need to make dinner. While cooking, your partner comes home having forgotten the milk that you asked them to pick up. Hanson describes four stages ranging from war to peace. In Stage 1, you would be caught up in thoughts and dialogue that stresses how the situation of making dinner has been inconvenienced leading to negative communication between you and your partner (how could they have forgotten such a simple task – now what are we supposed to do?!). In Stage 2, you realize that you’ve succumbed to this negative feedback loop and remain persistently annoyed at your partner having forgotten (and perhaps even at their reaction to your own outrage). In Stage 3, you might feel irritated at your partner having forgotten the milk, but you don’t act out knowing that getting cranky will only make things worse. In Stage 4, a negative reaction doesn’t even come up: you understand that there is no milk and calmly figure out what to do next. Ideally, in my own view, you would respond in a way that acknowledges that your partner forgot the milk and present them (and yourself) with options. You say, “Well we need milk to make this meal, so we either need to get some or we need to make something else. What should we do?” Suddenly the irritation has been taken out of the equation, and we’ve constructed an opportunity to 1) be compassionate toward our partner who forgot something and is probably feeling bad about having done so already, 2) collaborate together toward a solution, and 3) given them an opportunity to be compassionate and helpful in return. So, yeah. I’m ALL about Stage 4.


Hanson, Rick, and Richard Mendius. “The First and Second Dart.” Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2009. 49-63. Print.