A NOTE FROM THE TEACHER
By Robert K. Wallace
I have taught a course in Dickinson and James in alternating years at Northern Kentucky University for more than a decade now. This is an upper-division course for undergraduates that appeals primarily to English majors, though it usually does draw students from other majors as well. When I first offered the course at this open-admissions, largely commuter, metropolitan University, I was afraid it that its two authors and their nineteenth-century concerns might seem a bit too distant, precious, or aloof to our hardworking and often no-nonsense students. Each successive group of students, however, has responded positively to the writings of each author--as well as to the challenge of reading his prose in alternation with her poetry during an entire semester.
In my upper-division classes, the last two weeks, in which students present projects of their own, are always the most stimulating time for me. I remember each group of Dickinson-James students primarily through their own individual creations at the end of the semester, not only excellent research papers exploring this or that aspect of one or both authors, but also the creative writing, musical compositions, and art works in which individual students have responded to the writings of our two artists. One of the first students to take the creative option for his final project wrote a very fully imagined fictional encounter between James and Dickinson after death. A music major in a subsequent class set three different Dickinson poems to music, and featured them in his senior recital. An English major in a subsequent class responded to Dickinson with a self-portrait in charcoal whose lips sewn shut created an indelible image of "They shut me up in prose."
I was hopeful, as always, and ready to be surprised, as usual, when a new group enrolled in my Dickinson and James course during the Fall 2001 semester. The quality of conversation, and engagement with the texts was, from the beginning, high. After we suffered the trauma of September 11 together (while Isabel Archer was being proposed to by Gilbert Osmond in Florence--I am glad the short paper on The Portrait of a Lady was due on September 11 and not the next class period), we eventually got our rhythm back and reestablished our own variation on "that precarious Gait / Some call Experience." I was impressed by the way this group of students continued to respond to our two authors--and to each other--as we all tried to carry on our educational work under the pressure of national and international events.
Even before the midterm exam, I knew that I was blessed with an unusual group of students who would be doing memorable work for the rest of the semester. This particular group seemed especially drawn to Dickinson, and the sessions in which we read and discussed her poetry--and each other's responses to it--are among the finest classroom experiences I have known. Immediately after Thanksgiving vacation, when students began making five-minute presentations of their own projects, this class entered that magic zone in which the whole, however fine it had already seemed to be, becomes more than the sum of its parts. I had my camera on hand that day, feeling I needed to seize the moment if the right opportunity presented itself, and for this I was amply rewarded. As this web site shows, this year's presentation projects included--in addition to research papers--paintings, photographs, prints, and a sculpture; poems, a screenplay, and a short story; and two musical compositions, one recorded, the other performed live.
Immediately after the presentations on November 27, Melissa Gers made the mistake of saying something like, "These projects are amazing." This led me to ask her if she would like to take an Independent Study course during the next semester in which her project would be to decide how best to preserve and display the work that she and her classmates had done (and were still to do in the Dickinson mini-anthologies and the final exam). She agreed to do this and you are now seeing the result. Melissa has created this web site in time for it to be shown at NKU's first-ever Celebration of Undergraduate Research and Creativity, sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, on April 17-18, 2002. By that time she also expects to have produced two booklets featuring the works of her classmates in this course, one in black-and-white, a deluxe version in color.
Melissa Gers has designed this entire site and she selected all material for it. I volunteered to be her proofreader as well as a consultant, and I have enjoyed watching everything take shape. The website is not entirely finished as I write this short commentary at the end of March, but already I am very proud of what Melissa has done in making available to a larger audience some of the remarkable work that she and her classmates did during the Fall 2001 Semester. Thank you, Melissa, and all of your classmates, for all that you made of the semester we had together, living out the syllabus and the various assignments for this course in a richer way than I could have imagined.
P.S. For the web site created by students in my Spring 1996 / Spring 1997 class in Melville and the Arts, visit http://www.nku.edu/~moby
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