Epistolary-writing studies is one area of the medieval and early modern world that lends itself well to online teaching. Because of their exposure to social media, students are familiar with the intimate nature of letters. They recognize the rhetorical techniques and tricks because they have learned to use them themselves and are familiar with (and forgiving of) the inevitable misunderstandings that will occur.
“The Age of Melancholy: Early Modern Drama, Poetry, and Prose–1603 to the English Revolution” is an undergraduate course I taught on various occasions, and one in preparation for online delivery this year.
Although my 140-student survey of art history from 1300 to 1700 is always filled with a wide variety of students, the majority of them take the class to fulfill a general-education requirement. Though many of these students enroll because they are interested in the subject, there is always a sizeable portion who take my class because it is the only one with open seats that fits their schedule. My single biggest challenge every semester is convincing this type of student that the course is worth their time and attention.
The Pedagogical Foundations
As part of the shift to online teaching, students in my Introduction to Composition course were tasked with creating a video post for their end-of-term research presentations. Oral presentations are an institutional requirement for this course, and face-to-face presentations are typically one of my favorite parts of the class. This solution to the remote-teaching challenge revealed an unexpected truth about my students.
One of my early thoughts was “I’ll call it ‘The Decameron Project’ and invite authors to submit flash-fiction to a new website. Each day we’ll post a new short story to entertain and distract shut-in readers.” The parallels between Boccaccio’s fictional flight from plague-ravaged Florence and the world’s impending self-quarantine seemed obvious, not least because my wife’s Lombard family were already in strict lock-down while death gripped her native city Brescia, eventually claiming her cousin, among thousands of others.
As was the case for so many university lecturers around the world, my spring 2020 semester was abruptly altered from a planned, in-person and lecture-based learning format to an unplanned, digital distance-learning format.
I teach at a small public liberal arts university with a curriculum that requires each undergraduate student to progress through a series of interdisciplinary “Humanities” courses, beginning with a study of the ancient world and culminating with a seminar on contemporary society. Nearly every semester I teach the second of these four courses, “The Medieval and Renaissance World,” which engages a wide range of cultural traditions across the globe and over a vast historical period (300 CE–1650 CE).
The repercussions of the 2020 pandemic moment are far-reaching, with some of the greatest transformations occurring within the field of higher education. With the transition of so many college classrooms to remote learning formats for much of spring term comes the ever-present concern of connectivity.
Since the 2010 creation of The World Shakespeare Project (WSP),1 my Shakespeare classes at Emory University in Atlanta regularly include videoconferencing sessions with academic and artistic partners around the globe.