Dr. Miranda Nesler on Using Innovative Instruction and Expanding her Classroom to Larger Communities

In the spring of 2012, English Professor Dr. Miranda Nesler instructed a class called “Performing Humanity in the Renaissance” (Eng 363). In creating the course, Dr. Nesler sought to provide  Renaissance content as well as to introduce innovative teaching and learning opportunities. In order to achieve these goals, Dr. Nesler and her class created the blog, Performing Humanity in the Renaissance, which primarily features student posts and which is still active.  In the following guest post, Dr. Nesler writes about her pedagogical experiment.

“Performing Humanity in the Renaissance” (ENG 363) arose from one of those beautiful moments when pedagogical and research questions coincide.  Confronted with the task of designing a course that, in the catalogue at least, carries the monolithic title “Renaissance” and that, in students’ imaginations, functions as a golden age, I had to ask myself how to guide students through a close-reading of a limited number of texts while simultaneously helping them to understand the problematically nuanced intercultural matrices in which those texts existed.  It so happens that around the same time, in my writing, I had begun asking what relationship existed in drama between Renaissance animal laws and the behavioral expectations that sought to control women.  One question ultimately answered the other.

In most semesters, I base the syllabus on a thesis that the students can then test on our texts and complicate throughout the course.  But English 363 was different. It was far more speculative. Because I really intended the course as an opportunity for the students and me to begin with a set of questions that would likely multiply during the term, I decided to be more adventurous than usual in creating assignments.  Having never worked extensively in web design, the idea of generating a website felt ambitious—but I was determined that we would all come out of the course with new academic and practical knowledge.  I decided we would build Performing Humanity.

Performing Humanity in the Renaissance (performinghumanity.wordpress.com) is an ongoing blog that explores how early modern science, philosophy, religion, art, literature, pedagogy, and law problematized categories of “human” and “animal.” Each week, a new student-written post appears on the page—these posts are the culmination of a semester’s worth of collaborative research.  During the early part of spring 2012, my students signed up for collaborative research teams that operated under separate thematic headings: Law & Social Behavior, Science & Art, and Literature & Drama.  Beginning their work broadly, students constructed annotated bibliographies from January through early March, gaining a solid sense of their thematic fields and bringing that information into seminar-style discussions about the literature we were reading in class.  As the students completed their bibliographies, it became clear that each group member had developed a specific interest that fit within the larger rubric of the group.  At this point, the students had the opportunity to develop collaborative introductions that set out the group’s sense of the field, and to write their own individual blog posts that focused on a specific topic of their choosing.

From start to finish, I’ve been incredibly impressed with how dedicated and serious the students were about this project.  In the classroom, they engaged in intense debates that brought their external research to bear on the course texts—arguing for example about the limits of defining humanness through spoken language in Titus Andronicus, exploring how economics defines human value in The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice, and questioning how problematic vocabularies of humanness in Descartes persist and shape modern works such as Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation.  The website reflects the nuanced investigations these students have made.

I’m excited to say that Performing Humanity will not end when the original student posts run out.  Along with a group of volunteers from the class, I will continue managing the site.  In addition to inviting submissions from undergraduate and graduate students, the site will feature a number of posts and interviews by my early modernist colleagues outside Ball State. Already we’ve begun to link with other sites, such as Wonders and Marvels and Fairy Tale Redux, to begin an online community that attracts readers with an interest in hybridity and literature.  This project has been an invaluable method of showing students that their academic conversations in the classroom bring them into larger scholarly dialogues that continue well after a term ends.

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