Posts Tagged ‘Stanford Online High School’

The Matthews Project


Inquiring readers,

The teacher who supervised the creation of this project, Ben John Wiebracht, contacted Vic Sanborn of Jane Austen’s World in the summer of 2020 to propose a research project his students would work on in the fall. After hearing the details, she instantly agreed to publish the finished result in a post, and to create a page for this blog to share with other teachers and students. (My apologies to Dr. Wiebracht for editing this document. I’ve placed quotations around his writing whenever I’ve made no changes.)

The project, entitled “A Day in Catherine Morland’s Bath,” was published on January 4, 2021. It is still attracting readers and is approaching 1,300 readers!

The Basics:

The teacher: 

Dr. Ben John Wiebracht, English teacher at Stanford Online High School, a private high school under the umbrella of Stanford University.

The class:

The class chose a senior-level elective called “Love Stories” which tracked the evolution of love stories from the classical era to the early nineteenth century. The final unit was on Northanger Abbey. (Virtual book, Little, Brown, and Company, 1903, Internet Archive). 

The students:

The article was researched, written, and designed by LiYuan Byrne, Josephine Chan, Ariana Desai, Carolyn Engargiola, Ava Giles, Macy Levin, Gage Miles, Sophia Romagnoli, Kate Snyder, Oscar Steinhardt, Lauren Stoneman, Alexandria Thomas, and Varsha Venkatram.

Image of the Adumbration class of 13 students and teacher Ben John Wiebracht.

The class and teacher.

The Article and its Inspiration (The What):

  1.  “A Day in Catherine Morland’s Bath.” (Posted January 4, 2021 in Jane Austen’s World.) As the title suggests, the goal of the article is to give the reader a sense of how Catherine Morland, heroine of Northanger Abbey, and tourists like her would have spent their time when they visited the city.
  2. The article was based on a long-forgotten Georgian poem that Dr. Wiebracht dug out of the archives over the summer: “Bath: An Adumbration in Rhyme” (1795), by the physician and poet John Matthews. 
    1. “The poem has a wealth of information on the amusements and absurdities of Bath, but it’s tough sledding for a modern reader, chock-full as it is of now-obscure allusions to Bath customs and institutions. Our job was to track them down.”
    2. “A fun example: Matthews mentions at one point a “priest” by the name of “King.” Eh? It turns out he’s referring to a fellow named James King, who wasn’t a priest at all but one of the city’s two “Masters of Ceremonies” – responsible for “presiding over social functions, welcoming newcomers, and enforcing an official code of regulations designed to preserve decorum and promote social interaction” (Gores, Psychosocial Spaces: Verbal and Visual Readings of British Culture, 1750-1820, p. 71). Matthews calls him a priest to poke fun at the city’s almost religious devotion to entertainment. And this same King plays a brief but important role in Northanger Abbey: he introduces Catherine and Henry. All of which is to say, paying close attention to Matthews can often lead to a fuller appreciation of Austen.”

Note from the Teacher: Searching for a Unique Contribution (The Why):

“The previous sentence begins to answer this question: we wanted to make a serious contribution to the study of Northanger Abbey

But let me speak as a teacher now, and not just a scholar. Over the years, I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with the standard way of teaching writing and research at the high-school level: the five-page essay. A thesis statement establishing the argument, some body paragraphs elaborating or demonstrating the argument, plenty of quotations and analysis – chances are you’ve written a couple in your day! In defense of the form, it does offer a space in which students can practice rhetorical and argumentative skills. My problem with the form is that it has no authentic audience, and the kids know it. Now I might pretend it has an audience by telling them, “imagine you’re writing for someone who is familiar with the text, but hasn’t studied it in depth.” Yeah right! In the history of the world, no one has ever thought: “I’m mildly interested in Northanger Abbey; now let me go find some five-page close-readings of it, but only ones with clear thesis statements and at least two quotes per paragraph.” Nope, the only audience for these essays is the teacher, and the teacher is bringing a very different attitude to the piece and making a very different set of judgments about it than the hypothetical “curious reader.” So the poor students have to pretend to be addressing one audience that for them does not exist, in order to please a very different audience. A recipe for stress – not to mention strained and awkward writing.

What if we changed the equation? What if there were ways to really give students an audience for their academic writing? If we could pull it off, I think it would send the message that the work we ask of students is meaningful and important – that the study of literature itself is important. That’s what the football coaches do, after all (the arch-rivals of us English teachers). How do they convince the kids that running into each other at high speeds is a meaningful, important endeavor? They stick them in a stadium where a bunch of people watch them do it, and it becomes immediately, empirically obvious to the students that football matters. In short, they give the kids an audience.

These were the considerations that prompted me to devise the Matthews project and to reach out to Vic about potentially publishing it on JAW – a forum with a thriving conversation about Austen. And this leads to the practical section of this page.”

Working with Your Students (The How):

If you’re interested in running a project like this with your kids, here are some tips to make it work.

  1. Canon-adjacent may be better than canon. What does that mean? It means that if you’re teaching Pride and Prejudice, it’s going to be tough for your students to break new ground simply by scrutinizing that text. But, if you can find some neglected texts whose study might shed light on Pride and Prejudice, then the picture changes. What about some of her juvenilia? What about Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women, which found an appreciative reader in Mr. Collins? What about some Georgian satire making fun of pompous clergymen? This is something to do over the summer, when you’re planning the class, and it might take some digging: the text has to be obscure enough that it isn’t already saturated with criticism, but relevant enough to your main text that there are readers out there who might care about it. “Bath: An Adumbration in Rhyme” fit the bill: almost untouched by scholarship, but with clear connections to Northanger Abbey.
  2. Line up your venue in advance. This is key: you want the kids to know who their audience is from the beginning. Are you going to create an exhibit for a local public library? Will you try to get something published on a blog? Will you self-publish the students’ work on Amazon or some such service? Whatever the case, the students, like all writers, will do better work if they have a clear idea of whom they are addressing, and in what form. 
  3. Make sure students’ research tasks are well-defined. In our case, that meant combing through the poem, asking questions about various lines. Who are Tyson and King? What is a “macaroni”? Then students volunteered to tackle a certain number of research questions in groups. As a teacher, one of your roles is to be the executive planner, making sure there is the right number of students working on the right things.
  4. Offer continuous feedback. My students turned up all kinds of fascinating stuff in the course of their research, but of course they embarked on some rabbit trails as well. In order to help them make the most of their efforts, it’s a good idea to keep track of what students are doing while they’re doing it, rather than waiting to assess their work at the end. How can you do this? By creating a single google doc to which everybody contributes. Ours had a list of research questions, and I would simply check in every few days to see what students had added. Then I would leave comments offering encouragement, advice, and, if necessary, redirection. 
  5. Dive in yourself. Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and do a bit of writing and research of your own. Remember that your students are still learning the ropes of our discipline. If you want to produce a publishable class project, you’ll probably have to do more than simply split up duties and set deadlines. You’ll have to integrate and harmonize the students’ efforts, and fill in some of the gaps yourself. It can change the classroom dynamic in a refreshing way, too, to join in the action. It’s a bit like the old master-apprentice relationship, according to which teaching is a matter of showing, doing, and collaborating, not just telling or advising.
  6. Don’t grade. Or, if you must, do it on completion alone. A grade is what you give to practice scholarship, to performative scholarship – the five-page essay and other such readerless forms. The point of the project I’m describing is to allow students to do some real work. And a particularly good way to make it real is to remove yourself, the teacher, as the audience. For the purpose of this project, you’re the opposite of an audience, you’re a co-author, and the real audience is what all good writing deserves: an interested public.

Sub pages:

Link to “Bath: An Adumbration in Rhyme, 1795,” John Matthews

Plans for Going Forward: 

Our class ended last December, but currently about half the students and I are working on a new project: a scholarly edition of “Bath: An Adumbration in Rhyme,” complete with an introduction and notes. We’ll be publishing it with Kindle Direct, an Amazon service. Digital copies of the edition will be available to the public at no cost, and hardcopies for under ten dollars.

In the long term, I hope to start a book series to which successive classes can contribute. It might be called something like “Forgotten Contemporaries of Jane Austen.” The goal of the series would be to recover Georgian and Regency writers whose work has fallen out of print, but whose study can shed fresh light on Austen’s life and work. As with the Matthews project, the students and I would work together to introduce and annotate these texts. We would also share the nitty-gritty tasks of publication — obtaining an ISBN, formatting, that sort of thing.

Jane Austen’s World’s Participation in the Project and Two Powerpoint Presentations: Tony Grant and Victoire Sanborn

About the PowerPoints:  

For a visit to Bath and a visual background, Dr. Wiebracht scheduled two workshops, one for Tony Grant, who lives in England and has served as a tour guide to visitors interested in learning more about the places where Jane Austen lived or visited. His PowerPoint and talk were given first, and should be viewed first for those who are interested.

Vic Sanborn’s presentation came the following month. She, too, had visited Bath and used a few of her own photographs, but mostly she concentrated on discussing the years of 1795-98, when Matthews wrote the Adumbration and when Thomas Rowlandson created his illustrations for “The Comforts of Bath.” Tony’s PowerPoint sets up Vic’s perfectly, for her notes are not in the PPT slides. Enjoy!

  • Link to Tony Grant’s PowerPoint Presentation on a Virtual Tour of Bath, given October 2020. This PPT, consisting of Tony’s photographs of his trips to Bath as both a visitor and a guide, comes with descriptions and annotations. If you use his photographs, please give him attribution.
  • Link to Vic Sanborn’s PowerPoint Presentation of Bath 1795, the year the Adumbration was written. The PPT is without explanatory text or the presenter’s voice. A majority of the images are from Thomas Rowlandson’s Prints of “The Comforts of Bath” from 1798. The images, on Wikipedia and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are in the public domain. If Vic Sanborn’s photos are used, please give her attribution. 

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