Sample Electronic Discussion Questions and Replies

This series of examples from the replies to e-mail discussion questions illustrates the difficulties and possibilities that e-mail offers for stimulating interaction outside of (and especially prior to) class meetings and for encouraging students to connect contextual information with the literature they are reading. In the first example, the two student responses combine relatively informal tone with thoughtful effort to link text with context. The second example shows a similar combination, but note the first student's explicitly expressed sense that there is little direct connection between the contextual material and the poems. The third example, in which students respond to questions about a text, without reference to contextual material, is typical of the more formal, self-contained, and intellectually restrained student postings that dominated the discussion list. Without the contextual prompt, students were less willing to explore possibilities, sounding more as if they were seeking the "right answer." The fourth, fifth, and sixth examples show the students involved in progressively more engaged discussion, responding to each other rather than to me, eventually talking back and forth and taking the issues out of the literature and applying them to the world around them. Such examples, however, were rare.

1. This example asked students to integrate material from The In Memoriam Web into their reading of Tennyson's "Locksley Hall."

Question: Go into The In Memoriam Web. Double-click inside the "Political and Social Context" writing space to expose the other writing spaces inside it. Then double-click inside the "British Empire" writing space to expose the writing spaces within it. Read the text space associated with "British Empire." Does the speaker of "Locksley Hall" exhibit any of the attitudes towards the Orient described in this text space, even though the poem was written in the early years of active British expansionism around the world?

Response: The speaker of the "Locksley Hall" is trying to define his place in the world which he despises. From what I understood, he is somewhere, far away from his country and origins. His father died in a "Maharatta battle" and he was raised by his"selfish" uncle. All his life , however, he was raised not in the country of his origins but somwhere else. This had a big influence on the way he perceives the world aroun him. He is in one of the countries within the growing British Empire. He does not have any particular religion but worships and refers to MOther Age. HIs attitude toward Orient is definietly not the one that was justifing the expension okf the Britihs Empire and aqusition of new teritories. He does talk about the "savage woman" and a "barbarian child" being "lower than the Christian child" (l.174). But this "barberic" civilization seems to be a sort of escape for him from the world where "every door is barr'd with gold, and opens but to golden keys." (100).

Response: When I read the poem for the first time I thought that the husband he is reffering to in the beging of the poem is the husband of his beloved cousin with whom he was in some sort of dangerous, immoral engagement. I thought that the husband is one of those barberic people with money, and power, and that she married him to satisfy the social convention. THe speaker, realizing that is getting angry at the "social wants" and "social lies." Implicitly he is expressing his attitude about British imerialism as being harmful for the individual. THe more the world (britain" wants the more it affects the individual human being, "individual withers, and the world is more and more." (142). He wants to escape from this crazzsaines of aqusition to the world of nature, unqunqured by the greedy indivdual. He wants to find the place where "never floats an European flag" somwhere where he can find "summer isles of Eden". But all that is just a dream, because his culture tells him that it is not O'k to marry a "savage woman" and be less civilized than the better, European world. He does not know what to do, pretty soon he will not be able to find the place where he can escape, because "distance beacons" and world is changing "down ", meaning all it is going to be left is in a scoop of want.

2. This example asked students to integrate material from The In Memoriam Web into their readings of Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" and "Andrea del Sarto."

Question: Go into The In Memoriam Web. Double-click inside the "Victorianism" writing space to expose the other writing spaces inside it. Read the text spaces associated with "Queen Victoria," "Victorianism," "Description of Victorianism," "Reality of Victorianism," "Tennyson and Victorianism." How do you think having a monarch who was a young woman and who married and started having babies very early in her reign, might have affected the depiction of women in English poetry during the 1830s and 40s--for example in a "Locksley Hall" or "Andrea del Sarto" or "My Last Duchess"?

Response: I thought that the Web texts were not very helpful in helping me decide how Victoria herself as a young, married, child-having queen influenced the poems at hand. One might assume that Victoria was viewed as a "strong woman," but the "strong" seems hardly the description of Browning's silent women -- who are talked about by others, but never given their own voices. They are objects: the objects of talk, of art (which is an object itself), and finally the objects of poetry. Perhaps it is the reverse of "Lady of Shalott" and society is peering at the reflection of the young woman while she turns her head away... while the male artists (both Andrea and Browning) define her for the world. Like Victoria, these women are romanticized figureheads.

Response: England having a young female monarch who had children early in her reign greatly affected the depiction of women in English poetry by strongly enforcing their "proper place in life." In both "My Last Duchess" and "Andrea del Sarto" the women played passive, quiet roles. The woman portrayed in "My Last Duchess" was one who had a heart "-too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed." (ll. 22-23). All she did was smile at anything that pleased her, all holding the same value. In "Andrea del Sarto" Lucrezia played the role of being Andrea's inspiration and motivation. She was his model in his paintings. Both these women did nothing independent for themselves. Queen Victoria although a monarch, seemed to enforce this, however unconscious, by marrying young and having children. By doing so, she enforced the sentiments that a woman can never abandon her "duty" toward being a wife and mother even if she strives towards power and independence.

Response: I think that a monarch such as Queen Victoria had a large influence on what was written and how women were portrayed during that time period (1830-40). In "My Last Duchess" it is apparent because of the way that the woman was talked about by her husband. He has no sense of remorse for her looking at her picture on the wall, explaining it to whomever sees it. Her husband refers to her having some sort of other pleasure other than his in lines 13-15: "Sir, twas not/Her husband's presence only, called that spot/Of joy into the Duchess' cheek..." Also when he refers to her heart that is "too soon made glad,/Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er/ She looked on, and her looks wen everywhere." (ln 22-24) He talks about her as if she deserved to die and now his shrine to her is on display. I don't think women at that time were seen as anything but property, as depicted in "My Last Duchess."

3. These responses to questions about Matthew Arnold's "The Function of Criticism" are typical of the fairly formal, self-contained replies of most student postings.

Question: What, according to Arnold, are the characteristics of criticism? What IS the "function of criticism at the present time"?

Response: I think Arnold gives a well-rounded answer to the question, "What IS the function of criticism at the present time?" On p. 430 and the end of the page, Arnold begins the paragraph with: "It is because criticism has so little kept in the pure intellectual sphere, has so little detached itself from practice, has been so directly polemical and controversial, that it has so ill accomplished, in this country, its best spiritual work; which is to keep man from a self-satisfaction which is retarding and vulgarising, to lead him towards perfection, by making his mind dwell upon what is excellent in itself, and the absolute beauty and fitness of things." When I read this, I felt like he answered the question. He addresses for what purposes criticism is intended, and how it should affect the author.

Response: According to Arnold, the characteristics of criticism are two main things. First, criticism must "see the object as in itself [what] it really is." The true essence of the object must first be determined in order for proper (true) criticism to be rendered. Secondly, criticism must "make the best ideas prevail." In other words, here, criticism must serve the purpose of stimulating great thought and make the artist strive for his/her best. To Arnold, the current force behind criticism was monetary. The critics were not aiming to stimulate thought or ideas, rather their concerns were with making money.

Question: What does Arnold mean by "culture"? How do criticism and culture provide a solution to the sense of alienation and lack of purpose described in Arnold's poetry?

Response: I had a hard time finding Arnold's answer to culture. I did, however, find on page 434 something that might shed some light on what he meant: "So immersed are they in practical life, so accustomed to take all their notions from this life and its processes, that they are apt to think that truth and culture themselves can be reached by the processes of this life, and that it is an impertinent singularity to think of reaching them in any other." I think that criticism and culture provide a solution to Arnold's alientation in his poetry by the fact that Arnold believes that criticism is good and that is apparent in his poetry, will all of its solemnity about the world at the present time. I thought it was a bit amusing when he spoke about Wordsworth and how great he was yet to think that he might be a different writer if someone had critiqued his work.

Response: Arnold's meaning of culture is abstract and encompassing. By "culture," Arnold means the study of perfection. By studying culture, societal ills may be noticed and corrected. Viewed in this sense, criticism and culture may fix the sense of alienation by helping those who are in need (such as the poor and the like) within society.

4. This series of responses to a question about J.S. Mill's "On Liberty" shows students referring to, but not fully engaging with, other students' postings.

Question: Mill says that human nature is not a machine but a tree (275). We have seen, in both Carlyle and Tennyson, the association of utilitarianism and laissez-faire economics with machines (esp the steam engine) as a criticism of the increasing mechanization of human life in Victorian society--as a signal of the lack of attention to spiritual, non-material aspects of life. What is Mill up to, rhetorically speaking, in relying on the organic metaphor of the tree? How does this fit into his larger point about Custom?

Response (Judy): Mill argues that preserving individuality is the most important aspect of development. The development relays on the "different opinions" and "different experiences of living." (273). Human being should be like a tree "which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing." He relays on this metaphor in order to prove his point that human just like a tree requires different sort of nourishment in order to grow and develop. The tree, in order to grow must undergo various processes of nature, cannot have just one set of ingridients, it needs complex of reactions to be a healthy species. Humans connot be like machines "to be built after the model"because when the human kind lacks variety it undergoes stagnation and is supcetable to death. (variety is a must to produce a better being. MIxing perfections with imperfections--the first can overcome the second and create smth. good, 285). He gives examples of nations that when they ceased to care about the individual,(eccentric individual, good or bad)they became the subject to regress. THe tree metaphor shows that the human kind needs variety of situation and variety of circumstances in order to grow and develop. In that sense the growth of an individual cannot be supressed by anything, just like the growth of a healthy tree cannot relay on just one factor. J.S.Milll talks a lot about the role of customs in the development of an individual. That is related to his believe that humans should relay on the experiences of others, and that sticking to the traditional customs is o'k, as long as an individual is able to make a choice. But there is a danger is asscenting to the customs, he gives 3 reasons for that: first, interpretation may not be right, second, cusoms are customary, and are made for a customary person, what if a person is not a customary?? Then, there is a danger is supressing the real peronality of an individual. THird, danger in ascenting to customs just for sake of doing it because others do it too. (275) If the person looks up to customs without using the reason, there is a danger in loosing this reason, just like there is a danger in loosing the power of muscles if they are not exercised. So the person cannot be deprived from customs because, when they are used within reason , they can be an important nourishment to the human development. Customs are based on different experiences and situations, therefore, they are neccesary just like the different nutrients are necesarry to the development of a tree.

Response (Colleen): Mill is opposed to the "despotism" (284) of custom & his reliance on the organic metaphor of the tree disassociates the individual from the more mechanized aspects of custom and places him/her in an environment more condusive to change. Just as different plants need different conditions to grow properly, Mill notes that each individual requires unique conditions for their "spiritual development" (282). Mill supports eccentricities, spontaneity and variety in individuals as well as in society. Individuality must be developed, not "clipped" or "cut" like trees (278). If uniformity is considered contrary to nature, then the metaphor of the tree serves as a symbol of natural, innate intelligence, something which must be cultivated by the individual and acknowledged and valued by society at large.

Response (Kathy): I think the tree is an act of nature and that no matter how much industry tries to alter the environment, each tree has different NEEDS. this is what a mechanic world is lacking. Give everyone the same thing and they will be satisfied, well not really. Colleen stated that ea.tree needed different conditions to grow as do humans, I agree. ker metaphor of clipping individuality hits it on the nose I think. Another idea could be that each tree may look similar but when looked at carefully they are totally different...

Colleen I think your answer is great---Mill wants to preserve individuality like Judy said in her answer."Indiv. cannot be supressed by anything", good observation I did not see that until you mentioned it.

5. This set of replies to a question about Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," "The Buried Life," and "To Marguerite--Continued" shows a student responding to a classmate's observation more fully, although even this sort of limited exchange was rare.

Question: Arnold makes frequent use in these poems of the imagery of the sea, tides, islands, etc. What does he use it to illustrate?

Response (Claudia): I think Arnold uses the imagery of natural substances to illustrate the relationship between two lovers, most likely the speaker and lover in his individual poems. What I mean is, for example, in Dover Beach," Arnold opens the poem with imagery of the sea, the tide, and the moon. I think that these images are his way of expressing the love relationship between two people. I think that this stands out in lines 9-14 in "DB": Listen! you hear the grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, / At their return, up the high strand, / Begin, and cease, and then again begin, / With tremulous cadence slow, and bring / The eternal note of sadness in." To me, this sounds like Arnold is illustrating two people talking, perhaps a man and his lover, where one speaks then the other returns with something said. After I read these lines a couple of times, I thought that maybe they represented an argument between these two people. In Arnold's other poems, I think he uses the imagery to illustrate Man's natural feelings, through Nature's expressions, i.e. sea, moon, island, etc. These are expressions of Nature, in different forms just like Man has many different emotions pertaining to a lover. I don't know if any of that makes sense, it's just the first thing that came to mind after reading the poems through.

Response (Monica): Claudia suggested that in "Dover Beach," Arnold "uses imagery of natural substances to illustrate the relationship between two lovers." She gave the example of the discriptive passage near the poem's beginning with the sea rolling in and out, bringing with it a "note of sadness." I think her assertion can be further supported by lines 15-18: "Sophocles long ago/Heard it on the AEgaean, and it brought/Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow/Of human misery:...". The words "human misery," almost assure me that this imagery has something to do with the lovers' relationship. However, I don't know if I would agree that the lover's are arguing. Although this may be true, I think what's going on between the lovers is more of an affair than an argument. After all, the speaker does end by asking his lover to "be true."

6. This set of responses to another question on Mill's "On Liberty" represents a very rare occasion when the students replied to each other in such a way that the on-line discussion took on a life of its own.

Question: Mill says liberty should not be limited so long as it does not infringe on the liberty of others. How would Mill view modern laws and university speech codes dealing with hate speech? Would he consider the use of such language or the expression of such views as forms of protected thought and discussion, or as forms of "nuisance" and "molestation" (273) sufficient to justify restriction?

Response (Judy): I put off this question for one reason: it may sound funny, but I don't really know what is a hate speech, I am not sure if I ever have seen one. As far as university speeches are concerned and codes that deal with them, what I have in mind is the use of pronauns that would discriminate the gender, etc. What I will have in mind while establishing Mill's point of view will be concerned with speeches that deal with for instance offensive terms and vocabulary or with discriminating somebody's elses point of view. I think that Mill's point of view on it would be that the speeches I have in mind are o'k, because even though they may be offensive for someone else, we don't really know now if they reveal the truth or not. Menkind is prone to error, and what now may seem wrong, two hundred years from now it may seem right. He says that a person should refrain himself from molesting "others in what concern them", but he also says that he "should practice on his own cost". (273). Does it mean that a person may be malicious and nuisancious to others as long as he is responsible for it?? I don't know. I might have misinterpreted it, I know he does not exactly say that being malicious is o'k, but he does say that people are not "infallible, " etc. At some point he gives an example of Socrates who was sentenced to death for being immoral. Well, today we may think it was stupid, but back then, those issues could have been looked at differenty. THke perception of morality, the perception of right and wrong changes along with time and circumstances. I think that from those two essays I can conlude that Mill would give us o'k for anything.

Response (Rebecca): I personally think that Mill would have a problem with HATE speeches only because they infringe on others rights. Using such language is not expressionistic it is ignorant. Anyone who must defend their rights by defaming someones character or cultural vies is intellectually challenged, to be politically correct. mill I believe made that proviso that as long as it does not infringe on others because f situations similar to this. his idea was to give everyone and opinion because differing opinions can bring about solutions. The devils advocate can make someone with strong beliefs see the other sides views. in Judy's reply she states that "I can conclude that Mill would give us ok for everything." Well I would disagree only because everything is a rather large and uncomplicated word and in the 20th c. everthing is complicated. Mill would probably say free speech etc as long as it does not impede others to have their rights also. Food for thought let me know....

Response (Sandra): Did anyone hear about the thing that happened over the weekend with John DuPont, that rich guy who shot the Olympic Wrestler and then barricaded himself in his house while police surrounded him? Well, somebody said something in their reply about Mill's supporting eccentricity. A lot of people thought that DuPont was an "eccentric." I was just thinking about how this idea would tie in with Mill's advocacy of individuality and wondering if he ever considered these types of incidents. Granted, it is a rare exception that somebody would do these kinds of things that DuPont did. However, I know from listening to the news that people didn't think anything about DuPont's weird behaviors (he got rid of all the treadmills in his house because he thought the clocks were sending him back in time and shot the geese on his pond because he thought they were casting spells on him) and just excused him as an "eccentric." So, I guess my question is, what are some of the possible negative effects that this strict adherence to individualism can cause? I understand that Mill would not condone the infringement on rights of others (such as killing them) but does he condone the types of things that lead to such behavior? I guess it's kind of like the question about hate speeches.

Personally, I think that he would be morally opposed to the views expressed by those giving these speeches, but I think he would support the idea that all views should be heard, or at least given the chance to be heard. However, I can't say I know what he would say if someone pointed out to him that these types of things (hate speeches, excusing someone's behavior because they are just "eccentric) lead to harmful consequences, for example lynch mobs and things like that. He does talk about the corn dealer at the start of the essay, and says it is wrong for people to go to his house, but how does he suggest that that not happen? What solutions does he give to the instigations that in some cases leads to rash actions? Well, I don't know and I don't really expect anyone else to either, because Mill is dead and so even if we could ask him we could never really know what he would say so obviously that is not what I am asking. But, I was just thinking about that.