May 5, 2022
Invited to teach his department’s “Introduction to Literature and Cultures of the Romance World” (RMST 202), Jon Beasley-Murray took a characteristically unconventional approach. His Spring 2022 offering questioned not only the scope of Romance Studies, but also the way it should be taught. The course raised questions of disciplinarity and method while also experimenting with open, decentralized, and student-centered practices like open-access content, flexible pathways, and contract grading. The experiment proved immensely successful. Final survey results showed that the majority of students preferred contract grading and felt that they had produced better work overall.
With his teaching assistants Jennifer Nagtegaal and Patricio Robles, Beasley-Murray co-wrote an article reflecting on the experimental course: “Call Us Romantics: A Study in Open, Flexible, Student-Centered Teaching (Or Why we Taught a Course in which We Gave Almost Half of the Students an A+).”
Since 2004, Beasley-Murray has taught in the Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies, where he regularly seeks out new media for his research and teaching. For years, he has maintained his Posthegemony blog, where he develops ideas associated with his book of the same title. He was an early advocate of using Wikipedia in the classroom (see a 2008 Maclean’s profile) and remains an administrator on that platform.
This year, in the wake of similar experiments for a Latin American Studies course (LAST 100), Beasley-Murray turned to YouTube. He uploaded his lectures as well as conversations with guest speakers, including prestigious Romanian author Norman Manea, to the UBC Romance Studies channel. A timely lecture on Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend has reached over 5,000 views. Each lecture pairs a text with a drink–one of the many small yet meaningful “interfaces,” he suggests, that invite public engagement.
In the following interview with the Public Humanities Hub, Beasley-Murray reflects on what public scholarship means for the university today and its potential for the classroom.
This interview has been lightly edited for length.
What brought you to public scholarship?
I have been interested in “public scholarship” since the very outset of my career. I put quotation marks around “public scholarship” as it seems to me that all scholarship is, or should be, public. What would “private” scholarship even look like?
Perhaps my first move in this direction was when, a few months into my undergraduate degree, I helped found a group called “Degree Zero,” which tried to put pressure on the overly comfortable, very settled, Faculty of English at the (elite but public) university where I was then studying.
Since then, at least since my MA at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, for many years I have looked for the ways in which the Internet, above all, can help break down barriers between the academy and its outside, first through mailing lists (when email first became a thing) and then blogs, Wikipedia, YouTube, and similar sites that have emerged in recent decades.
What does public scholarship mean to you?
Above all, for those of us teaching in public institutions (and even private institutions, heavily subsidized by the state), the onus is on us to justify the university’s place in society. Reflecting on what is public in scholarship means thinking about that relationship between the university and (the rest of) society.
Yet in my lifetime, universities have failed, on a massive scale, to maintain faith with what I see as the idea of the university, which should be a critical institution, part of society but not of it, which has its own logic and rationale. The notion of relative autonomy–both relative and autonomous at the same time–has been sacrificed through submission to the logics of either bureaucracy or the market.
We surrender to the market when we try to sell the university experience as simply a pathway to individual students’ professional development and self-realization, or when our administrators celebrate spin-off companies’ corporate success.
We surrender to bureaucracy, perhaps more perniciously still, when the same administrators-cum-gravediggers demand “impact” and in response we scramble to present ourselves as “experts” who set out to solve social ills or who hubristically claim we can fix society’s problems.
Such condescension only gives succour to the populist rejection of expertise that has been gathering strength worldwide.
Yet the point of a university is not to fix problems, but to reveal them. It is not to provide answers, but to raise questions. It is not to make pronouncements, but to think aloud, in public, and make thinking and thought part of public life. This is surely what “public scholarship” means.
What is your current project and what are its goals?
I would like to talk about a small project, which is ironically an outcome of bureaucratic reason (and at the same time enmeshed in market delusions): a course I have been teaching on “Romance Studies.”
Romance Studies is the study not of love or amorousness, but of “Romance” languages (Spanish, Italian, French, and so on) that are derived from Latin, and by extension of the literature and culture etc. expressed in and through those languages.
Beyond that, however, what Romance Studies may be is rather up for grabs: putting these languages together is usually more a matter of administrative fiat than part of any particularly coherent intellectual project. This, after all, is also the pre-history of my own Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies.
Here at UBC, the Romance Studies program has recently been refurbished and relaunched, mostly as a way to teach literature in translation, but also in line with upcoming new Faculty guidelines on the undergraduate “breadth” requirement, which look set to declare that “creative and interpretative inquiry” only takes place through the medium of English.
So when I was asked to teach a second year course in Romance Studies (RMST 202: “Introduction to Literatures and Cultures of the Romance World II: Modern to Post-Modern”), I took this as the opportunity to see if a rather more interesting endeavour could be carved out of this awkward non-discipline.
The challenge was to come up with a Romance Studies whose rationale would be conceptually (and pedagogically) stimulating, rather than simply a bureaucratic convenience.
The course’s key components are that it should be:
- Open. Everything takes place on the open web, rather than behind a pedagogical paywall such as Canvas. The majority of student writing is then done, for instance, on blogs which they set up and control on sites such as wordpress.com, blogs.ubc.ca, or blogger.com. Students, too, are thinking in public. My lectures, meanwhile, are posted publicly on YouTube, available to anyone and anyone, even though I am in no way an “expert” on many (if any) of the texts covered.
- Flexible. Beyond four core texts, students also choose which books they will read among a number of options most weeks of the semester. In any given week, then, some students are reading and discussing (say) a novel originally written in Catalan; others are reading a novel from Brazil; and still others are sitting out that week altogether.
- Student-centered. We use a “contract grading system,” whereby students choose their grade at the start of the semester, and complete the requisite amount of work accordingly, reading for instance more books (and writing more blog posts, coming to more class sessions) if they have contracted for an “A” than if they have contracted for a “B” or a “C.”
- Study-centered. Rather than imbibing a pre-given canon of knowledge, students are encouraged to take on the challenge of inventing Romance Studies. This is study in the sense of a preliminary exploration, a “study for” a work that is still to come. It is study as creation of concepts and ideas, rather than recapitulation of established verities.
What were some of the challenges presented by this project? How did you overcome them?
The challenges are mainly logistical. For instance, we did not have a room big enough for all the students who wished to sign up (while I kept on lifting the cap to allow more in). In principle, this was no problem, as the point was to be expansive, to go beyond frontiers and barriers. Health and Safety (and Fire Regulations), however, determined as a rather elegant solution that we would never all meet in the same place at the same time and that the composition of the class would change from day to day, week to week.
Contract grading and flexibility also present logistical challenges. Exams are, after all, easy enough to administer (hence their popularity with administrations). Keeping track of many items of small-scale, low-stakes work is more difficult. Fortunately I have two excellent and very enthusiastic Teaching Assistants–Jennifer Nagtegaal and Patricio Robles–who were soon inspired by the idea(s) of the course and helped make it a reality.
What has not been a challenge is the students, who have enthusiastically thrown in their lot with this somewhat unusual set of structures and processes.
What did you learn during this project?
One thing I am not sure we learned is what Romance Studies is…. But I am happy enough about that, as it leaves plenty of study still for the future.
But we have produced an immense archive addressing the questions that a potential Romance Studies might raise, as well as the question of Romance Studies itself. For instance, there are well over a thousand posts on the course website, all fully open and public. There is a YouTube playlist of lectures, as well as a complementary playlist of interviews and conversations with other scholars, within UBC and elsewhere, including a record of the class’s interaction with one of our authors, the grand old man of Romanian literature, Norman Manea.
The collaboration involved is multi-faceted. In the first place it is with the students and the TAs. It is also with colleagues (again, at UBC and elsewhere) who have donated their time and energy to the project–though it is so refreshing to us all to be talking about matters non-administrative! Not least, there is the collaboration with the staff in Arts ISIT and in CTLT, who have always very generously supported projects that go beyond the Canvas mold.
Finally, there is the interface with the public: the views, downloads, and engagements with people who have whatever kind of interest in any aspect of the material we have been covering. In my lectures, I have a drinks pairing for each text discussed: in the case of Louis Aragon’s surrealist masterpiece, Paris Peasant, for example, I suggest a port should be drunk; one YouTube commenter said that though they did “possess a bottle of Dow’s 1991 Vintage (my father passed this past July) [they] drank a glass of Harveys instead.” I responded that I thought Aragon would be OK with that.
What kind of impact do you imagine your project having?
Who knows? Perhaps the least interesting outcome is that it will probably lead to a short book at a university press, plus a couple of articles. What is more tangible is where it takes the students who have been involved in the course: we have tried to reduce the anxiety around literature, but also just thinking in general, that has been instilled in them from high school and is only reinforced by standard university grading systems.
On YouTube some of the videos are taking off–not least, somewhat unpredictably, the one on Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, and I hope to record a conversation with Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein.
But some studies do not necessarily lead to the greater work for which they are the initial projection, and the study becomes the thing itself. That is OK, too, I think.
What are your future plans for the project?
I personally will continue to work on it: I hope to add a few more texts, a few more drinks, a few more conversations. I also have learned plenty that can, I hope, be replicated elsewhere along similar lines. But again, we will see: at best, such things take on a life of their own.
Then, as it happens, such are the workings of administrative reason, I will not be teaching the course next year. Whoever is teaching the course is welcome to take over the project if they wish. But if they do not, the merit of open pedagogy, thinking aloud and in public, is that it leaves a trace beyond the semester and the school year, long after the doors to the classroom have been locked shut.
Dr. Jon Beasley-Murray is an associate professor of Spanish in UBC’s French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies Department. For more information on his work and to get in touch with him, visit his faculty page.