This past semester, I taught a class that I originally envisioned as a “Jane Austen from Book to Film” class. But as I was planning the syllabus, something changed. I realized that just doing filmic Austen adaptations (Bridget Jones, Clueless, and of course, the BBC Pride and Prejudice) felt dated in the era of Instagram and Twitter, even if I did include the YouTube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.
My solution was to branch out into creative projects for the last two and a half weeks of class. This was a second year level class with no pre-requisites. My students included everyone from advanced English majors to sociology, geology, and anthropology majors who had not taken an English class since high school (but who loved Jane Austen). For the first ten weeks of class, we had interactive lectures and group work where we would spend two weeks on one of Austen’s novels (we covered Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility), and one week on adaptations of said novels. For the last novel, Sense and Sensibility, I invited students to create their own adaptations in the groups they had been working in all semester. Then, on the last day of class, we would launch a final ball.
I was a little nervous, but I have to say that the results were fantastic. Social media proved a fruitful arena for students’ re-imaginings of the story of the Dashwood sisters. Sense and Sensibility was transformed into a tabloid and life style online magazine. A wonderfully trashy Lucy Steele took to Twitter to announce her secret engagement to Edward Ferrars, and then to ditch him for his brother Robert. One group reimagined the uppity Fanny Dashwood as a lifestyle blogger in a trendy Calgary neighbourhood. Willoughby and Marianne now meet on Tinder, which Marianne naively thinks might be a great place to meet a guy interested in a serious relationship. Of all the plots in Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby jilting Marianne seemed to resonate the most with my class. One group rewrote Taylor Swift’s “You Belong to Me” from Marianne’s perspective (think “you belong to me, Oh Willoughby…”). I think this project allowed students to think through the affordances of social media for storytelling.
The final ball was completely out of my comfort zone, and also a lot of fun. As it turned out, we had one dance major who had previously written a paper on Regency balls. She was eager to teach us two historically accurate Regency dances, which we performed on the last day of class. After spending a day researching Regency food, dress, and etiquette, students re-imagined Jane Austen for the twenty-first century, bringing food and calling cards to the final ball, and wearing some pretty fantastic costumes while they were at it. In fact, at least two students even sewed their own costumes, which was really impressive. I think this collaborative project gave us a kind of embodied knowledge of Austen’s novels, in addition to being a lot of fun.
You can see a slideshow of our final ball here. Have you tried creative projects in the college classroom? How have they gone?