Professor and Students Team Up to Bring Diverse Voices to British Lit

Professor Winstead meets with her student team to collaborate on her re-imagined textbook.

Professor Karen Winstead's textbook for English 2201 appears highly unusual to those familiar with typical texts surrounding British Literature to 1800. The chosen texts, authored by diverse writers from a time period that valued predominantly white voices, resulted in an inclusive, guided resource for her students. By devoting the ALX grant funding entirely towards student salaries, Professor Winstead utilized the unique insight of both her undergraduate and graduate students throughout the entirety of the editing process. The result was a free, guided textbook with only the most relevant and engaging annotations and study materials.

Why did you decide to apply for an ALX grant?

For a long time, I have been frustrated with the textbook options for English 2201, British Literature to 1800, one of the required survey courses for English majors. My discovery as a teacher has been that when you are teaching literature from long ago, less is more. It has been my policy to have students read short selections of literature but read them very carefully. That means with any particular anthology, I am only teaching a very, very small amount of it.

It occurred to me about a year ago that because a lot of the material I want to teach is in the public domain, I might be able to develop a textbook that has exactly the material that I wanted it to have. That is when I applied for the ALX grant.

Tell us about your ALX project.

I set out to create an anthology that I could use in my survey of British Literature to 1800 (English 2201). I was aiming to make a textbook that reflected my values and my overall understanding of the trajectory of British Literature.

I was aiming to create an anthology that, unlike many of the anthologies on the market, was a textbook for our 21st century, a textbook that valued diversity and inclusion, and did not present pre-1800 British literature as a tribute to the writings of canonical, white men.

I wanted to bring female voices and the voices of people of color into the survey of British literature. I wanted to acknowledge the many poets and authors with disabilities. I wanted to bring an inclusive vision of British literature to our undergraduates. It was an activist project.

The textbook I devised consists of what I call "bundles," each of which includes everything a student will need for that week: literature, contextualizing introductions, video lectures, study questions, mastery checks, etc. Each bundle also includes discussion and writing prompts so that everything is right there in one place. Nothing is extraneous.

I worked to make the bundles as attractive as possible. I wanted them to have cool visuals so that students would want to spend time with them.

What made you want to pursue this project?

I was frustrated with the pre-1800 literature anthologies on the market. None of them included all of the material that I wanted to include, and they all included a lot of material that I wasn’t going to teach.

I was angry at textbook companies that would come out with new editions every couple of years with minor modifications that seemed to serve no purpose other than to keep students from buying used copies and saving money. I was determined to find an alternative.

Then I learned about the ALX grants. I could get the resources to pay a team of graduate student editors to help me assemble and annotate public-domain texts. I could hire a team of undergraduate consultants to help me pitch the material to the needs and interests of Ohio State undergraduates.

How has the input of students helped to shape the new course resources?

Ever since I conceived of producing my own British Literature textbook, I have been talking to students about what they would like to see in it.

A year ago, when I last taught the Survey of British Literature to 1800, I concluded the class not just with the conventional evaluation, but also with a list of all of the works that were assigned over the semester. I told the students that I had gotten this grant to create a textbook and asked them to tell me which of the texts they read should—and shouldn’t—be in it. From their feedback, I built my table of contents.

I used the grant entirely to pay my staff of graduate student editors and undergraduate consultants. One of my editors, Nicholas Hoffman, contributed significant contextualizing material, including a series of witty short videos on topics ranging from Old English riddling to the devil. I was also able to hire Nick to help me with design; the textbook’s attractiveness owes much to his creativity and expertise.

My typical English 2201 student is not going to be particularly interested in British Literature before 1800. Many are going to be taking the survey course because it is required of English majors, and many may dread it. My challenge as an educator (and, quite frankly, a proselyte for early literature), is reaching those students and making this material interesting to them.

After I and my graduate student editorial team had finished a “bundle,” we would pass it onto our four undergraduate experts. They would read through it and would clock how long it took them to read. They would point to particular passages that they thought I needed to explain better. They would tell me if something was too abstruse or if something was going to be hopelessly alien to my students. They would also give me a good sense whether the writing and discussion prompts I’d devised would engage students.

I would encourage anybody who is building a textbook to get undergraduates involved in that process: they are your best resources. There are things I would never have thought of, but my students did. And so much of being able to teach effectively is being able to reach students and connect with them. My undergraduates were the best investment I could have made.

Why should your peers get involved with ALX, and what advice do you have for others thinking about reimagining their textbooks and course materials?

It is a wonderful opportunity, not only to make learning more affordable for students; developing your own textbook allows you to customize it in ways that suit your students and your pedagogy.

You and your textbook can be a team, with the textbook reinforcing your messages so that the students are getting a very focused and channeled educational experience. You can tailor it to the students you know you have.

Another thing about the textbook is that it is a living document. If something doesn't work, I can change it. If I find students aren't getting a concept, I can explain it better and retool sections. It is not fixed in the way that a conventional textbook would be. It is responsive to the students. I dedicated it to my 2201 students past, present and future. They all have a hand in creating it.

This experience was wonderful and enriching. It was a chance to rethink pedagogy. It went far beyond what I initially thought of it doing when I started.

You started on this project before COVID impacted how we learn remotely. How it has impacted the way you teach?

I originally thought I would be teaching in an in-person classroom. But COVID-19 changed all of that. And then I got the idea: why not integrate the lectures in the textbook? Is there any reason I shouldn’t do that?

That is the beauty of this textbook. It not only has all of the readings, study questions, contextualizing materials and the assignments - but it has lectures. So, I tell my students to read a passage and then I have them watch a video lecture. Then I have them read another passage. So, I am able to intercept them and get their attention exactly at the moment I want to intervene.

I think that is an example of what this medium can do. It is a totally different pedagogy. I think that when you combine the lectures, assignments, readings and the videos like this, you get something very different. It is distance learning on another level.

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