Whitman and Dickinson
Summer 2018

Dr. Mara Scanlon
Combs 335
540.654.1544 (office)

Scheduled virtual office hours via Conferences on Canvas

Course Description

This five-week summer course is administered online and also makes use of two online “texts,” the Walt Whitman Archive and the Emily Dickinson Archive.  Because these digital archives maintain materials that might otherwise be inaccessible to us, such as facsimiles of the many editions of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and of Dickinson’s manuscripts, they essentially preserve not only the contents or words of these writings but, in effect, their materiality and presence as historical artifacts. In this way, they also open an unparalleled opportunity for primary research.

Whitman and Dickinson are frequently cast in opposition to one another: he, the master of the long line—arrogant, sexual, political, radical, self-promoting, with masculine epic reach; she, the scribbler of diminutive lyrics— reclusive, proper, death-obsessed, religious, publication-adverse, with feminine focus on flowers and birds. Such literary-biographical portraits are not without some truth or purpose, but nuanced readings of these canonical American poets suggest that the binary is neither stable nor truly representative. In fact, both poets are stylistically experimental; both answered Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for an authentic American poet; both engage intellectually and creatively with questions about the 19th-century nation, the body and soul, religion, history, gender, sexuality, friendship, and nature. Together they profoundly innovated American poetry and shaped the American voice in ways that extend to the present day.

This course is an upper-level literature course for the English major.  Specific learning outcomes for the major that will be addressed are:

  • Literary history, including an understanding of historical context and its impact on literary periods;
  • Literatures in English, including literatures in translation;
  • The major genres of literature;
  • How issues of culture, race, gender, class, and historical period influence the development and interpretation of literary works.

Additionally, it aims to develop your ability to:

  • Adapt writing to a variety of purposes, contexts, and audiences;
  • Apply literary methods as a means for analyzing oral and written discourse.

My more specific learning objectives are that you:

  • Gain familiarity and confidence with two writers seen as among the most important in American literary history, including their representation of issues such as the nation, the body and soul, religion, history, gender, sexuality, friendship, and nature;
  • Gain an understanding of the genre of poetry, including the vocabulary and formal qualities of the genre as well as the specific innovations of Whitman and Dickinson;
  • Improve your ability to explicate and analyze poetry and to represent poetic analysis in writing, both formal and informal;
  • Experience primary research;
  • Gain exposure to contemporary work in Digital Humanities through a focus on the digital archives for Whitman and Dickinson;
  • Increase comfort with various digital tools.

Course Organization

  • If you did not already follow the directions on your “Getting Started” email, pause here and do it.

This blog is essentially “home base” for us. You will need to check it very regularly for announcements, directions, and new work.  As described below, the blog will host both graded assignments and more fluid participation—in both cases, it is designed to foster intellectual community, so that your progress through the course is not a private transaction with me nor an isolated learning experience.  I DO expect you to read everything on the blog and be consistently active on it.  We may see each other only virtually, but we are no less a collaborative team for that.

Additionally, Canvas will help administer and organize the course.  Your graded materials will be submitted there (whether as documents or links) and my assessments will also be shared with you in Canvas.  Course work will be organized by modules according to deadlines, with clear steps set out for completing work within each block of time.

Course Requirements

You don’t have to see me in a classroom for several hours every day as you might in a summer class that met physically.  But that doesn’t mean your effort in the course shouldn’t be steady and intense. An online course requires a great deal of discipline and a commitment as well to master the technologies that will make learning and collaboration seamless, productive, and fun (?).

Except in our shortened final week, the coursework will be clustered into two blocks per week: Monday-Wednesday and Thursday-Sunday.  Assigned work in each block may be completed at any time during those days, with an understanding that midnight marks the turn from one day to the next. 

I do not abide slackers.



This course has a constant and occasionally demanding reading load, both in the primary literary texts and secondary readings such as critical essays on the poets.  Do it.

Reading Quizzes (5 at 3 pts each = 15 pts.)

Each week there will be a quiz on Canvas for you to complete after you have finished the week’s reading. These quizzes test completion and comprehension.

Short Essays (3 @ 10 pts. each = 30 pts.)

You will complete three short papers this term, one each on Whitman and Dickinson and one that deals comparatively with the two. I will provide several prompts for the essay assignments. Essays will be assessed for the depth and sophistication of your thinking as well as for the grace, clarity, and correctness of your prose.  The shorter format demands that you skip the fluff and use the space you have to develop your ideas richly, whenever possible sticking closely to the literary texts rather than floating into vague generalizations. Essays will be about 750-900 words apiece.

  • You can see the assessment rubric for essays in Canvas and should consult it for guidance before you complete your assignments.


In an online class, it can be more difficult to build a dialogic community than when we sit together in a room several times a week.  There are three ways that we will build virtual “rooms” together over the next few weeks, all of which are designed to encourage intellectual exchange.

1. Conversation Starter (10 points)

Each student will sign up for one day for which they must post to the blog a piece of about 400 words whose main purpose is to prompt blog discussion by posing some questions, raising thought-provoking implications of our readings, articulating underdeveloped ideas that have been emerging on the blog or VoiceThread, etc. Your goal is NOT to present your own mini-essay and then ask “so what do you think?” It’s to find ways to open up rich veins of dialogue. Responses to these posts count as freeblogging!

  • Label this post as follows: “[Your Name]’s Conversation Starter” (e.g., “Lavinia’s Conversation Starter”).
  • You must also submit your assignment in Canvas after it is published:

1) Click on the title of the post you are responding to AFTER you have published your comment.

2) Copy the url.

3) Drop the url in Canvas in the appropriate place for your comment submissions.

  • Conversation Starter posts are due by midnight on the day for which you are assigned.

2.  Freeblogging (15 pts.)

This category covers all posting on the course blog that is not explicitly assigned; like a classroom, the blog should function as a place to develop critical analysis, to introduce new topics of interest, to supplement our knowledge with outside materials, links, or information, to respond personally to the literature we read, and more.  Blogging should be a record of your active, sophisticated response to our assignments AND to your classmates. Thoughtful comments on the posts of others, whether the Conversation Starters or other posts, are as valuable than new posts because they promote rich dialogue.  The open blog gives you the opportunity to take initiative in your learning (and your course grade) and to engage on your own terms with the course material, and it encourages a model of learning that is collaborative and fluid.  Despite its chronological logic of posting, we should see the blog as a way to transcend the linear march of the course schedule, since it provides the opportunity to return to issues or works, to compare works and ideas across the five weeks, and so on.

3. VoiceThread Commentary (15 pts.)

We will use one other major digital tool for more focused discussion of the poetic texts, and that is VoiceThread.  Each week I will mount artifacts related to Whitman or Dickinson using this technology and will provide some commentary or questions there to start discussion.  (You will be assigned to a discussion group for VoiceThread since our large numbers will otherwise hamper this; these groups are posted on a blog page.) Together we will do a close reading, explication, or analysis of the focal texts. VoiceThread allows you to add comments to an ongoing flow using text, audio, or video.  Everyone must participate; some weeks you may have a lot more to say than others, but you should never be absent from the discussion.  And remember that it is a discussion with give-and-take possible, not an opportunity for any one person to showcase a remarkable monologue that drowns out others.

NOTE: Freeblogging and the VoiceThread analyses will be assessed somewhat holistically for the term, taking into account your ongoing and active engagement in these fora and the quality of your input.

Final Project: Provocative Co-Reading (15 pts.)

This is an opportunity for you to plumb the archives yourself. Your goal is to choose one poetic artifact written by Whitman (or part of one if you are using a long work) and one by Dickinson that seem to you to have the possibility for productive comparison. (You want to think richly here, well beyond “they both mention dirt.”) Your chosen texts may be something that was included in my assigned readings but should not be something that we have analyzed with any depth during the term on VT or otherwise.  Using VoiceThread to mount your artifacts into one thread, give me a really brilliant comparative explication of them, using whatever method of commentary (textual, audio, and/or video) is most comfortable and productive for you.  Your final project should:

1) analyze the individual artifacts through careful explication of textual evidence (yes, it MAY include formal analysis if you want to win my undying affection);

2) explicitly consider whether or not, and in what way, the chosen texts are indicative of the poets’ oeuvres as you have come to understand them;

3) enact a rich comparative reading of the texts that exceeds a surface description of their likenesses and differences: what do we learn by looking at the texts together that we might not do by considering them separately?

General reminders and policies

  • In a course this short, it is essential that you do not get behind. If a problem arises that requires an extension (note: a problem is not a vacation; you are enrolled in school), let me know immediately and I will be happy to work with you on a reasonable solution.
  • A note on academic misconduct: Plagiarism, like all cheating, is a serious offense. It means presenting another person’s work as your own–whether that person is a friend, writing center or speaking center tutor, professional, or published author.  Copying passages or paraphrasing ideas belonging to another person without acknowledging the source of those ideas is plagiarism.  You can avoid this offense if you simply cite and reference the source you use, if any.  I am quite willing to help you understand strategies for quotation and citation but I am not willing to be lenient on plagiarism, so please consult with me if you need to.  I expect that you will adhere at all times to the Honor code of the University of Mary Washington


Support Services

Accommodations/Disability Resources:

The Office of Disability Resources (ODR) has been designated by the University as the primary office to guide, counsel, and assist students with disabilities. If you receive services through the Office of Disability Services and require accommodations for this class, please contact me as soon as possible to discuss your approved accommodation needs, which we can do over the phone or a video conference. I will hold any information you share with me in strictest confidence unless you give me permission to do otherwise. If you have not made contact with the Office of Disability Resources and have reasonable accommodation needs, I will be happy to help you contact them. The office will require appropriate documentation of a disability.


UMW Writing Center

The UMW Writing Center offers assistance on all types of writing projects. If you are an online or commuter student, you can schedule online or face-to-face appointments. Please ensure you are choosing the appropriate appointment type and date.


UMW Libraries

UMW Libraries have both a physical and online presence, and librarians are available to assist you via phone, email, chat message, or face-to-face.

UMW Libraries offers online databases, research guides, and e-books that are accessible off-campus by using your network ID and password.   An online interlibrary loan service is also available so that students can request articles and books not available in the collections of UMW Libraries


Digital Knowledge Center (DKC) and Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT)
DKC and DTLT will be providing open support for class technologies, including the option of virtual assistance.  You can request help by filling out the form here: