Posts Tagged ‘teaching Virginia Woolf’


Hatchard’s on Piccadilly

Have any of you taught a course on Woolf in London? That question from Jane Garrity of the University of Colorado at Boulder prompted a discussion on the VWoolf Listserv that elicited plenty of ideas this week.

What follows is a compilation of some of the suggestions and experiences shared by members of the list.

I also recommend taking a look at In Her Steps on this site. On that page, I share some of my experiences when I took a class called “England in the Steps of Virginia Woolf,” along with additional travel information and links.

Touring Woolf’s England

London Sign PostEliza Kay Sparks, a retired professor from Clemson University, took a group of five young women to England for two weeks and shared the trip itinerary and details with list members, as well as on her blog, Blooming Woolf.

Anne Fernald of Fordham University shared her proposal for a class abroad centered on Transatlantic Women Modernists, including her list of proposed field trips and her rationale for including them on the itinerary.

Suzette Henke of the University of Louisville taught a two-week Modern British Literature course in London in May 2011 that included a significant Woolf component. She said teaching a Woolf class in London is “quite a memorable teaching experience, as the whole of London is a giant classroom.”

Jeanette McVicker of the State University of New York at Fredonia taught a course called Literary London: Seminar on Virginia Woolf in 2011. She taught it in tandem with a colleague’s course on contemporary British women writers, titled Women Writing London. She has shared both her course syllabus and the trip iinerary that includes readings matched with excursions. Although the Women’s LIbrary included in the itinerary is no longer in existence, McVicker said one can request special access to the Museum of London’s archive, which has a wealth of material on the suffrage movement as well as holdings of Woolf-related work.

Getting started

River ThamesSparks recommended starting with a Big Bus tour around London on the first day to orient everyone to the city “and keep them awake and absorbing light rays without requiring a lot of physical exertion.” Henke suggested an afternoon boat trip on the River Thames, “illustrated by passages from Woolf’s diaries describing her thoughts about the Tower of London.”

And while there is plenty to do in Woolf’s city of origin — and students can chase down locations from Night and Day, if they’ve read it — Sparks recommends giving students one free day to explore on their own.

London sites

  • Houses and parks, including Carlyle’s House, 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington Big BenGardens and Chelsea
  • Mrs. Dalloway walk, which according to Fernald will allow students to “hear Big Ben’s chime, sit in Regent’s Park, walk through Bloomsbury, and
    past the Cenotaph,” and window shop at Hatchard’s bookstore, thereby giving “students a powerful flavor of the book’s geography.”
  • The London Scene walk to places mentioned in the essays can, according to McVickers, be “bolstered by exhibits and archives at Museums of London (the special collections person there is superb and generous) and Docklands.”
  • Bloomsbury
  • British Library, an important stop according to Fernald because “Woolf and many other writers of the period composed their works and researched in the Reading Room of the old British Library, now preserved as an exhibit within the British Museum.” Henke agreed that an afternoon’s field trip to the British Library and its special collections is a “must.”
  • British Museum
  • National Gallery, where Sparks recommends finding Virginia as Clio in Boris Anrep’s mosaics.
  • National Portrait Gallery, where you can visit the top floor tea room with “an utterly glorious view over Charing Cross,” according to Sparks.The London Scene
  • Richmond and Kew
  • Hampton Court
  • Persephone Books,  Nicola Beauman’s small press in Bloomsbury that is dedicated to republishing popular fiction from the period and is located in a building that was once the grocery store where Leonard and Virginia Woolf shopped. Fernald called it “a tribute to the combination of art and commerce that was central to
    Bloomsbury,” “a feminist institution today,” and a living memorial to the [Modernist] period.
  • Lincoln’s Inn will give students a good connection to The Years, according to McVicker.
  • King’s College, London, where Anna Snaith has done “path-breaking archival research showing the extent of Virginia Woolf’s university-level education,” according to Fernald.
  • Cabinet War Rooms and Imperial War Museum, which Fernald described as “invaluable to understanding the context of war in this period and women’s roles in both wars.
  • Sparks’ group also paid a visit to Cecil Woolf and Jean Moorcroft Wilson.

Beyond London

  • Cambridge, where you should be sure not to miss the turn to Newnham, said Sparks.
  • Oxford, for a connection to A Room of One’s Own, said McVicker.
  • Sussex, including Monk’s House and Charleston Farmhouse. Sparks recommends chartering a bus for those. Fernald

    Charleston Farmhouse

    said a visit to these sites is important because Charleston is “full of valuable post-impressionist paintings by Bell and her contemporaries” and a “visit to these sites would give students a flavor of the city-and-country split that was central to Woolf. Henke’s experience with her class bore this out. As she wrote: “Our very best field trip was a Saturday excursion to Charleston and Monk’s House. We found that the most convenient and economical way to get to Charleston by public transport was by taking a train from Victoria Station to Lewes, then hiring taxis to Charleston. We were able to book a private tour of Charleston at noon, prior to the public entry to the property. Because of a special festival, we caught a bus to Monk’s House, then got taxis back to Lewes. Really a fabulous day!”

  • Knole House in Kent, which gives you “Orlando at every turn,” said Sparks.
  • St. Ives in Cornwall, which Sparks described as the “highlight of the trip” and “SO worth the long train ride, which they
    Godrevy Lighthouse

    A boat ride from St. Ives to Godrevy Lighthouse as part of the Virginia Woolf class I took in June 2004.

    totally enjoyed as a great way to get a sense of British scenery.” While there, she recommends renting a boat to go out to Godrevy Lighthouse. Andre Gerard, publisher of Patremoir Press, suggested adding Tren Crom Hill, just outside of St. Ives, to the itinerary. “The landscape is little altered since Virginia’s day, and you can easily imagine her and her siblings walking and running in it,” he wrote. Woolf also described the site in “A Sketch of the Past.”

  • Hampstead, where you can see Keat’s house, which Woolf visited, along with Katherine Mansfield’s “The Eyebrows.” According to Sparks, “The views of the city are spectacular, and I rode back on top of a bus, a long ride, but gave me such a flavor of London.”

Reading list

Links to Woolf courses

Links to sites

The regular Sunday walk was to Trick Robin or, as father liked to call it, Tren Crom.  From the top, one could see the two seas; St. Michael’s Mount on one side; the Lighthouse on the other. Like all Cornish hills, it was scattered with blocks of granit; said some of them to be old tombs and altars; in some, holes were driven, as if for gate posts. Others were piled up rocks.  The Loggan rock was on top of Tren Crom; we would set it rocking; and be told that perhaps the hollow in the rough lichened surface was for the victim’s blood. But father, with his sever love of truth, disbelieved it; he said, in his opinion, this was no genuine Loggan rock; but the natural disposition of ordinary rocks. Little paths led up to the hill between heather and ling; and our knees were pricked by the gorse the blazing yellow gorse with its sweet nutty smell. – Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past”

Revised April 17, 2015
Revised April 20, 2015
Revised April 22, 2015

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We all know that Woolf’s works are notably challenging to read and teach because of her unconventional themes and plots, innovative structures, non-traditional narrative forms, historical and literary allusions, and avant-garde techniques.

approaches to woolfjpgAs a community college teacher of literature, one technique I have found to combat the challenges of teaching Woolf is to review, at the start of each semester, some of the pedagogical guides that help teachers of Woolf bring our students closer to the author, such as Approaches to Teaching Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (2009, edited by Eileen Barrett and Ruth O. Saxton).

But at the start of this fall semester I found myself in a new position in my department and my new office brought new duties, new expectations and new stresses. In my past visions, sitting in my office on my first day as a full-time instructor would feel warm, shiny and successful. I would be hopeful. I would be energetic. I would bring Woolf into every class.

Instead, on the first day of school I sat in the academic room of my own and stared at the photo of Woolf that I taped to my wall and then at the calendar filled with meetings, conferences and due dates. I didn’t feel shiny and hopeful; I felt overwhelmed and exhausted. I didn’t need a new teaching technique this semester. I needed a new inspirational technique.

kew gardensI chose to not review pedagogical guides on Woolf. Instead, I turned to my past students’ responses to “Kew Gardens”. My students’ positive reactions to Woolf reminded me of why we work so hard to bring her words to readers, to challenge our students with unconventional literature and to stimulate students’ imaginations; of why we sometimes dedicate a whole class to discussing beauty; of why we go home felling like failures when some don’t seem to “get it.”

Reading the reactions my community college students in Las Vegas had upon their first encounter with Woolf revived my passion for teaching this challenging author:

I think Woolf is a beautiful writer. Her work is filled with passion, love, beauty and the depth seems to draw in hungry intelligent minds. I appreciate any writer who challenges her readers to think outside of the mundane society around them and see the beauty in their surroundings. -Erica

Virginia Woolf’s writing is so unconventional and brave. It is admirable that she had the courage to break out of formal conventions. All the while, she managed to capture the assortment of everyday interactions in one short story. -Ian

I quite like Kew Gardens! The unconventional plot and intimate look into each character’s conversations not only makes for an interesting read, but made me ponder as to what one might hear if they were to listen in on any one of my personal conversations at any given time. Additionally, while reading Kew Garden’s I couldn’t help but imagine that the brief glimpses of narration must be something like what God hears as he checks in on our lives. –Sara

Where does your passion for Woolf come from?

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Erin M Kingsley, Ph.D. candidate and digital pedagogy instructor in the English Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, assigns her students a creative project each semester. This term,  one student turned a famous passage from Mrs. Dalloway into what Kingsley describes as “a compelling piece of digital storytelling.”

Kingsley said she enjoyed the video, particularly its flower imagery, and asked Virginia Woolf Listserv readers to share their thoughts.

Comments from a few Listserv readers are posted below. I invite you to watch The Odes to Time and share your response to this powerful and thought-provoking video in the comments section at the end of this post.

A quote from a Virginia Woolf Listserv reader:

I thought this was great! Startling and in a good way so as to make me see, think and feel the words and their movement. What a great project!

And another:

The word “time” split its husk; poured its riches over him; and from his lips fell like shells, like shavings from a plane, without his making them, hard, white, imperishable words, and flew to attach themselves to their places in an ode to Time.

We saw the 2 types of shell; it would have been good to have seen 2 types of  plane, and shavings from a plane.  I can’t remember when I last saw shavings from a plane in real life.  It takes me back to my childhood. The images certainly made me *think* about this sentence, not just read it.

And yet another:

VW constantly surprises with the freshness and sharpness of her images; she forces the grey matter to stand up and dance.

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Several Virginia Woolf/Modernism-related items here, all gleaned from Facebook friends who teach Woolf in the college classroom.

  • Elisa Kay Sparks and her students are building an iPad app called WoolfPlace that will provide maps, histories, references, pictures, links and videos for different sites in Woolf’s life and works.
  • Anne Fernald’s students are blogging about Woolf as part of the undergraduate Woolf elective course Fernald is teaching at Fordham University this spring. You can find their posts at 3504 Woolf. Fernald kicked off the course by playing Florence and the Machine’s “What the Water Gave Me.”
  • Also from Fernald is the news that Faber has launched a new “Wasteland” app that includes the full text of the poem, a variety of audio readings (including two by T.S. Eliot himself, and one by Viggo Mortensen), plus a video rendition.


Florence + the Machine – What The Water Gave Me [Official Music Video] from Back Alley Journals on Vimeo.

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