Undergraduate Research @ UMKC

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Dr. Jennifer Phegley
Professor and Co-Chair

Department: English Language and Literature
Eureka Course: English 120: Literary Monstrosities
See Dr. Phegley's Syllabus


How was teaching your EUReka class different from other similar classes you've taught?

My EUReka course, English 120: Literary Monstrosities, focused on mentoring students as they conducted nineteenth-century periodical research using digital databases. Students researched and wrote about a neglected penny dreadful, which was the most popular serialized fictional form in Victorian England. Students compared their discoveries with canonical novels that inspired the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. They wrote weekly blog entries examining these novels in relation to the television series. Their final blog project allowed them to apply what they had learned about the genre to the example of a penny dreadful that they identified. Students were encouraged to participate in the Undergraduate Research Symposium or the annual English Department Symposium. Alternatively, they could share their final blogs publicly via the English Department blog.

Teaching this course allowed me to apply some of the research methods I use in advanced classes for English majors and graduate students to a first-year course. While this was definitely challenging, I broke down the process into more manageable steps and spaced them throughout the semester. I started the research process earlier than usual and offered in-class demonstrations of the 19th-centiry periodical databases we would be using for primary research. I asked students to conduct preliminary research on their own to formulate a focus for their final projects. They also attended small group mentoring discussions in which they orally presented their preliminary research along with a plan for their final blogs. In the group meetings, I offered feedback and suggestions that would guide them toward refining their projects. The next time I teach the class, I would ask students present their preliminary findings and research plans in writing and have a more thorough peer response discussion that I will guide while also offering my own feedback. Finally, students had the opportunity to meet with me one-on-one in the drafting stage of their final project and to respond to one another’s drafts via Blackboard.

How did teaching a EUReka class allow you to more tightly intertwine your research interest and your teaching responsibilities?

My research specialty is in Victorian periodicals and the fiction serialized within their pages. Most nineteenth-century novels first appeared in print within popular magazines and newspapers as these were more accessible and affordable forms for the general public. My focus has been on women writers and the genre of sensation fiction (novels focused on crime and detection within the middle class home). With this course, I was able to shift attention to a precursor of the sensation novel, the penny dreadful, aimed at working-class readers. The research the students conducted helped me to define the contested and neglected genre of the penny dreadful and its relationship to the more widely studied sensation novel. It also allowed me to further explore how and why one of my favorite television dramas engaged with this genre in misleading as well as enlightening ways, bringing Victorian popular culture into the spotlight.

How do you think your EUReka students benefited from being exposed to undergraduate research early in their academic careers?

Teaching this EUReka course was a very energizing experience for me and, I think, for the students as well. It offered the opportunity to explore connections between our current pop culture experiences and those of people who consumed the first mass cultural phenomenon of the nineteenth century. Students learned to grapple with the significance of some of the most widely read and completely forgotten novels of the Victorian era. They were thus able to consider how and why cultural forms rise and fall and are once again resurrected in different times and places. I hope they have gained skills that will be transferrable to other research situations in which they are looking at a specific example or data set in order to draw broader conclusions.

What advice would you have for colleagues thinking of offering a EUReka course

I would recommend that faculty develop EUReka courses that seek to answer questions of real interest to them and other scholars in their fields of study. These courses can help advance faculty as well as student thinking about particular subjects that call for further research and exploration. The next time I teach the course, I would like to limit the research assignment by focusing on penny dreadfuls serialized by the most famous dreadful writer G.W. M. Reynolds. As the best-selling novelist of the century and editor of his own Reynolds’s Miscellany magazine, he did more than any single figure to publish and promote the genre. If students are all focused on his magazine (published from 1846-1869) as the source of their chosen dreadful, I think we will have more coherence in our discussions of the genre and its periodical context. In addition, I would like to revise the final project into a more collaborative effort in which the class creates a publicly shared guide to the fiction included in Reynolds’s Miscellany. In this way, we could serve the scholarly community as well as the interests of UMKC students. I find that truly exciting!