My year with Don Quijote

I’m halfway through my special year with Don Quijote, and I really need to reflect on the first-year seminar (FSEM) I gave last semester in English Digital Don Quixote–its successes and where I had some problems–along with my first impressions of an advanced undergraduate seminar in Spanish I’ve just begun Cervantes y Don Quijote 21 . In both I’ve tried to introduce students to the novel, some of its major critical interpretations, its modern reception and adaptations, and ways in which it connects with our 21st century digital world.

Don Quixote and his cell phone by student Maya Baumgartner

Don Quixote and his cell phone by student Maya Baumgartner

The FSEM focused on identity, Don Quijote’s and our own digital identity. It also introduced some major topics of digital humanities and digital studies, using the novel as a springboard into these issues. We read selections of the novel in English, and some articles related to the novel and to digital studies/digital humanities. Students wrote a critical review and presented the article or book reviewed to the class. At then end of the semester students formed groups and created a digital and written project on some aspect of the novel in relation to the themes of the class. Fall 2014 was also the inauguration of a new Information and Technology Convergence Center on our campus, so we were able to make good use of the many resources located there now from our Division of Teaching and Learning Technology, to the Speaking and Writing Centers, and the library. I had a bright bunch of 14 first year students, and had so much fun with them that I’ve decided to offer the course again in the fall of 2015. But before I do, and before I forget, I need to reflect a bit about what went great, what could have gone better, and what I might do differently:

  • Great! Top of the list would have to be the students themselves. They were a bright group, and most of them were very engaged in the course and eager to learn and contribute. The readings I selected seemed to spark their interest and our classroom discussions were lively. Their final projects, which ranged from a series of Vine videos, to a digital newspaper, and a series of Facebook profiles interacting with each other as characters from the novel, were creative and showed a lot of learning from the semester.
  • Needs improvement:I had all of them create and develop their own domain as part of UMW’s Domain of One’s Own project. Some never really did this, others did, but none really shined. I think part of this is that it was too much to ask them to create a digital identity for themselves already in their first semester, before they really have a sense yet of their independent adult identity. So of the ones who tried, some started blogs of favorite quotes, others of photos from their travels, some made a space to post examples of their college work, while others blogged about their favorite music. Others didn’t really try at all. I think I need to give them more guidance in the nuts and bolts of WordPress, but also I need to make it worth more of the grade so all will take it seriously. Another problem were the blog posts for the class, which were weekly reflections on the topics from the readings and class discussions. The quality of these posts was very spotty. As I discovered with the critical review (when I realized in their first drafts that most thought “critical” meant “criticize”), I need to be very explicit with instructions and expectations for first year students in all assignments.

So now it’s a new semester and I’m on to phase two: Spanish 451: Cervantes y Don Quijote en el Siglo 21. Our main goal in the course is to read all of the novel in Spanish, and to examine some of the major issues of the novel, along with its critical interpretations. But we’re also looking at the modern reception of the novel, its numerous adaptations, and we’re creating our own digital presence for Don Quijote on our website through a wiki: Don Wiki-jote. I’m also trying to make all this work a little bit fun with a friendly competition–each student taking on an avatar based on a character from the novel, and logging their progress through “progress posts“, which I then record on a progress meter on the Reto Don Quijote.Reto Progress meter Already we’ve had some problems, mostly due to a lack of familiarity with how to create a blog post, what a “category” is, and how to edit a wiki. But hopefully we’ll overcome these issues soon and the technology will stop being a hurdle and turn out to be a help to them as I had hoped–aiding their study and inspiring them to keep going the end!!

Don Quijote Digital: Two Experimental Seminars to Celebrate 400 Years of Innovation

This is a copy of remarks I’ll be making at the Mountain Interstate Foreign Language Conference at Furman University in Greenville, SC this Saturday, October 18th, 2014.

In this brief presentation I will share some ideas and plans that I have in place to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the second volume of the Quijote, 21st century style. This year is a personal celebration of Don Quijote for me. I’m not a Cervantista. I’m not even a specialist in Siglo de Oro. My specialty is eighteenth-century peninsular, with a focus on gender, and a recent interest in digital humanities.

My only claim to any sort of authority is that I read the Quijote for the first time 25 years ago with the great Javier Herrero Herrerowhile in graduate school at UVA. Since then, I’ve read the novel two more times—once in English and again in Spanish. For the past fifteen years or so I have led students every fall semester through their own readings of chapters 1 and 8 of the first volume as part of a Survey of Spanish literature course I teach. My program has a course on Cervantes, last taught 10 years ago when our Siglo de Oro specialist left and was replaced with a Colonial Latinamericanist, who has also since left. So after the 400th anniversary of the first volume came and went in 2005, I decided I couldn’t avoid teaching this class anymore. Generations of Spanish majors were leaving with very little idea about how wonderful this novel is, and I had to do something about it. So this is the year that this will happen, in various ways and with various groups of students. To me it was a crazy idea, but I’ve approached it in my best quixotic style, taking an adventure with my students that I hope they don’t forget, and I know I won’t. If you’re interested you can read more of my musings about the projects on this blog (see the category “Don Quijote“), on my professional website, and on a course domain that I and my students are developing around the year’s experiences:

This fall semester I am offering a first-year seminar (FSEM) “Digital Don Quixote.” All of our students must take an FSEM as part of their general education requirements, providing freshman the experience of a college level seminar early in their academic career with the aim of engaging them intellectually in ways that the typical introductory courses don’t. My FSEM uses Don Quixote as a gateway to various issues of digital studies and digital humanities, and also requires students to develop their own web domain through our UMW Domains program. All together students will be reading about 25% of the novel, together with about a dozen other articles or blogposts about either Don Quixote or issues in digital studies. Some of the topics we’ve been discussing so far have been digital identity; game studies; the future of the library; authors, authority, copyrights and Creative Commons; social media; digital humanities, MOOCs, and digital storytelling. Students reflect weekly through their own blog posts, are currently writing a critical review of a scholarly book or article on Don Quixote, will be developing their own digital identity on their own domain, and will create a group final project that brings together the issues we’ve explored in the class. In addition, students are working on some skills basic to all freshman seminars in writing, speaking, and research. Here are some of the observations from my students thus far on their blogposts:

Blog 1Blog 2Blog 3Blog 4

Recently students have broken into groups to plan a final project that, in addition to having written and oral components, needs to incorporate a digital component as well. Some of the suggestions I’ve given students to spark their own ideas include:

(“Creative” digital projects”)

  • A video of key episodes from DQ highlighting certain themes from our course
  • Another digital storytelling method, such as a game, using a web application like twine (
  • A parody website or a parody profile of DQ in social media
  • An animated GIF, or series of GIFs

(“Academic” or Digital Humanities projects)

  • a digital exhibition of illustrations associated with a particular episode in DQ
  • a comparison/contrast analysis of various translations of a particular episode in DQ, using Voyant (
  • a database and graph tracing the bibliography on DQ, perhaps analyzing by categories to see areas of scholarly emphasis. Could also compare by time–how has our interest in DQ changed over time?
  • a map of the translations of DQ

As I’m taking this journey with these freshman students, I’m planning the next with my advanced students, a senior level seminar that I’ll be calling “Cervantes y Don Quijote en el siglo 21”. Span 451

In some ways the two courses will be quite different: one is for freshman of varying majors and interests, the other for advanced Spanish majors only; in one we’ll be reading selections of the novel in translation, and the other we’ll be reading and discussing the entire two volumes in its original Spanish. But I hope to unify the two through an emphasis on digital studies and digital humanities. The senior-level seminar (to be taught Spring 2015) will focus on critical reception of Cervantes’ novel, and will explore how Don Quijote continues to be vibrant in our digital age. As part of the class we will work as a group to create our own class digital humanities project on the novel, perhaps even a larger version of one of the projects students begin in the FSEM. One of the main objectives of the course will be that students read all of the Quijote in Spanish. I know plenty of programs do this with undergraduates, but it really is a monumental task for our undergraduates. I hope to help it along by encouraging students to accept a challenge, and to log their reading in to our site as they progress.
Donquixote en biciThere’s one more component to our year-long celebration. I’m trying to organize a spring break bike tour of the Ruta del Quijote. This part may or may not happen, depending on enrollment. If it happens, we will connect to the other two projects by documenting our trip on the gohidalgo domain.

Oh, and one more thing. I’ll turn 50 this year just like our ingenioso hidalgo. To paraphrase one of my students, I too am just ” an elderly woman living humbly” hoping to have a great adventure this year!  But seriously, it is my hope that seeing Don Quijote through this modern digital lense might open up possibilities for new perspectives and new learning for me and my students, not only about an amazing novel, but also about some of the most current topics in our society today.

Here is a copy of the Prezi that I’m using at the MIFLC conference:

Don Quixote and (Digital) Identity

I just had a great first day of classes!! I’m teaching two courses this semester–one I teach every semester, but love it every time (Spanish 323, Introducción a la literatura española), and the other is a brand new first-year seminar I’m calling “Digital Don Quixote” which will using the novel as a springboard into digital studies and digital humanities. Today we started the beginnings of a discussion of identity. Here’s the prezi I used to start that discussion today:

On it, I shared my various identities to the world–some very purposefully created (my professional domain, or my twitter account), some created for me (my son’s “Mom” Mii), and some I might not have created with as much forethought, but that I created then nonetheless (Facebook). Don Quixote created his identity, and we are still creating identities for him as new generations and groups give the novel fresh perspectives. We’ll be thinking more deeply about this all semester: Don Quixote’s identities and our own–what are they, how are they determined, who determined them, and how do/can they change?


Logo Google cervantes Don quijote

“En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme…”
Those are probably THE most memorable words ever written in Spanish–the beginning, of course, to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha. It captures all the irony and ambiguity that will characterize this long novel, written in two volumes and published 10 years apart–the first in 1605 and the second in 1615. It is a book that has fascinated readers for 4 centuries, and inspired numerous other books, plays, works of art, music, films, t-shirts, even a chain of Japanese thrift stores!

Don Quijote, Honolulu, Hawaii

I’ve recenty finished reading the novel in English, more than 20 years after I first read it in Spanish in a graduate class with the great Javier Herrero. Lately,  I’ve had the crazy, quixotic you might say, idea to teach two seminars on the Quijote this coming spring semester: a senior-level seminar in Spanish which I hope to title “Don Quijote 21” and a first-year seminar I plan to call “Digital Don Quijote”. I say quixotic because I’m not a Cervantes specialist, and I have my doubts about how I’ll be able to guide and inspire students not only to understand this extremely long and difficult novel, but to love it as so many generations have. Certainly there were times during my re-reading of the book this summer when  I distinctly did not love this book.

Over the past twenty years I’ve re-read parts of the novel, usually the best, most iconic moments: the wonderful first chapter where Don Alonso Quijano creates his persona Don Quijote and sets about inventing an entire world for the knight errant; Don Quijote’s first failed adventure; the burning of his collection of books of chivalry; his selection of Sancho Panza as his squire and companion; his infamous battle with the windmills, and the interrupted battle with the vizcaino followed by the introduction of the historian/author Sidi Hamid Benengeli; the freeing of the galley slaves; the visions Don Quijote claimed to have in the cave of Montesinos; the adventures on the wooden horse Clavileño at the Duke’s palace; Sancho’s time as “governor” of his own island; and finally Don Quijote’s tragic death. I’ve taught various of these chapters as part of our survey of Spanish literature, and usually students enjoy the selections, which give them a small taste of the genious of this text. But I’ve always felt I was cheating them by giving them so little of such a vast and hugely important book. So I wanted to face the challenge of my own adventure, and teach not one, but TWO classes on the Quijote. The first, in Spanish, would be a more traditional look at the novel as an important piece of literature and its enormous influence on Spanish culture even today. The second a related, yet somewhat different first-year seminar in English using the novel as a way to approach digital studies and digital humanities. We would read select chapters of the novel and relate them to various topics of digital study–the questions of authorship, fair use, and copyright laws; the future of the library; DQ and gaming, digital humanities projects on DQ, DQ as a MOOC, DQ in social media, etc.

However, as I waded through the first volume, with its numerous intercalated stories that often seem rather loosely connected to the main story, I started to doubt my plans. The first idea to go to the wayside was that I could inspire first-year students to read the entire book, and simultaneously include the digital topics I was interested in. But also I began to question my plans for the advanced students. Not only is the book long (some editions are well over a thousand pages), the Spanish (and the faithful English translation by Burton Raffel) can be insanely archaic in the case of Don Quijote, and ridiculously strewn with popular sayings and proverbs in the case of Sancho Panza. Fascinating philosophical questions aside about what (or who) is an author and what is his relation with his readers and his characters, or about what divides fantasy from reality, I began to question  my long-held acceptance of Don Quijote as the first modern novel, not only in Spanish but in any language…Really?? Modern?? I said as much to my husband one night as we were both reading before bed. I had just finished the episode in the cave of Montesinos and was entering into the long episode at the Duke’s palace. I remembered these episodes to be entertaining the first time I read them, but this time around they seemed to be too drawn out, too detailed, with too many digressions. Both the structure of the entire novel–especially the first volume–and Cervantes’ often purposefully difficult language, didn’t seem modern at all to me. In fact, the novel seemed distinctly Baroque. Now, before the Cervantista’s out there start trying to correct my ignorance on the art of Cervantes (which I do not deny), Miguel himself anticipated my misgivings just a few chapters later when his historian pseudo-author character Sidi Hamid Benengeli answered my complaints with a complaint of his own:

“It is said that, in the true original of this chapter, one can read how, when Sidi Hamid came to write this chapter (which his translator only partially rendered into Spanish), the Moor penned a kind of complaint against himself, for having undertaken such a dry and narrow history as Don Quijote’s…” (Volume 2, chapter 44, 586)

Benengeli knows exactly what I was thinking as I read volume one, and he anticipates–even condones–what I am sure my students will be doing next spring::

It also seemed to him, he said, that there would be a lot of people so totally absorbed in Don Quijote’s doings that, finding these other stories of little interest, they would simply skip over or just skim rapidly through them or, if they did read them, would do so only grudgingly…

Cervantes/Benengeli  then sum it all up for me–

he concludes his complaint by asking his readers not to look down on what he has here accomplished, and to praise him, not so much for what he has written, as for what he has refrained from writing. 

When I read this paragraph I was in awe of the genius of Cervantes. Here he was, anticipating MY criticism, answering ME directly, explaining ever so patiently why this book is modern, why it is like no other, why it is still relevant, and why I ought to continue my own crazy quest to bring it to another generation of readers!

Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quijote. Trans. Burton Raffel. Ed. Diana de Armas Wilson. New York: WW Norton, 1999.