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Fostering Student Engagement with "Three Kingdoms"

On creating a multi-media classroom for discussing an ancient text

Published onNov 01, 2022
Fostering Student Engagement with "Three Kingdoms"

Three Kingdoms: From History to Fiction, Comic, Film, and Game” is a Global Languages course taught at MIT, based on the great epic novel Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel (first extant printed edition 1522). The course traces adaptations of the great Chinese epic novel across diverse media, and considers what underlies the appeal of this classic narrative over the centuries. Through focus on historical events in the period 206 BC to AD 280, examines the representation of power, diplomacy, war, and strategy, and explores the tension among competing models of political authority and legitimacy.

Dr. Emma Teng, the professor of the course, uses PubPub to teach this epic novel using various interactives for teaching and as a platform for student essays/discussions. To respect student privacy, much of the community is not public. Nevertheless, we were really interested in how Dr. Teng set up this educational space and have included a live-demonstration of some of their content!


What is your community? Who is involved? Why did you start it?

My community is threekingdoms.pubpub.org, which I started to support a class I was teaching on the great Chinese epic novel, Three Kingdoms, in English translation. I developed this community in consultation with our departmental instructional technologist and two librarians who specialize in Digital Humanities. Other community members included the students in my class, who played an important role in adding content to the community, also provided key feedback.

What would you say is the main focus or goal of the community?

The main goal of the community was to have a multimedia platform where we — the students and I — could share ideas and interpretations of the novel and it’s contemporary media adaptations together, and also showcase the students’ digital projects that they created using tools such as TimelineJS and ArcGIS-Storymap, in addition to the pubs.

(How) has the community changed over time?

Since I create a new community each year that I teach the class, it changes every time. In large part, it changes due to the fact that most of the content is student generated, and is therefore shaped in important ways by student interests and the questions that are generated during class discussion.

What kind of features would you like to see?

I would like to see it made easier to clone the community, since I create a new community each year for each new class, and I would like to easily replicate the basic structure and content that I provide, without needing to contact your help desk.

Why did you choose PubPub? What other platforms did you try?

I chose PubPub because it is a free and open platform, not one created for commercial profit, and it is tailored for the academic environment. I also looked at Googlesites and Sutori. PubPub seemed like the best fit for what we were trying to do with the class, without a steep learning curve. The platform allowed students to create rich multimedia essays and embed a wide array of media.

What communities/work inspires yours?

The MIT Case Studies in Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing community really inspires me. The site is very well laid out and cleanly designed, which makes it very easy to navigate the content. And of course, the content itself is tremendously important for understanding this really vital subject in contemporary society.

Because most of the Three Kingdoms community is not public to protect student privacy, Dr. Teng created this demonstration highlighting different parts of her online classroom.

Video contains captions, see here for a Pub with the transcript.

What particular challenges do you face when bringing an ancient text to modern students?

It is always very challenging to make it relevant for today’s students. In addition, it’s important to do a lot of work to contextualize since our values are very different from those prevailing at the time the text was written. For example, a lot of the literature will strike us as very misogynistic today. These challenges actually provide a lot of opportunities for interesting discussions with the students.

Students are also often very surprised at how much of this classic text remains germane: questions of political legitimacy, of how to speak truth to power, of integrity in the face of competing loyalties, of private affection versus public duty. Students will often draw the parallels themselves. Another challenge is explaining the symbolism of a classic text, which is especially complex and rich in the case of the Three Kingdoms.

What literary themes do you focus on?

One major theme we focus on is what distinguishes a just rebellion from usurpation. Another is the question of the basis for political authority, so we ask: does the text favor imperial lineage, territorial control, or the personal virtue of the leader as the basis for legitimate political authority?

Of course, since this is a story of heroes, throughout the semester we focus on the question of what makes a hero. What personal qualities must a hero possess? What types of actions can be considered heroic? Is physical prowess essential for the hero? Can a woman be a hero? Another set of themes revolve around omens and portents in the novel, which students often find especially fascinating.

How do you use PubPub in your classroom?

We use PubPub as a multimedia platform where students share ideas and interpretations of the novel and it’s contemporary media adaptations together, and also showcase the students’ digital projects that they create using tools such as TimelineJS and ArcGIS-Storymap, in addition to the pubs. It’s also a great space for collective brainstorming, which students can use both in class and outside.

How do you get student engagement?

I get student engagement by having them give feedback on one another’s pubs, and also by providing opportunities in class for students to present the drafts of their pubs and digital projects. Students have expressed that they really enjoyed the opportunity to review their peers’ projects, get inspired, and develop their own ideas.

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