I’m always looking for new, motivational ways to present the good ol’ American literature canon, so this year as Huck Finn-time rolled around, I had the idea of finding an engaging Mark Twain scholar who might agree to do a Skype video chat with my students during that unit. Although I didn’t know any engaging Mark Twain scholars or have any idea where to locate one, I thought maybe somebody in Hannibal, Missouri could point me in the right direction. So I went to the Mark Twain Home and Museum web site, poked around, and located the name of the director, Dr. Cindy Lovell. I emailed her to see if she or someone she knew might be able to help.
Cindy was exactly the right person to ask. She is the aforesaid engaging Mark Twain scholar. She is also a writer, former teacher, Jimmy Buffett fan, and all-around joy. Although she had never done a Skype session before, she immediately and enthusiastically agreed to do it.
We settled on a date, and as luck would have it, the date was during Dr. Lovell’s residency at Twain’s Quarry Farm home in Elmira, New York where she is writing a Mark Twain encyclopedia. Yes, we would be doing a video chat with a Mark Twain expert live from the exact house where he wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and many other books! Sometimes it’s hard to get high school juniors excited, but this prospect was making it happen. They tried to be cool about it, but they kept asking, “When are we doing that Skype thing?”
It gets better. In order to prepare the students as thoroughly as possible, I emailed Dr. Lovell to ask if she had any suggestions for anything I should do with the students beforehand. This was her response: “If the students don’t know ‘A True Story’ I’d love it if you could read it to them. It’s a frame story, and when Twain sets it up he is literally telling of an event that happened here at Quarry Farm and that most certainly informed the character of Jim. When you hear how ‘Aunt Rachel’ cares for her children, you will hear Jim longing for po’ little Lizabeth and Johnny. It’s a story I read over and over.” The next day I read that piece aloud to the students, and it worked perfectly. It required a little practice on my part, which was good for me, and I’m not sure I did the piece justice, but the students were riveted during that story, which is due far more to Mark Twain’s writing than to my reading. “A True Story” will now be a permanent part of my Huck Finn unit.
In the days before Dr. Lovell’s session with us, I posted a thread on our class web site where my students could write their questions to her in advance so she could get a sense of what they wanted to talk about. They posted some thoughtful questions for Dr. Lovell to consider beforehand. But she did much more than that! She joined our ning and began responding to the students’ questions online with in-depth, insightful, student-friendly responses. (See for yourself.)
So today was the big day. I have two sections of American Studies, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with 48 and 42 students respectively. Dr. Lovell had agreed to do a 30-minute session with each class. After a few minutes of relatively minor connection glitches in the morning session, we had a Skype connection, and the conversation was on.
I am very proud of the questions asked by our young Mark Twain scholars today. They didn’t actually ask too many questions about the novel, but there were many questions about Twain’s early life, his homes, outlook, influences, friends, family, other books, and one great question from Josh about Twain’s love for cigars. They were also very interested in Dr. Lovell’s work at the museum, and what it’s like to have a job that involves spending a lot of time in Mark Twain’s actual homes and surroundings. She told stories about Twain’s life, gave pep talks about navigating the vernacular in Huck Finn, and invited all the students to visit her in Hannibal where she would take them out to lunch.
Dr. Lovell ended the afternoon session by saying how much Mark Twain would have loved what we were doing. Twain loved technology, and the idea of discussing his life and work via Skype would have appealed to him very much, according to Cindy. That seemed to directly connect the students and our class activity for the day with Mr. Mark Twain himself, something I could not have done on my own without the help of Dr. Cindy Lovell and Skype.
A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on English Companion in 2010.