Beyond the Universe

October 28, 2022

By Frances Laskey, Friends of the Dickens Project Board Member 

2020 MLA Convention banner containting the words "MLA Seattle: 9-12 January, 2020"Most of us learn about the Dickens Project via the Dickens Universe—the unique annual immersion in Dickens among the redwoods in Santa Cruz. But the Dickens Project is and does much more than that. Since 2006 the Project has co-hosted, with the Dickens Society, a panel every year at the Modern Language Association (MLA) annual conference. These panels share cutting-edge research and typically consider Dickens (and other 19th-century authors) in ways that relate to current issues and trends both in academia and in the world outside.

The 2020 panel, “Public Victorians,” focused on the many forms of public humanities work (besides the Dickens Project) that Victorian studies scholars have developed in their own communities. Public-facing humanities work has garnered increasing attention in the academy as humanities departments face falling enrollments and funding cuts due to the greater focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields and false claims that the humanities aren’t relevant to the “real world.” As the humanities are devalued, we risk losing some of our humanity—just read Dickens’s Hard Times to see his take on what happens when education is devoid of anything but “facts.”

The “public” in the title “Public Victorians,” refers to the idea and practice of public humanities: bringing the humanities to bear on the world we live in so that people outside the university can see its value. The panel asked how the work happening in Victorian studies now—on race, the environment, technology, nationalism, and colonialism—can be translated into community-oriented projects that bring analyses of the 19th century to bear on our current cultural moment. The panel included seven scholars, each of whom gave a brief description of public-facing work they and their students are doing, and the positive ways in which both the students and the public have reacted.

Several of the panelists will be familiar to Universe attendees. One was Jacqueline Barrios, who discussed her work with LitLabs in bringing high school students from South L.A. into contact with Dickens, taking Dickens as a lens for looking at their 21st-century world, and then creating art to share their insights with the public. The specific project she discussed was a “sonic documentary” the students created in studying the 1992 L.A. riots after reading about the 1780 Gordon Riots in Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge. Other Dickens Project participants included Teresa Mangum, who discussed her work as the Director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa, and Abigail Droge, a former graduate student attendee who described her work as a postdoctoral scholar at UCSB using working-class Victorian reading practices as a model for a project called “Reading With: Building Communities Through Books.”

Other speakers talked about projects in which they partnered with museums, libraries, and even a nursing home to bring 19th-century authors and ideas into dialog with current events, working with audiences ranging from children to the elderly. Often these projects were built into courses the panelists taught, and they all mentioned their students’ surprise at how relevant the ideas and arguments from 150 to 200 years ago are for the world today. Much of the excitement of these projects for the scholars, students, and community members involved in them comes from discovering together all of the new and unexpected ideas that emerge when past and present come together outside of a college classroom.

The projects were all exceptionally creative and arose from a deep commitment to the value of public humanities on the part of the educators who created them. This commitment enables the teachers to put in extraordinary effort beyond the classroom, including making contacts with external partners; finding resources for things like costumes, cameras, art supplies, etc.; and getting support and buy-in from their departments. This might mean that these projects can’t be easily replicated in other places, but they can certainly inspire other teachers to find ways of bringing the humanities—and literature in particular—out of the lecture hall and into the community, for the enrichment of all.

If you would like to read about the other MLA panels that the Dickens Project has been involved in, they are all described on the Dickens Project website under the Programs tab.