This post was first published in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online here. I am very grateful to the Editors for permission to re-publish it on this blog.
In the fall of 2012, I taught a version of my department’s Major Author Studies course on Charles Dickens. As this was my second time teaching a course dedicated to Dickens (and my fourth time teaching Bleak House), I knew I had to pull out all the stops to convince my students—many of whom were non-majors or students who otherwise had no familiarity with Victorian literature—to care about three tomes of formidable length (plus A Christmas Carol) and a culture they perceived to be far removed from their own.
To help mitigate the carpal tunnel and forge connections to the nineteenth century, I took students on an (optional) fieldtrip to Lowell, Massachusetts, to attend a dramatic reading of “Wicked Dickens” organized by Diana Archibald at UMass Lowell. While in Lowell, we also attended a special bicentenary Dickens museum exhibit, housed in the Boott Cotton Mills Museum. I brought in my first edition of Bleak House into class and we discussed special collections. We were able to investigate a digital archive together in class using Project Boz. We examined the advertisements that accompanied the original monthly parts of Bleak House and discussed the placement of the illustrations. The students then translated the idea of a digital archive into their own group blog projects at the end of the semester.
By far the most successful class activity, however, was the oral reading project. To help my class approximate a nineteenth-century experience of oral reading culture and literary celebrity, I expurgated A Christmas Carol into a version that could be read aloud in an hour, divided up the text into “roles”—without transforming the text into a script—and arranged for the students to perform a reading for the Southern New Hampshire University community at the end of the semester. We practiced twice: once in class and once for the residents of Mt. Carmel, a local nursing home. The Mt. Carmel reading was optional and held on a Sunday, yet thirteen of the nineteen students in the class decided to participate. Throughout the semester we discussed the recurring theme of community in the books we read, and I explained that the idea of an oral reading community is another way to think about this theme.
“Charles Dickens as he appears when reading,” wood engraving from a sketch by Charles A. Barry
I know this type of project is nothing all that new, but I was surprised by its success. I was expecting a fair amount of resistance to this project. Literature majors and students otherwise drawn to literature courses can be an introverted bunch. Students overall can at times resist course projects that fall outside the expected parameters of a given discipline. Yet my class proved my assumptions wrong. Many of the students were nervous, to be sure, but overall they seemed to enjoy the project—to find it a rewarding experience on its own and to see its connection to Dickens’s readings but also the broader idea of creating a community of readers.
Of all our class projects, they reportedly enjoyed this project the most. I think they responded so well to the reading project because they found it relatively novel. They informed me they were unused to reading out loud, or listening to others read. Proving everything old is new again, the project made them look at reading in a new light. I think this was an important project for a number of reasons: it solidified our class community, it added a new dimension to the theme of community we were tracing through the novels, and it helped the class see reading as a historically situated practice.
It also showed the students that reading need not always be an individual experience—and I would argue this was the most important outcome of all. In our humanities-embattled times, writes Teresa Mangum, we “have an obligation to better explain what our work is and how it contributes to the social good.” It may seem trite, but for the literature professor part of this obligation is surely in showing students that while they may read silently to themselves on their own the vast majority of the time, the reading can also be a social act–a way of participating in a community, past and present. When we share stories, we perform a social good.
Here are some of my students’ reflections on the project:
“I did not get a really great new insight into A Christmas Carol on account of these two readings…What I did get was a chance to see what a class full of readers thought about A Christmas Carol and its characters, shown through their readings. It is a different kind of insight, but not a less valuable one. Also…the Mt. Carmel reading felt like a reading community, for in this one we truly collaborated and shared our ideas about a text, in the act of reading itself.”
“I was assigned the role of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s clerk. Although not an overwhelmingly large part, I was intimidated by this role. I thought long and hard about Bob Cratchit and his character. I asked myself questions such as ‘what are Bob’s intentions or feelings in this line?’ ‘Is he a cowardly or dominant figure?’ It was a lot of great fun getting to analyze his character and understand the importance of syntax and tone. I kept imagining all the possible meanings behind his lines and how they fitted to Dickens’s overall message. I realized that there is a great deal of room for multiple interpretations of his text. Despite having to read out loud in front of a large audience, I quite enjoyed this challenging experience. Do you know what it’s like to face something you’ve always been afraid of doing? I’ve read from multiple sources that public speaking is what Americans fear the most in their lives. And I can identify with that. But, once you persevere and get the worst over with, it becomes quite a liberating experience. You don’t feel afraid anymore! I think that reading a text out loud not only broadens your experiences, but it gives you more of an opportunity to reflect on yourself and the reading. I noticed that many of my classmates read each of their parts in accordance to what they thought the character meant or felt. It makes things interesting because there’s always something new to discover. For example, I liked the voice that was used for Christmas Past. It was the perfect, soft, eerie tone that made me think of otherworldly ideas…It’s surprising how these simple elements can make a reading much more enjoyable. A Christmas Carol becomes more vivid and entertaining for the audience…Although daunting at first, I think this experience has helped me grow as a public speaker and reader of literature. Charles Dickens definitely knew what he was doing when he performed his writings. Reading literature out loud has the power to directly influence others. I can only hope our A Christmas Carol reading influenced the audience in the same positive way as it did for me.”
“I truly welcomed, appreciated, and enjoyed the camaraderie that all of my fellow classmates showed toward one another during this experience…It makes me want to practice all the more, perfect the reading as a group, dress up in Victorian costume, and go out to read some more!”
“Reading aloud in public definitely changed some of my views on the text. It’s nice because A Christmas Carol will always be the novel that I read aloud in front of an audience at school, and I’ll always remember that book. It was a good feeling being part of a reading community like that. Everyone in our class did such a great job reading Dickens. The fact that so many people attended to hear us read was also really great. It was so nice to be able to participate in something that was so large and affected so many people. It was great seeing the audience full of people, and it was great knowing that they were there to watch us perform. The audience was also really respectful and kind. I didn’t hear anyone trying to carry on a side conversation, and for the most part, it looked like everyone in the audience was paying attention to us.”
“Overall, I would recommend doing this reading project every year. I thought it was nice to be able to read together with a class in that setting and get the chance to see the results of our work this semester. It was a great confidence boost for the class and it really pulled together everything we’ve talking about concerning Dickens and his performances. I can see how it was strenuous to give a dramatic reading of his works. We may not have been as confident on stage as he might have been, but I feel we gave the reading the respect it deserved and pulled off a professional performance.”