The following paper was presented at the Dickens Symposium in June 2010 at Aix-en-Provence, France, as a university instructor's personal, pedagogical response to the conference theme "Dickens in the 21st Century." The discussion reflects the writer's long-standing interest in Dickens and a reasonable knowledge of his main works, What the paper offers is an account of what it is like to teach Dickens, or try to teach the novels of Dickens, to the sort of undergraduate students most instructors actually have to deal with for most of the time, at least in American colleges and universities.

his is probably going to be the least scholarly presentation you have heard or will hear during the conference. Although I have a long-standing interest in Dickens and a reasonable knowledge of his main works, I am not a professional Dickensian. I may as well say at the outset that I am not worthy to arrange the bibliography cards of the eminent Goldie Morgentaler in alphabetical order, and the same is no doubt true of the bibliography cards of the esteemed Zelma Catalan. What I hope to offer you is an account of what it is like to teach Dickens, or try to, to the sort of student most instructors actually have to deal with for most of the time, at least in the USA but, I believe, elsewhere too. For the last twenty years I have taught at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley.

The University of Wisconsin System consists of thirteen separate institutions. The flagship campus is to be found in the state capital, Madison, and it is generally considered to be one of the best universities in the world. UW-Milwaukee, Milwaukee being the largest city in the state, also has a doctoral programme in English, to restrict myself to my own discipline, and the ten remaining four-year institutions offer undergraduate and master's degrees. The thirteenth segment of the UW System is called the University of Wisconsin Colleges. It in its turn consists of thirteen small campuses, scattered over the state, ranging in size from fewer than five hundred students to more than two thousand. UW-Fox Valley is the second largest, with about seventeen hundred. The UW Colleges offer the first two years of the baccalaureate degree. They cater to two main kinds of student: the first is the traditional eighteen to twenty-two year old. Such a student applies to the Colleges either to save money (tuition fees are relatively low; there are no residence halls and our students tend to live still with their parents and work part time) or because we are effectively an open-admissions institution and accept high-school graduates who have not done well enough to get into more selective institutions. Some of my students, although impecunious, are excellent indeed, intelligent and hard working. Others have wasted their time in high school and some of them continue to waste their time, and mine, at UWFox and eventually flunk out, as the Americans say. The second type of student is the mature or non-traditional student, typically place-bound because of family or work and combining study at UWFox with holding down a job. Such students usually wish to change careers or advance in the ones they have. Non-traditional students tend to be focused and hard working. Furthermore, it is probably true to say that the overwhelming majority of those attending the UW Colleges, whether students of the first kind or the second, are working- or lower-middle class. Most of them are the first members of their families to enter an institution of higher education. Finally, Wisconsin is a long way away from anywhere that is not North America. The most culturally challenging experience that many of my students will have had is a visit to Chicago, four hours’ drive south. These are the people to whom I regularly teach Dickens, typically in three courses, "Composition II," "Introduction to Literature," and the second half of the two-semester survey of English Literature, "English Literature Since 1798." Let me take these one at a time.

Comp II attempts to teach argumentative writing, and deals, of course, with matters such as use of supporting evidence, avoidance of logical fallacies, and techniques of documentation. In order to provide subjects about which to write argumentatively, many of my colleagues use readers consisting of essays pro or con hot topics like immigration reform, affirmative action, and terrorism. I tell my students that they are lucky I don't. Not all of them believe me. I have them read Charles Dickens, or, as one of my students recently resentfully called him, Charles Dickenson. Almost all students have to take Composition II, and that includes students who have barely scraped through Composition I. So I here limit myself to the four shorter novels, Oliver Twist, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations. I have tried one or two of the longer novels but regretted it. However, Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities in particular do work moderately well. Half way through the semester students must write a paper with a moral or aesthetic focus: such and such a character is morally admirable or the opposite (reasons given; quotations cited); such and such a scene, or even the novel as a whole, is successful as a work of art, or the opposite (criteria clearly established: justifying quotations given). Students spend the second half of the semester preparing and writing a research paper on a topic that their instructor can see is relevant to the novel, although that novel need not even be mentioned. In the case of Oliver they write about crime, poverty, the welfare system, domestic violence, prostitution, and ethnic stereotyping (you will remember the controversies about Dickens’ depiction of Fagin; you will remember too objections to Alec Guinness’s portrayal in the 1948 film version, which I show). In the case of A Tale of Two Cities, they tend to write about revolution, incarceration and the penal system, insanity, or, if they assure me they really can’t think of anything else, the death penalty. Again, I show a film version, this time the 1935 one with Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton. Students can be genuinely moved by its ending.

If comp students are pressed men, and women, then those who take "Introduction to Literature" and, even more so, the survey of English Literature do so as volunteers, at least to some extent. When it comes to choosing a representative novel for “Intro. to Lit." or "English Literature Since 1798" then I often choose one of the 900-page loose baggy monsters. I have taught all fourteen of Dickens' completed novels in one course or the other, in rough rotation, most of them two or three times now. I set aside four weeks in the fifteen-week semester, divide the number of pages by the number of classes, and hand out a reading schedule. Although students are asked to read a quarter of the novel during the first week, that week is usually spent watching either the best or the latest film version of the novel in question: I say that I can’t justify the class time that would be necessary to see the whole thing but here is a taster, an opportunity to get into the novel, sort out the relationships of the characters, and get some idea of what Victorian streets and clothes looked like. I saw how helpful that can be when I recently taught a Chinese novel and realised that I had no meaningful idea of how the characters were dressed or how their environment would look. We start serious work on the first class of the second week.

It isn’t always easy for them and therefore it isn't always easy for me. My students are sometimes intimidated by the mere bulk of the novels. I fill the air with cheerful cries. "You can do it!" "We’re going to spend four whole weeks on it!" "Just think how proud you’ll feel of yourself when you've read, yes, this admittedly quite demanding novel! When your Uncle Herman asks you at Thanksgiving or during Summer what you've learnt at UWFox you can say, "I read all of Dickens' Bleak House !" And if the carrot doesn't work then there's always the stick. I've worked out a system whereby what I refuse to call "pop quizzes" — I say "surprise tests" — constitute one quarter of the final grade. Students soon come to realise that, in the words of one of my less enchanted evaluators in ratemyprofessors.com, "If you don’t do the reading you're screwed."

The phrase that has appeared on my syllabi for the last twenty years is "a reasonable and conscientious attempt" to do the reading. The surprise tests concentrate on facts that a "reasonable and conscientious” student has probably picked up. To take a few examples from Our Mutual Friend, the novel we read this Spring Semester: How does Gaffer Hexam make a living? What is Bella Wilfer's father's first name? What is his nickname? What is Betty Higden most afraid of? What terrible thing seems to be happening to Mr. Boffin? Tell me about Mr. Venus, two sentences max. Given a modicum of innate ability and some capacity for work, students can do very well in these tests. They can still face serious difficulties, however. To simplify a little, I would label these difficulties as literary and cultural.

Literary first. The sophistication and complexity of Dickens' language, especially in the later and more consciously artistic novels, can prove an obstacle. It is, I understand, notorious that few of today's students read for pleasure and it is, to my mind, lamentable that so little reading is required of them, at least in Wisconsin high schools. The less reading you do, the less the comprehension, and pleasure, with which you read and the smaller your vocabulary, and I have students who quite literally have never read a novel in their lives. Furthermore, for whatever reason — the influence of electronic media? — my students' attention spans can be short. It is my own repeated experience that it takes half an hour's reading to get into the world of whatever Dickens novel I am dealing with. It is half an hour or so before I internalise the assumptions and attitudes of the work, before the rhythms of the prose flow easily and I am there and not here. If your attention span is less, or much less, than thirty minutes then that is a problem. In the case of the less literary of my students then a sort of vicious circle kicks in: relatively demanding language requires a level of steady concentration that is more of an effort to maintain because the language is consistently demanding. Let me give an example to illustrate what I am trying to say. Here is an extract from the celebrated opening paragraph of Bleak House:

London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holburn Hill. . . . Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

That my students are vague about "Michaelmas Term" and the Lord Chancellor and Lincoln's Inn Hall is to be expected. That is what end-notes and dictionaries are for, and the better of my students will use them. More difficult to deal with is the wonderment of some, a wonderment occasionally explicit, as to why Dickens doesn’t just say, "It was gloomy and muddy." Was he paid by the line? a question I have been asked more than once. Any non-utilitarian style of writing puzzles. Most certainly the conventions of the Victorian novel, listed by Thomas Seccombe as "moral thesis, plot, underplot, set characters, descriptive machinery, landscape colouring, copious phraseology [as here], [and] Herculean proportions" are utterly foreign to these readers.

So why bother? Why not teach Great Expectations uniquely, and teach it, moreover, in the way in which it is apparently taught in at least one local high school: my elder son, no committed student of literature, managed to pass that particular course by relying on a film version of the novel. Why not have the novel represented by, say, Wuthering Heights in "Intro. to Lit." or, if one must use Dickens, why not stick with Hard Times, justifying the selection by the praise of Leavis? Well, for two reasons. First because of the principle of the thing. If Dickens really is the "Shakespeare of the Novel," then he ought to appear in university syllabi, and he ought to appear in the form of his greatest achievements, works such as Bleak House and Little Dorrit. If many students in both public and private universities are disengaged from academic goals; if they read little; if, for at least a substantial minority, the ability to pay sustained attention to lengthy and elaborate texts is a skill they have not necessarily acquired; or even if, as Thomas H. Benton claims, we now live in a post-literate world, and the mental processes and capacities of our young people are those of members of a society which understands and communicates orally, then the job of the instructor will be harder, but it still has to be attempted. Not, I hope, to sound pretentious but the line must be held.

But the second reason, a little more heartening, is that sometimes at least, and to continue with a military metaphor, one occasionally wins something very like an actual victory. The best of my students do actually produce good papers about Bleak House and Little Dorrit; I would say that a majority get something out of the experience of reading even late Dickens, even if that something is not as rich or profound as ideally I could wish; that my students will be voting for half a century or more and perhaps now more inclined to vote thoughtfully than would otherwise be the case; that they will understand England better when they have their vacations there; that they will be more likely to spend money in Dickens House and write a letter of protest if some future government proposes turning it into a supermarket. All that, perhaps, is at least something.


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Last modified 22 August 2011