How to Solve Problems with Books

“Literature in the Real World: How to Solve Problems with Books” English 11, Literature and its Uses. Taught by Abigail Droge in the UC Santa Barbara English Department, Winter 2019 and 2020, in affiliation with the WhatEvery1Says Project. Introductory course with 15-30 students from multiple majors meeting twice a week for an hour and fifteen minutes each day, on a ten-week term schedule.

Course Description

Should literature be applied to current social issues? If so, how? If not, why not? In this class, we’ll consider the pros and cons of “solving problems with books” as we build a dialogue between major works of the Victorian era and pressing debates in the twenty-first century. Our particular focus will be the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath, including topics related to climate change, economic inequality, and education reform. Through readings of nineteenth-century British authors, we will ask whether “relevance” is the right question, or whether “art for art’s sake” is a valuable alternative. As a final project, we will put on a half theatrical/half analytic public colloquium, in which teams of students impersonate different Victorian figures and act as a “board of advisors” for current issues. What would Elizabeth Gaskell have to say about environmental policies? How would Charles Dickens implement an after-school tutoring program? Our main goal will be to discuss and debate whether or not we should take such advice, whether “advice” is an appropriate outcome of literary study, and what relationships we might draw between historical literature and present problems.

Major Texts

  • Charles Dickens. Hard Times. Ed. Kate Flint. London: Penguin, 2003.
  • Elizabeth Gaskell. North and South. Ed. Patricia Ingham. London: Penguin, 2003.
  • Thomas Carlyle, “Signs of the Times”
  • William Wordsworth, Selected poems
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “The Cry of the Children”
  • William Morris, “Useful Work versus Useless Toil”
  • John Ruskin, Selected prose
  • Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England
  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
  • Oscar Wilde, Selected prose
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., “Economic and Social Bill of Rights”

Learning Goals

  • How to imagine new applications and audiences for literature, make connections between books and social issues, and engage authors in dialogue, even across centuries
  • How to consider all sides of an issue in order to reach thoughtful conclusions
  • How to ask questions of the past in ways that might guide the future

Syllabus Design

The premise of the class is that we can treat our Victorian authors (and their characters) as a “board of advisors,” with whom we can be in dialogue about current issues. At the beginning of the quarter, we group ourselves into teams of three or four students, with each team oriented around a different current issue related to industrialism and its effects. We are concerned with several major themes: climate change, economic inequality, and education reform. Within these macro-categories, each team will focus on a proposed solution, which students will then evaluate through independent research, in conversation with the ideas raised by the literature on our syllabus.

Full syllabus available here:


Once student teams have chosen their topic, they continue to focus on it throughout the quarter. All assignments are done in teams, with individual contributions marked throughout.

  • Research Memo and Annotated Bibliography For our first assignment, each team must imagine that it is preparing a briefing for its advisory board members about its central issue. The team should prepare a 1000-word (min) memo about the key points that are at stake in the issue and lay out some of the pros and cons for adopting this particular solution. Each team member must then contribute three sources to an annotated bibliography (each annotation must be at least three sentences long). Students will present their work to each other in class.
  • Advice from the Victorians This assignment consists of two parts. First, each team member must choose to impersonate a different author or character from our readings, and, in that voice, give advice about your team’s central issue. (For instance, you could write from the perspective of Dickens himself, or from the point of view of one of his characters, like Louisa Gradgrind or Sissy Jupe.) When your team’s impersonations are aggregated, they will form a series of responses to your initial Research Memo, told from a variety of perspectives, and the collection of people you have picked will be your Board of Advisors. You are essentially imagining what Victorians would say if they came face-to-face with the impact of industrialism now. What solutions might they propose to the questions you are investigating? Your impersonation should be 500 words. Second, in an additional 500 words, I want each team member to reflect on why you made the decisions that you did when impersonating the author or character you chose. What passages in our readings guided your tone and word choice? What convinced you that this person would respond in this way?
  • Creating a Five-Year Plan Now that we have imagined what advice we might receive from the Victorians, we must decide whether or not to take that advice. In this final assignment, you will engage your Board of Advisors in dialogue about your key issue and respond to their advice in your own voices. This is your chance to give your own opinions about the best way forward in the wake of industrialism. If you would take the Victorians’ suggestions, tell us why. If you would not take them, tell us what you would do instead. Each team member should respond individually to another team member’s impersonated Victorian advisor in 500 words (so you aren’t responding to your own). Collectively, each team should then write a 1000-word Five-Year Plan, in which you highlight the top priorities to be addressed and the best actions that you recommend should be taken. In the final class period, students will present key points about their chosen issues and deliver excerpts from their impersonations and Five-Year Plans. This class period will be open to friends and guests who would like to attend.


For more about the experience of teaching “How to Solve Problems with Books,” including detailed discussion of lesson plans, readings, and assignments, see the blog series below, originally published on the WhatEvery1Says website by Abigail Droge under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. WhatEvery1Says is a Mellon-funded public humanities project, and the posts were written by Droge in her capacity as Director of the Curriculum Lab. Click on each title to read the full post.

Sample Student Work

[To come]