How to Solve Problems with Books: Creating a Five-Year Plan with the Victorians

by Abigail Droge
Published February 5, 2019

How do we turn literary analysis into action? This question guides the final installment in a series of three assignments for “Uses of Literature: How to Solve Problems with Books.” The sequence has been designed to spark a dialogue between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. In our first assignment, the “Research Memo and Annotated Bibliography,” teams of students laid out the stakes of a current issue related to industrialism and its effects, such as climate change, conservation efforts, affordable housing, student loan debt, education reform, and the future of work. The second assignment, “Advice from the Victorians,” asked students to impersonate a Victorian Board of Advisors and present responses to their original Research Memo in the voices of nineteenth-century authors and fictional characters, drawing from the work of Carlyle, E. Browning, Morris, Ruskin, Marx, Engels, Dickens, and Gaskell.

Now that we have imagined what advice we might receive from the Victorians, however, we must decide whether or not to take that advice and, if we want to take it, what to do with it. I share our next assignment sheet below.


Creating a Five-Year Plan

In this final assignment, you will engage your Victorian Board of Advisors in dialogue about your team’s 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. The assignment has two parts:

1) Answering the Advisory Board (500 words minimum, per person)

  • First, each team member should respond individually to another team member’s impersonated Victorian advisor from Assignment 2 (so you aren’t responding to your own). Please include your name with your response and make it clear to whom you are responding (both the Victorian and the teammate).
  • In your own voice, reply to this Victorian’s advice. Would you take the advice? If so, why? If not, why not? What makes sense to you about this Victorian’s argument? What might you change? Your response can be nuanced – for instance, perhaps you agree with the motivation behind this Victorian’s perspective, but you disagree with the particular logic that he or she uses, or the specific actions that he or she might propose.
  • Feel free to quote directly from your teammate’s impersonation in order to create a real sense of dialogue. (But of course, make sure to cite your teammate’s work.)
  • You may use the first person: I want to know what you think here. In forming your own opinion, however, I would encourage you to build on and cite the research and reading that we’ve done this quarter – whether that be sources from your own Annotated Bibliographies or other nineteenth-century readings from our syllabus.

2) Creating a Five-Year Plan (1000 words minimum, per team)

  • Collectively, each team should consider the work of the previous assignments: the landscape of current research and opinions that you laid out in your original Research Memo and Annotated Bibliography, the advice received from all the Victorian members of your Advisory Board, and the responses that you gave to them in Part 1 of this assignment. With these exchanges in mind, I want you to create your own Five-Year Plan around your team’s chosen theme.
  • A Five-Year Plan is a document highlighting the top priorities to be addressed in the next five years in relation to your team’s issue. What are the best actions that you would recommend to be taken in order to accomplish those priorities? How can we most successfully engage the impacts of industrialism in the twenty-first century?
  • Your Plan should ultimately reflect your team’s own opinions, but I would like these opinions to be in dialogue throughout with the readings and research you have done in our previous assignments. As you present your own agenda, you should include references to sources from your Annotated Bibliography and from our syllabus, making it clear how your thoughts align with or depart from the thoughts of others. Whose ideas have inspired you (either in the nineteenth or twenty-first century)? Whose ideas have you found flawed and why? What would you do instead? This is your chance to synthesize all of the analysis we’ve done this term into proposals for action.
  • Format your Plan in such a way that a reader can quickly get a sense of what you think are the key goals and action items in relation to your team’s topic. For instance, you might have a set of three to five points in bold, each followed by a discussion that includes reference to your source materials and gives a sense of why you would argue for this course of action.

Please compile Parts 1 and 2 into a single document and include a Works Cited.


In our final class of the quarter, students will participate in a showcase, building from all three assignments this term. The class will be open to any guests who would like to attend and students are encouraged to invite their friends and family. Each team must prepare a short (5 minute) presentation, in which students give a brief overview of their team’s topic, describe which historical figures or fictional characters they chose to impersonate, what they imagine these nineteenth-century opinions and advice would be, and how they would respond. By the end of the presentation, the audience should have a sense of why each team’s issue is important, what perspectives the nineteenth century might offer to us, how we see ourselves in dialogue with the authors and characters we’ve met this term, and what students propose as the best paths forward for addressing the effects of industrialism.

In designing this assignment sequence and juxtaposing the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, my hope is to provide a way of bringing the Victorians into present conversations, without necessarily assuming that the past provides an appropriate rubric by which to read the present, or vice versa. The greatest – and most exciting – challenge of this assignment, I think, is that students must make up their own minds about what relationships to build between past and present. Being at liberty to dismiss or embrace the Victorians, students must, at the very least, consider them.


This post is part of a series about the ongoing UC Santa Barbara English course “Uses of Literature: How to Solve Problems with Books.” For context, read more about the motivations and design process behind the course. 

The goal of the Curriculum Lab is to ensure a steady dialogue between research and teaching for the WhatEvery1Says project. For more information, see our webpage and this introductory blog post, and stay tuned for more Curriculum Lab posts throughout the year!