How to Solve Problems with Books: Explaining Ourselves to the Victorians

by Abigail Droge
Published January 14, 2019

How would we tell the Victorians about ourselves? Specifically, how would we ask their advice about the legacies of industrialism that we face in the twenty-first century? These questions structure the first in a series of assignments for “How to Solve Problems with Books.” Taken as a whole, the assignment sequence is meant to enact a dialogue between ourselves and the nineteenth-century authors on our syllabus.

As a first step, teams of students must write a Research Memo and Annotated Bibliography, meant to convey information about the twenty-first century to a Board of Advisors made up of Victorians. We consider three main categories related to industrialism and its effects: 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. For instance, we have teams focusing on conservation efforts, student loan forgiveness, universal basic income, curricular change, and affordable housing. I share our first assignment sheet below.


Research Memo and Annotated Bibliography


You have been appointed to research a current issue related to industrialism (the topic of your assigned team) and to relay that information to an Advisory Board, which we will imagine to be made up of Victorians. Your goal is to acquaint the Board with the key elements at play in your topic; you want to give them enough information to enable them to weigh in and give advice on the issue themselves. (Imagining what they would say will be Assignment 2!) The assignment consists of two parts:

1) Research Memo: As a team, prepare a 1000-word (min) Memo for your Board (so, 1000 words total per team, not per person). You should lay out some of the central points that are at stake in the issue you are tackling and give your Board a sense of the pros and cons for adopting this particular solution. You might also find it helpful to give your Board some contextual background information, in order to communicate the import and history of the problem at hand. Your memo should be well-researched, with all of your sources cited. You might try to answer questions such as the following:

  • What problem needs to be addressed and why?
  • How would this particular solution address the problem? What would the benefits be?
  • What challenges might we face in adopting this solution?
  • Would there be possible negative outcomes to this solution? What might be some reasons not to choose this course of action? Are there existing alternatives?
  • How pressing is this issue? What would happen if no solutions were adopted?
  • Who are the main players in the conversations around the issue that you are researching? Who’s funding it? Who’s talking about it? Who stands to gain or lose? Who would be most impacted? (for instance – government entities, private funders, individual families, future generations, etc.)

2) Annotated Bibliography: Each team member must contribute three sources to an annotated bibliography.

  • Each entry in the annotated bibliography should consist of a full citation for a source, accompanied by at least three sentences describing what the source is and why it is helpful to the questions at hand.
  • Remember that you are providing this bibliography for someone else to read (your Board), so the goal is to help your Board navigate the terrain of source materials in a way that could guide them towards their own further research. Give a sense of the source’s strengths or weaknesses. For instance, you might point out that a particular source has a helpful series of first person accounts about the impact of your issue, or that a source does not represent a particular perspective. Are there biases built into these sources? (For instance, is the piece being written by a funder? By a recipient of funding?)
  • These sources may overlap with the sources that you use to write your Memo. Not all sources need be “academic” or peer reviewed, though do try to have a balance of at least half overall that are. More popular sources can certainly be valid and interesting to include as well, especially when representing the points of view of different stakeholders (though try to avoid things like Wikipedia). The important thing is to recognize the perspective of each source and to consider how that perspective affects the message communicated.

Please combine all of your team members’ work into a single document to turn in. Make sure that all of your sources are cited and use a consistent citation style, such as MLA, Chicago, or APA format. If you use sources beyond those in your annotated bibliography, I expect these to be cited as well (though they don’t need to be annotated).  


It is my hope that by presenting ourselves to the Victorians, juxtaposing the effects of industrialism in one moment with those in another, we will begin a process of sharing insights between centuries. Our premise for the class is that similar questions might be asked of both the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, even while expecting very different answers. Some diagnoses of Victorian society may well remain true of ourselves, and vice versa, though in other ways, we will certainly find more change than continuity. Teasing out these conversations – particularly what holds and what does not, what logics we would choose to dismiss or what perspectives we might want to reinvigorate – is the main goal of our quarter.

Stay tuned for our future assignments! Assignment 2, “Advice from the Victorians,” asks students to impersonate the nineteenth-century figures whom they addressed in Assignment 1. In the voices of authors and characters from our Victorian texts, students must respond to twenty-first-century issues, giving advice about the topics on which they were briefed. The final assignment, “Creating a Five-Year Plan,” asks students to return to their own voices and respond to the Victorians they impersonated. In seeking to address the problems created by industrialism, would you take the advice given by nineteenth-century figures? Why or why not? By engaging with the Victorians in this way, I hope that students can learn to ask questions of the past in ways that might guide the future.


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!