How to Solve Problems with Books: Final Showcase

by Abigail Droge
Published March 29, 2019

To celebrate the last day of class, the students in “How to Solve Problems with Books” hosted a final showcase, open to guests. We met in the Digital Arts and Humanities Commons on UCSB’s campus, which gave us a bigger space to work with than our regular classroom. We arranged the tables in a horseshoe, giving students the feel of a conference roundtable, with chairs set up for audience members to complete the circle. Students were encouraged to invite their friends, and we also had professors, graduate students, and librarians in attendance. Since it was an early morning, I brought pastries, fruit, coffee, and orange juice, which gave the session a festive atmosphere. Over breakfast, students had the opportunity to share their knowledge and invite audience members into their research process for the quarter.

For the audience’s benefit, I first introduced the class and provided a program with the following course details:

Should literature be applied to current social issues? If so, how? If not, why not? In this class, we have considered the pros and cons of “solving problems with books” as we’ve built a dialogue between major works of the Victorian era and pressing debates in the twenty-first century. Our particular focus has been the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath, including topics related to climate change, economic inequality, and education reform. A series of interlinked team assignments has helped us to enact this dialogue:

1) Research Memo and Annotated Bibliography: Each team appointed to research a current issue related to industrialism and to relay that information to an Advisory Board, which we imagine to be made up of Victorians. The goal is to acquaint the Board with the key elements at stake in each team’s topic and to lay out the pros and cons of different solutions.

2) Advice from the Victorians: Here students imagine what the Victorians on their Advisory Board might say in response to the issues described to them through the Memo of Assignment 1. Each team member impersonates a different nineteenth-century figure (either a historical author or a fictional character) and then reflects on the process of representing that perspective.

3) Creating a Five-Year Plan: After considering the responses that Victorians might give to twenty-first-century problems, students now have a chance to reply in their own voices and to decide whether to take the advice that they imagined in Assignment 2. In conversation with Victorian perspectives, students lay out their own solutions to the continued effects of industrialism.

Thank you for joining us as we continue this discussion!

The program also included all of the students’ names, their team topics, and the Victorians that each team had chosen to make up their Board of Advisors. The teams were as follows:

Climate Change

Team 1: Carbon Emissions

Board of Advisors: Thomas Gradgrind, John Ruskin, Josiah Bounderby, Karl Marx

Team 2: International Industrialism and Conservation

Board of Advisors: Friedrich Engels, Margaret Hale

Economic Inequality

Team 3: Affordable Housing

Board of Advisors: Karl Marx, John Thornton, Charles Dickens

Team 4: Job Security, Universal Basic Income, and the Future of Work

Board of Advisors: Charles Dickens, Mr. Hale, Thomas Gradgrind

Education Reform

Team 5: Student Loan Debt and Affordability in Higher Education

Board of Advisors: Elizabeth Gaskell, William Morris, Karl Marx

Team 6: Structural Reform and Curricular Change in K-12

Board of Advisors: William Wordsworth, Louisa Gradgrind, Thomas Gradgrind

To complete the picture, I also provided a list of “Dramatis Personae,” so that audience members could have a reference point for historical and fictional figures invoked throughout the session. I included the birth and death dates for each author with a one- or two-line bio, and a brief description and plot summary for the characters from Dickens’s Hard Times and Gaskell’s North and South. I also ran a slideshow of images on loop throughout the session, including headshots of our Victorian authors, illustrations from the novels, and depictions of nineteenth-century factories and industrial landscapes.

Students sat with their team mates, and each team had five to seven minutes to give an overview of their three assignments. Though we had discussed research strategies and best practices as a class, particularly through a crucial research workshop led by Jane Faulkner of UCSB Libraries early in the quarter, teams had largely delved into their topics independently, continually bringing in their individual findings to put in conversation with the Victorians on our syllabus. Students thus took a good deal of ownership over their topics, and the showcase was meant to provide them with an opportunity to present themselves as experts on the issues they had explored. It was exciting to see students interweave Victorian perspectives with their own. What would Karl Marx think of the Paris Climate Agreement? How would Charles Dickens advise housing reform? What might Thomas Gradgrind say about Common Core standards in public elementary schools? In conversation with examples of Victorian print culture, one team proposed a biodegradable informational pamphlet to spread knowledge about climate change; on the day of the showcase, students passed around sheets of their own hand-made paper, embedded with the seeds of local Santa Barbara wildflowers, which, instead of litter, will turn into blooms when the paper is discarded. Audience members thus got to go home with the makings of their very own Victorian-inspired garden!

At the end of the presentations, we had time for discussion and questions. Students were asked to consider the greatest differences between themselves and the Victorians, to comment on their strategies for crafting impersonations, and to reflect on moments in the research process in which the nineteenth-century perspective shone through most clearly. Students had a subsequent week to finalize their Five-Year Plans before handing them in, which allowed them time to incorporate suggestions from the discussion if they wished. All in all, the opportunity to present their work in a collegiate atmosphere seemed welcome to students and provided a fitting end to the quarter.

From the perspective of humanities advocacy central to WhatEvery1Says, opening up a single class session to a larger audience is a simple and powerful way of integrating a public humanities ethos into your course.1 Starting small and asking the class to invite their friends can encourage students to become advocates themselves, prompting them to reframe the course material as they speak in front of an audience unfamiliar with the specific texts and concepts of the class. Such an experience can be a great way to help students communicate the value of what they are studying and can foster peer-to-peer dialogue between students of different majors.


  1. Thanks to the many inspiring examples of such activities that I have seen presented and discussed by colleagues over the years, such as at the Interdisciplinary Pedagogy panel at the 2018 INCS Graduate Student Caucus in San Francisco and at the Environmental Humanities Project workshop at Stanford.

A special thank you to Professor Jeremy Douglass for the use of the Digital Arts and Humanities Commons and to Jane Faulkner, of UCSB Libraries, for the Research Workshop that set us on the right path at the start of the quarter’s assignments.


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!