How to Solve Problems with Books: Syllabus Design

by Abigail Droge
Published January 7, 2019

We are excited to kick off the Winter quarter here at UCSB! This term, I’ll be teaching a new class called “Uses of Literature: How to Solve Problems with Books.” I here share my syllabus and lay out some of the aims of the course. Like my Fall course, “Reading with Scientists,” “How to Solve Problems with Books” is affiliated with WhatEvery1Says and aligns with the humanities advocacy mission of the project.

Our main goal is to consider the following questions: Should literature be applied to current social issues? If so, how? If not, why not? 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.

Over ten weeks, we’ll read poetry by William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and prose by Thomas Carlyle, William Morris, John Ruskin, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Oscar Wilde. The centerpiece of the course will be a tandem reading of two Industrial novels from the Victorian period: Charles Dickens’s Hard Times and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. By bringing to life a dialogue between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries, I hope that students can learn to imagine new applications and audiences for literature and make connections between books and social issues. As we dive deeply into the worldviews of our Victorian authors, we will focus on asking questions of the past in ways that might guide the future.

To kick off our discussion on the first day, we interrogated our course’s title. Students wrote brief responses to the prompt: “Can you solve a problem with a book? What would it mean to do so?” I encouraged them to reflect on both the potentials and limitations of applying literature to social issues, and to contribute any relevant personal experiences. To follow from this discussion, we considered how Wordsworth might answer the same question by examining two of his poems: “The Tables Turned,” and “London, 1802.” Students read the poems to themselves and then talked them over with partners before returning to a full group discussion.

The poems provide two different models for engaging literature in the “real world.” In “London, 1802,” Wordsworth makes the case for the power of literature, calling upon the ghost of John Milton to guide England through its present turmoil:

Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour:

England hath need of thee: she is a fen

Of stagnant waters [….]

[….] We are selfish men;

Oh! raise us up, return to us again;

And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.

If England could once more hear the voice of the great poet, she might forget her selfishness and again live with “inward happiness.” An author’s social influence can be great and lasting. But “The Tables Turned” offers a different perspective, one which recognizes the limitations of literary impact:

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:

Come, hear the woodland linnet,

How sweet his music! On my life,

There’s more of wisdom in it.


Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—

We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;

Close up those barren leaves;

Come forth, and bring with you a heart

That watches and receives.

Here, the lessons of literature can never be as great as the lessons of experience. Speaking in a way which might resonate strongly with UC Santa Barbara students as they look out of library windows over the glittering ocean, Wordsworth admonishes us to “quit [our] books” and seek a teacher in the natural world, rather than in the written one.

It is my hope that our class can inhabit a space between these two poems. On the one hand, we must recognize that solving problems will always be an endeavor that relies upon elements beyond books and that requires “real world” experience. Yet, there is still a powerful sense that literature can hold answers for us, or at least guide us as we look for them. If Milton’s voice could resonate with Wordsworth across the centuries, then certainly the Victorian authors on our syllabus can still have much to teach us.

Droge – Uses of Literature – Syllabus Winter 2019

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!