Reading Communities: The Social Life of Literature in a Time of Social Distancing

by Abigail Droge
Published April 21, 2020

As a way of documenting the experience of teaching during COVID-19, I want to share the WE1S-affiliated class that I am currently adapting to an online format: “Reading Communities: The Social Life of Literature.”

The topic of “reading communities” has been a surprisingly poignant one to examine within a quarantined environment. I ask my students to consider reading not as a solitary act, but as a social one – a foundation for community-building, even when we are physically separated. Our class will unfold in three units. In the first, “The Social Life of Literature in a Time of Social Distancing,” we ask how reading can help us to preserve connections in a time of crisis and what kinds of reading communities become possible in an online landscape. We’ve begun with the book chosen for this year’s UCSB Reads (the one-book program here on campus): Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. Rush’s text is helping us to discuss the ways that a shared book can form the basis for virtual communities at UCSB amidst the Coronavirus. An exciting partnership with a UCSB Environmental Studies course on Coastal Processes and Management (taught by Dr. Ed Keller), which is also reading Rising, will help us to build interdisciplinary reading communities.

In our second unit, “Reading Communities of the Past and Present,” we will ask what we can learn from historical communities of readers, how we might reanimate their forms and practices in our current moment, and how we can combine current and historical perspectives to build connections across academic disciplines. Here, we’ll turn to past examples of communal reading, focusing on Victorian archives and learning about the forms and contexts in which people came together over literature in the nineteenth century. George Eliot’s novel, The Mill on the Floss, will help us to enact and adapt some of these community structures ourselves.

Finally, in our third unit, “Reading Communities of the Future,” we will zoom out to take a big-data approach to our position as student readers. How can we analyze and leverage our own reading communities to help others find social connection? What tools can we provide for future students as they build their own communities? This unit will actively incorporate materials from WhatEvery1Says, allowing us to analyze student discourse about the humanities from campus newspapers across the US, as well as in our own backyard at UCSB. As we use digital methods to identify community bonds that we might like to strengthen and gaps that we might help to fill, we will create toolkits and resources that hope to foster future collaborations among students. Stay tuned for some concrete examples of using WE1S in the classroom!

Looking to the weeks ahead, I hope that we’ll learn how to strengthen communities, virtual and otherwise, through shared reading. I hope that we can leverage literature to collaborate in hard times and build partnerships across disciplines and distances. I hope that we can understand reading as a tool capable of both social inclusion and exclusion, and one that must therefore be used with care and responsibility. I hope that we can draw upon a knowledge of historical reading structures and practices to inform our own in the present and future. I hope that we can experiment with a variety of methods, including those drawn from Literary Studies, Environmental Studies, Digital Humanities, and Public Humanities. And I hope that we can be self-reflective about what it means to be a reader, especially in this historic moment.


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. Stay tuned for more Curriculum Lab posts throughout the year!