What this blog’s about

I’m Iain Crawford, Faculty Director of Undergraduate Research and Associate Professor of English at UD. This is a blog about the Dickens Universe written by three students from the University of Delaware who will be attending it this summer. I’ve asked them to write in response to a series of prompts that I’ll paste in below. They (and I) welcome responses back.

What IS the Dickens Universe? There is nothing like it. It’s a week-long residential academic conference that brings together faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, and lay lovers of Dickens. Living in dorms at UC Santa Cruz, the attendees hear a series of lectures, participate in seminars and classes, and enjoy performances related to one Dickens novel. Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article, “Dickens in Eden,” give a wonderful flavor of what the Universe is like: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/08/29/dickens-in-eden.

This year, for the 39th annual version of the Universe, the book for the week was Barnaby Rudge, the less known but fascinating historical novel about anti-Catholic riots that took place in London during the summer of 1780. UD students Megan O’Donnell (Ph.D. English), Shannon Murphy (B.A. English), and Advith Sarikonda (English and Neuroscience) traveled to Santa Cruz and took part in this unique research collaborative. This blog records their responses to the experience and to the ways knowledge is made in English studies.

Dickens Universe Conference Blog

The goals of this assignment are to help you capture the experience of the Universe for yourselves, to help you reflect upon what it shows you about how academics create knowledge in literary studies, and to develop your own analytical skills. Your audiences are both our group from UD and also the faculty and graduate students attending the Universe.

What do you have to do?

  1. Write responses to the pre and post-conference prompts.
  • During the conference, write one blog post each day of the week. Your posts should be at least 250 words long. You are welcome to write more than one post a day.
  • Your posts can be based on the prompts below, but you can also write about anything else that you find significant, surprising or that makes a strong impression on you. The important thing is that you demonstrate that you are engaging with and reflecting upon the experience, deepening your connection with it. You can also be creative about how you do this.
  • Over the course of the week, respond at least once to the others’ posts, engaging in a conversational style but with specific detail and purpose. You are welcome to respond more than this and/or to respond to comments from the wider audience.


Pre-Conference prompt:

Introduce yourself briefly to an audience of readers who do not know you? What are your expectations of the conference? What do you imagine it will be like? If you could have one question answered – or at least addressed — during this week, what would it be?

Sunday lecture: What did you hear in this first lecture that intersected, elaborated or upset your reading of the novel or our pre-conference discussions? What was there in this first lecture that prompted you to want to think further/learn more? (You can also use this prompt for any of the other plenary lectures or afternoon talks.)

Using any of the talks, think about the form of the 50-minute lecture works. How does the speaker deliver their message? How does delivery relate to the argument? How did the speakers delivery enhance their message, if at all? How did it present challenges to the audience?

Use different methods to take notes on two of the talks. (notebook vs. tweets, for example) Compare how well each method works. Explain the differences. Which felt more authentic to your experience? Which do you think would be more usable for a paper or research?

Take a picture or a video of something that represents a particular moment of the Universe: what makes this image interesting or significant to your experience at the conference or understanding of the text?

Compare one of discussion-based experiences at the UD with any discussion-based class you took at UD (E110 counts, fyi). In what ways were they alike? How did they differ? Consider not just topic and expertise of the discussants, but also the purpose and the implicit or explicit rules for contribution (turn taking, indicating a desire to speak, ceding the floor, etc)

If you attend any of the workshops, how did the reality compare with your expectations? What one useful thing did you take away? What questions remain?

If you attend one of the social activities (other than the yoga!), describe the most striking thing about it and explore how it interacts with the discussions of novel that take place over the week.

Reflect upon the ways in which all the activities for the week (and you can include the yoga here) seem to describe the scholarly life/person.

Post-conference prompt:

What are you taking away from this experience?

At the end of the week, how have your perceptions of any of the following changed:

  • The meaning and form of the novel (you should narrow this down to something specific)
  • The way knowledge is created in literary studies
  • Dickens as an author, figure, and object of attention

Farewell (For Now) to the Dickens Universe

About a week and a half from the conference, and after a trip to LA to visit an old friend, I am finally home happily taking some time to reflect on my experiences. My experience at the Dickens Universe this summer was one I will treasure forever. It was an exercise in breaking out of my comfort zone, in taking on exciting intellectual challenges, and in diving headfirst into the Dickensian world. And, to get to do it all in the beautiful town of Santa Cruz was an absolute dream come true! I’ve lived in Upstate New York for most of my life, so being surrounded by mountains and tall, green trees is a familiar comfort. However, being able to stand with the beautiful redwoods behind me and an indescribable bay view in front is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I asked one of the undergrads here from UCSC if she ever got used to the view, and she answered “honestly, no”.

The scenery is just one layer of the magic of the Universe. I’ve met people that I hope will become lifelong friends. We’ve bonded over not only the book we read for this week, but over decades of book-loving and common interests. I’ve met people from around the world, many of whom I would never have had the chance to talk to otherwise. The amazing speakers, professors, and grad students have become role models as I move forward into the literature world.

Spending time at the Universe and with members of the Dickens Project really was one of the most exciting experiences of my academic career thus far. The lectures, discussion seminars, and general conversations about the novel and Dickens helped me hone in my skills and learn how to think about the text in many new ways. However, in addition to the work itself, the Universe was special because it was a glimpse into the academic lifestyle and the many avenues it takes. As a rising senior trying to figure out what I want to study in the future, the Universe was incredibly beneficial. I was able to make some friends that I truly hope will be lifelong, speak with professors and lecturers who have become role models, and talk to fellow book-lovers who had so many valuable lessons to share.

There certainly was no shortage of discussion about the novel, sometimes casual conversation over breakfast turned into a (friendly) heated debate over small details. These kinds of interactions are what make the event so special. One of my favorite moments was a conversation with a Universal during the Grand Party, who told myself and some other undergrads about his life, work and experiences (and the impossibly sweet story of how he and his wife met).

On that first Sunday, jet-lagged from the journey and sensorially overwhelmed by the amount of new, exciting things to process, I was almost certain the week would be very long. However, I found that the time flew by, between the full schedule of Barnaby events, outings with my roommates, and peaceful walks around campus. My friends at home started to (affectionately) refer to this week as “Dickens Camp”. Though they we not being completely serious, I think their description is more accurate than they expected. The Universe is a mix of many things, and saying goodbye definitely did feel like the end of summer camp.

I am planning to write an Honors thesis next year on the novel, and the scholarship from the Universe was a fantastic way to kick off the brainstorming process. I’ll certainly be thinking about the Maypole for many months to come, and I really have the Universe to thank for inspiring in me so many new trails of thought.

In truth, any description seems inadequate. Should you ever have the opportunity to attend, I strongly encourage you to embrace the experience as much as possible. No matter your familiarity on Dickens and his work, no matter your personal background or your academic interests, everyone is sure to get something wonderful out of the Universe.

The Last Day of Summer Camp, or What to Do at the End of the ‘Universe’?

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Under an almost full moon we sat in the dry grass between the Cowell Apartment Community Room and fields that look off over the sea. Earlier that day we went to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. We played mini golf and rode the Giant Dipper. Now we were sitting beneath the glow of the wooden roller coaster’s namesake stars, some of us still in our dresses from the Victorian Grand Ball. Our hair still slightly damp from dancing. We sat in a circle, able to hear the din of the last party of the week in the background, as if it were a bird’s gently murmured love song to the Universe. It was the last day of summer camp. We sat——storytelling, reminiscing.

What do you do at the end of the Universe?

For one, you think in metaphors inspired by brilliant colleagues-turned-friends. The sound of many voices traveling together from the party up the road reminded me of the “hum” described in a paper on birdsong and Virginia Woolf from the graduate student writing workshop; suddenly I am thinking of the affordances of birdsong for depicting romance as I try to capture the palpable love felt on the last day. Dickens Universe provides a new set of metaphors to think with. After discussing a novel like Barnaby Rudge you think in terms of crowds and true crime, transforming your circle of storytelling into its own Maypole Inn. Instead of an Ash tree your historical emblem is a redwood.

In the grass by the road on Friday night someone asks how we might keep our “empty centers” full so as to stop the torrent of certain historical patterns from rushing through us. We talk about our own channels of information, sometimes in the language of Dickens and sometimes distinct from it as we sit where the edge of a road, a view of the sea, and the smell of eucalyptus all meet.

What do you do at the end of the Universe?

This question is also a question about what one does at the beginning of the Universe. A question about what Dickens Universe even is. Part academic conference, part literary festival, part summer camp, and part professionalization workshop, Dickens Universe is no one thing. On any given day during Dickens Universe a graduate student might choreograph a dance for the “Sentimental Soirée and Sassy Sing-Along,” attend brilliant morning, afternoon, and evening talks on the novel, wander through redwood forests, participate in a faculty-led writing workshop, eat cafeteria food with scholars whose work they admire, and have soft drinks by the sea lions with another graduate student who traveled more than 5,000 miles to be there. On that same day a different graduate student might team-teach a seminar on the novel to a room full of high school students, undergraduates, long-time Dickens fanatics, and Road Scholars. They might drink tea out of intricate Victorian teacups, analyze a passage from the novel in a faulty-led graduate student seminar, and enjoy 45 minutes learning Victorian dances in the Stevenson Events Center. A few days like this and we were all both wiped and wired.

Then the Universe transitions from lecture series to literary festival. Friday at Dickens Universe bears little resemblance to those first hectic, electric days. There are no more 9am workshops or rehearsals for the sing-along. The morning plenary speaker delivers the final lecture of the week. The excitement for the Victorian Grand Ball is tangible. By Monday night we were already old friends. By Wednesday we couldn’t believe we’d known each other less than a week. By Friday it was the last day of summer camp and we were sharing tearful goodbyes. We kept saying to one another: “I’m getting serious end of summer camp vibes.”

We sat beneath the big dipper in the eucalyptus-bearing sea breeze——storytelling, reminiscing, and saying “see you soon” instead of “so long.”

Little Blue Cockade Hat

In one of my discussion sessions, we spent some time looking at the moment where John Gashford is first introduced in the novel. Dickens writes: “His dress [was] in imitation of his superior…this gentleman had an overhanging brow, great hands and feet and ears, and a pair of eyes that seemed to have made an unnatural retreat into his head” (293).

The way Gashford seems to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing made me think of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. He is trying to pretend he is something he is not, but it is not quite working. “My, what big ears you have grandma!” Before he has even made a single move, readers are told that he is slimy and manipulative, which turns out by the end of the novel to be exactly the case. Plus, Gashford is lucky enough to have some quasi-hendiadys (thanks to Adam Abraham for sharing about this topic in lecture today!) of his very own. There are 5 in a selection of just 9 lines: “demure and staid”, “formal and constrained”, “smooth and humble”, “sly and slinking”, and “warmed and rubbed”.

Perhaps these examples follow a looser definition than the noun-plus-adjective structure, but I think they are still beneficial in considering the way that Dickens conveys meaning through structure just as much as word choice. There is a duality to the language of his description, just as he attempts to conceal his true self with a false one. The section closes with note of how Gashford “smiled as if for practice”, and I cannot help but picture big, pointy canine teeth. In just one paragraph, we have detailed imagery not only of his appearance, but of his overall presence and character. In this way, Dickens truly proves to be a master of the first impression.

Another thought on characterization through language: the way the characters are described and referred to leaves lots of clues to be uncovered, and I think they could be useful in decoding both Dickens’ and the narrator’s attitudes. References to the characters by their professions reveal interesting patterns. Dennis is often “the hangman”, John “the landlord”, and Varden the “the locksmith”; Hugh, however, is never “the stablehand”, thus contributing to his perception as a lesser person by minimizing his role in society. I would also be very interested to spend more time on the use of epithets in the novel, like “poor Barnaby” and “good-natured Varden”.

With so much to find in even just one paragraph, it makes sense that even after an entire week of Barnaby Rudge, it still feels like there is more to be said.

Strategic presentism and the issue with critiquing a historical novel with a contemporary perspective

Speaker Devin Griffiths gave a brilliant speech on the pitfalls of approaching literary critiques of historical novels, particularly Barnaby Rudge, with an attitude befitting our current time period. If we view aspects of Dickens’ novels with a mentality that was not prevalent during Dickens’ time as an author, we are bound to mistake his intentions and conflate our wishes with the realities of a past era. Perhaps this is why many attendees of the Dickens Universe have not liked Barnaby Rudge as much as Dickens’ other, more popular works (such as Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations); many people are expecting the novel to reconcile aspects of history in an organized, linear fashion simply because this is the type of literature we have become accustomed to in the present day and age. As Griffith remarked, however, good historical fiction testifies to the messiness of history, not the coherence. While Barnaby Rudge is by no means one of Dickens’ most critically acclaimed works, it is definitely one of his smartest. As opposed to pretending that one event led to another in a relatively straightforward fashion (which many expected to be the case with the Gordon Riots in London),it is worth considering the notion that Dickens may have intentionally structured the plot such that the succession of events in the story was not smooth. Specifically, the “five year gap” between the events of the novel in the first part and second part is reflective of the sudden turn of events in England at the time. To paraphrase Griffiths, the novel clearly understands the relationship between past and present and their messy co-constitution. I appreciated this perspective on literary theory because I feel too often literary scholars undermine works for not adhering to certain expectations that they have regarding the plot simply because they are approaching them from a presentist mindset.

The Significance of Ravens in Barnaby Rudge

Teresa Mangum gave a brilliant talk on ravens and answered the question of why Dickens chose that animal to complement Barnaby in the novel. Mangum initially showed a video depicting exactly how it sounds when ravens mimic human speech, much to the delight of the audience. Dickens himself owned a raven, which was the direct inspiration for Grip’s existence in the novel. Afterwards, she described the relationships that ravens can form with other ravens and, more interestingly, with other species like humans. Ravens supposedly appreciate when humans leave food for them to eat and even occasionally return with “thank you” gifts in return. In one instance, a little girl in Seattle left food for ravens outside of her home, and the ravens eventually gathered in the location in which they were fed and returned with small leaves as worthy “gifts” in return for the food. As such, it makes sense that Dickens chose a raven (as opposed to any other pet) to befriend the novel’s protagonist, Barnaby Rudge. One telling quote from the novel reveals the extent to which Grip and Barnaby complement each other: Grip is described to be “alive to everything his master was unconscious of” and “watching him [Barnaby] intently with his glistening eye”. Mangum additionally displayed paintings outside of the scope of Dickens that depicted the friendly relationship between children and ravens, proving that Dickens’ choice of a raven to befriend Barnaby was justified. Mangum also claimed that it was fitting that Dickens chose Grip to end the novel, as Grip and Barnaby are essentially synonymous with one another, so it only makes sense that Dickens would choose to conclude with a statement from the “protagonist”. One audience member even stated that she felt the most sympathy in the novel for Grip, whose whereabouts were unknown during the course of the riots, and not Barnaby, whom the novel is named after. I thought this point was particularly interesting because Dickens wrote the novel such that readers felt as emotionally attached to a bird as as they did to the novel’s namesake.

12 minutes from campus

There are moments at Dickens Universe when all the new insights into the novel, all the new ways of reading it start entering your mind at once. Like all the ghost stories that Solomon Daisy ever heard, these transformational arguments about the novel don’t “come into [our] mind[s] one after another, but all crowding at once.” Susan Cook’s analysis of Barnaby Rudge and true crime podcasts dances with Jonathan Grossman’s discussion of standardization and the Industrial Revolution. Devin Griffith’s talk waltzes in, bringing with it another crowd: the V21 Collective. And the crowd of thoughts itself invites the crowds of Sophia Hsu’s talk. These different perspectives rub elbows in our minds. Some ideas link arms while others form a call to arms. But all are there, crowding together in a chaos of creative thinking and collective knowledge production.

But among these figurative crowds and the literal crowds of friendly faces at Dickens Universe, there is also a surprising serenity. A 12 minute drive from the UC Santa Cruz campus you can dip your toes into the cold crash of a Pacific ocean wave. At Lighthouse Field State Beach you can watch dogs chase each other and surfers chase waves. The wide ocean and wider sky make space for the crowds of thought. As one fellow graduate student (and new dear friend) put it: even the ocean itself seems vaster here.

Stretching out in every direction, shades of blue shape a place where ideas can wander, play, and become.

“Binge Watching” Dickens

Susan Cook’s wonderful lecture “Barnaby Rudge: True Crime Style” inspired me to think about the ways that modern concepts, like podcasts, can be used to aid our understanding of Dickens. As it is something I had very little knowledge of before the Universe, the idea of serialized fiction like Barnaby Rudge in Master Humphrey’s Clock has been particularly neat to learn about about this week. In our contemporary time, though we do not have novels commonly published in this format, it seems fair to say that live television has perpetuated the weekly release. When a show airs on a network, viewers switch on their screens once weekly. Perhaps this is a less cozy scene than a family gathering ‘round the hearth to read aloud the newest edition of the Pickwick Papers, but still the process is similar.

Television shows are usually written season by season. Does the audience’s response affect the way writers shape the trajectory of the show? If fans are unhappy with the plot, they will stop watching and the show will be unsuccessful, so the writers have to, at least in part, cater to their audience. I think it would be interesting to consider how this leads to a manipulation of the story, and how that concept could apply to the serialized text.

In the digital age, we have a new addition, the Internet as a provider of content. When an entire season is released at once for streaming on platforms like Netflix or Hulu, viewers suddenly have access to large amounts of content. Now, there is a choice; you can watch at your leisure between classes and obligations, no longer confined to a schedule.

This flexibility has lead to the practice of “binge watching” or “marathon watching”, where entire volumes are consumed in one or a few sitting(s). So, what I am wondering is how this impacts the experience of the show (or, novel in the serialized format). When content is released section by section, there is more room to process during the in-between. As viewers or readers go through their daily routine during the rest of the week, it allows time to think about and reflect on the content. Does this change the way we approach the next section?

When one “binges” content, they are not afforded this time to steep and mull. However, “binging” has its perks. It is easier to remember more of the finer details when watching in succession and be more attuned to minutiae that might otherwise be missed. Plus, the viewer/reader finds themselves more fully immersed in the world, and maybe situating themselves in it for a longer period of time can make the overall experience even more fulfilling than brief dips in and out.

In this way, the conference is sort of a “binge” in its own right. For a full week, we are engulfed in content, discussion and scholarship. It is a Universe, after all, and it really has felt like a total immersion into study of the text. At orientation, we were told that it is important to pace ourselves, take time to press pause and rest, but though the pace is undoubtedly fast, it has not been overwhelming. There has not been anything I wanted to miss. Each lecture has been inspiring and thought-provoking; each episode keeps me coming back for more.

A “Cheat” Code for Academic Writing?

Participating in the Dickens Universe Writing Workshop feels like using a cheat code in a video game. No way am I supposed to have access to all this useful information about the craft of academic writing without years of trial and error. No way am I supposed to be gathering so many demystified rhetorical strategies in such a short time. Surely there is usually a laborious and time-consuming quest that most players must embark on to discover some of these approaches to writing. Certainly, I must be getting away with something.

And yet, it is not a cheat code. It is built into the fabric of Universe, readily available for graduate students. In some ways it is emblematic of the Universe in its collapse of hierarchy and enthusiasm for creating communities of knowledge. The faculty leaders, Sam Baker and Deanna Kreisel, have been exceedingly generous with their individual feedback as well as their particular perspectives on various elements of academic writing. At the same time, though, they create an environment in which graduate-student peer-to-peer feedback is valued as equally expert. What this does for me at least is generate a feeling of confidence about future writing in addition to the strategies themselves. Rather than a “cheat” code for academia as a game, then, the Writing Workshop is helping me to re-write the code through which I perceive academia in general and academic writing in specific.

Discussion-Based Experiences

The graduate student-led discussion sections have yielded some of the most fruitful moments at the conference so far in my experience. The two grad student leaders have been doing an excellent job of facilitating, by serving as mediators to ensure everyone gets a chance to speak or posing a compelling question when the prior topic has run its course. Sometimes discussants raise hands; the bolder among us just speak up when the idea strikes.

I really liked how Tuesday’s session was structured: each attendee was assigned to select a topic—whether it be a theme, character or otherwise— and a corresponding passage. This way, we were each able to pursue something we were excited to talk about, and could hear everyone else’s takes on the subject as well. We struck a balance between in-depth textual readings, like reading aloud some of the strange corporal excerpts that characterize Miggs, and more general discussion of larger patterns and themes, such as how the relationship between father and son plays a role in the novel.

I tend to be more of a listener than a speaker, preferring to formulate my thoughts via pen (or keyboard). So, this session is excellent practice for finding my words on the fly and speaking extemporaneously. Plus, it’s good company: during the discussions (and the Universe as a whole) everyone has been exceptionally welcoming and receptive, generous listeners. We all come from different fields of expertise and levels of  experience, but it does not feel like the hierarchy one might naturally expect. Perhaps the style of the conference itself lends to that, since as a group we share so much time together, from meals to academic activities. Though its only been a few days, I have been surprised by the sense of community here, and it seems to foster more inclusive discussion.

At UD, classes in the English department tend to host a couple dozen students on average. To be in a smaller environment (especially one where everyone not only has read the reading, but is excited about it) is such a treat. In undergraduate classes, the most successful conversations come about when the participants are truly invested in what they have read. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which the members of a discussion are more (wonderfully) enthusiastic than here at the Universe, and I am very excited to continue the conversations we have begun this week.

Defining Agency: Who is truly independent in the novel?

In our faculty-led discussion group on Tuesday, we discussed the concept of agency and proceeded to rank the various characters in the novel according to the degree of agency that they possess. First, we defined agency as the ability that one has to choose the paths that he or she wishes to embark upon. In other words, we defined it as synonymous with autonomy. For the next 30 minutes, the class proceeded to categorize whether characters such as Sir John Chester, Barnaby, etc. had agency or not. What I found most rewarding in this exercise, however, was that some people perceived certain characters to have agency, while others claimed those very characters were in fact restricted. In one instance, an individual claimed that Sir John Chester had a great deal of agency due to his wealth, only for another individual to immediately rebut that Chester was actually merely establishing a facade of autonomy, and that he was actually an inhibited individual. This brought me to the realization that perhaps Dickens is implying that no character in the novel is truly “free”; in fact, every character, regardless of socioeconomic class, is fighting an uphill battle due to turbulent societal conditions. Therefore, despite Sir John’s wealthy status, he is no more free than the poor Hugh, as both are oppressed by money and society. This epiphany helped me better contextualize the theme of the novel, which revolves around the notion that contemporary society truly does not benefit any individual other than those in charge of running it – the poor are oppressed due to a lack of opportunity, and even the upper class is oppressed by the constant need to feign relevance.

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