Teaching Victorian novels in the Twitter Age
Mark Allison, Associate Professor of English
Even in this age of tweets and memes, Associate Professor of English Mark Allison doesn’t think students should be intimidated to read a 1,000-page novel written 200 years ago.
In fact, Allison believes literature of the Victorian period — an era of mass industrialization, the growth of major cities, class stratification and conflict, and long social reform novels — has poignant relevance and tangible appeal to students today.
“I think the writers of that period are addressing what is recognizable as our modern world as it comes into being,” says Allison.
“The social conditions we take for granted now were resisted very strongly when they first came into being, particularly an economy that produces extreme stratifications in quality of life and income,” Allison says. Through the distance a historical novel provides, students can delve into their current world from a new perspective to examine education, marriage, women’s roles, religion, and social and political reform.
English major John Keller ’20 says, “One element of Dr. Allison’s classes that I have always enjoyed is his ability to connect specific facts about the literary works we study with larger themes in the societies that created them.”
Despite the Victorian period’s ties to the present, Allison makes it a point to say he doesn’t politicize his teaching. “I’m not a professor of politics.”
Instead, he says his job is to help students make their own connections, to infer messages from a period of writers who rejected the notion of art for art’s sake and wrote literature to inspire social change. He says the authors’ spirit and idealism mirrors that of many OWU students, who are learning more deeply about the world around them and their roles and responsibilities in making it better.
Allison also relishes the opportunity to present great, timeless stories to students — something they come to appreciate once they get over the initial intimidation of voluminous works such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.
“I think students who have grown up with social media are also more aware of the desirability of taking a break from it — or at least to learn at a different speed,” Allison explains. “Students often thank me afterwards, even if they didn’t enjoy it along the way. They find a sense of accomplishment when they finally get over the hump. Some of these books and authors still have an aura about them. They still have cultural capital.”
This shared social knowledge and insight make literature worth studying, and Allison wants to leave students with an important message not only about the value of literature but also about the value of the liberal arts education they will carry with them wherever they go.
“Students shouldn’t be afraid to study literature or to pursue whatever they are interested in,” he says.
“Students with liberal arts backgrounds have a better chance at fulfilling work. We live in an age with great economic anxiety and a natural tendency to prioritize education that seems practical and career oriented, but employers value liberal arts students for their ability to think critically, communicate orally, and write clearly.
“These skills will always be in demand.”
Timeless skills. Timeless novels.
By Natalie Kopp