Appointed As

English

Program

Abigail Drogeprogram

Host

Emory University

PhD Field of Study

PhD, English, Stanford University

Dissertation Abstract

"Reading Skills: The Politics of Literacy in the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries"

Reading Skills: The Politics of Literacy in the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries unites teaching and research in the same conversation. I interweave three elements: nineteenth-century archival records from working-class and pre-professional reading communities, close readings of Victorian novels, and reflections on the experience of teaching those novels in the diverse landscape of the twenty-first-century literature classroom. Most broadly, this dissertation explores the relationship between literacy and character: how does a person’s reading become constitutive of who that person is perceived to be? I am particularly interested in the status of this relationship as a function of class, and I argue that the ability to dissociate one’s reading from one’s identity is a privileged position. The project also dissects the progression and impact of two kinds of specialization: that which separates academic disciplines from each other, and that which separates formally-educated groups from their surrounding communities.
The first half of the project focuses on the work of Charles Dickens, particularly as it was consumed by readers in Mutual Improvement Societies – small working-class reading and discussion clubs, in which members took turns giving papers on topics of their choice. In contrast to previous scholarship which has emphasized the autobiographical accounts of members, I bring to light minute books and syllabi from over sixty societies in London and northwestern England from the 1830s-90s, many of them formed by Methodist churches. I highlight as a case study the minutes of the particularly long-lived Rusholme Wesleyan Mutual Improvement Society in Manchester (1842-95). Through the frame of this reception history, I read The Pickwick Papers and Our Mutual Friend and argue that Dickens acted as an important pivot point for navigating the social specialization promulgated by increasing literacy, allowing Society members to resist the potentially segregating effects of
“improvement” and maintain connections to a wider community. I finish this chapter sequence with a reflection on my own experiences using Oliver Twist to interrogate specialized academic boundaries in an English class that included an important community engagement component with local literacy centers.
The second half of the project focuses on the work of George Eliot, as it was read by first-generation working-class and pre-professional students at the Mason Science College (later the University of Birmingham) in the 1880s. Through extensive engagement with the College’s student literary magazine, yearbooks, and administrative minutes, I explore how constituencies across the College – from the Academic Board, to the English Department, the Student Union, and an extracurricular Poesy Club – framed literacy as a general or a special skill within the context of scientific education. I argue that the common experience of extracurricular literary culture provided students from specialized scientific disciplines with necessary cohesion in a splintered academic environment. Literary culture, in other words, effectively enabled a specialized model of scientific education, while simultaneously offering a critique of that education. Through readings of The Mill on the Floss and Impressions of Theophrastus Such, I argue that George Eliot held such traction for Mason students, especially for the first generation of women to go to college, precisely because she refused to specialize. Eliot’s model of narrative sympathy and her inclusion of scientific language in the space of the novel helped her audience to avoid segmenting forms of knowledge. I close this sequence with a lesson plan that suggests ways forward for engaging with Eliot in twenty-first-century science-and-tech-centric communities.