Text and Context: Using Wikis to Teach Victorian Novels
Having personally fallen victim to the romance of the archive, I love introducing students to primary sources that help them navigate the distant world of Victorian novels. Without contextual knowledge, they often find themselves puzzled or frustrated—why don’t ill-suited spouses just divorce each other? Why are aristocrats so clueless about the Stock Exchange? Hoping to improve upon conventional assignments, I tasked students with creating a wiki. To an online version of the novel, they attached their own essays, which they keyed to points of conflict or confusion in order to help future student readers understand the issues at stake. Students investigated the novelty of investment capitalism, attitudes towards Jews, the contested nature of the term ‘gentleman’, the history of medical reform, and domestic violence, among other topics.
Students also came to see that their primary sources did not establish facts about Victorian beliefs but were no more authoritative than the novels. Moreover, certain genres, such as advice literature, attempted to stabilize social meanings, while the novels were more interested in opening up areas of ambiguity or change. Students traced the dynamic interrelationships among texts, as novels, conduct books, newspaper accounts and memoirs vied for authority over social meanings. They also noted the ways in which the novel itself registered competing values and ideas. In doing so, they became more sensitive to the features of different narratives and different kinds of narratives, developing a special appreciation for the heteroglossia of the novel.
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