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May 30, 2005

Internationally renowned Dickens Project celebrates 25th year at UCSC

By Scott Rappaport

San Francisco Chronicle book critic David Kipen recently observed that the Dickens Project at UCSC “may just be literary California’s best-kept secret.”

John Jordan, JoAnna Rottke
Literature professor John Jordan, director of the Dickens Project, and project coordinator JoAnna Rottke

Photo: Scott Rappaport

The project is nationally and internationally recognized as the premier center for Dickens studies in the world and is one of the leading sites for research on 19th-century British culture.

A scholarly consortium headquartered at UCSC, it consists of faculty and graduate students from eight general campuses of the University of California, as well as from 16 other major American and international universities--including the City University of New York, Stanford, MIT, Vanderbilt, USC, Princeton, Rice, NYU, Columbia, the University of Exeter in Britain, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Founded in 1981 to stimulate collaborative research on the writings, cultural impact, and life of novelist Charles Dickens, as well as the Victorian age in general, the Dickens Project has gone on to cosponsor international conferences in Israel, France, South Africa, Italy, Great Britain, and Australia. It also publishes educational materials on Dickens and other Victorian writers and has produced three teaching resource kits in collaboration with the BBC, in addition to hosting numerous seminars and workshops for teachers, supporting the professional development of countless graduate students, and serving as an international clearinghouse for Dickens scholarship.

But the undisputed heart of the project is the Dickens Universe, a weeklong event held each summer among the redwood trees at UCSC that brings together college faculty, graduate students, high school teachers, undergraduates, Elderhostel participants, and members of the general public to focus on the study of one particular Dickens novel. The Dickens Universe combines elements of a research symposium, arts festival, book club, and summer camp all rolled into one big, unforgettable week of intellectual celebration.

“When we started, we had no idea it would last this long or continue to grow as it has,” observed John Jordan, director of the Dickens Project and professor of literature at UCSC.

“I think it’s been so successful because Dickens was a comic writer and a great storyteller,” Jordan added. “He’s a writer concerned with important social questions—poverty, hunger, child labor, homelessness, bureaucracy, class inequity, marriage, and the status of women. In addition to being a novelist, he was involved in all the social issues of his time and that fed into his work. So through the study of Dickens, we engage in an ongoing social commentary that is still relevant today.”

The 2005 Dickens Universe will focus on the novel Little Dorrit and culminate in a special weekend conference devoted to the topic “Dickens: Life and Afterlife.” The Dickens Universe will run from July 31 to August 6, with the weekend conference overlapping from August 4 to 7.

Jordan noted that there will be a number of special activities in honor of the 25th anniversary, reflecting on the history of the Dickens Project and remembering past participants.

“We will be making a special effort to bring back faculty from the early years and graduate student alumni,” he said. “It promises to be a joyous occasion—a time to look back over a remarkable history of accomplishments, but also to set the course for a new quarter century of dynamic study and research.”

Jordan recalled the origins of the Dickens Project, which he began in collaboration with founding director and UCSC professor of English and comparative literature Murray Baumgarten, and UC Riverside English professor Ed Eigner.

“When we met back in 1980 at Murray’s home and sketched out the original idea for the project, we had two innovative distinctions in mind,” Jordan noted. “We wanted to include members of the general public and not limit it to just faculty and graduate students. And we also wanted it to be different from our own personal experiences of graduate school—where you rarely got to know different faculty or graduate students on other campuses.”

“There are not many multicampus research units that exist in the humanities,” Jordan added. “We’re certainly among the oldest.”

For information about attending the 2005 Dickens Universe or “Dickens in the Classroom,” an upcoming seminar at UCSC for high school teachers to be held in June, contact project coordinator JoAnna Rottke at (831) 459-2103 or e-mail dpi@ucsc.edu.

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