How to cite this page (MLA): Gibson, Anna. “Teaching with the DDNP.” Digital Dickens Notes Project. Anna Gibson and Adam Grener, dirs. 2022. Web. http://dickensnotes.com/usage/teaching/
Given their unwieldy length, Dickens’s novels present unique challenges in the classroom. Whether it’s keeping track of a vast network of characters, grappling with multiple narrative threads, or understanding how a novel’s serial publication might influence our understanding of its form, students often struggle to grasp the complexity of Dickens’s longer serial novels.
The Working Notes offer a unique means of addressing and accessing this textual complexity. In as little as nineteen pages, the Notes can function as an index to the form and content of an 800-page text. Whether incorporated into a formal assignment or used as a reference point for class discussion, these texts can help students understand Dickens’s compositional practice, the constraints and affordances of serial form, the cultural significance of serial publication, and the unique movement of plot and character through multiple installments across many months.
Recent scholarship on teaching Victorian literature has championed approaches that help students experience what it meant to be a Victorian reader or writer of serial fiction. While some instructors simulate Victorian serial consumption via the serial assignment of reading across the course of a semester (Tange), others experiment with having students become part of reading communities (Cook and Henley), or imagine the composition of Edwin Drood’s unfinished parts (Chavez and Hauhart).
The approach made possible by the Working Notes is unique in its use of these short texts as windows into a novel’s serial form and composition. Each page of Notes can become an access point to understanding what Daniel Siegel has called the “architectural” nature of a single installment—its shape, pacing, handling of characters, and relationship to other installments and the novel as a whole. Students can use the Notes to reconsider the novel’s plot development, character networks, and serial structure. And, by engaging with texts kept as an author’s personal records, students can debate the value of taking authorial intention and compositional process into account when interpreting a literary text.
The DDNP’s legible, spatially faithful, easy-to-navigate transcriptions of the Working Notes allow students to engage with these texts in much more nuanced ways than the transcriptions in the appendix of a popular press edition can allow. As a tool for practicing close reading, these transcriptions can help students engage in interpretations that go beyond language to consider space, non-textual markings, and evidence of compositional decision-making: placement on the page, ink color, emphases, questions and later answers, deletions, and emendations. The DDNP’s introductions and annotations offer further material to aid—but not determine—students’ interpretive engagements with the Notes.
Below you can find an example in-class discussion activity and an assignment that can be adapted for use with any set of Working Notes.
The following in-class activity can be adapted for use with one page of the Working Notes or by assigning the Working Note from one installment to each group.
Note that, because Dickens used these pages to plan ahead as well as to record his progress and consider new possibilities, the Working Notes often contain “spoilers” for future developments in a text. Instructors may want to keep this in mind when assigning the Notes for an activity before students have completed a novel.
In groups, close-read the assigned double-page of the Working Notes.
Pay attention to the language Dickens uses to refer to elements of the installment’s plot, his characters, and his composition of the novel. What stands out to you in Dickens’s choice of words? How do they relate to the text of the installment?
Look beyond the words to consider Dickens’s use of the page, including any obvious changes in ink color, the use of questions and answers, non-textual markings, deletions and changes. What might these add to your close reading?
Based on what you notice, what do you think this text can help you understand about the published installment of the novel?
The Working Notes can also be used to structure assignments. The following assignment was designed by Anna Gibson for her 2020 English honors course at North Carolina State University, in which each student was assigned the Working Note to a single serial part of Bleak House. This two-part assignment asks students to first annotate their assigned Working Notes and then write an accompanying essay about the significance of the corresponding serial part as illuminated by the Notes. Since this assignment used an early version of the DDNP’s Bleak House Working Notes transcriptions, students were provided with a PDF and used the hypothes.is annotation tool to create their annotations.