Illustration by Nicole Nagamatsu

Students, faculty connect over Dickens novel

Every Monday evening from 7-8 p.m., a group of Lewis & Clark students, professors, faculty and alumni meet to discuss novels over Zoom. Since the beginning of the Spring 2021 semester the group has been reading  “Little Dorrit” by Charles Dickens.

Associate Professor of English Will Pritchard, along with a couple other English department professors and English major Ashley O’Leary ’22, formed the group based on their mutual love of Dickens. They invited the entire department, as well as alumni to participate. 

This group is a great example of how the LC community is finding ways to connect in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People are casting about for ways to connect during this time of fragmentation,” Pritchard said.

Pritchard was clear that he did not want the group to be like a class. Rather, he and the other founders of the club wanted it to be a more casual setting, where people could discuss Dickens’ literature without the added stresses of class-work and assignments. As a professor, Pritchard enjoys the casual approach of the group.

“I feel like it frees me up as a teacher to be like more of a fan,” Pritchard said. “Sometimes in a class, the students have the sort of naïve, or enthusiastic, or personal reaction and the teacher has to have the analytical, more sophisticated thing.”

There is no hierarchy between students and professors, only a moderator that loosely leads the discussion. A different member of the group acts as the moderator each week, and each new moderator brings a new style to the role. Since everyone is there by choice, people participate enthusiastically, making the moderator’s job relatively easy. Some members prepare extensively, bringing notes, selected passages and discussion questions, while others simply let the conversation flow and make sure people are heard. According to O’Leary, this system has been  working well.

“In this day and age it’s hard to establish a dynamic over Zoom, but I think we’ve managed to do that,” O’Leary said.

Hosting the book club over Zoom has some benefits, such as allowing alumni like Noah Foster-Koth ’19 to be a part of the group. For Foster-Koth, it has been the perfect way to stay in touch with his former professors and other alumni, as well as meet the current students of his alma mater. The book club has been a chance for former LC students to once again participate in a spirited academic discussion.

“As community building stuff goes, it feels very organic because it’s an extension of what we would already do in English classes,” Foster-Koth said. 

The book club has struck a strong balance in academia of being both low-stakes yet engaging. 

“We’ve definitely stressed that we don’t want this to be a class and we want to approach the text in a different way while still being analytical and bringing our academic interests,” O’Leary said.

“Little Dorrit” originally came out in serial form, with monthly installments of about 30 pages being released over 20 months. The group reads two monthly installments a week. They are currently halfway through the novel and plan to be done before finals. 

“It’s been a highlight of my weeks so far,” O’Leary said.

Currently the book club is exclusive to the English department, however there is talk of choosing another book after they finish “Little Dorrit” and potentially then opening up the group to the entire LC community. O’Leary encourages people to stay tuned and join in the future.

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