Jan 28

After Dickens World

A few years ago I reviewed Juliet John’s Dickens and Mass Culture (2010). In her last chapter John discusses Dickens World, a Dickens-themed attraction located in Chatham, about an hour outside of London, where Dickens spent part of his childhood. I’ve wanted to visit ever since I learned such a place existed, and lately even more so: much of the initial media coverage accused Dickens World of “Disneyfying” Dickens, an accusation relevant to my current research about Disney and the Victorians (and Dickens and Disney). So when I traveled to London with my wife and in-laws, I talked them into going.

I’m working on a more formal article about Dickens World, but here I’ll just describe what Dickens World used to be and my own somewhat surreal experience visiting Dickens World in its post-bankruptcy, redefined form.

What Was Dickens World?

Dickens World, Chatham, Kent - geograph.org.uk - 927514.jpg

The parking lot of Dickens World in 2008 (image from Wikipedia Commons)

A history of Dickens World could be written through journalists’ puns and allusions. In 2007 a writer for the Toronto Star had “great expectations” for the site (though the BBC printed that allusion with a question mark).

When it opened, Dickens World was essentially a small theme park (though they carefully avoided that phrase). It was — and still is — located in the Chatham docks, in what is essentially a warehouse. Guests would guide themselves through several Dickens-themed attractions. These included:

  • A Great Expectations-themed boat ride through a Victorian sewer (York Memberly reports being warned of “brown fish”), billed as the highlight of the attraction;
  • A “haunted house,” initially advertised as Scrooge’s but changed, before opening, to “the haunted house of 1859″;
  • A 4D biographical movie at Peggotty’s boathouse;
  • Dotheboys Schoolhouse, featuring a test on Dickens’s life and works and an actor playing a scolding schoolmaster;
  • “Fagin’s den,” a “McDonald’s-style playground” with (as Marty Gould and Rebecca Mitchell point out) a “wildly inappropriate title” (“Worst of Times” 292);
  • A restaurant, The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters;
  • And a gift shop, the (deliberately?) misspelled Olde Curiosity Shoppe.

In 2012 Dickens World made Time‘s list of the ten weirdest theme parks, and by 2013 nobody referred to “great expectations,” even with a question mark. Reporters instead pointed out Hard Times for Dickens World. Somehow a boat trip through a sewer and being yelled at by a Victorian schoolteacher weren’t as popular as originally envisioned.

Dickens World Today

Dickens World Ltd., the company that operates the site, went bankrupt in 2013. Since then, the attractions I listed above have been replaced with “an interactive guided tour experience that takes visitors back in time to Victorian/Dickensian England.” The boat ride is completely gone, though the remnants of some of the other attractions are still there. The website bills the tour as “a fun and educational experience for all ages,” but it hasn’t been that successful. As Lam Thuy Vo puts it, “Few people, it seems, want to experience poverty through a theme park”.

Perhaps as a response to the low tourist turnout, in December Dickens World was transformed into Santa’s village. The gimmick is that child visitors are helping Santa get ready for Christmas: elves let visitors color in pictures, play a carnival game, and visit Santa. (Dickens is notably absent from all those experiences, despite the myriad opportunities for a Dickensian Christmas attraction).

Courtyard, small version

The Dickens World courtyard, decorated for Christmas and empty of crowds. The well-lit room to the right of the Christmas tree is “Fagin’s Den.”

We visited a couple days after Christmas, when the “help Santa’s elves get ready” theme made even less sense. Fong, Gould, and Mitchell describe entering Dickens World on the second floor, over a rickety suspension bridge — that’s been done away with, and we entered through the gift shop on the first floor. The elves were upbeat and initially committed to the theme — despite the fact that my wife Kate, my mother in law, and I were the only ones there. We politely declined the coloring books, and wandered somewhat aimlessly through the Dickensian facades until one of actors very kindly agreed to put aside his elf costume and instead take us on the non-seasonal tour. We were grateful.

blacking factory, small version

A facade of Warren’s Blacking Manufactury, with a Christmas display below.

The tour consists of a walk through Camden Town, where our guide explained how many families would live in one room; Marshalsea prison, with a similar focus on cramped spaces and general Victorian bleakness; the haunted house, where he showed off the “Pepper’s Ghost” trick; and Dotheboys schoolhouse, where he donned a black cloak and played the roll of domineering schoolmaster (I got to write write lines on a chalkboard). If the usual tour is 90 minutes, ours was somewhat abbreviated.

Kate best characterized our overall experience at Dickens World: like being on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, when it breaks down and the lights come on. The spectacle is still there, but the enchantment is gone.

John ends Dickens and Mass Culture by pondering the future:

The success or failure of Dickens World, both economically and culturally, will tell us a great deal about whether or not Dickens’s inclusive vision for the amusements of the people remains viable in the twenty-first century, and about the extent to which Dickens still amuses the people. (289)

It’s a fairly safe bet that the legacy of Dickens World will be “failure” rather than “success” — whether that means Dickens no longer amuses the people is perhaps another question (and one I’ll be thinking about as I think about Dickens World in more scholarly ways). But there has been an upside: besides John, several other very smart Victorianists have written about Dickens World, including Ryan Fong, Alison Booth, Marty Gould, Rebecca Mitchell, Alexis Easley and Kathryn Hughes. All wrote before 2013, when the site went bankrupt, but even at its peak, Dickens World didn’t seem destined for success (it opened in 2007, right before the global recession).

Dickens World’s failure, though, doesn’t spell the end of the literary theme park. I live in Orlando, where in July 2014 Universal Studios opened an expansion of its Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Based on the opening, the chances slim that it will close down all the rides and become a 90-minute tour of Diagon Alley.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Anderson, Sam. “The World of Charles Dickens, Complete with Pizza Hut.The New York Times, February 7th 2012.

Booth, Alison. “Time Travel in Dickens’ World.” Literary Tourism and Nineteenth-Century Culture. Nicola J. Watson, ed. Palgrave, 2009.

Easley, Alexis. Literary Celebrity, Gender, and Victorian Authorship, 1850-1914. University of Delaware, 2011.

Fong, Ryan. “Uncommercial Travels in Dullborough Town, or My Journey to Dickens World and Dickens’s World.” Dickens Universe, 2012. (Ryan generously shared the manuscript of his talk)

Glavin, John. After Dickens: Reading, Adaptation, and Performance. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Gould, Marty and Rebecca N. Mitchell. “It Was the Worst of Times: A Visit to Dickens World.” Victorian Literature and Culture 38 (2010), 287-318.

Gould, Marty and Rebecca N. Mitchell. “Understanding the Literary Theme Park: Dickens World as Adaptation.” Neo-Victorian Studies 3.2 (2010), pages 145-171.

Hughes, Kathryn. “Dickens World and Dickens’s World.” Journal of Victorian Culture 15.3 (December 2010), 388-393.

Huntley, Dana. “Visiting in Dickens World.” British Heritage 29.4 (Sep. 2008), pp. 42-5.

John, Juliet. Dickens and Mass Culture. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Memberly, York. “Great expectations for newly opened Dickens World.” Toronto Star February 3, 2008.

Price, Chris. “Hard Times for Dickens World investors after Dickens World Ltd.Kent Online October 10, 2013.

Vo, Lam Thuy. “Launched to great expectations, Dickens theme park falls on hard times.Al Jazeera America December 16, 2014.

Dec 11

Dickens, Adaptation, and A Christmas Carol

My book manuscript is about children’s literature, the novel, and moral instruction. I argue that Victorian writers like Charles Dickens learned the narrative strategies that underlie their morally instructive novels from the stories they read as children. Chances are, this holiday season you’ll watch or read some version of one of the texts I write about: A Christmas Carol.

The novel is everywhere this time of year, in unexpected forms. Characters might be Muppets, or the Flintstones, or Barbie. Scrooge might be be Bill Murray as a television executive: Scrooged film poster.JPGOr Matthew McConaughey as a bachelor photographer: Ghosts of girlfriends past.jpgOr Vanessa Williams:A Diva's Christmas Carol.jpg

All adaptations are interpretations. And even the oddest adaptations of A Christmas Carol might in fact be quite consistent with Dickens’s story, which is itself about interpretations, good and bad. Scrooge is initially skeptical about the instructive ghosts: when Marley asks him if he believes in ghosts, Scrooge says he can’t believe his own senses – “A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

But it only takes one visit for Scrooge to realize how valuable the lessons will be. When he meets the second ghost, he says, “I went forth last night on compulsion, and learned a valuable lesson. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.” Before the story is half finished, Scrooge has already learned not only to recognize his own unhappiness but also to welcome future lessons.

By the third spirit’s visit Scrooge knows the game very well: he resolves “to treasure up every word he heard, and everything he saw.” The silent third spirit shows Scrooge a funeral, and Scrooge replies: “I see, I see. The case of this unhappy man might be my own. My life tends that way, now.” Scrooge is wrong. He incorrectly interprets his moral visions, failing to recognize himself in the “unhappy man.” When the truth finally dawns on him, he tells the spirit “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse.” He is converted only after making that mistake.

Part of the lesson, then, is being wrong. To learn something from A Christmas Carol, we have to be willing to make a mistake – and then willing to correct it.

When we watch an adaptation of a novel, we typically ask, “how does this film compare to the book?” And we typically respond, “the book is better.” But A Christmas Carol gives us an opportunity. In Scrooge, Dickens shows us the power of being wrong. So when we look at an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, we can ask not just, “is it right in its interpretation” but also “how might it be different from the book, and what might that difference mean”? How might making Scrooge a television executive or a bachelor or a diva use Dickens’s novel to respond to modern, American cultural needs?

And if those responses turn us back to Dickens, is that such a bad thing? In Film Adaptation and Its Discontents, David Leitch calls A Christmas Carol “entry level Dickens”: people encounter the novel, often as children, and besides the moral lessons about compassion and conversion they gain the cultural knowledge that the story represents. The story provides an entry point not just to Dickens, but to adult culture more broadly (his reading of The Muppet Christmas Carol is especially good).

ChistmasCarol2009-Poster.jpgOne problem: the story isn’t always associated with Dickens. Disney’s 2009 version, for example, advertises Jim Carrey and claims this is Disney’s A Christmas Carol — Dickens is nowhere on the poster.

So at this time of year, maybe we need to be especially conscious that we make this connection: that we make A Christmas Carol entry-level Dickens rather than just another Disney product.

I’ll be doing that on Saturday: if you’re in Orlando, come hear my talk at the Orlando Public Library. I’ll be talking about Dickens, childhood, (both his own childhood and his child characters), and, of course, Christmas: Poster for Dickens Christmas Talk

Oct 22

Wikipedia Assignments: some thoughts from mid-semester

Right now I’m teaching a first-year composition class, themed around Wikipedia. This is the third iteration, redesigned with the support of a Faculty Instructional Technology Integration grant, and mid-semester seems like an appropriate moment to share some thoughts about the course. The first section explains the background, but if you just want some tips for designing a Wikipedia assignment, you can jump straight there.

How My Course is Set Up

If you’re interested, the syllabus for this class is available online. This being a first-year writing class, I want students to be able to consider their reader as they write; to evaluate the evidence they use to support their arguments; and to engage with other writers, thinking of writing as civil conversation. My own training is in the Little Red Schoolhouse method, and for this class I’m using several modules from the Grounds for Argument website (which, full disclosure, I worked on when I was a graduate student).

Young Britons Study American History- Education in Wartime England, 1943 D13783

This student asks, “Is Wikipedia a reliable source?”

The first half of the course introduces students to Wikipedia. Ultimately, I want them to contribute to the site. To do so, they first become familiar with some of the myriad policies and guidelines and then they choose a Wikipedia entry that needs updating, and write a proposal (taking the form of a 3-4 page argument) about what needs to be changed and why. As they research their sources, I have them evaluate each one, using Wikipedia’s own guidelines for reliable sources. Finally, they contribute to the site, making whatever changes they had said needed to be made. This is a major payoff for the course, as students produce knowledge that others outside the class might read. I let students choose their own topic, and they vary widely: some write about their own schools or their hometowns, some write about sports, some find topics from other classes that aren’t covered on Wikipedia, and develop pages for those. The contributions are typically not major — they range from adding sources to writing a few sentences, to creating a page from scratch. I grade students on the detail of the proposal, the quality of the evidence they use, and their own self-evaluation. (I don’t grade them based on whether their change stays on Wikipedia).

This week students are starting the second part of the course, looking at some academic studies of Wikipedia in preparation for their upcoming research paper. At this point my course differs little from other themed composition courses: it borders on cultural studies, with a focus on collectivism, Internet culture, and knowledge-production. I select a handful of articles based on what students seem to be interested in: this semester, it’s history, political activism, global economics, and the gender gap. These articles expose students to ways in which Wikipedia connects to various academic fields. As they start their research papers, they will select a few articles from a list of popular press articles about Wikipedia, which we’ll discuss in class. Then their research papers will develop their own interest. In past semesters the best papers connect Wikipedia to an academic field in which the student is interested — law, biology, computer science, etc.

Tips for Designing a Wikipedia Assignment

Having students write an article for Wikipedia can be a great assignment. In my experience — and many other scholars have done this, too — students are more motivated when they write for an audience that isn’t just their classmates. But there are risks involved. In addition to the first two iterations of this course, I’ve included Wikipedia assignments in a couple literature seminars, in various ways, and I’ve written several posts them. Based on my own successes and failures, here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to have your students create Wikipedia assignments (and how I addressed these issues in my own course):

  1. Familiarize yourself with the site, and build in ways to get your students familiar with the guidelines. Wikipedia’s policies are dizzying and byzantine. There’s no way you could learn all of them in a semester, or expect your students to learn them. But you should know at least the five pillars, and how the talk and history pages work. Students should create accounts, so you can track their edits.
    • In class I had groups of students summarize and present Wikipedia’s core policies (verifiability, notability, and neutrality/due weight). The talk and history pages are fascinating in themselves, and good sources for short writing assignments describing evidence. Aaron Swartz builds his argument about “Who Writes Wikipedia?” on evidence from the history pages, and Dan O’Sullivan’s chapter on “Wikipedia: Structure” covers the talk pages in detail.
  2. Decide on the scope of the assignment. If it’s not too obvious to state, this assignment should be linked to your own goals, not Wikipedia’s. The point is not to make Wikipedia better (though see #4) — it’s to make students better writers/researchers/public contributors. The Wikipedia Education Program (see #5) seems to encourage building new articles or making major, substantial contributions. That’s great, if it aligns with your course goals, but more modest changes can be just as useful. Many articles on Wikipedia lack sources: you could even have students browse a list, and beef up the bibliographies with relevant readings from class.
    • Since this was a writing class (the content is secondary), my students first made very minor changes (like fixing punctuation or spelling) to get used to the format, and to get them auto-confirmed. And even the full-scale “add to Wikipedia” assignment was more about finding sources and recognizing the limitations of certain pages.
  3. Decide how you’ll grade. You’re asking for trouble if you grade students based on whether or not their contribution stays on Wikipedia. You’ll know better what your priorities are — maybe it’s researching a topic or writing grammatically correct sentences. But students will naturally worry about their grades, and will worry even more if they feel their grades are subject to the whims of anonymous Wikipedians.
    • I grade students on the quality of their proposals (an argument about what improvements their chosen page needed); the quality of their evidence; and their self-evaluations (an argument whether they’d made the improvements they stated in their proposal). I read their contributions to the site only to confirm the last part.
  4. Act in good faith. Wikipedia is a community, and like most communities, has lots of helpful people, and some jerks. The benefit of adding to Wikipedia is that it puts students in contact with a public outside the college, but that public can be disruptive and mean (Meghan Duffy’s experience is not unusual). You minimize your chances of encountering this kind of disruption if you follow tips 1 and 2, and make sure you are genuinely trying to improve Wikipedia (within the context of your goals for students).
    • The first time I taught this course, I had all my students (three sections) lie to Wikipedia. Don’t do that. The result was pedagogically useful: most of the lies were immediately caught, and within a couple hours the college’s IP address was temporarily blocked from anonymous editing. So students learned that Wikipedia does have some oversight. And one student’s edit remained on the page for over a month, until I deleted it myself. So they also learned that the oversight doesn’t always work. I still don’t recommend this exercise, though: for one thing, it disrupts other users from the same IP address (I inadvertently derailed another professor’s exercise). And I think it sends the wrong message to students — better to integrate them into the Wikipedia community, rather than start by setting them against it.
  5. Consider making your course official. The Wikipedia Education Program, launched in 2010, works with teachers and students to facilitate academic assignments. You can create an official course page (like the one for my course), and you’ll be assigned a mentor/adviser.
    • To be honest, I was initially skeptical of this program, because of #2, above. I wasn’t sure my goals would match up with Wikipedia’s self-interests. Only in the most recent version of the course did I link up with the WEP: I consulted with my assigned adviser as I put together the course, and she was helpful in answering some questions and pointing to some resources (all of which are available through the site). The biggest benefit was a practical and procedural one: using a course page allowed me to keep track of my students contributions.

Have you, or are you considering, developed an assignment for students to add to Wikipedia? How did it go, or what questions do you have?