Disability in Victorian Literature and Culture

Syllabus: Disability in Victorian Literature and Culture

From the sentimentalized figure of Tiny Tim to the “sexually assertive” deaf heroine of Wilkie Collins’s Hide and Seek, disabled characters fill the pages of Victorian literature. In this course, students will probe the Victorians’ simultaneous fascination with and anxiety about unruly bodies. Students will be introduced to foundational works in disability studies through readings posted to ICON and will use this insight to question assumptions about physical, cognitive, and linguistic norms in nineteenth-century British fiction and nonfiction. Students will also consider how concerns about disability intersected with contemporary debates regarding gender, sexuality, capitalism and labor, hygiene and sanitation, and the pseudoscientific discourses surrounding physiognomy, phrenology, atavism, and eugenics.

Webtext Assignment

In this course, we’ll be making much use of Karen Bourrier’s digital resource, Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts (http://www.nineteenthcenturydisability.org/). Currently, there is no entry for George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, which we’ll be reading this semester. For this assignment, you’ll write a webtext (a multimedia text meant for publication on the Internet) on Eliot’s novel geared toward this publication venue. The best one will be chosen to be submitted for potential publication on the website (pending peer review). You’ll need to follow closely the contributor’s guidelines, which are available on ICON.

Sample Student Webtext


Discussion Leading Assignment

Each student will be responsible for leading class discussion on a text or series of texts once during the semester. You will receive a sign-up sheet during the first week of class. For the day you choose, you will be the expert on the reading materials. In addition to reading the text(s) assigned enough times to be able to field questions about them, discussion leading responsibilities include

  • if there is no secondary reading for the day (no historical background or critical piece), providing some sort of contextualization for the reading—whether relevant biographical information about the author, relevant historical information, disability studies-related scholarship on the reading, etc.;
  • sharing an original and thorough close reading, preferably related to the course theme, from the literary text (& fielding questions about it);
  • crafting at least six thoughtful, open-ended discussion questions to share in class (all of which you might not get through);
  • and mediating class discussion for 30 minutes.

This is not required, but some sort of visual, sonic, or physical accompaniment (like a handout) is encouraged. Preferably no PowerPoint presentations—get creative.

Sample Student Discussion Leading Materials

A Christmas Carol Prezi

“The Crippled Street-Seller of Nutmeg Graters” Prezi


End-of-the-Semester Mock Conference

As a means of receiving valuable feedback on your final papers from myself and your peers and as a way to practice talking about your research and writing, we will be holding a mock conference during the last week and a half of the semester.  Students will be arranged on panels of three to four presenters, grouped according to paper topic. During this conference, you will share five- to seven-minute (max!) versions of your paper (so, a reading of a 3–4-page extract from the paper or a summary of where you’re at in the research process). Following each panel’s readings, students will engage in 10 to 12 minutes of Q&A time. Each student will be required to write one question per panel (and will be expected to ask some of these questions during the Q&A sessions). I will collect these questions at the end of the conference and factor them into your participation grade.

Conference Brochure