Sophomore Seminars

Were They Really “Hard Times”? Mid-Victorian Social Movements and Charles Dickens


“It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it.” So begins Charles Dickens’ description of Coketown in Hard Times. And it only seems to get more grim from there. But the world that Dickens sought to portray in the novel was a hopeful one, too. And that tension is our starting point. The intent of this class is to more closely examine mid-Victorian Britain in light of Dickens’ novel, with particular focus on the rise of some of our modern social movements in the 19th century. While things like the labor movement, abolitionism, feminism, and environmentalism, are not the same now as they were then, this class will explore the argument that the 21st century is still, in some ways, working out 19th century problems and questions. At the same time, this is also a course that seeks to expand the kinds of sources we traditionally use as historians. Thus, while recognizing that literary sources are particularly complex, we will use Hard Times as a guide to our exploration to this fascinating era. We will seek both to better understand this complex, transitional time, and to consider the accuracy of Dickens’ depictions of socio-political life.

Through a combination of short response papers, creative Victorian projects (such as sending a hand-written letter to a classmate), and a final paper/project, this course will give you the opportunity to learn more about the 19th century and the value of being historically minded.

As a seminar based course, discussion amongst members of the class is vital.  The class will be delivered online using a combination of both synchronous and asynchronous modes. All students are welcome.


Meet the Instructor(s)

Gabriel K. Wolfenstein, Ph.D.

"I am an Academic Advising Director (AAD) at Stanford, so I am here to help students get the most out of their Stanford experiences. I am very excited to be able to do that by teaching an IntroSem this Spring! My Ph.D. is in British History and the History of Science, focusing on the Victorian era. I work on questions related to the British census, the popularization of scientific ideas, and identity formation. Prior to coming to Academic Advising, I worked at CESTA on a variety of projects, like crowdsourcing, and the Chinese Railroad Workers Project. Before that I taught in Thinking Matters and its predecessor program, IHUM, which is what brought me to Stanford in 2006. I did my Ph.D. at UCLA, and am actually from Los Angeles. Outside of school, I love science fiction and fantasy literature, films, and tv (and non-sci-fi things, too). I follow many sports, play some video games, play Dungeons and Dragons, bake bread, and in non-pandemic times I commute to campus by rollerblading."