Researching reading: Behind Dickens Day 2015

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, digital publications officer at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Winyard has been a co-organiser of Birkbeck’s Dickens Day event since 2005, and is one of the organisers behind the current Dickens reading project at the College

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Birkbeck is a world-renowned centre for Dickens studies and, over the past 40 years, it has nurtured, trained and housed some of the most luminary Dickensian scholars.

In 1986, the preeminent Dickens scholar Michael Slater, now Emeritus Professor, established Dickens Day, a one-day event at Birkbeck to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836). Birkbeck contained no less than four distinguished Dickensians scholars at the time – Steven Connor, Barbara Hardy, Andrew Sanders and Michael Slater – so a day to celebrate and discuss all things Dickensian was a natural proposition.

The enduring format of the Day – scholars and aficionados speaking to a general and academic audience, rounded off with dramatised readings – was established from the outset and, following the first Day’s success, an Oliver Twist day followed in 1987 with proceeding events considering each of Dickens’s novels in chronological order. After we reached The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Dickens’s last, semi-completed novel), the format shifted to a thematic one and we have since considered themes as diverse as history, popular culture, conviviality, feeling, science and adaptations of Dickens’s work.

Now in its 29th year, Dickens Day continues to attract a uniquely mixed audience of high-profile academics, researchers, students at all levels of study, members of the Dickens Fellowship, and enthusiasts and fans. The Day, which is now jointly run by Birkbeck, the University of Cardiff and the Dickens Fellowship, is well known for its convivial, welcoming atmosphere; postgraduate students and early career academics, in particular, are warmly invited to submit paper proposals.

Dickens Day 2015 — Reading

This year’s event will look at reading and readers in Dickens’s work, a fruitful subject considering how often the act of reading, and its associated objects – books, newspapers, diaries, and all manner of printed material, from wills to adverts, playbills to tailors’ bills – occur in Dickens’s novels.

Reading is a powerful, transformative experience in Dickens – for good and bad. We might consider, for example, David Copperfield’s lonely devouring of the eighteenth-century epistolary and picaresque novels of Fielding, Smollett and Stern. David says of his childhood that ‘reading was my only and my constant comfort’, a source of emotional succour and nurturing in an emotional stultifying household, run with domineering cruelty by David’s loathsome stepfather Mr Murdstone.

For Oliver Twist, though, reading the Newgate Calendar, with its gothic, melodramatic and fantastically bloodthirsty tales of criminal violence, has disturbing physiological effects, with the pages turning red with gore and its words ringing in his ears.

There are more touching, tutelary scenes of reading, though, in Great Expectations, when Pip patiently teaches illiterate, gentle-hearted Joe to read. Other novels, such as Bleak House, are absolutely stuffed with paper and the paraphernalia of reading: think of the hoarder Krook, almost buried alive by the piles of scrap paper he obsessively collects (he isn’t killed by his tottering piles of paper, but instead spontaneously combusts); or the law-stationery shop of Mr Snagsby; or the endless bundles of papers relating to the interminable case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce. More humorously, we might consider Mr Pickwick’s innocent request to his landlady, Mrs Bardell, for ‘Chops and Tomata sauce’ for dinner, which is deliberately misread as risqué and salacious during his trial for breach of promise to marry her.

Our Mutual Friend — Reading project

BookReading Dickens also had a profound effect on his readers and the theme for this year’s Dickens Day was chosen because it dovetails with a reading experiment at Birkbeck, which has been following Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) in its original monthly parts from April 2014 to November 2015.

Our Mutual Friend also contains fascinating scenes of reading: we might think of the bitter, mercenary Silas Wegg, posing as a man of letters and reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall aloud to the kind-hearted, illiterate Noddy Boffin, who wishes to improve himself after coming into fortunate possession of the lucrative dust heaps at the heart of the novel’s symbolic economy; or Bella Wilfer, newly married, perplexedly pouring over manuals of domestic management and cookery.

Each month, we read a digital scan of the original monthly part, while an accompanying WordPress blog features a guest post and acts as a virtual reading group for any readers to contribute to. All of Dickens’s novels were serialised and his readers encountered his work in a variety of formats. Our Mutual Friend was published in nineteen monthly parts of thirty-two pages, each costing one shilling, and featuring two illustrations by Marcus Stone and, astonishingly, over seventy pages of advertisements.

Multimedia Dickens

Dickens continued to innovate and experiment in what we might call multimedia publishing, issuing his novels within the pages of journals, in weekly and monthly parts, and in single volume form. As Dickens’s novels are increasing made available online in their original formats, digitalisation constitutes another multimedia mode of disseminating Dickens to a mass audience, to accompany the Victorian formats and the cinematic, televisual, and radio adaptations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Dickens’s readers have always consumed his work in a variety of media formats, with new technologies of reproduction, circulation and broadcasting disseminating Dickens’s stories to new readers.

We also know that Dickens enjoyed, and worked hard to deepen and cultivate, a special, intense, and transformative relationship with his readers. Consider, for example, his famous public readings, which he partly undertook for financial reasons, but also to strengthen the close bond he felt with his readers.

For Dickens, fiction enacted the radical potential of imaginative work to create sympathy and build and strengthen the emotional and social bonds that bind together disparate peoples. Events such as Dickens Day, and projects such as the Our Mutual Friend reading experiment, testify to the continued ability of Dickens’s novels to bring people together and forge communities.

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Research round-up: A snapshot around campus

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer at Birkbeck, University of London

This summer, to celebrate Birkbeck’s standing as a world-leading, research intensive university, we have been looking back at some of the fascinating research activities carried out by top thinkers from across the College.

But it doesn’t stop there. Staff members across Birkbeck’s five schools and multiple institutes and centres are ever busy at the sharp edge of research. To give a flavour of activity currently going on, we spoke to a handful of researchers about their current research topics.

Conservation and heritage

Dr Diane HornDr Diane Horn is currently carrying out a study funded by NERC and Arup which aims to produce a ‘roadmap’ to guide practitioners through the process of analysing coastal flood risk in urban areas

What is challenging about this topic of research?

“It’s a really exciting project for me to be involved with – I’ve never done anything quite this applied. I’m working on adaptation options: once we know the extent of the flood risk that a particular city faces from sea level rise, I’m putting together guidance on what their options are, how to choose the most appropriate adaptation response, and how to implement and monitor the success of the adaptation response.


“Some cities will be able to protect against flood risk by building barriers (like the Thames Barrier) and some cities will be able to live with the flood risk through improved building codes or land use planning. The real challenge, though, is that some cities will need to make a decision to retreat from certain locations or to relocate particular assets in areas at lower risk. Identifying how this could be done, and how residents and politicians can be convinced that they need to consider retreat and relocation is proving to be the most challenging part of the research.”

Science and biomedicine

Natasa GaneaNatasa Ganea is currently conducting a study which follows the social and cognitive development of a group of sighted infants of blind parents

What kind of a research environment is Birkbeck to work in?

“Birkbeck is a vibrant research hub with curious scientists, passionate not only about their subject, but about science in general. It is not surprising that in such an environment a quick conversation over lunch break or in the evening in the Birkbeck Bar occasionally puts the basis of a new study.”

Politics, society and the law

Dr Sappho XenakisDr Sappho Xenakis’s current research project explores national and international political economies of crime and punishment, corruption, and intersections between organised crime and corruption.

Why did you choose a career in research/academia?            

“I sought a career in academia because of a desire and sense of obligation to strive to understand and engage with the complex politics of everyday life, sentiments instilled in me by my parents.”

Learning, education and development

Prof Claire Callender is currently researching prospective full time students’ attitudes towards debt.

Prof Claire CallenderWhat misconceptions are there around your discipline or area of research?

“Does fear of debt deter students from higher education?  With the escalating student loan debt arising from higher tuition fees in England, this is a key policy question. One might expect that there would be loads of research in England examining students’ attitudes towards debt and its effect on their higher education decisions.


“However, there are relatively few studies exploring these issues nationally among prospective students. Most existing studies on student debt are based on the views of students who are already at university. By definition, such students have largely overcome their fears of debt.


“Consequently, it is impossible to gauge from such studies if student loan debt actually deters would-be students from going to university. Our study, involving a nationally representative sample  of around 1,500 prospective students, will assess whether concerns over debt and the costs of higher education influence potential students’ decisions about entering higher education, where and what to study, and mode of study.”

Arts, history and culture

Dr Rebecca Darley’s current research title is: ‘A sign of God’s favour: Byzantine gold coins in the Indian Ocean’

Dr Rebecca DarleyWhy did you choose this topic of investigation?

Coins minted in the eastern Mediterranean between the fourth and seventh centuries A.D. and found in south India have usually been interpreted as evidence for trade. By studying the writings of Byzantine authors about these coins I am interested in re-focussing on the meaning they reflected back to their place of origin.


The relationship of the Byzantine Empire to its coinage was never purely commercial and money could often be an explicit symbol for power and virtue, as it proved when writers commented on Byzantine gold reaching India — not as a sign of economic prosperity but of divine favour and the pre-ordained superiority of Byzantine virtues over those of its neighbours.

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Opening the Open Library of Humanities

This post was co-written by Dr Martin Eve, senior lecturer in Literature, Technology and Publishing and Dr Caroline Edwards, lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. It was originally posted on the Open Library of Humanities blog on Monday 28 September.
In 1987, the late Terence Hawkes wrote, in the inaugural issue of Textual Practice, that

It is never a good time to start a new journal. Even so, 1987 seems unpropitious to a remarkable degree. The academic world in general feels itself to be under attack. The Humanities in particular feel marginalized and underfunded. Outwardly querulous, inwardly riven, they sense themselves to be hopelessly at odds with a culture which has long abandoned any recognition of the value of their role. Connoisseurs of the Unripe Time could be forgiven for regarding the present year as a vintage one, with the project represented by Textual Practice self-evidently foredoomed.1

Open Library of Humanities - CopyHawkes’s major contentions about 1987 still ring true for most in the academic humanities. Remaining on the front-line of budget cuts and continually resorting to liberal humanist defences of critical thought in a democracy, our times remain unripe and feel precarious.

In some ways, however, 2015 is worse than 1987 for those seeking to “start a new journal”. The traditional foundations of the research-publication economy are unravelling in the face of unprecedented digital capability and concomitant social expectations. Ironically, in the age of digital reproduction the circulation of our academic humanities journals is decreasing (because our libraries cannot afford to subscribe in the face of an increasing volume of published material and hyper-inflationary journal price increases), even while we have the technological capacity to disseminate and preserve our work online. Meanwhile, the benefits of open access to the humanities disciplines are clear. Unless we extend access to our work to broader publics, our claims to engender critical thinking in the demos are ill founded.

As with most dreams of universal education, though, there has often been staunch resistance in the humanities to open access. One of the principle reasons for this is that the economic models that are being implemented by traditional publishers are uniquely unsuited to our disciplinary areas. Article processing charges (APCs), in which authors or their institutions are asked to bear the entire labour costs (and any profit/surplus) of a publisher, become unaffordable in the humanities disciplines, as opposed to in our counterpart fields in the natural sciences where the model may work. The diversion of scant humanities funding to compensate lost profits for journal publishers undermines the claimed meritocratic nature of academic publishing as well as damaging the career prospects of those without recourse to such funding.

It was within this context that the Open Library of Humanities was born. It has taken two and a half years of planning; a great deal of consultation with academics, libraries and funders; the willing support of almost 100 libraries; many talks and publications; and a great deal of hard work. What we have so far is the seed of a scalable model for journal transition to open access in the humanities that does not rely on payment from authors or readers.

For this initial launch, six journals have moved from their existing homes to our new model: 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long-Nineteenth Century; The Comics Grid; Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon; ASIANetwork Exchange; Studies in the Maternal; and The Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry. These publications span the range of journal types that the platform can support: those publications that are already open access but that rely on unsustainable volunteerist labour; those that are open access but that rely on unsustainable article process charges; and those that are currently subscription-based but that want to achieve open access. Applications are now open for other journals that wish to join the platform.

None of this would be possible without the support of the institutions that have already signed up to support the OLH. Indeed, the model that underpins the platform is novel for humanities journals: many libraries all paying relatively small sums into a central fund that we then use, across our journal base, to cover the labour costs of publication once material has passed peer review. Libraries that participate are given a governance stake in the admission of new journals. While this model is strange in many ways (as libraries are not really buying a subscription since the material is open access), it works out to be extremely cost effective for participants. In our first year, across the platform, we look set to publish around 150 articles. For our bigger supporting institutions, this is a cost of merely $6.50 per article. For our smallest partners, it comes to $3.33. This economy of charitable, not-for-profit publishing works well at 100 institutions. It should work even better with the 350 libraries that we are aiming to recruit to our subsidy scheme in the first 3 years after launch.

There are countless individuals whom we should thank for helping us to get this far but to do so would mean that we would inevitably offend by omission. We will, therefore, limit our thanks to four broad groups: to the trustees of our charitable organization for helping us to steer the project; to the staff at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for their advice and financial assistance in the form of a planning (2014) and then scaling (2015) grant; to the editors of the journals that have already joined us; and to the libraries who have made this possible through their financial support.

What is before you today is not, of course, the end product; it is just the start. While we have come a long way to create a new platform and economic model, challenges remain. Naysayers will doubtless continue to spill words from the sidelines. However, we are more interested in, and draw more inspiration from, the words of an arts and humanities charity in the United Kingdom. Arts Emergency’s mission is to ensure that those from disadvantaged backgrounds can also receive the benefits of an arts and humanities education; disciplines to which open access can make a substantial difference. The badge that Arts Emergency sends to their supporting members is emblazoned with the following text: “sometimes if you want something to exist you have to make it yourself”. No matter how unripe the time, these are words to remember.

Competing Interests
This is an editorial written by the directors of the Open Library of Humanities.


1Terence Hawkes, ‘Editorial’, Textual Practice, 1 (1987), 1–2 <>.


  1. ^ Hawkes, T . (1987). Editorial. Textual Practice 1: 1–2, DOI:

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Should taxpayers fund university education at a time of crisis?

This post has been contributed by Dr Federica Rossi, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Management, and Aldo Geuna, professor of Economics at the University of Torino, Italy. Their new book The University and the Economy: Pathways to Growth and Economic Development is published by Edward Elgar.

Higher-education-fundingWith the recent financial and debt crisis, the extent to which the public can afford to fund universities has become increasingly controversial: in the context of tight public budgets and widespread cuts to public spending, even in areas perceived as basic services to support the more vulnerable members of society, what reasons could there possibly be for continuing to fund a “luxury” like higher education?  Dr Federica Rossiand Professor Aldo Geuna consider the viability of publicly funded universities and their alternatives.

Some convincing reasons must exist if, as it emerges from data reported by the European University Association’s Public Funding Observatory a majority of 14 European countries, out of 24 for which data are available, have increased public funding for universities in the period 2008 -2012, right through the latest recession. Investment has increased in, among others, Austria, Germany, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. Ireland and the United Kingdom are the only countries in Northern Europe to have decreased investment, together with debt stricken countries in Southern Europe and some Eastern European ones.

The argument against: higher education generates mainly private benefits

The main argument against the public funding of higher education builds on the view that the benefits of higher education are enjoyed mainly by university graduates, in terms of potentially higher future earnings and lower probability of unemployment, rather than being shared across society. If the benefits of higher education are strictly private, then why should the general public pay for it? The cost of higher education instead should be met by the students who will directly benefit from it.

This argument is reinforced by the fact that information and communication technology makes it easy to disseminate and access knowledge: when students anywhere can access the knowledge produced by the best academics in the world at the click of a button, why should governments fund them to physically attend lectures at a local campus? Using openly disseminated materials provided by prestigious universities could provide a way for poorer students, who would not have the upfront resources to pay for university fees, to access the same or even better knowledge at a fraction of the price.

In reality, however, things are rarely this simple. And indeed several theoretical and practical arguments have been made to support the view that there are still good reasons for providing substantial public funding for higher education even (or maybe especially) at a time of crisis.

But: the private benefits of higher education are risky and with a delayed pay back

The opportunity cost of studying is high over the short term while its private benefits are risky and with a delayed pay-back. Given that young people often have no resources of their own, or are either unwilling to undertake the risk, or they have no access to private credit (as financial markets are imperfect), then without incentives, investment in education would be lower than optimal.

The only students who would invest in undertaking higher education would be those who are rich enough to pay upfront, ramping up social and economic inequality. This is even more undesirable when we consider that the private benefits of university education tend to be higher for those individuals who come from less well-off families who generally do not enrol at university.

So there is a general consensus that some form of government intervention is necessary in order to increase the number of students undertaking higher education, and to do so while preserving some form of equal opportunity of access.

One way to do this is to provide full public funding of higher education in order to make it completely free at the point of delivery. However, this is not the only possible approach, and indeed it is becoming less frequent: it has even been shown that blanket funding irrespective of an individual’s income could have regressive effects on the incomes distribution. In most countries, systems are in place according to which students contribute at least in part to the funding of their education, but grants and loans exist to support those students who lack resources of their own.

Recently, for example, the United Kingdom has introduced a loan-based system where students receive a loan from the government in order to fund their education, and pay the loan back once they benefit from higher salaries in the job market. Here, the government is prepared to sustain the risk of students not paying back their loans if their future income does not meet a minimum threshold or if students are impossible to track down – a risk which has an important systemic component (for example, both types of risk would be systematically increased by a recession, where graduates are less likely to reach the minimum income thresholds and also more likely to emigrate in search of better job opportunities).

If such systemic problems were to occur, the cost to the public purse could actually turn out to be quite high. Moreover, even if we accept that students should in part contribute to the cost of their university education, issues like how much they should contribute and whether this contribution should be linked to their ability to pay it, remain open to debate.

The social benefits of higher education are anything but negligible

It has been shown that both an increase in the share of graduate population and an increase in the growth rate of graduates generate a more than proportional increase in economic growth. This suggests that the broader public who have not attended university also benefit from having colleagues and fellow citizens with a higher level of education, thanks to the latter’s contribution to economic growth, which goes beyond their own individual productivity.

In particular, research has suggested that a more educated workforce:

  • has a positive effect on the productivity of colleagues with a lower level of education
  • facilitates and accelerates the adoption of existing technologies not yet implemented
  • is more likely to introduce product and process innovation and therefore to economically exploit radically new technologies – a particularly important process in economies which already operate on the technological frontier.

There are also important indirect effects. Education can improve citizens’ health, stimulate political participation and encourage a sense of civic duty and interpersonal trust, factors that are important for the competent functioning of economic institutions and their performance.

The presence of these external effects provides arguments in support of the general taxpaying public contributing to the funding of higher education, whose benefits are felt across society at all levels. This is one reason why public university fees are, and should be, quite low when compared to the average cost of a student’s university education.

What education, rather than just how much education, matters

If universities’ sources of funds are entirely private, this introduces incentives for universities to maximize enrolments in the short term by focusing on those disciplines for which demand is greater, in order to swell the number of enrolled students and thus increase revenues. Research has shown that privately funded institutions tend, overall, to focus on the most popular subjects. From the perspective of maximizing the contribution of higher education to economic growth, this is likely to lead to dynamic inefficiencies.

First, there is no linear correspondence between students’ demand for higher education and the actual labour market’s needs for specific competences, since student demand for courses is based upon subjective evaluations and incomplete information. This is the reason why, for example, the United Kingdom continues to pour public funds into the teaching of STEM disciplines which are perceived to have high economic importance even though student demand for STEM courses is low.

Second, there is a real difficulty of foreseeing what academic disciplines will turn out to be important in the future. How to anticipate, for example, which subjects will best support the educational needs of individuals and companies in 15 to 20 years’ time? The skills required by an economic system are the result of events that cannot easily be predicted, such as geopolitical changes or the emergence of new technologies. It is important to allow universities to continue to educate students in a broad variety of fields, keeping the system sufficiently flexible and open and allowing for possible adjustment in the event of unexpected changes – something that can be accomplished only if universities are at least in part free from the compelling need to passively respond to market demand.

9781782549482_4_1And finally…can technology be the answer?

While ICT is certainly helpful in broadening access to knowledge, there are numerous arguments that suggest that simply having access to knowledge does not equate gaining an education into a particular field or topic. Being able to access free university courses online does not substitute for the ability to attend a physical institution, for a number of reasons:

  • A certain level of previous education is often required in order to understand advanced knowledge. University institutions can provide the tailored training that weaker students (especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may have the needed qualifications to enter university, but whose quality may not be as good) might need in order to bridge the knowledge gap that separates them from stronger students and allow them to complete their studies
  • The transmission of knowledge is enhanced by direct interactions with teachers
  • It has been shown that being part of a community of practice, though meeting and interacting with other students, enhances learning and motivation
  • Some of the benefits of higher education come from being part of a social community of students and from developing connections that continue after university

While some of these benefits could be re-created virtually (for example virtual communities of practice can be set up), overall it is unlikely that students can derive the same benefits from accessing materials that are openly available online as from attending university courses that are tailor-made for a specific and small group of students. The weaker students in particular are the least likely to have the ability to benefit from this, which invalidates to a large extent the argument that freely available online courses can provide an effective way for school leavers priced out of university to gain the same education as fee paying university students.

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