Surroundings stimulate study of English literature

By Karin Dienst

Princeton NJ -- Seven Princeton juniors have spent the fall semester immersed in English literature. Not only have they studied British writers, but they've lived in the city that inspired them.

Students visiting Hampton Court Palace

The students enrolled in "London: Mind of the Writer; Body of the City" had a chance to explore the area as part of their educational experience. Visiting Hampton Court Palace were: (back row, from left) Nathan Floody, Carolyn Wise, Andrew Bosse; (middle row) John Dempsey, Ellenna Raymond; and (front row) Ysa Rodriguez.

The English majors have been studying at University College London through a partnership between UCL and Princeton's English department. They took the junior seminar, "London: Mind of the Writer; Body of the City," taught by Princeton's Nigel Smith, a professor of English, as well as two courses offered by the UCL English department and one other course in a department of their choosing. The students earned a full semester of credit for the work done abroad.

This particular partnership between Princeton and UCL has been in place for five years, but this past semester was the first time a Princeton professor has gone to London to teach the junior seminar. Smith earned his Ph.D. at Oxford University and taught there before joining the Princeton faculty in 1999.

Describing the experience of holding a Princeton class in London as being "absolutely terrific," Smith said that the students were "profoundly stimulated by the new environment, and especially the number of theaters, museums and galleries." He said a highlight was visiting Shakespeare's Globe Theatre for a performance of "Richard II," and "seeing pure joy and engagement on the students' faces."

The seminar, which can cover a range of topics, is a requirement for English majors and culminates in the junior paper. The fall semester's syllabus was steeped in books that are a part of London's rich literary heritage. Starting with Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," it included works by Ben Jonson, William Blake, Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, George Gissing, Daniel Defoe, Bernadine Evaristo and up to Zadie Smith's 2001 novel, "White Teeth."

"In the course, we investigated the methods the author uses to narrate the social, economic and historical aspects of the city," said John Dempsey, who is from Ocean Township, N.J., and was in London for the first time. "I particularly enjoyed Ben Jonson's 'The Alchemist,' in which the action of the play occurs because the master of the house has escaped London during the plague," he said. "Reading it prompted my junior paper topic, 'Comedy in the Time of Plague.'"

Shani Berezin, who is from Longmeadow, Mass., was also new to London. She said that Dickens' descriptions of the city in "Our Mutual Friend" were particularly illuminating. "It felt so good to read a description and then go see the actual site in person the next day," she said.

A sense of belonging

A major part of the educational experience for the students was exploring the city. "One of the greatest experiences was gaining a sense of belonging to a place that at first seemed overwhelming," said Dempsey. "Each week I got together with other members of the seminar to explore something new. On our own we bought tickets to the Globe Theatre, visited the Tower of London, waved to the illusionist David Blaine in his isolation box, went clubbing in Soho and sampled some of the best restaurants in London."

Carolyn Wise had visited London twice before with her family, so while she felt less of a need to see tourist attractions, the Brooklyn native relished the chance to "branch out." She said that the study abroad experience gave students "the opportunity to do what they wanted to do and pursue personal interests."

For all of the students, "branching out" also meant traveling as much as possible around England and elsewhere in Europe. Their destinations included Oxford, Bath, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Edinburgh, Barcelona, Rome, Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt. "I think the best thing about the program was the opportunity to travel," said Berezin.

As the seminar progressed, Smith observed how the time outside of class impacted the students' perspectives. "They had a greatly enhanced literary and cultural experience, and the written work produced for me has been outstanding," he said. "They learned self-dependence in new ways, looking after themselves away from home and the Princeton campus. I was highly impressed by their efficient, personally directed lives, in and out of class. The students also truly looked out for each other."


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