"You really need to get into the mind of another person in order to bring a character to life," Hunter Wilkinson, 17, explained to members of the audience at the Dickens Universe conference this August. Hunter shared her thoughts in a panel about her classmates' production of Middlemarch at Foshay Learning Center, a Title-1 public school in South LA.
The production culminated MiddleLab, a laboratory for innovative pedagogy on teaching the novel to the first generation students of Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI), USC's college access program for rising first-generation South Los Angeles youth.mHunter, along with two other students, Kenia Coyoy and Kimberly Mejia, alumni from the program and Foshay, represented the student perspective at the panel entitled "MiddleLab: Novel Readings in South LA", the first formal presentation at the conference about the South LA public humanities work led by the Dickens Project-NAI partnership team. The leaders of the team include teachers Jacqueline Barrios (AP English teacher, USC NAI Theater Workshop director and UCLA graduate student) and Paul David Story (co-director of the USC NAI Theater Workshop), who presented the practices and curated examples of student work from the project’s interdisciplinary learning environment.
MiddleLab fused visual performing arts, digital platforms and the scholarly resources of the Dickens Project. University faculty lent their support, especially Dickens Project Faculty Advisors, Professor Devin Griffiths (USC) and Professor Jill Galvan (Ohio State University). Dr. Jon Varese, Director of Outreach at the Dickens Project, concluded the panel by awarding key supporters of the program with “Petri-Dish” art, works from the “Eye of Research” art exhibit. The students' art took their inspiration from the novel's characters and scientific imagery—a key source of symbolism in Eliot’s work. The presentation and NAI students received positive response from the Dickens Universe as feedback ranged from appreciation for the students’ accomplishments to a desire to see more first-generation readers of the novel by supporting public humanities outreach projects like MiddleLab.