"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.


From South LA to Santa Cruz via Middlemarch: USC NAI and Foshay students and teachers present public humanities project based on George Eliot's novel at the Dickens Universe, one of the largest academic conferences on Victorian fiction in the world. (L-R) Kenia Coyoy, alumni; Kimberly Mejia, alumni; Hunter Wilkinson, recent HS graduate and AP Literature student; Jacqueline Barrios, teacher, director and DP-NAI Partnership Lead; Paul David Story, director.

Center of the Universe: USC NAI and Foshay alumni, Kenia Coyoy, receiving applause at the opening of the conference for her design work. Kenia is a returning attendee, having won the nationwide high school essay contest in 2012. For MiddleLab, she also led the design of the website that served as an interactive digital hub for the project.

Student Work on View: Exhibit featuring NAI and Foshay students’ work samples, including Petri dish mixed media art and stills from the student performance that culminated MiddleLab.

Role Reversal: Kenia Coyoy, first generation college student and reader of Victorian fiction, prepares to speak from the podium to a gathering group of professors, graduate students and Dickens Project Victorian scholars.

Learning from Scholars: With Dickens Project-USC NAI Faculty Advisor, Professor Jill Galvan (Ohio State University), after her talk on the novel, "After Romance".

At the Ball: Concluding the week, the team gathers with Dr. Jon Varese (top left), Dickens Project director of outreach.

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