By Paula Marantz Cohen

I am currently teaching Charles Dickens' 1854 novel Hard Times in an unusual "side by side" course to Drexel University students and members of the Mantua and Powelton Village communities in West Philadelphia.

Side-by-side courses are part of a program of civic engagement conceived by Drexel's President John Fry and hosted by the university's Dornsife Center. There are lectures, workshops, town meetings, and classes. Some of these activities are entirely community-based; some, like my course, involve partnerships with Drexel staff, faculty, and students.

I was initially skeptical about integrating civic engagement into the curriculum. I didn't think students would find the coursework interesting or would gain from it. I was wrong. I now see how much this partnership enthralls students and adds to their education.

It's not natural for young people to spend the most intensive period of their educational lives cordoned off from their surroundings. If they can be exposed to people in the neighborhood around them, they can be made both more tolerant and more curious about the world in general.

Side-by-side courses provide this exposure in a way that no other initiative I know is able to do. Talking about something intellectually stimulating - giving the mind nourishment of a substantive sort - is a marvelous way to bridge difference and gain insight into others.

Too often, we assume that hashing over problems and tensions directly will solve them. Sometimes, this is a useful method; but often, it leaves people feeling more frustrated and angry than before. What is needed, instead, is mediating subject matter of an elevated kind - a great book or film or work of art as the vehicle through which difference can be explored. I see this as a version of what writers say about the superiority of "showing" over "telling." Showing, in this case, is engaging with material that each individual can relate to in his or her own way, and letting these responses lead to mutual understanding. This is far superior to telling people that they should respect each other's opinion.

The novels of Charles Dickens are a wonderful means of bringing people together. It's true that Dickens was not subtle. He saw the world in dualistic terms - good guys vs. bad - and his plots are full of fantastic coincidences. But his stylistic brilliance, wit, and concern for social justice are such that students of all ages and backgrounds are bound to derive meaning and interest from his work.

Hard Times, the shortest of Dickens' novels, is an excellent vehicle for community and student engagement. It dramatizes the idea of "the two nations" (rich and poor) that novelist and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli would use to describe England during this period of burgeoning industrialization, before laws restricting worker exploitation had been passed. Reading the novel, we can see how far Anglo-American culture has come but also how much we still resemble the Victorians.

I am struck by the differing ways in which students from Drexel and the nearby community respond to this novel. For example: the exploited worker Stephen Blackpool's long-suffering relationship to his work and his alcoholic wife aroused admiration among some of the community members ("He's a decent, good man who does what he should"), but irritation from the students ("Why is he so passive and accepting?"). They also differed in their response to the fact-based, utilitarian education represented in the novel. The Drexel students saw this as rigid and dehumanizing. The community members had a more nuanced perspective: "As an African American mother, I always wanted my son to learn proper grammar and spelling above all because I knew he would be judged by a higher standard of correctness."

Courses like this one also address the one kind of diversity that I think has been neglected on the college campus: the diversity of age. How can students really learn about difference when, different though they may be in background, they haven't lived long enough to see how these differences play out over time?

There are obvious challenges to teaching a course like this. The community members can find the students callow and spoiled. The students can find the community members digressive and focused on details that seem unimportant. But learning how to listen and find meaning from what one might otherwise dismiss is the point.

I personally have rarely gotten as much stimulation and pleasure from teaching a course as I have from this one.

Paula Marantz Cohen is the dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University. cohenpm@drexel.edu