Previous posts in Reason & Romanticism have toed the line between blog entry and academic paper, but this one stands squarely in the category of the former. Last night I returned from a five-day stay in beautiful Boulder, Colorado, where I attended the 20th annual British Women Writers Conference. It was my first conference presentation as a doctoral student, and my first conference experience that lined up with what I believe a conference should be. Last year, I wrote a piece in which I mostly challenge the traditional conference format, but BWWC 2012 has led me to qualify those comments and revise my perspective. I return from Boulder with new ideas, new enthusiasm, and new colleagues and friends.
I was lucky enough to have been accepted for a special session originally targeted for natural history, texts, and landscapes. Serendipitously, as the panel organizer told me, the more interesting proposals all treated not only the same author, but also the same text. Thus, the special session of “Charlotte Smith’s Natural Histories: Texts and Landscapes” was aptly described by a fellow panelist as a “Beachy Head fest.” That’s right: four papers on Beachy Head, Smith’s posthumously published long poem that has proven to be her most enigmatic and complex, if I may make such a bold statement. Despite the specificity, the presentations ranged widely in perspective and approach. While I focused on the paratext and final lines of the poem, the other presenters spoke brilliantly on genre, science, gender, and time.
Lauren Cameron, a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was the session organizer, and everyone should be on the lookout for her upcoming article on e-books, marginalia, and Sherlock Holmes in the Fall 2012 issue of Victorian Review. Lauren and I were the first two people to grab breakfast on the first day of the conference, and I’m humbled that such an accomplished scholar found enough promise in my ideas to include me with such a high caliber group.
By chance, I was connected in some way with all of the presenters on my panel. I did my masters in creative writing at the University of Nebraska, and Jack Vespa, a professor who ran Nebaska’s 18th and 19th century British Literature Reading Group—where I first tested the waters with my ideas on Marie Antoinette in 1790s British poetry—presented a compelling argument on the Georgic in Beachy Head. Caroline Heller, a fellow Ohio-based graduate student at Miami University, delivered a Benjaminian reading of species and nationhood, and Mark Lussier, in all ways the headliner of our panel, had sent me an email just two days previously informing me that the other half of the project that I was presenting in Boulder had been accepted for the 2012 International Conference on Romanticism in Tempe, Arizona.
Lussier drew some big names to our panel, and I’m glad that I didn’t read nametags until after my presentation. To receive feedback from folks whose books and articles I’ve encountered for years was a humbling experience, and I’m happy to take home some great ideas as the project moves forward. The Q+A sessions were productive, engaging, and enthusiastic—a genuine dialogue between people who want each other to succeed. The hallway and mealtime conversations went similarly. I highly recommend this conference (which next year will be held in lovely Albuquerque, New Mexico) to anyone who researches or teaches 18th and 19th century British literature, with the slight caveat that the latter century tends to be represented more strongly.
At the very least conferences reflect current scholarly trends, and at the most they’re a kind of bellwether for future trends. Elizabeth Gaskell seemed to be the most discussed author of any genre and form. In poetry, Charlotte Smith held down the fort rather nicely, and the entire range of her works from Elegiac Sonnets to Beachy Head made an appearance. As one of the pleasant surprises of the program, several presentations focused on Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s Eighteen Hundred and Eleven. One scholar claimed the poem’s formal innovations (as a “Juvenalian tragedy”) as part of a rhetoric of progress, while another scholar read its cyclical model of history (ultimately unresolved in the American wild) as a more profound cynicism than we normally ascribe to the poem. Austen, the Brontës, and Eliot were conspicuously scarce in the program. Also, the attendees were overwhelmingly women, suggesting that for many male scholars “women writers” still occupy a separate sphere.
The keynote lectures were real treats, if I may use the somewhat awkward colloquialism. Lisa Moore argued for a lesbian history of the sonnet, and her talk gave me a couple of important leads as I begin to think about my ICR presentation on Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets and the rhetoric of authorship and paratext. Sonia Hofkosh examined Barbauld’s “Washing Day” in the context of materiality and affect, which led into a wonderful popular history of hot air balloons. Finally, Mary Ann O’Farrell spoke on Jane Austen in current popular culture, especially what she called the “conjugal” by which a straw-woman Austen is paired with something unexpected or decidedly more modern.
Three master classes were offered: the new woman, romantic drama, and digital humanities. In an ideal world, I would have attended both of the last two options, but alas, sometimes one must make the difficult decisions. I ended up attending the master class “Playing Around with Digital Humanities,” led by Katherine Harris, who admitted that she would rather have called the session “Screwing Around with Digital Humanities.” I was able to share my interests, projects, and ideas, and gained a bit more confidence and certainty regarding how digital methods, applications, and formats will continue to play a role in my research and teaching.
I’m toying around with how a dissertation on Romantic literature might be born-digital, and Harris helpfully got me to thinking about the affordances and justifications of different media. I don’t yet know what my dissertation will be, or if it even will embrace anything other than the traditional format, but one of the broad topics that I’ve toyed with concerns literary annotation and paratext, which seem like they could benefit from digital treatment. As Harris emphasized, it’s about taking risks, but also about finding people who will have your back when you take those risks.
The conference organizers knew that they had to take advantage of the location. A mountain picnic lunch (unfortunately rained out), early morning hike, and farmer’s market trip provided a cultural experience of Boulder that sitting in hotel conference rooms couldn’t replicate. At first I thought that the thin air wouldn’t be that much of a big deal, but I wasn’t far into the hike before feeling shamefully out of shape. I made it to the base of the flatirons, though, and from quite an elevation gazed out across Boulder and the surrounding area. Is there any better way to start a day of panels and papers? The farmer’s market was a brief walk from the hotel, and in addition to talking to a vendor about his loofah cucumbers and experiences with Russian writers, I bought some habanero pasta that, I was assured, will be very, very spicy.
I could go on about all the great people I met. I’d like to acknowledge specifically the conference organizers, Kirstyn Leuner and Kelli Towers Jasper, as well as their faculty adviser, Jill Heydt-Stevenson, for putting on an impossible and wonderful event. Leuner’s collaborative student exhibit in the library was particularly memorable. I came face to face with, among other texts, a 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman, an 1812 Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, a 1784 Elegiac Sonnets, a 1793 The Emigrants, and an 1807 Beachy Head. I’m jealous of CU library’s Women Poets of the Romantic Period collection, but I know that the generous and supportive people involved with it are just an email or message away.
As a parting thought, I’ll offer you this. Don’t ever try to finish a seminar paper during a conference. It might seem like a good idea at the time, but just remember that it’s actually the worst idea that any human has ever come up with, worse even than whatever legitimately horrible thing that you’re thinking of right now.