Professional conference presentations are a unique opportunity for graduate students. In February of this year, three of our students, along with Dr. Catherine Craft-Fairchild, traveled to Savannah, Georgia, for the Southeastern American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. The Graduate English program happily reimburses students for conference travel, making these professional opportunities more affordable. Grad student Victoria Pyron Tankersley was gracious enough to write about her experience. Victoria will graduate from the program this summer.
During the first class of GENG 628: Criminals and Rogues in 18th Century British Literature, Dr. Craft-Fairchild distributed a packet with information concerning perhaps the largest interdisciplinary group in her field—the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. She then told us that the individual paper proposals for the conference she regularly attends—the Southeastern American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies—were due by November 1, and encouraged us to submit our mid-term papers for the conference.
I, along with a few peers, decided to submit. The context for writing my essay widened; along with writing for the course, I was writing for the conference, and this seemed to drastically change my experience. I felt more invested in the essay, as I could more easily imagine how and where it would fit in current scholarly conversations, and I was more inclined to seek mentoring from Dr. Craft-Fairchild as the essay developed. Around mid-December, we turned in our final drafts, awaiting the conference in the spring.
The conference was held in Savannah, Georgia, from February 25–27, and the theme was, “East and West: The Broad Expanse of the Eighteenth Century.” Dr. Craft-Fairchild orchestrated our panel, which was titled, “Questioning the Status Quo: Eighteenth-Century ‘Criminal’ Literature,” and she presented her own essay, titled, “Teaching Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina and Betsy Thoughtless: The Joining of Opposites,” side-by-side with me, Pearl Nielsen, and Andrea Dennis. Pearl and Andrea focused on the ways in which gender was criminalized—essays titled “Deregulating Women’s Conduct and Exposing Men’s Conduct: Authorship and Gender in Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina and Betsy Thoughtless,” and “Prostitution and the Malignancy of Desire in Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood,” respectively. My essay, “Criminality as a Stimulus for Colonial and Capitalist Growth in Defoe’s Moll Flanders,” focused on the criminalization of the poor.
The questions and feedback we received after presenting our research was one of the most valuable takeaways from the conference. We quickly realized that the small crowd listening was filled, not just with other graduate students, but with other professors and experts in the field. The group asked us intriguing questions, pointed out avenues of inquiry we had not yet investigated, and suggested new resources that could contribute to the development of our work.
Not all of the conferences I’ve attended have given such a depth of feedback, so I attributed this surprisingly lively feedback to the nature of the conference itself—being a small, tight-knit group, deeply invested in its area of study. For this reason, and although generalized conferences can be helpful in different ways, attending a specialized conference quickly became one of my most treasured graduate school experiences.
Along with being lively, our small crowd was also kind. After the panel, Dr. Craft-Fairchild informed me that her dissertation advisor—who wrote an exhaustive 688-page biography of Defoe—was sitting amidst the crowd. Instead of openly criticizing my essay, which she very easily could have done, Dr. Paula Backscheider sat quietly and supportively in the back row—an action which, again, speaks to the nature of the small, specialized, and friendly conference.
Pearl, Andrea, and I ended that conference feeling intellectually energized. And, after attending the keynote speaker and networking with some peers and professors, we were free to go out to dinner with Dr. Craft-Fairchild and then roam the city of Savannah, taking way too many Instagram pictures of each other and the historic town squares.