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Conference Travel, Graduate English, Opportunities for Graduate Students, Research Grant, Student Research

5 Things You Should Do At A Conference

Kaari Newman is in her final semester as a graduate English student at St. Thomas. She will be writing her Master’s Essay this fall and presenting it at our ME presentation event. Below she shares 5 Things You Should Do at a Conference as a Graduate Student. The graduate program offers $500 in conference funding per year to every student.

Kaari enjoying the African sunshine this past summer while visiting family in Kenya. She’s also thinking deeply about her thesis here, though you might not be able to tell.

My first conference experience was overwhelming. But that’s probably because I was one of the very few undergraduates wandering around the Marriott Hotel downtown at the MMLA Conference in 2008. There were well over 100 panels on every conceivable topic and genre you could imagine within the humanities. I attended a session held entirely in French, and it was all I could do to get the gist of what was said. I attended a lecture by the publisher of the UMN Press entitled “How to Get Your Manuscript Published,” which turned out to be more of a seminar for PhD candidates on how to turn their dissertations into books, not a general step-by-step guide to getting your (very bad) fiction manuscript published.

So yes, I was intimidated, but I was also inspired. Here was where serious academics shared ideas and rose to the challenge of defending them against the snide criticisms of that learnèd scholar with grey hair and elbow patches. Here was where allusions to Austen’s wit and Byron’s snark dropped into casual conversation in the hallway. Where people conversed on a level of intellect and language both familiar and yet far above mine.

Even back then, I knew that if I ended up pursuing academics as a career, I was going to be that plucky young scholar with fresh ideas at the front of the room.

So You Want to Attend a Conference

While I can’t vouch for whether I’m succeeding at being plucky, I have made conference participation and attendance a regular part of my St. Thomas experience. Below are some of the things I’ve learned as a graduate student participant at academic conferences.

1. It’s OK to start small.

Kaari’s only pictures from her first conference at SDSU. “Hobo Day” is apparently the university’s homecoming celebration, which this statue commemorates.

The first conference I presented at was a very small regional conference held at South Dakota State University. It was the perfect venue for my début. There were only about 100 or so attendees, mostly from schools in the Upper Midwest (and one guy from Idaho State). This meant while I feared having to battle wits with the aforementioned elbow-patched scholar, I found instead a congenial group of professors and graduate students who were genuinely interested in my perspectives and asked intelligent, thought-provoking questions. Most sessions ended up being more like normal classroom discussions than aggressive Q&A’s.

 

2. Ask your question, even if you think it’s stupid.

I have routinely observed the truth of Emerson’s maxim that your own rejected thoughts always return to you in alienated majesty – usually in the form of someone else looking smart and insightful. If you have a question for one of the speakers in your session, ask it! Odds are, someone else has a similar or even the exact same question, and the best part about asking it first (other than looking smart and insightful) is that you might open up discussion for the whole group.

It also might lead to follow-up discussions after the session with the speaker or other attendees, in which case you feel included and respected, not like the loser in the corner on your smartphone killing time until the next session.

 

3. Attend the pre-conference social hour/cocktail party and especially the conference dinner.

Yes, I’m talking about networking. I don’t like it any more than you do. The nice thing about being a literature geek in a place swarming with other literature geeks is that you will always find something to talk about, even if it’s as simple as what books they’re currently reading. And most of these gatherings will include a free drink or two of alcoholic persuasion, which often provides the social lubricant needed to break the ice (but drink responsibly! No one wants to get pegged as the conference lush).

When I went to the British Women Writer’s Conference this summer, I didn’t know anyone, but I made a few acquaintances at the pre-conference cocktail hour. These people became friendly faces throughout the four-day conference by whom I could snag a seat at the plenary talk or approach at the coffee station to talk about the sessions we’d just attended. Meeting people is also a great way to hear about other sessions you wish you could have attended but couldn’t because the conference organizers saw fit to schedule a Mary Shelley panel during the same time as a Jane Austen one (you’re seriously making me choose between them?!).

Furthermore, conversations around the dinner table open up interesting tidbits about the state of the field, including:

  • New trends or scholarly “fads” in research
  • What publishers/editors seem to be looking for these days
  • Just what exactly digital humanities entails
  • Fabulous research tools and databases you’d never heard about before
  • What teaching a 4-4 load actually looks/feels like
  • How a “job talk” interview went and what questions got asked
  • What actual scholars think of the academic job market (as opposed to what the Wall Street Journal or New York Times thinks about it)

4. Try to attend as much as possible. You’re here to learn!

I’ve met some conference-goers who attend only half the conference, or just go to the session they’re presenting at and little else. In my mind, this is a waste of time and money. You’ve paid (probably big bucks) to fly or drive to this conference, not to mention your conference fees, so make the most of your experience.

Spend some time before the conference perusing the program and selecting which sessions most appeal to you. You don’t have to stick to your plan, of course, but it helps you minimize choice paralysis on your first day, when you’ll be more concerned with checking in, getting your free swag, finding East Ballroom C for that first session, and locating the nearest bathroom for when that large coffee inevitably makes its way through your system.

I usually re-evaluate my plan at the end of each day (if it’s a multi-day conference) for the next day based on good speakers I’ve heard or topics that maybe appeal to me now vs. when I first registered.

5. But it’s ok to take a break now and then.

That said, it’s ok to take a break for a session or for lunch by yourself. Your brain can only take so much deep concentration and stimulating thought. Well-organized conferences will include about 15 to 30 minutes of downtime between sessions, but you may need a little more time to process. That’s fine. Take a walk around campus, the town or a nearby park. Bask in a sunny window, jotting down notes or thinking deep thoughts about what you’ve been learning and what questions it sparks for you. Reflection is good for the soul.

Ready to conference?

I could go on, but I think the main takeaway here is that attending a conference can take you out of your comfort zone in the best possible way. It will give you new insights into your chosen field, fresh ideas for your next paper, contacts at other universities, and most importantly, the satisfaction of belonging to a community that’s just as excited and nerdy about your topic as you are.

If the thought of attending or presenting at a conference still sounds intimidating, try participating in our very own annual Graduate English conference here at St. Thomas in the spring. It’s only one day long and local (so no hotel fees or transport costs), attended by your friends and professors you know, and always includes dynamic speakers with worthwhile ideas to spark conversation and further discussion.

And no, they didn’t pay me to write that.

P.S. I still haven’t quite got my courage up to attend the MMLA again, but I’m getting there!

Conference Travel, Graduate English, Master's Essay, Opportunities for Graduate Students, Student Research

Bringing the Love of Romance to a Conference on Militarism

Taya Sazama completed her degree in the Fall of 2016, but has continued to attend conferences to present her Master’s Essay research. As a graduate student, Taya took advantage of our teaching mentorship opportunity, and was also the recipient of our $1,000 student research grant, which she used to attend the Historical Romance Retreat in Spokane, Washington.

One of the most difficult transitions post grad-school is attempting to move on from your thesis project back into the “real world,”  For months—and perhaps longer—you have immersed yourself in your research.  For me, it was romance novels and the community of women who read and write them.  Not only were these the only texts I had read for well over a year, but all of my thoughts seemed to constantly churn over related ideas, to-do lists, and questions I needed to ask my advisor.  This obsession only seems to gain momentum as graduation nears and you prepare to review, submit, and defend the project to your committee.  It took me months to actually read something other than romance after I graduated in December 2016.  I intended to pick up something new right away as a sort of celebration, but romance had almost become an addiction and I struggled to get past the first few pages of any other book.  Finally, at the beginning of April, I read A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman and I felt cured.  Don’t get me wrong—I still love romance novels.  But it was definitely time to take a healthy break.

Now, in contrast with the urge to break up with your thesis project, there is also the strong desire to hold on tightly to what has almost literally become your baby.  For months it has kept you up at nights, you were constantly changing it, and you had almost no social life because it demanded your undivided attention.  How can you just abandon it now?  The question of what to do with my paper began to plague me even before I graduated.  Sure, there is the goal of publication, but the path on how to get there is not always clear.  What I chose to do, and what I highly recommend, is to present your work at a conference.  Sure you can easily do this at St. Thomas, the U of M, or some other local university, but what I propose is something that, for many of us, is far outside of our comfort zone.  Go somewhere where nobody knows you—where nobody knows your research—where no one from your school is presenting.  This will give you the best chance at testing your ideas out in the scholarly world, getting fresh ideas and testing your conclusions in a way that cannot happen in the comfort of your own academic circle.

At the end of last October, an email came through with the following title for a conference taking place the following spring at Texas State University: “Century of Conflict: Dialogues on Women, Gender, Intersectionality, and Militarism. This event will provide a forum for diverse perspectives on work around issues of gender, ability/disability, veteran status, and intersectionality.”  As I was currently in that obsessive state with my project, I immediately emailed my advisor for confirmation that I should, in fact, do this.  After getting the green light from her that it was a good idea, I put together an abstract and sent it off, feeling rather pleased with myself.  Unfortunately, those good feelings quickly dissipated when I received my acceptance email post-graduation. At that point, I was trying unsuccessfully to break up with my thesis and was genuinely annoyed with myself for wanting to attend a conference in March, almost four months after I should have been done with my paper.

Yet, even with all this anxiety, I can assure you that this experience turned out to be one of the most rewarding of my academic career.  One of the biggest benefits to participating in this conference was that it forced me to evaluate my own conclusions with an eye towards seemingly dissimilar topics.  What quickly became apparent once the symposium began was that the conference, and almost all of the other presenters, were focusing very heavily on the militarism side of the conference topics. In fact, as I glanced through the titles in the program, mine seemed to be a glaring outlier.  As the morning sessions of the symposium progressed, I found myself panicking a little – How was I going to relate my project to all of these discussions on war and female soldiers in the military?  I imagined what the reactions of my audience members would be and could already see their confused faces as they wondered how a scholar on romance novels was admitted to be a presenter.  Silently chastising myself for getting into this predicament, I began to quickly brainstorm how to salvage what I assumed would be a disaster.  Thankfully, my dire predictions did not come true.  In fact, I was able to walk away from the experience with some major connections between my conclusions and the issues raised by the other presenters.  In additions, the questions and positive comments from an outside circle of academics did much to encourage me in my research.  They helped to validate the importance of my work while also providing helpful criticism and suggestions for further research.  Best of all, I was invited to submit my paper to the university’s academic journal on women and gender.

There is no shortage of opportunities at which to present your research.  I would urge all graduate students, especially those who are nearing the end of their programs, to seek out places where they can push their boundaries.  As much as I recommend presenting at local conferences—because any practice is helpful—there is almost more to be gained by widening your sphere.  It will help you to look at your work with fresh eyes and to really gauge the potential it has for publication.  So, fight the urge to fully break up with your thesis immediately upon graduation.  Take it somewhere new, but explain that you need an open reading relationship.

Graduate English, Opportunities for Graduate Students, Research Grant, Student Research

Grace Under Pressure – an Essay on Letting Go

Rachel Busse, alumna of the St. Thomas English Department and current graduate student, traveled to Havana, Cuba, this January on a Graduate Research Grant. Rachel was researching Ernest Hemingway, who spent nearly 30 years in Cuba.

Rachel in front of Hemingway’s Finca Vigía just outside Havana, Cuba.

I am a planner. I am an itinerary-making, checklist-having, research-doing goody-goody. In the eighth grade, I went on a class trip to Washington, D.C. and filled an entire binder with background research as though we didn’t already have an extensive schedule. Before I went to my first coffee shop (2007, Caribou, Rosemount, MN) I studied the menu online to ensure I’d be able to order a campfire cooler with grace and gravitas. I still get disappointed when a restaurant doesn’t put their menu online and I relish Yelp posts that include photographic clues to the layout of a place. This is a form of sleuthing, and if I had another life to live I’d likely join the ranks of Philip Marlowe or Nancy Drew.

This is not to say I am always organized (for I am often far from it) but rather that I like to be prepared. Information is power, and I rarely find good reason to concede control or clout. So I hoard facts and plans like knickknacks that might come in handy one day—my mind can best be likened to my grandmother’s cluttered basement.

Hemingway’s bedroom at Finca Vigía.

This is all well and good until it isn’t. That is, until planning becomes unreasonable, irresponsible, or even impossible. This worked, I mean to say, until I traveled to Cuba. I went to visit Ernest Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigía, which is just outside of Havana. He lived there for nearly a third of his life, and I wanted to find out why. I was able to make this trip thanks to a generous grant from the University of St. Thomas English department, but it was a quick turnaround. I submitted a proposal at the end of November, found out I’d been awarded the grant in early December, and a month later I was in Havana for a week, accompanied by my friend Margaret. This was the first trip I’d taken where I had next to no concept for what to expect. I knew about as much as to expect cigars, classic cars, and maybe a beach—but the idea of hitting a country’s highlights and retiring to a resort at night is way too voyeuristic for my tastes. I wanted to do this responsibly, and for that, I needed details, or so I thought.

For starters, American travel to Cuba was only recently made accessible; President Obama was the first sitting president to visit Cuba in over 90 years when he and his family went last year, and there wasn’t even a US embassy in Cuba until 2015. Restrictions on travel to Cuba were loosened under the Obama administration, but before that, American travel in Cuba had been banned since 1963. This restriction was older than my parents.

The internet wasn’t much help. There was plenty of advice out there from intrepid Americans who had visited illegally by traveling through Mexico or Canada, but like I said, I’m not much of a rule-breaker. Because the restrictions on legal travel were loosened so recently, there was a fair amount of conflicting information even from official sources. We were essentially watching these changes be implemented in real time, which meant that questions about how to get a visa, what kind we needed, and whether we were required to prove the nature of our travel were all hard to answer. As it turns out, you self-certify; this is frustratingly vague, but it means you pick one of the 12 approved reasons for travel, you create an itinerary (which not a single person asked us for), and you buy a tourist visa in the airport before your flight. That’s it. And if you’re me, you also spend hours checking and double checking that it’s really that easy.

Rachel with Hemingway’s Pilar (fishing boat)

And that’s just getting there. When it comes to how you’ll spend your time once you’re past customs, all the research has to come before you leave the US. While websites like TripAdvisor do have a fair amount of information, there’s no guarantee of their accuracy, as most places in Cuba do not keep an active web presence. Within Cuba, internet access is extremely limited and pricey as all get out; once you’re there, navigating Havana can feel a bit like learning to swim while you’re already in the pool. Sink or swim, sink or swim.

When we hopped off the plane, our first concern was finding our homestay, or casa particular. Our casa, owned by a woman named Mónica with her mother Aida, was in a neighborhood called Vedado, just west of Habana Viejo, or Old Havana. This meant our actual first priority was exchanging money in order to pay for a cab—another snag of the recently relaxed regulations is that American cards don’t work in ATMs (or anywhere, for that matter). You have to come holding all that money you might need in cash and exchange it there. This is stressful. Plus, we were tired—we’d gotten to our hotel in Miami after a long drive back from Key West at 1:30 am and left for the airport at 6:00 am. We spent a while after landing wandering wide-eyed through this airport until we got up the courage to ask for a taxi. We requested the driver take us to one of the few places we could remember that was near our neighborhood: Plaza de la Revolución.

Rachel’s friend Margaret standing in Plaza de la Revolución.

As it turns out, Plaza de la Revolución is an odd place to be dropped off coming from the airport. We imagined something highly-walkable, but what we got was essentially a big parking lot in between two government buildings (adorned with Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos), a huge monument to José Martí, and four lanes of traffic. Suffice to say, we looked naive bringing our luggage there.

Havana was not the sort of place I fell in love with fast. The city is loud and sputtering with rumbling old engines all peppered with honking horns. The hot, wet air is laced thick with exhaust and the alternating smells of trash and traffic. Our first venture out of the casa was both confusing and unsettling, which is funny considering we went for ice cream from the famous Coppelia. This visit involved being ushered by a security guard into a dingy upper-room specifically for convertible-peso carrying turistas, where we were served icy ice cream by a man with a coke nail.

But if there is one trait I have that’s stronger than my propensity to panic, it’s stubbornness. I hate admitting defeat, so even if it means white-knuckling, I hold on. This persistence—to which Margaret is also a subscriber—payed off. After Coppelia, we ended up wandering the idyllic University of Havana campus and enjoying a long lunch of dados a la piña and cervezas nacionales. After climbing a steep spiral staircase, we sat out on the restaurant’s bright blue balcony and looked out at the busy street. On this block, and so many others we walked that week, some buildings crumbled while others received fresh, pastel paint jobs. Savvy stray dogs ran loose, narrowly avoiding the steady stream of cars. We watched for tourists, placing bets on where each group was from. My fondness for this place was earned and learned, a slow and sustained burn I didn’t anticipate. That afternoon was one of starting sparks.

I went to Cuba primarily to see Hemingway’s home, which I took to mean not only his house, but the city too. I’d heard it claimed that Havana is “frozen in time,” and though I wasn’t naïve enough to really expect that, there is something alluring about the idea of a paused history. So much of what we do as readers and researchers is to try to understand the past, especially when it surrounds our favorite writers. There were parts of Havana that did feel out of a time capsule where it was easy to imagine Hemingway wandering on a steamy Havana afternoon, like the National Museum of Fine Arts or in in one of the many European-style squares. And of course Hemingway’s ghost lingers still in his favorite bars—La Bodeguita del Medio and La Foridita—where his favorite drinks—the mojito and the daiquiri, respectively—are still served as they would have been in the 1950s.

But these are places that exist specifically to preserve that time period, and to suggest Havana has remained unchanged erases the long and hugely significant history of Revolution in Cuba, which happened just around the time Hemingway left the city for the last time. The glamour of 1940s and 50s Havana still exists, but is rarely left untouched by evidence of revolution. One of the few grocery stores we found (with a queueing system left over from the days of rationing) had tiles at the entryway announcing it was once a Woolworths. An evening walk through Havana’s Chinatown (which has noticeably few Chinese people, as most left around the time of the revolution) featured a peek into the now-decrepit but once-elegant five-story Fin de Siglo department store. The Habana Libre hotel is perhaps one of the best examples of the faded glitz of the past—this huge hotel was opened as a modern, chic Hilton in 1958 and was the largest and tallest hotel in Latin America at the time. After the revolution in ’59, the Cuban government took control of the hotel, and the entire top floor was converted into Fidel Castro’s headquarters. The physical history of revolution in Cuba is also visible on the walls of the Museum of the Revolution. Housed in what was once the presidential palace, this lavish building is now scarred with bullet holes from the ousting of Batista. The place is full of propaganda, and it’s fascinating to see how the Cuban government tells its own story.

Hemingway’s connection with Castro is often wondered about, but was by most accounts relatively unsubstantial—the famous picture of the two together, taken at a fishing tournament held in Hemingway’s honor, depicts what was likely their most extensive interaction. Hemingway was against the Batista regime, and is believed to have been sympathetic to Castro’s calls for change. But Hemingway died before his allegiances were ever really clarified.

Regardless of his opinions on Castro or any of the other revolutionaries, Hemingway loved Cuba—he spent more time there than anywhere else in his short but well-traveled life. He considered Cuba his home, and even kept a bust of José Martí, the “apostle of Cuban independence” in his writing studio at Finca Vigía. For the record, I looked for one of my own, but instead found only a myriad of Che t-shirts, which I declined to buy.

Hemingway’s writing studio at Finca Vigía

The aforementioned writing studio is one of the few places at Hemingway’s home where you can see all the way to the city, as the home is about 15 km outside of Central Havana. It takes about 20 minutes to drive out by car; we took the bus back which took a while longer but allowed us to see the route more slowly. Both there and back, we snaked our way out through a more industrial cityscape than we’d previously seen and into busy suburbs. But Finca Vigía, which means lookout farm, is set up in the hills and away from the sounds and smog of the city. It is easy to imagine this as a place for a writer to come after spending time ambling around the comparatively chaotic Havana.

You can’t actually go into the house, but all the doors and windows are open to peer through, and in a way, that feels right. The house is stately but not excessively large, and seems like the sort of place you’d want to keep the windows open, at least through the cooler winter months. Every room had a window, even the closet where Hemingway’s war correspondent uniform was hanging. The ceilings are high and open, leaving plenty of room for the tall bookshelves that line almost every room, including the bathroom. This monstrous collection has simply been sitting there since Hemingway left in 1960, and aside from some digital cataloging done by researchers from Boston, they are untouched. There are also magazine, newspapers, literary journals like The Dial, and an impressive collection of records. All this media seems like a natural accumulation for someone so steeped in the arts, and it feels, for lack of a better word, homey. Down to the daily weight records Hemingway kept on the bathroom wall, this feels like a very personal place designed for those who lived there. This is not to say it isn’t stylish, but rather that there is a lived-in elegance to the place. The more public rooms—the dining room and the living room, for example—are a bit heavier on the taxidermy-reliant design that shows up throughout the house.  But the furnishings are generally less flashy that you might expect, given that Hemingway was a celebrity with many famous friends. This understated beauty is not at all unlike the prose Hemingway is so famous for.

Hemingway’s library at Finca Vigía

We spent several hours wandering the grounds, seeing every nook and cranny of the house we could while being sure not to miss the large pool (where Ava Gardner reportedly swam nude), Hemingway’s famous Pilar (his beloved fishing boat) and the cemetery for his dogs (Black, Negrita, Neron, and Linda). This pastoral setting is such a stark contrast to the heart of Havana, where there is little nature to be found unless you’re walking along the Malecón, the wall that separates Havana from the sea—it’s a local favorite, and a good place to drink rum with friends at night.

But Hemingway loved the city, too. He lived in the Hotel Ambos Mundos, in Habana Vieja, for about a year before moving to Finca Vigía. The hotel features one of the best views of the city from its rooftop and is in walking distance from both of his favorite bars. Though we enjoyed Hemingway’s haunts, we found our own favorites, too—our most frequented destination was the Museo Del Chocolate, which sells simultaneously rich and refreshing chocolate milk for the low low price of one dollar. I think we went four times. It made up for Coppelia.

Rachel (right) and Margaret at the ballet

Little things began to flower up and bloom for us. We got to go to the ballet, which is Cuba’s most renowned arts organization. It was The Nutcracker—or Cascanueces, if you prefer—and we sat next to the proud father of a little girl performing in the children’s choir (I cried). We spent a pleasantly humid evening on the terrace of our casa, leafing through outdated guidebooks we found on the bookshelf and sipping pineapple soda. But more broadly, we surprised ourselves with adaptability, and I am proud of our ability to walk the city with a confidence we didn’t bring with us. For the record, Havana is the type of place you walk almost everywhere to avoid paying for cabs—we walked 15 miles on our last day there. And when it did come time to pay for taxis, we got pretty good at negotiating fares in Spanish, which is something I’m not even comfortable doing in English.

Hemingway famously said that “courage is grace under pressure.” For a long time, I liked how that sounded but didn’t feel I’d really had an opportunity to test it out—I’ve almost always got a safety net, and it’s usually pretty sturdy. Cuba is a safe place, so we were never really too worried, but there were always more questions than there were answers. We had to learn to do things a lo Cubano, to handle the unexpected with grace and patience. And at the end of the day, there was something kind of magical about going in with very few expectations and letting the city click for us. This can come in finally feeling like you don’t need to bury your face in a map, successfully chatting with some local people in the museum, or even over the best glass of chocolate milk you’ve ever had. This click lets you sink in and feel your surroundings with confidence and courage, if only for a moment or two. I’d never advocate skipping your due diligence—basic research is important and responsible—but going in to fulfill all the expectations you came with seems irresponsible in its own right. No one likes a box-checker. At the end of the day, we saw Havana through pseudo-journalistic eyes, hungry to learn and keeping our cool along the way—a bit, we hope, like Hemingway.

Graduate English, Student Careers, Student Research, The Value of English

Vatnajökull

Katelyn Brunner is finishing her first semester as a graduate student. This fall she traveled to Iceland to pursue an interest that might cause you  pause when you think about English students: Geology. Because of the interest shown by her fellow classmates, Katelyn welcomed the opportunity to write about this “sweetheart infatuation” for our blog. When not in school or hiking atop glaciers, Katelyn is a copy editor for an ad agency that does work for veterinary/production animal companies.


unknownGeology is a complex, fundamental science that most people take for granted, which is a shame. The deep ocean’s thermal vents, the kaleidoscope in a granite countertop, stratification-stripes on the inside of mountains sliced to make room for highways– all of that beauty is proof that our Earth is not a given, it’s a gift.

My stupid, sweetheart infatuation with the planet is the reason I went to Iceland. It is one of the most extreme places in the world for the Earth sciences– glaciers rest on top of volcanoes and islands rise up out of the sea. Lava fields are covered with moss and the sand is charcoal-black. Everything is big and elemental and a girl in clunky hiking boots feels very small in comparison. It’s not that so many things happened during my trip there– it’s just that Iceland happened to me. But I don’t want to talk about all that.

I want to talk about a glacier.

picture1

I planned my trip around a three-day excursion that included hiking, staying in void-dark villages overnight, and clamping spikes onto our boots so we didn’t fall into an ice cave– literally. Some of the hiking and not-falling was done on top of a glacier called Vatnajökull. The day of the hike, our group of five was driven a few hours to a small, steel cabin to meet our “glacier guides,” all of whom look exactly like you’d expect. After signing my life away and being grilled about my epilepsy, I was allowed near the cramp-ons, pickaxes, and fun little harnesses whose lime-green nylon clashed horribly with my borrowed, hunter’s-orange pants.

The intimate experience that was my harness-fitting rivaled the TSA screening that I once received for committing the cardinal sin of airplane travel: forgetting my ID. Just like that uncomfortable Thanksgiving day, I was subjected to what amounted to little more than a pleasureless groping. Luckily, my fit, blonde “glacier guide” was the nicest woman in the world, if a bit intimidating. Just one of her defined muscles would probably be assigned a better high school superlative than I had.

picture3I was soon released to one of those huge, shiny buses that have impossibly large windows. The bus driver, a kind of lumberjack Santa who smelled like roast beef, pulled away from the cabin with his charges, and switched on the radio to what can only be described as the most offensive elevator music on Earth. The entire, hour-long trek across a landscape clearly not meant for buses, was filled with the sound of “improvised” jazz and clinking hiking equipment. We passed the outwash plain they filmed parts of the last Star Wars movie on and marveled at how like an earlobe the glacier looked, seeping out into its little lagoon. We saw the highest peak in Iceland and it didn’t look very tall until we were right up against it, jumping every so often at each creak and crash courtesy of the ice fall at its base.

We were briefed on how to behave ourselves on Vatnajökull. What I got from the talk was this: when stepping down, don’t point your toes straight forward, stomp so hard you’re sore tomorrow, and don’t feed the ravens; they will chase you. With those wise words, we began to climb.

It’s not enough just to describe the glacier, though it’s tempting. I could mention deep, blue crevasses that seemed very sinister, scalloped edges of melting ice, and the two ravens with gasoline-sheen feathers. But the most interesting thing about the experience was less the beauty of the place– after all, this was day six of a beautiful picture2trip– but the swelling-heart feeling I got when I stepped foot on the ice. I was finally there, finally with the thing I’d studied, presented on, and wrote about during my years in undergrad. Glaciers move and speak and, over time, slice through the landscape like wire through soft cheese. They, like minerals and the ocean’s currents, prove our Earth is alive. And my love for it proves I am, too.

Conference Travel, Student Research, Undergraduate English

Rediscovering Constance Wilde

grandmas-story

Grandma’s Story

Last fall, I undertook an independent study on the works of Oscar Wilde with Dr. Alexis Easley. When we began to study his fairy tales, I realized for the first time that one of them, “The Selfish Giant,” was one of my favorite childhood stories that my dad used to read to me. Intrigued, I researched these fairy tales further and discovered one of his wife’s fairy tale collections, There Was Once! Grandma’s Stories, a beautifully illustrated book that included five fairy tales and four nursery rhymes. Basic research revealed that Constance Wilde was a writer, editor, and public speaker who was an important voice in late nineteenth-century Britain, and as I learned more about her, I realized her work had been buried for over one hundred years. I knew that I needed to find out more about her.

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A Long Time Ago – Favourite Stories Retold by Mrs. Oscar Wilde and Others

During this last spring semester, Dr. Easley and I began the application process for the Luann Dummer Center for Women Undergraduate Fellowship Grant opportunity. Constance Wilde’s works have been out of print since she was first published in the late nineteenth century, so part of my application requested funding to travel to London in order to research her works at the British Library. Needless to say, we were ecstatic when I was informed that, out of all the possible applicants, we were awarded the grant. This trip to London was quite possibly my favorite part of the project. In the midst of traveling through the underground train system, getting lost for hours in the British Library pouring over books, letters, and documents from the nineteenth century, I discovered her amazing work for the Rational Dress Society, where she was the lead editor for the Society’s Gazette from April of 1888 to July 1889. Her work centered on the idea of healthy and sensible dress for young girls and women without sacrificing the aesthetic appeal of fashion. As editor, Constance Wilde’s work was crucial in getting the necessary health information out to women in order to encourage them to take charge of both their own and their children’s health, especially relating to their habits of dress.

One of the exciting opportunities I have had with this project so far was a presentation of my first research paper on Constance Wilde, focusing on her journalistic career with the Rational Dress Society, at the Streamlines Undergraduate English Conference in Dubuque, Iowa. The conference was a fantastic experience! Presentations were given by students from all over the United States, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to them. I also loved the opportunity to share my own research and to hear what questions people had about it. The unique quality of this particular conference is the wide variety of topics students can present on, such as creative writing (fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction), presentations on films, literary theory, the classics, global issues, identity, women in literature, and even one on handwriting in our culture. It was intellectually rich with all of these topics and more!introduction

Since my paper had to do with a female writer, I was placed in a panel that focused on the subject of women in literature. The other students in my panel had fascinating and excellent papers and it was intriguing to see that all of our papers tied together without our realizing or planning it. After we had all presented our papers, one of the audience members brought that to our attention, and it sparked a fantastic discussion that went in multiple directions. It was an incredible day, as the faculty, students, and everyone listening to the panels were supportive and interested in the work we were sharing. It was truly a worthwhile experience, and I hope to attend the conference again in the future simply for the pure enjoyment of it.

jack-and-the-beanstalk

Jack and the Beanstalk

The next step for my research on Constance Wilde will be an article on her collections of fairy tales, which I will be submitting this upcoming May to the International English Honor Society, Sigma Tau Delta. In the introduction to one of her collections, There Was Once! Grandma’s Stories, Constance Wilde tells children the story about the way these fairy tales were handed down to her orally by her grandmother. Through this, she draws attention to the importance of women’s relationships in the storytelling tradition. She highlights this process of transmission, honoring her foremother and making her own contribution to the retelling of these classic tales. One of my greatest hopes in carrying out this research project is to shine light on Constance Wilde’s work, highlighting her authorial achievements with more precision and promoting greater understanding of who she truly was – a unique and important writer of the late Victorian era.

 

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Meaghan Scott is a senior majoring in English. Two of her favorite literary eras are the Medieval and Victorian, and some of the authors she’s especially enjoyed studying are Dante, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Constance Wilde, just to name a few. However, she also loves fantasy literature in general, especially the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, who she will be studying in Dr. Martin Warren’s Tolkien: Middle Earth/Middle Ages class. She is currently applying to graduate English programs in Ireland and Minnesota in order to continue her studies in English Literature.

Conference Travel, Student Research, Undergraduate English

My Streamlines Conference Presentation of “Notes on Emptiness”

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to present a paper I wrote at the Streamlines Undergraduate Language and Literature Conference in Dubuque, Iowa.streamlines_program_2016 The conference took place on Saturday, November 5th, though for me it began weeks earlier with the nerve-wracking process of submitting my paper. I stand by my opinion that nothing — not even presenting — compares to the anxiety of the submission process. The whole thing consists of sending off what I truly believe to be my best work to someone I don’t know, so that it can be judged against standards I haven’t been acquainted with. That’s enough to make most people question whether or not their paper is good enough in the first place, and believe me, I am most people.

Nothing in that moment seems to reassure me that something I wrote could, in fact, be good enough to be presented, published, or otherwise recognized as real writing. Chalk it up to me being a young writer without many rejections to roughen me up, or to being too shy about sharing my work, or whatever else you want. I suspect that at any age or stage of writing, reassurance about the quality of one’s work isn’t what a writer needs. It’s probably more important to cultivate an air of indifference toward judgement out of genuine affection for your work. That, or to have the voices of feminist writers like Dunham, Gay, and Kaling whispering in your ear, telling you to smash that submit button with confidence (I fell back on this latter option).

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My paper incorporated a number of works from this anthology, including Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Rousseau’s Confessions, and inspiration from Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground.

Fast forward to November 5th. I had made it through the submission process, and my paper, “Notes on Emptiness,” had been accepted to the Streamlines Conference. I had edited, practiced, and practiced some more. The final draft was mixture of literary analysis of the book Madame Bovary, personal memoir, philosophical musings, and quotes on emptiness from literature. Because it’s such a thorough mix of styles and concepts, I would have been surprised no matter which category they put me into. I ended up on the creative non-fiction panel along with four other students from schools across the Midwest, feeling like I was going to crush it with an unconventional nonfiction paper.

The presentation itself was exhilarating. As I explained my paper and started reading, I had the thrilling feeling that my audience was hooked. They laughed when I wanted them to laugh, shifted in their chairs and chuckled uncomfortably when I expected them to feel awkward, and nodded along as I drove home my argument. It was a rare opportunity to see people react to my writing in real time. I loved every minute of it, feeling like I possessed a superpower to control people’s emotions, simply by sitting at the front of a room and speaking.

I also got to listen to the papers of the other four people on my presentation panel. Dr. Miller once said to my Writing Poetry class last spring that you should always go to readings because you’ll either leave filled with admiration and a desire to write as well as them, or with the impression that it wasn’t that great and you can do better than them, and either way you’ll want to go home and write. I don’t think I need to clarify that I experienced the former reaction upon hearing the papers of other students. Not only did I leave feeling energized and excited about writing, I felt honored to be included in a group of such excellent writers.

The question and answer session at the end of my reading rivaled the actual presentation for my favorite part of the day. Both students and professors, genuinely curious to know more about my writing, asked thoughtful questions about my themes, processes, and drives. Discussing my own work is something that I’ve had little experience with, and it was a treat to be able to talk about it and hone those skills I rarely get the opportunity to practice.

No other experience has validated my work more than this presentation. I left the conference feeling like a legitimate writer, and had the whole four and a half hour drive home from Dubuque to contemplate the experiences that will bring me to my next destination as a writer.

graffunder300Hayley Graffunder is a junior with a double major in Linguistics and English with a creative writing emphasis. She looks forward to studying abroad in Scotland this spring at the University of Edinburgh and will be writing for Arcadia University as a student blogger while she is away.

Conference Travel, Graduate English, Opportunities for Graduate Students, Research Grant, Student Research

Research Grant for “Paradise Lost”

Each year the graduate program awards at least one $1,000 research grant to support student research. This summer, graduate student Mark Van Dusseldorp traveled to San Marino, California, to visit the Huntington Library to research John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Mark was gracious enough to write about his incredible experience. Mark graduated this summer with a Master’s Essay titled “The Suburbs of Eternity: Dreaming in Paradise Lost.”

Paradise LostAs the story goes, a friend and student of John Milton’s named Thomas Ellwood made a visit to the poet and read the manuscript of Paradise Lost, after which he said: “Thou hast said much of Paradise lost, but what hast thou to say of Paradise found?” Some attribute Ellwood’s question as the inspiration for Milton’s brief epic Paradise Regained. Whether a factual anecdote or not, it’s a nice story, and I thought of this and Milton’s Eden as I walked around the 120 acres of garden at the Huntington library in San Marino, California, completely alone.

I arrived at the Huntington on a Tuesday, the day the grounds are closed to the public, so before I began days of research in a windowless room I took my “solitary way” through the twelve gardens, a lush oasis in a sadly parched part of the country. It was, in Milton’s words, “A happy rural seat of various view.” This turned out to be the perfect setting for Miltonic research because it felt like one could read portions of Paradise Lost at the desk, then simply walk outside to do laboratory research in Eden itself. In truth, there were only two reasons I was able to distinguish between this Southern California manmade garden and pre-fallen Paradise. (1) Alas, there was neither a Tree of Life nor Tree of Knowledge (despite my earnest searching), and (2) the roses had thorns. (According to Milton’s epic, the rose grew its thorns only after Sin made its horrific debut when Adam and Eve fell. Keep in mind that Paradise Lost was published 192 years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.) It would be best to quote Milton at length here, who knew well how short words and artifice fell in the face of perfection:

Groves whose rich Trees wept odorous Gumms and Balme,
Otheres whose fruit burnisht with Golden Rinde
Hung amiable, Hesperian Fables true,
If true, here only, and of delicious taste:
Betweixt them Lawns, or level Downs, and Flocks
Grasing the tender herb, were interpos’d,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Another side, umbrageous Grots and Caves
Of coole recess, o’re which the mantling vine
Layes forth her purple Grape, and gently creeps
Luxuriant. (IV.248-254; 257-260)

5But like Adam and Eve, I was driven out of Eden for more laborious tasks. For a week I took my seat in the Ahmanson Reading Room to page through rare books, first editions, and manuscripts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My Master’s Essay was on dreaming in Milton’s Paradise Lost, so the goal of this research trip was to find out a bit more about how early modern people thought about the dream. This is pre-Freud, of course, so all the typical notions we have about dreams are going to be quite different in this period, or at least written about in unfamiliar ways. For example, in a moment that anticipates Freud, Sir Thomas Browne writes that dreams “intimately tell us our selves.”

I looked at first editions of many books, which was an exciting experience in itself (though in a non-fetishistic sort of way), being able to handle the original printed materials of Milton, Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas Nashe, Sir Philip Sidney, and others. The first edition of Paradise Lost from 1667, for example, is quite interesting. The copy I handled was a rather plain artifact, a small quarto in nearly perfect condition. It has subtly raised bands on the spine and a brown Morocco-leather binding that shows off the beautiful but modest gilding. What is really fascinating about this first edition, however, is that the poem has line numbers. Now we are all familiar with the newer, annotated paperbacks that include line numbers for students who need to easily reference parts of a poem. But isn’t it odd that a first edition would have line numbers? I haven’t quite figured this out, and perhaps it is not unusual, but it seems to me that a printer or Milton himself expected Paradise Lost to be studied like Renaissance scholars studied line-numbered versions of Homer and Virgil.

untitled3Perhaps the most fruitful parts of this research were the other books and pamphlets written by authors that were unknown to me. I found in some of these writings a passionate appeal to the dream world because it has the ability to tell us truths outside of our waking rationality and hint at transcendence. For example, Thomas Tryon writes, “Now ’tis no wonder if a Discourse of such sublime Subjects, as the Entertainments of our Souls (during the Body’s Nocturnal repose) when they having shaken off for a time the Fetters of the Senses, are upon the Wing, in the Suburbs of Eternity.” Likewise, a preacher named Philip Goodwin argued that dreams revealed the certainty of God’s being: “a free concession to, and due cognition of Divine Dreames, may draw out much of the manifold Knowledge of God.” Writing about dreams at this time would not be an innocuous endeavor. Society was fundamentally Christian, and dreams often present an individual with sinful realities. Thomas Nashe writes that in dreaming “the table of our hart [sic] is turned to an index of iniquities, and all our thoughts are nothing but texts to condemne us.”

William Prynne was a rather cruel fellow who did, in fact, use dreams as a text to condemn Archbishop William Laud, a clergyman Puritans hated for his Catholic tendencies. Prynne oversaw the eventual trial of Laud, and for evidence Prynne confiscated Laud’s dream diary that was meant to prove, among other things, that Laud was most certainly a Catholic. The most incriminating dream was one that read, “I dreamed last night that I was reconciled to the Church of Rome.” I was able to look at this pamphlet which was titled “A breviate of the life, of William Laud Arch-bishop of Canterbury: extracted (for the most part) verbatim, out of his owne diary . . . as a necessary prologue to the history of his tryall.” The key words here might be “for the most part.” Perhaps Prynne took some creative autonomy to ensure Laud’s execution, but this vindictiveness may have been motivated for good reasons. About a decade earlier, Prynne had found himself in a bit of trouble after printing a book that admonished stage-plays, actresses, and playgoers. The untitled2Queen herself was an actress, and the King a fervent playgoer, so perhaps inevitably, Prynne was punished: his Oxford degree was revoked and both his ears were cut off. He blamed Laud.

My trip to the Huntington Library was thoroughly enjoyable, and I learned a great deal about archival research in the process. It was also a treat to work beside some professional scholars, including a famous Miltonist who was working on a new Oxford edition of Paradise Lost.

It’s also worth mentioning that I recently made a stop at Milton’s former church, St. Giles-without-Cripplegate in London. After I took communion I found myself standing on Milton’s grave. I had a nice chat with the parishioners and took this photo of a Milton statue by the coffee percolators

Graduate English, Opportunities for Graduate Students, Research Grant, Student Research

George Herbert Research Grant

Each year the graduate program awards a $1,000 research grant to support student research. This June, second year graduate student Adam Burchard traveled to England to visit Salisbury and Bemerton to research George Herbert. Adam was gracious enough to write about his incredible experience.

Adam Burchard and his son Lewis with Peter Webstser, member of The George Herbert in Bemerton Group.

Adam Burchard and his son Lewis with Peter Webstser, member of The George Herbert in Bemerton Group.

Over three days in early June, the Graduate English Student Research Grant gave me the opportunity to explore the last years of George Herbert’s life in Salisbury and Bemerton as part of a trip with my family to England. My wife Ginny also had a grant to study ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent so we combined our two research trips and added a stop in Butleigh to see an old friend and mentor of Ginny’s and a few days in London. Traveling with our son Lewis, who was nearing one year old, was far less stressful then we thought it would be. I think this was because he likes the constant movement and chaos rather than sitting still, and also having a small child broke the ice with a lot of people. Everyone we stayed with, and strangers as well, tended to be a bit more trusting and open because of him.

The view of Salisbury Cathedral from the summer cabin.

The view of Salisbury Cathedral from the summer cabin.

The evening we arrived in Salisbury was spent in the town and in and around the cathedral. We stayed at a Summer cabin in what’s called Salisbury Close, a walled area around the grounds of the cathedral made up of beautiful old buildings, shut in at night by two gates that are closed and locked every night at 11PM.  Our landlady gave us the key to these ancient gates, but we were never out late enough to use it because of Lewis.

Staying so near the cathedral we overcame its intimidating first impression and had the opportunity to get really accustomed to it over our three days of being there. I remember the cathedral now as having a more comfortable, lived-in feel than you might expect from pictures of it. People picnic on the grounds, play frisbee or golf and for the most part do those usual recreational things people do at parks, though there are signs reminding you that what you are standing on is actually a graveyard, so don’t do anything too disrespectful. While we were there the grounds were filled with some modern sculptures and performances were going on in the afternoons as part of an art festival. As in Herbert’s time, music still plays a large part in what goes on at the cathedral, and in the late afternoon, while sitting and paying with Lewis outside underneath the huge stained glass windows we could hear the choir practicing for the different processions and rituals.

Herbert is mentioned to have come here twice a week to play his lute with other musicians, and though we mostly know him as a poet, in Salisbury his presence as a devoted priest and musician seems to be have remained more established. When I mentioned his name a few times to local people they answered with: “Yes yes, George Herbert. Wonderful music!” Though his poems as far as I know were only set to music after his death. Herbert’s presence is subtle but prevalent in Salisbury, as I ran into his name more than a few times, found posters mentioning various events about him and found a display of drawings of him by local students.

Student pictures of Herbert

Student pictures of Herbert

Before the trip I had been emailing with members of the local group responsible for organizing most of the Herbert events in the area, called The George Herbert in Bemerton Group. One of their members, Mr. Peter Webster agreed to meet with me the day after our arrival at the home-base for Herbert’s memory, St. Andrew’s Church in Bemerton, a parish church across from Hebert’s residence. My plan was to follow Herbert’s twice-weekly general track from Salisbury to Bemerton on foot, which is only about a three mile walk, though very meandering. The next morning, after the evening of exploring the town and the cathedral, all three of us started from the cathedral, and somehow found our way there.

Salisbury sits at the convergence of five rivers. To utilize this wealth of water a system of gates and sluices and reservoirs were in engineered in the early 17th century, which permitted controlled flooding of large parcels of land right next to the city, creating a system of extremely lush pastureland known as the Water Meadows. Herbert’s trajectory from St. Andrews took him directly over this area which is characterized by its abundant life, running and stagnant water and rich humidity. Today there are public footpaths between the two locales that also go through the meadows and on to Bemerton, that allow for frequent views of the cathedral, grazing sheep and many little picturesque  scenes of small bridges over rushing streams, blooming pasture and dense forest. Some of these paths were rough on our stroller, and I’m not totally sure how we found our way out into Lower Bemerton on time.

Peter greeted us at the church porch of St. Andrew’s. He is an extremely knowledgeable, well-spoken and admirable person, and I was not ready for the breadth of his knowledge concerning Herbert. He was able to answer questions about nearly every physical feature of the church (except for the mysterious “hagioscope”), and was very happy to show my family and I around. The experience of St. Andrew’s and the cathedral were remarkably different. Unlike the momentous, almost theatrical atmosphere you find in the cathedral, there is more a sense of the structure’s practical utility. St. Andrew’s is tiny, and extremely tidy, and each object or architectural feature gathered into it seems to have a distinct ceremonial use. The connection with Herbert is unmistakable and all over, and not ostentatious in any way. The walls bow out at an angle away from each other in a way that Peter told me was intentional at the time they were built. They are held in suspension by the intricate network of trusses holding them from falling out, which gives the interior the appearance of ancient upside down boat.

Adam with Peter and Canon Judy Rees, another member of the Herbert group.

Adam with Peter and Canon Judy Rees, another member of the Herbert group, inside St. Andrew’s Church.

We were soon joined by another member of the Herbert group, Canon Judy Rees, who was also extremely knowledgeable and kind, and has been a major part of organizing events concerning Herbert. She let us know she had talked to the owner of the house next door, which had been the rectory and Herbert’s home (known as “the Old Rectory”), and been given permission to allow us inside to see. This was really a very nice thing to do. We had no idea and it came as a surprise. So all five of us walked across the street, advised to keep quiet as the owner of the house, the author Vikram Seth, was in the middle of writing.

Part of the facade of the Old Rectory had been extended out towards the road long ago, but a substantial part of the building has been left in its original form. Mr. Seth greeted us all and indeed had the bright, distant eyes of having been recently concentrating on something very hard. He asked about what we were researching and was very kind and congenial. Upstairs we made our way to the room where Herbert presumably died, looked out on the view of his last days, and then looked down at the original ash floorboards he once padded across. Out of respect for Mr. Seth’s privacy we didn’t take any pictures, but his home is so wonderfully decorated and serene, with such a feeling of tranquility and the passage of time, that you immediately sense a veneration for the space and for the lingering presence of the poet.

Judy and Peter led us outside and we walked down through the yard to where the River Nadder, one of the main rivers of the Water Meadows, flows unconstrained under a nearby bridge. The cathedral was there in the southeast rising out of the Meadows, which was somewhat of a relief because it helped to get my bearings after the winding foot path out. With the parish church behind and the cathedral ahead you really got a sense for the spatial proportions of Herbert’s home, a sense for some of the consistent landmarks that helped orient him as he woke every morning. For me, Herbert is a poet ultimately concerned with how to deconstruct the ordinary structures of daily life to unveil, or at least point the way towards, new spiritual understandings. Getting a sense for where and how he lived on a day to day basis, made this more tangible and less alien.

George Herbert sculpture at Salisbury Cathedral

George Herbert sculpture at Salisbury Cathedral

After talking and walking around in Seth’s backyard we went back to St. Andrew’s and said goodbye and thank you to Judy. Then Peter and I dropped Ginny and Lewis off at a nearby park. For awhile longer I talked with Peter and he showed me another church in the area that was built in recognition of Herbert and also to provide more room for the congregation than St. Andrew’s could provide. But with the congregation fallen in recent years, the church, St. John’s, had to find a new means to sustain itself and so was being remodeled to accommodate classes for a nearby school and act in general as a community center. As in other places we visited in England, this place was beautiful and historically significant, and a challenge to figure out what to do with after its original use had gone.

We met back up with my family and Peter offered us a ride back to town, which at first I resisted because I wanted to go through the Meadows again, but then I thought how that might really annoy Lewis and perhaps Ginny, who had both been very patient with my navigation skills on the way over. So Peter kindly dropped us off halfway, at Harnham, at an inn built into an old mill right in the middle of the Meadows. Lewis fell asleep right away, while we ordered two ciders because it was hot out and the bartender was adamant about how inappropriate it was to drink Guinness in this type of weather. It was evening at this point, and the air was filled with the sound of the rushing water and the smell of sheep and grass. Early the next morning we caught our bus to London where we stayed a few more days before coming home.

 

Student Research, Study Abroad, Undergraduate English

From Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter: A Research Trip of a Lifetime!

KensingtonGarden

Kensington Gardens

It’s 8 o’clock in the morning and the Potter-to-Potter class has finally landed at Heathrow Airport. We clear customs, grab our luggage, and make our way to the hotel. After checking our bags, we wait for our three o’clock check in time by taking on London. We started by exploring the area around our hotel. High Street Kensington Tube Station was a two-minute walk from the front door. Kensington Gardens, a quiet space inside the bustling city, was within walking distance. After exhausting the exploration of our new neighborhood, we split up to find different ways to stay awake for the rest of the afternoon. This is where we began our adventures in London.

In the weeks leading up to our adventure, the thirteen of us sat in OEC and read through an extensive list of British children’s literature, from Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter and so much more. We discussed what a book needed to have to be considered children’s literature, and how children’s literature in Britain is different from that in America. The focal point of the class would be our archival research project, where the research was to be done in London! Determining what my project would be required brainstorming early on. Dr. Bouwman assigned the projects as anything broadly related to British children’s literature. We could examine a specific author, or a specific setting, or we could try to answer questions about British children’s literature as a field. I am researching how the expectations of children’s authors have changed since the early 1900s. Other students are looking at how different manuscripts evolved into the books we know today, or how authors depicted different settings from our novels. By the time we were leaving for London, we were ready and excited to tackle the research.

Beatles

The Beatles

On our first full day in London we explored the British Library, where we would eventually get our own reader’s cards and have access to their archives. We looked at the Library’s Treasures Gallery where we were able to see historical artifacts such as the Magna Carta, a suffragette’s notebook, Da Vinci’s notebook, and even some handwritten Beatles lyrics! It was so unbelievable to be standing in a single room that contained so much history from so many fields. This was a great introduction to the history of London that prepared us for the experiences we were about to have.

The next day, we met with two children’s editors from Tamarind Publishing, an imprint of Penguin Random House. This was definitely one of my favorite experiences. I plan to be an editor in the future, and seeing the offices at Tamarind was an incredible introduction to the publishing world. When we had lunch with them, I was able to find out what expectations they face as publishers of children’s literature, which helped with my research project. We learned a lot about what kind of power book publishers have, and also what their limitations are when it comes to promoting change. It was especially inspiring to hear both editors say that the most important end goal for them was publishing an authentic story. Later in our trip, we would be meeting with three different children’s authors, and we would keep this impressive goal of authenticity in mind.

Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit

During our first week, we also had a chance to visit the Victoria and Albert archives, where the majority of Beatrix Potter’s work is kept. We were able to see Potter’s original artwork and some of her correspondence with publishers regarding what they referred to as the “Bunny Book.”

Over the weekend, we made our way by train to Oxford, where we would be staying at St. Edmund’s Hall. Our first stop was the Bodleian Library, where we were able to see some of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s work. As a writer, it was fascinating to see the difference between Tolkien and Lewis’s writing processes. Lewis appears to have done most of the editing in his head before writing out a nearly final copy of his work. Based on what we saw, Tolkien was more meticulous about editing, and would only write his work in pen once it felt complete. We could see the erased and rewritten words in pencil in early manuscripts of the Lord of the Rings! I was not only fascinated by the different writing styles, but also inspired. So often, after reading a great book it feels as though the words come directly from the writer’s mind with no work in between. To see that writing, even for the greats, is a process of writing and rewriting and editing takes some pressure off any first draft. This same lesson was reaffirmed after meeting with a few authors.

Bodleian Library, Oxford University

Bodleian Library, Oxford University

On our first day back from Oxford, we took a day trip to Great Missenden. There, we met with Lucy Coats, the author of Cleo, which was one of the contemporary books we read for class. I really enjoyed this meeting because Lucy was so passionate about her topic. Cleo is a fictionalized story of the early life of Cleopatra. Lucy was so excited to discuss her love of Cleopatra and the mythology she studied. The next day we got to meet another author, Kate Saunders, who wrote Five Children on the Western Front. This book was a continuation of E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It. Saunders was incredibly enthusiastic about telling her story and the inspiration she had after reading Nesbit’s book. It was so exciting to see that the passion for each author’s project was authentic, and they were both thrilled to share their experiences with us.

While in Great Missenden, we were also able to look at the Roald Dahl archives. We flipped through pages and pages of legal paper that contained Dahl’s process of writing Matilda. We found that in Dahl’s earliest drafts, Matilda was actually a nightmare of a child, and Ms. Honey had a gambling problem! This is, of course, much different from the poor and innocent Matilda we read today accompanied by a loving and caring Ms. Honey.

Harry Potter World

Howarts Castle model, Wizarding World of Harry Potter

A trip to England focused on children’s literature would not have been complete without a visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I am one of about four students on this trip who had not read all of the Harry Potter books growing up. We read the first book of the series in class, and based on class discussions, I learned that a large part of the success of the franchise was reading it as a series while you grow up with the books. Although I was a bit of an outsider in this world, the movie- making and world-building shown at this attraction were incredible.

This class was an eye-opening experience of children’s literature as not only something nostalgic, but also something well-worth studying in an academic field. Seeing original drafts and artwork from authors we read was a great opportunity to understand how the writing process works and how a book goes from a writer’s mind to the copies we have in our homes. After our great adventure in London, we were ready to write our research papers.

Rachel Smith

Rachel Smith is a junior at St. Thomas. She is an English Major, Business Administration Minor, and American Culture and Difference Minor. In the future, Rachel plans to become an editor. 

Student Research, Study Abroad, Undergraduate English

Recognizing the Value of Every Body’s Story

Walking through the doors of Columbia University Medical Center: Hammer Health Sciences Teaching and Learning Center, I fear that I may be grossly underqualified to be here. Everyone looks so official, bustling by in scrubs, varying lengths of white coats, and other official attire that speaks “I’ve worked hard to earn a place here.” I tread slowly and methodically, and my fingers fumble as I check in and am handed my identification card that allows me to walk freely through the doors of the CUMC campus, becoming my life preserver for saying that I, too, belong here.

I’m in New York City; CUMCSign550specifically, at Columbia University’s Summer Institute in Narrative Medicine. Narrative medicine is an interdisciplinary approach that recognizes the value of a patient’s story and, in so doing, exposes Western medicine’s narrow focus on the physical, tangible biological factors of health and disease that often overshadow the patient’s humanity. Narrative medicine relies on the core principles to recognize, absorb, interpret, and be moved to action by stories of illness. In doing so, it also recognizes the complexity of each individual and highlights the many stories we all bring to an experience.

During the past year, I have become a strong proponent in the work of narrative medicine, surrounding myself with literature on the topic and exploring narrative practice in my own literary work. During the spring semester, I worked with the support of Dr. Emily James on a research project called Mid-Century Narrative Medicine: Sylvia Plath’s Confessional Practice, where I sought to bridge the gap between several disciplines – including medicine, psychology, and literature – within the framework of poet Sylvia Plath. Coming from my solid foundation in studying psychology, this research worked to address a class of more “invisible” diseases: mental illness.

The structure at the institute was designed in a way that maximized every effort in fostering deep, intellectual discussions on the complex topics narrative medicine grapples with. Each topic began with some form of a lecture given by one of the “pros,” ranging from Dr. Rita Charon, MD, world-renowned for her ground-breaking research in narrative medicine, to Craig Irvine, Ph.D., author and Director of Education of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Following the lectures, we broke off into small groups consisting of about 6 people, where we were first given an open-ended prompt followed by exactly five minutes to write a response. We were always given the same guidance: begin writing immediately, keep your pen moving across the paper the entire time, and if you draw a blank and don’t know what to write next, continue writing “I’m stuck” until the next thing comes to mind. (It may sound silly, but that actually works!)CUMCWriting750

When we read our work aloud afterward there was one catch: no prefacing your writing by saying things like “Well, I didn’t really know what to write, so it probably won’t make sense…” or other ways of trying to explain yourself beforehand. This was a challenge. You mean we’re supposed to read without explaining it beforehand? Nobody’s going to understand the tangled mess of words I have written down. What I came to learn through this intentional structure so lovingly encouraged on us was the ability to trust the power of my own writing. I learned that by attempting to preface my work with a rushed explanation of what I’d been thinking when I was writing or how I want my listener to understand it, I am essentially minimizing my own work and stripping my writing from the innate power it dares to hold.

One evening, we attended an event called Intima CUMCIntima550Presents Life-Writing: An Evening of Readings about Bodies, Illness and Care. Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine is an online literary journal focusing on healthcare, medical stories, hospitals, and caregivers. This event we attended featured some of the published authors who had come to read excerpts of their published works and share their varied and diverse experiences surrounding healthcare.

Before the institute began we were told about this event and encouraged to bring along any of our own pieces we’ve worked on to share as well. In the weeks leading up to it, I had assumed there was absolutely no way that I would get up in front of a room full of people to read anything I’ve written. However, at the last minute as I was packing my bags, I threw in a copy of a narrative essay I had written called “Returning Home,” which talked about my experience as a nurse’s aide working in the field of senior home healthcare. In this particular piece, I detail the pain – yet honor – I had of being by the side of one of my beloved seniors as he passed away peacefully. I had written it as part of a final project for the ENGL 202 class called Medical Narratives, taught by Dr. James, which was in essence my first attempt at narrative medicine. I figured it didn’t hurt to throw it in, just in the unlikely event that I had a moment of gumption and courage to speak.

With the first several days of the institute under my belt, I had surprised myself by actually beginning to ponder over my “definitely no” decision about choosing to present my work that I had previously made prior to arriving. Armed with the practice the last few days had given me with sharing my work, I had actually begun to think that maybe, just maybe, this was something I could do. I was absolutely terrified, but had been encouraged by the other people at the institute – students and “the pros” alike – to go for it. I think deep down, I knew that if I let fear make the decision for me, I would later come to regret it. So, despite the trepidation of exposing my work to the room, I did it anyway. To those not as familiar with narrative medicine, it’s important to remember that autobiographical accounts in the scope of narrative medicine are deeply personal in nature because they deal with illnesses, often leaving the patient immensely vulnerable and helpless. Although my piece I chose to share came from my perspective as the provider, the vulnerability still remained because despite being the provider, we are still greatly moved by the patients we encounter.

I did it. CUMCReading550Remembering the “rule” about not prefacing my work or minimizing it in any way, I began to speak. I told the story of my first experience having one of my own patients die, which was magnified by the fact that I was with him when it happened and came far sooner than we had imagined. It was a very emotional experience to write about and gave me confidence in sharing my work as well as the conviction to allow my voice to be heard. As I finished reading aloud, I looked up at the audience and remember seeing several members wipe tears from their eyes, a clear example of the power narrative medicine has in humanizing us all in a world that seeks to remove all emotion from the medical field.

That experience really set the stage for what I would learn on the last day during my favorite lecture, “The Failure of Witnessing in Medicine” by Kristen Slesar, LCSW, MS. In addition to teaching at Columbia University, Kristen is a trauma psychotherapist and former Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner with many years of experience testifying in the most abhorrent criminal cases of sexual violence. I could write a book on all the insight I learned from her lecture alone, but the most important thing she emphasized is probably the best example of the purpose of narrative medicine. She emphasized time and time again how any line of work we do involving people and professional care impacts both the patient and the provider. We often think of the professionals as being a stone wall, never showing any emotion – both publicly and privately – for the work that they do. Yes, there’s a time and a place for that; if you’re an emergency surgeon, breaking down sobbing in the middle of operating on a child gunshot victim probably isn’t the best time for emotions. But that doesn’t mean it’s never to be discussed. When we talk about our line of work, we usually talk about the horror of the case, because everything is seen as putting the patient first. We don’t allow providers to talk about how they themselves are impacted. Because we are all human beings, we are going to be impacted by the people we serve, and that is okay.

Across America, medical schools and other graduate programs are implementing programs in narrative medicine to complement the preparation of our future providers for the kind of work they will encounter. In fact, research shows that those who tell their story fare better in the work that they do. This means less “burning-out,” which ultimately means fewer medical errors, as well as the patients’ experience being enhanced by feeling that they are more than just a disease to be treated. Narrative writing allows you access to something you may not have been able to access before because you can talk about the experience from your perspective and the way you tell that story, patient and provider alike. Narrative medicine is about writing from the patient’s experience, yet also includes bearing witness to our own experience as providers.

My experience at Columbia’s Institute in Narrative Medicine was truly life-changing. My earlier fear of “not belonging here” was laid to rest within the first morning of the institute, and I was thoroughly engaged throughout its entirety. Not only did I get to learn more about the topic of narrative medicine, but I was also given the opportunity to connect with the world leaders in this subject and work one-on-one with them, sitting down together and collaborating on the work I have done and getting encouragement on where to dive deeper into my study. I met others who share a similar desire to make narrative medicine an everyday part of clinical practice, and left with an even stronger desire to continue in this field. My goals of becoming a counseling psychologist were further strengthened with the knowledge that narrative medicine will unequivocally be a part of my practice. CUMCGroup750

I extend my most sincere appreciation and gratitude to the St. Thomas community that has supported and encouraged me in forging my way through this unique, interdisciplinary study. I am immensely grateful to Dr. Emily James, whose support and collaboration have gotten me to where I am and who continues to inspire and encourage me to seek out the paths less traveled. I am also very grateful to the Grants and Research Office for funding my spring research through the Collaborative Inquiry Grant, as well as the English department and Dr. Amy Muse for the funding and support that allowed me to travel to Columbia University.

Finally, I want to encourage all of my fellow peers at St. Thomas who have a passionate interest but are unsure the precise area of study it falls under: seek out those professors and other students who share a similar interest, and utilize their knowledge and expertise in further exploring those topics. Find those who challenge you to dive deeper into those interests and encourage you to walk those uncharted paths. I started this interest as a student majoring in Psychology, with a great interest in health and an underlying love for literature. Now, I am additionally getting a minor in English and regularly use the support and expertise from both departments as a way to study what I am most passionate about. The support I have experienced has blown me away and allowed me to find the precise area of study I am interested in and has shaped the career path I intend to follow.

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Megan Vaughan is a senior at St. Thomas with a major in Psychology and a minor in English. Megan has a great interest in the interdisciplinary field of narrative medicine and plans to use this interest in becoming a counseling psychologist.