Category Archives: Conference Digests

Reflections on NASSR 2012

I’m on the train, heading in the direction of Germany, with Lake Neuchâtel slipping by in gray-blue early morning light. The experience of “Romantic Prospects” has been saturated by landscape. From the window of our student housing accommodation each morning the Swiss Alps marched sharply around the lake, appearing to advance and retreat with the shimmering heat. Last night at the closing dinner, held at the picturesque house in which once Rousseau lived, rows of verdant grapevines crawl up steep slopes and crumbling stone-walls demarcate historical pathways. I watched swallows like scraps of silver wheel in flight.

I won’t pretend that this is a comprehensive overview of the conference because in actual fact it’s quite personal and particular. I attended many sessions, and I even chaired one for the first time. Of the sessions I attended, the conversations, debates and experiences I had, and the people I met, the very best part was prospective: thinking about a future filled with more conversation, debate, learning, language and poetry. A romantic prospect, to be sure.

Best represented at NASSR 2012 were the fields Digital Humanities, Book History, and German Romanticism, though it seemed the most popular sessions were DH and Book History. Beginning with the DH Workshop on the first day, the idea of books containing “data” (words) to be text-mined and topic-modeled took hold of many of our imaginations. The general mood about DH seemed both skeptical and intrigued, with many scholars having already implemented these fairly new (to the study of the humanities, anyway) technologies in their research.

DH also has major pedagogical implications. Using DH as a teaching tool, according to Neil Fraistat, “won’t be optional in the next 10-15 years.” Probably sooner, I’d say, as class blogs become more commonplace and Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps and Trees (required reading) has launched a generation of graduate students interested in “distant reading.”

The words “Book History” appeared in the title of three different sessions and the topic was a major theme in many more. From a special session organized by Alex Dick and Nicholas Halmi about “Textual Prospects: Poetry, Bibliography, and Book History,” to the “Prospects for Book History” panels 1 and 2, and evident in panels on Media Studies, “Varieties of the Novel,” and Genre Theory, the study of books as historical objects has truly permeated Romantic scholarship. Taken over, perhaps. I was interested to see how the broadening of the definition of “books” has lead to the inclusion of scrapbooks, collections of letters, keepsakes and “Books in Pieces” as Michael Macovski puts it, under the auspices of Book History. Thus the physical manipulation of books (with scissors, as Deirdre Lynch illustrated) played an important role in this conference, by providing insight into the Romantic-era readers, writers, and literary participants.

Books as nooks took center stage after Robert Darnton’s plenary lecture, “Blogging: Now and Then,” in which he illustrated the ways in which scraps of information embed themselves in the cracks and crannies opened up by communications technologies. Darnton described how printed information in the early modern and Romantic periods created places to organize their fragmentary materials—such as in the tell-all books about public figures’ private lives, in early newspapers, and in the scandalous dailies. You can read my live-blogging during the reactions and responses seminar to Darnton’s lecture HERE.

German Romanticism was also represented in multiple specific sessions. My own special research interest, the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, got more attention than is usual in North American conferences and in fact, the special session on Hölderlins Ströme (Hölderlin’s Rivers), organized by the Bernhard Böschenstein was completely German-language. I don’t know if non-English panels have been done before at NASSR, but it was a fitting addition to the conference’s Swiss iteration. In addition, on the panel I chaired, I very much enjoyed Elena Pnevmonidou’s paper on Hölderlin’s Hyperion and questions of language, landscape and the body.

Overall, the two academic experiences that stood out for me at NASSR 2012 were the “Romantic Media Studies” session and Thomas Pfau’s seminar “After Sentimentalism: Liberalism and the Discontents of Modern Autonomy.”

For “Romantic Media Studies,” Lauren Neefe from SUNY Stony Brook read her paper “General Indistressible: Towards a Theory of Romantic Epistolarity,” with charm, panache and sharp insight. Her paper was fascinating and her dissertation sounds even more so. Yohei Igarashi from Colgate University discussed DH pedagogies alongside ideas of Romantic perception in his timely presentation, and Celeste Langan brought an inspired reading of the efficacy of news reports in her paper “The Future of Propaganda.” This session stood out for me because it both recognized the materiality of books (in the broad sense described above) and treated texts as particular sites for close reading and critique. I found Lauren’s characterization of Coleridge’s letter to himself in the Biographica Literaria to be unique as well as creative of openings in which more questions, more avenues for investigation, and more texts to read and re-read arose. I have so many excitedly scribbled notes from that session.

Thomas Pfau’s special session was so necessary and deserves the highest praise. It was totally en point, the kind of session that is a call for change, a meta-analysis of the state not only of Romantic scholarship but of our most pressing current philosophical and political issues, and that makes a strong argument for more wide-ranging, philosophically-sophisticated and responsible. To complain of Romantic scholarship’s irrelevance to practical contemporary concerns is not to have read Pfau.

The sun is now past noon. We’ve already sped through the Black Forest and the landscape is flattening out, dotted with farms and polka-dot Austrian flower boxes. I’m left with a feeling of satisfaction and fatigue, as well as a deep gratitude for the conference organizers, Angela Esterhammer of the University of Zürich (soon to be of the University of Toronto) and Patrick Vincent of the University of Neuchâtel. Merci beaucoup, Vielen Dank, and thanks.

Digital Humanities Summer Institute: Nerds Welcome!

Full disclosure: I am a Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) convert, and I want to share the good news. I’ve recently returned from my second year attending DHSI at the University of Victoria, and I have only great things to say.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has called DHSI a “Summer Camp for Digital Humanists,” and my own experiences verify this description. DHSI is five days of glorious nerdy exploration and collaboration, and I thought it might be worthwhile to introduce the DHSI to those unfamiliar with it.


What is it?

Unlike a traditional conference, DHSI does not offer panels of 20-minute papers.

Instead, it is what its name implies—a digital training institute.

DHSI offers a wide range of courses from basic introductions to text encoding and digitization to advanced programming and mobile application design. (For a list of the courses that happened this year, click here.) Each day, participants attend roughly five hours of class. Beyond the individual courses, DHSI provides numerous opportunities to see work-in-progress presentations, attend breakout skills training sessions and discussions, and hear plenary talks. This year, it was possible to attend events from 8AM to 6PM—not to mention post-conference frivolity at one of the bars near the University. In short, DHSI is intense, invigorating, and exhausting.


Even though the programs at DHSI have been growing at an impressive rate—this year seventeen different courses were offered and more than 400 people attended—it still manages to maintain a collaborative and surprisingly intimate atmosphere.  The hierarchies that are sometimes present at other conferences are entirely absent at DHSI. The Institute prides itself on an friendly “opt-in” policy. You are encouraged to invite yourself along to other people’s dinner plans and discussion groups. It’s a great opportunity to meet both Romanticists and people from other fields.



According to the DHSI Director Ray Siemens’s closing remarks, the course offerings for next year’s DHSI will be released shortly. The dates are already set: June 10-14, 2013. As you begin to look ahead to planning the coming year’s conference and research schedule (and funding options for both), it may be worth putting DHSI in your calendar. There are many scholarships available for DHSI. For those working in the nineteenth-century, the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship (NINES) offers tuition scholarships. The Institute itself also offers tuition scholarships (early registration is key for these). The Association for Computers and the Humanities also offers travel bursaries to ACH members. More information will be available on the DHSI website soon.  Moreover, because DHSI offers training that is not easily available elsewhere, it may be possible to get funding from your own institution.

I already have DHSI marked on my calendar for next year, and I hope to see many more Romanticists there.

A Gathering of Gothics

It was a dark and stormy afternoon, and a small group of learned scholars gathered to whisper amongst themselves the secrets of haunted castles, monstrous creatures, and dark forbidden crimes. The rain pelted against the large windows as the wind howled through the trees… the palm trees? San Diego, CA had found its own way to welcome the First Annual Studies in Gothic Fiction Conference to its usually-sunny shores.

Though I have only been studying the Gothic for a few short years now, I have had the privilege to attend several fantastic Gothic-focused conferences in the UK and Germany.  For Gothic scholars in the United States, however, such conferences are travel-intensive and hugely expensive.  Though conferences such as the PCA (Popular Culture Association) almost always include at least one panel on the Gothic, I struggle to remember a single recent conference devoted to the Gothic or Gothic topics that has taken place within the US. Until now, that is! This fact makes the very existence of The Studies in Gothic Fiction Conference, held March 16th and 17th and sponsored by National University, an incredible ray of hope for Gothic scholars in America. Though its numbers were small, the academics who attended the conference—ranging from first-year graduate students and high school teachers to members of the IGA (International Gothic Association)—seemed well aware of this fact and hugely appreciative to have such a rare opportunity.  Every panel that I saw was well-attended and extremely active during the Q & A portion, and participants seemed to relish this chance to speak in a like-minded community about the complexities of texts that are frequently pushed to the sidelines of more canonically-based academic forums.

Overall, the content of the conference included a mixture of different time periods, from Romantic to contemporary, as well as media forms, such as film, music, and blogging in addition to the traditional print forms.  Two full panels focused on the works of Anne Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, and I heard papers that examined the religious background of these authors and their works, their contributions to the “Male” and “Female” Gothic, and aspects of economics and femininity within their texts.  The presence of Romantic-era Gothic was pervasive beyond these panels, however, as many papers on Victorian and Contemporary works referenced earlier works in newer contexts.  By far, the most frequent term used in many of the papers I heard was “hybridity,” a concept that, despite the Gothic’s aversion to definition, speaks to its unwavering dedication to its origins.  The keynote address, “A New Intensity of Feeling: Secretly Enjoying Ghosts, Banshees, and Derelict Lovers in Gothic Short Stories of British Literary Annuals,” was given by Katherine D. Harris.  Part literary analysis, part archival discussion, part technology demonstration, she shared her research with hard-to-find annuals from the perspective of the digital humanities.  Many papers throughout the weekend pursued similar contemporary takes on traditional works.   Some offered an analysis of a contemporary text in juxtaposition with a parallel or divergent analysis of a traditional Romantic or Victorian text in order to explore the direction in which more recent literature is taking the Gothic and Gothic Studies.  My own paper discussed certain aspects of Frankenstein in order to understand fragmentation in Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted, and another paper on my panel did a fascinating study of the feminine, the community, and the mob in both The Monk and Shirley Jackson’s We have Always Lived in the Castle.

Though scholarship has, from time to time, frowned on overt and strained blending of literary periods, I believe that the Gothic lends itself particularly well to the benefits of such inter-period communication.  Itself born out of a revival and reimagining of the Medieval (often to a highly anachronistic extent), the Gothic has always carried its own contemporary concerns to foreign times and places, transplanting the here and now to the there and then.  Does this make strategies of Gothic studies themselves as Gothic as the works with which they engage? To a certain extent, possibly.

For further interest in the concerns of this conference, see the online peer-reviewed journal, Studies in Gothic Fiction.  According to Franz Potter, editor of the journal and one of the conference coordinators, there will be a forthcoming special edition of the journal highlighting papers presented on that dark and stormy California weekend.

What Does This Mean: Unanswered Questions about the Evolution of ‘Performance’

During the Performance Seminar at NASSR 2011 Jeffrey Cox and Gillen D’Arcy Wood gave presentations which resulted in fervent discussion about performance in the Romantic period and the development and growth of Romanticism(s). As the seminar continued those in the room engaged in a conversation about where performance studies is going (in and out of Romanticism); ultimately, the question was posed about just how valuable ‘performance’ is as a term, but I could hardly re-present those perspectives here. So, I’m left with my own reflection on the conversation.

I left the seminar wondering about particular facets of the conversation and spent some time since the seminar questioning ‘performance’ as a term; as I continued to work through my summer reading list I found performance to be central to many authors’ arguments. The discussion at NASSR (and my reading since then) left me asking, “Has ‘performance’ become too broad? Has the term lost its value and poignancy precisely because the field of study has expanded beyond those literal performances of the stage?”

I assure you, I do not have an answer. Instead, my hope here is to leave you asking as well, to share some of this blogger’s thinking following a NASSR seminar, and perhaps to continue the conversation that began in Park City (as there are numerous other ways to define and theorize performance beyond what I mention below).

When I arrived home from Park City I read Donald Hall’s Reading Sexualities: Hermeneutic theory and the future of queer studies; in his introduction, Hall summarizes Judith Butler’s “implication of individual agency in changing sexual and gender norms through disruptive performances” (10). He writes,

In [Gender Trouble], Butler argues famously that the specific critical and political task that her politically engaged readers should assume is to locate sites for subversion, ‘to affirm the local possibilities of intervention through participating in precisely those practices of repetition that constitute identity and, therefore, present the immanent possibility of contesting them’ (Butler 1999:188). She issued a call to arms, suggesting that gender parodies (such as drag) and other disruptive social performances might work to create a better world for queers. (Hall 11)

Lady Gaga as Jo Calderone @ the 2011 VMAs: Image from Getty Images at

In other words, by removing the theater from ‘performance,’ Butler linked activism and the academy—she made an intellectual “call to action” which resounded beyond (and simultaneously within) the academic community, including within “social-action groups such as Queer Nation” (Hall 11). (Though, as Hall points out, Butler “backtracked quickly” just three years later in Bodies that Matter, disclaiming the political potency of parody and subversive performance [12].) No matter where Butler stands on the usefulness of her theorization, what is most valuable is Butler’s definition of ‘performance’ locatable in the every day—the unconscious and involuntary. I’ve found that thinking about and teaching social constructivism through performance—by discussing everyday life as a form of theater, by expanding the definition of ‘audience’ to those with whom we interact within our educational institutions, workplaces, and shopping malls—is quite useful for me and particularly accessible for my students. I do wonder if I could teach social constructivism without talking about performance in this way. Even if I could, would my students or I benefit from it? Why does this approach seem to resonate with students? To some degree, this notion of ‘performance’ is individually empowering.  Knowing that the way one acts out one’s life has an immediate effect on the ‘audience’ can lead to a shift in thinking about interpersonal communication—even if one accepts that these performances are involuntary and never has the idea or intention of purposefully manipulating self-performance.  This type of ‘performance’ helps some students understand that they can have agency over their performances and, to some degree, the ways that audiences receive those performances. For example, if they want to be perceived as a hard-worker they begin to act like a hard-worker, which is difficult to do without actually working hard. I think my students are willing to consider social constructivism this way because it helps them understand something more about themselves and the way they are seen in the world. (It also resonates with the materialist culture they are familiar with; after teaching  Susan Alexander’s “Stylish Hard Bodies: Branded Masculinity in Men’s Health Magazine  it became clear that the students in my Popular American culture course fully grasp this “You are what you buy” definition of ‘performance.’) However, in many ways this definition is limitless. It becomes possible to think of everything and anything as a performance. If everything is performance we (literary and cultural studies communities, those of us at the NASSR Performance Seminar) begin to question just how useful performance is, and for good reason, I think.

Even if we wanted to, could we go back to a pre-Butler definition of performance? I’m not sure that we could, though we can certainly limit the ways that we use the term to understand the histories and cultures which interest us. Kristina Straub employs a definition of performance which bridges the space between the performances of the theater and the every day. In Domestic Affairs: Intimacy, Eroticism, and Violence between Servants and Masters in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Straub “draws from performance theory, as developed by critics such as Joseph Roach” (111); her analysis in the chapter “Performing the Manservant, 1730 to 1760” includes “performances of masculinity” that “occur on both the London stage—in the dramatic characters of footmen—and in the theater audience’s sometime violent contention between these servants and their ‘betters’” (112).  Straub’s theorization of ‘performance’ “stresses the social formation of masculine gender and sexuality through repeated, publicly visible behaviors in the theater, ones that resonate with changing power relations that were more broadly played out in society” (Straub 111). This definition articulates a critical link between the stage and Main Street (so to speak); it organically connects the performances of both locations and again emphasizes the stage as a way of reading and understanding part(s) of the culture at large. It doesn’t limit the stage to a re-presentation of what is going on within larger cultural systems but makes cultural phenomena more visible to the audience/reader.

Straub’s definition offers a way of seeing the connection between the beginnings of ‘performance’ and its evolution into a concept that shapes a large number of identity fields.  With this evolution in mind, I find it difficult to restrict ‘performance’ to the study of drama. The performances taking place on the stage at my local theater are certainly not the same as those taking place in my classroom; however, understanding one paradigm has helped me to understand the other. Through its expanded purview, performance theory leads to tangible shifts in the discourse(s) of identity politics and births intellectual work that expands the fields of literary and cultural studies in productive ways. Has ‘performance’ become too broad? Perhaps it has, but I speculate that this broadness is a reflection of theoretical usefulness. ‘Performance’ isn’t a term devoid of value and poignancy; on and off the stage it has reshaped the ways that we think about identities, bodies, languages, and rituals for (at least) the last twenty years.

*Thank you to presenters Jeffrey Cox and Gillen D’Arcy Wood, moderator Angela Esterhammer, and all of the audience members who contributed to such a thought-provoking conversation!

And the Beat Goes On: STS 2011

I returned last Friday night 3/18, well technically 1am Saturday morning, from the Society for Textual Scholarship 2011 International Conference, hosted by Penn State University. The conference was a very positive learning experience for me in terms of my scholarly disciplines (Romanticism and digital humanities), writing process, professional community, and social media use. It was the first conference at which I tweeted (i.e., posted comments on twitter) about panels and at which I knew my own talk was tweeted out, the first time I participated in Day of Digital Humanities (DH) blogging (here’s my blog), and a welcome opportunity to meet and learn from other dh’ers and textual scholars that in some cases were also Romanticists. (See Paige C. Morgan’s wonderful blog post about the STS twitter feed, and about tweeting at conferences in general.)  Continue reading And the Beat Goes On: STS 2011