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A Romanticist’s Journal of a Tour to Cleveland; Or, notes from ASECS 2013

The 44th Annual Meeting for American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies was held in Cleveland three weeks ago so my apologies that this isn’t coming to you in the full blush of the liveblog moment. But my brain is still sprouting with new names, books to read, perspectives on the state of the field, and connections (however fanciful) between my coursework papers and panelists’ insights. And I may not be the only one who recollects April 4-7 with a blush or two: some acronyms just leave you with no choice. Having never attended ASECS before, I can’t speak for the surely lengthy history of great jokes in this regard, but I can tell you that this year, we were on top of things. I like to think the Romanticists in attendance navigated this innuendo especially well. Telling the Romanticists apart from Eighteenth Centuryists, isn’t so easy; or at least I found myself taking a a few searching looks in the restroom mirror of the Renaissance Marriott Hotel: Where does an Eighteenth Centuryist end and a Romanticist begin?* Who am I, really? (And what am I doing in a Renaissance hotel?)

My conference bookends, the first and last panels I attended, were my favorites. We** listened to our first after a harried drive from Chicago, arriving in time to find parking only in the bowels of the giant casino next door, and seating at the front of the Garfield Room—on the floor. If you haven’t tried it, it’s a good experience: not only are you appreciating some very sharp minds, you get to appreciate them from the vantage of a Kindergarten student, crossed-legged on the carpet. ASECS was wonderfully democratic this way. Latecomers got the floor, whether they were fledgling grad students there to be sponges, tenured professors, or professors a giddy month or two or twenty shy of tenure (spirited conversations were had, especially, with the latter). But plenty of generous seat-offering took place as well (fellow-feeling in full swing here!).

So this panel, a roundtable, was titled “Aesthetics and Individuation: Frances Ferguson’s Work in Eighteenth Century Studies,” and the panelists, none of them officially Ferguson’s students, spoke about their indebtedness to her thinking and the incredible influence she has had on the fields of Eighteenth Century and Romantic studies. From her game-changing article “Rape and the Rise of the Novel,” on Richardson’s Clarissa (1987) to her book “Solitude and the Sublime: Romanticism and the Aesthetics of Individuation” (1992), Ferguson has been a force, and other strong voices have met Ferguson with forceful questions and concerns of their own. On this panel, John Bender, Blakey Vermeule, Helen Thompson and Nancy Yousef. Here are some of their thoughts, in condensed Shelley-acorn form:
Bender: Romantic marriage is where function and phantasm meet; realism’s reality is gothic; ecstatic interpenetration.
Vermeule: Ferguson advocates a way to be a self that doesn’t need to mean atomism; what does it mean to want to make an impact in one’s career? pertinent
and, one Hilary Rodham gave the valedictorian speech to Ferguson’s graduating class of 1969 at Wellesley College: “More than social reconstruction we need human reconstruction,” Rodham said.
Thompson: modes of doing and non-doing, what counts as rape? the departure of the volitional; external contents of persons; form as the situated production of inner-ness; Sci Fi and physiological formalism.
Yousef: What relations can be used under the word form? Form preoccupies the room of emotional thinking; Ferguson reminds us that historical materialism and formalism co-exist and cannot cancel each other out.
Finally, my last panel of the weekend: “Close Reading Today,” held in the George Bush room (did not specify Jr. or Sr.)
Sandra Macpherson delivered a paper titled “Close Hearing” and posed some brilliant questions: How do we read the sonic properties of objects? How do we talk about sound as matter without turning it into meaning? I’m still thinking about the independence of sounds in verse being other than, or not necessarily, onomatopoeic. I’m very partial to Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” and Macpherson ended her talk with a clip from the opening of the film. A shot so close that at first you can’t tell what’s happening (a ragged thread being led by a needle in and out of a piece of cloth) but the whole time there is the music, a human symphony singing no words in particular.
Stephanie Insley Hershinow’s “Up Close and Personal” talk began with the question: “Does reading make persons or impersonality?” She went on to consider how close reading has been said to fail and why it is nonetheless a mistake to discount the details: “Close reading is to notice something new, even in a text that has been extensively critiqued.”
Matthew Wickman’s paper, “Reading for the Middle Distance: Moretti and the Picturesque,” made a juicy counterpoint to Hershinow’s. How do we read the images of distant-reading (the bubble trees, line graphs, word clouds etc.)? Numbers: do we really know they mean? Counting, Wickman argued, is a figurative exercise, and if we do not know what numbers are, we don’t know who we are—we don’t know what a ‘whole’ is.
The post-panel discussion ended where I wished it had begun: a man asked a question (or rather, stated at length with no question mark in sight), saying new critical formalism had had its day. Macpherson sung out, “Oh it’s back, baby!”

And with that, back we went to Chicago, heads humming with good things to tangle with and sound out in the months ahead.

*Radiohead’s “Where I end and you begin” is an excellent song for a road trip back to the long (and longer and longer) eighteenth century.
**”We” refers to Samuel Rowe (a second year PhD at the University of Chicago), Allison Turner (a first year PhD at the U of C) and to your blogger, Lauren Schachter (also a first year PhD at U of C). We attended as observers, wisely choosing to do this on our break between Winter and Spring quarters instead of writing our papers.

Some Light Relief, or: Richardson’s Pamela is an Au Pair in 2012

It’s May! And that means that a lot of us academics are taking a deep, post-end-of-term-marking breath, and treating ourselves to the smallest of little vacations… a mini-vaycay, a staycation, an excursion, or what I have recently learned Germans call an Ausflug. In keeping with the theme of respite, here is a little light relief in the form of a pleasant comic fiction. Enjoy!

Richardson’s Pamela is an Au Pair in 2012;

or, Virtue Confounded.

In a Series of Letters
from a Hip Young Beauty, To her Parents.
Now first Published
In order to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Moral Uncertainty
In the Youth of Both Sexes


Dear Mom and Dad,

Seriously bad news: the old lady who owns this joint just bit the dust. I’m getting transferred, and I don’t know if there’ll be a wifi connection at the new house, so hang tight. I can Facebook you from my Blackberry at Starbucks.

Your Dutiful Daughter,

Pamela Andrews


"A Moment" by Vancouver artist Drew Young

Dear Mom and Dad,

As I was closing my laptop, the son of the old lady walks into my room unannounced and scares the %^&* out of me. He’s a total creeper. Must be pushing 40. He just stood there looking at me and smiling. What a weirdo.

Peace Out,



Dear Mom (just between us),

The creepy son, Mr. B, offered to keep me on for DOUBLE the wages. AND he gave me a gift card for Victoria’s Secret. What should I do?



P.S. Can you top up my Vi$a? I miss spending quality time with you, and like, shopping. You are the greatest Mom ever : )


Dear Mom and Dad,

Mom, your letter made me feel way better about staying. You are right, money doesn’t grow on trees.

Mr. B treats me really well. He gave me some of the old lady’s clothes. VINTAGE cha-CHING! I got 3 pairs of high-waisted dress pants, 4 silk tops with totally retro gold buttons, 1 excellent Valentino dress that I might sell on eBay, 2 cashmere scarves, and Chanel sunglasses. The old lady was RICH. Now I guess it all belongs to Mr. B. …LUCKY!

Your Dutiful Daughter,

Pam xoxox


Dear Mom (don’t tell Dad, okay??)

Mr. B was totally hitting on me just like, two seconds ago, when I was walking down the hallway to find a dustpan. He told me I was the most beauteous creature to ever walk the earth, and my eyes were the pillars against which men might build their lives, which I don’t really get but whatevs. Creeper!

Oh em gee.



More from Drew Young

Dear Mom,

He kissed me! It just happened!

[This message has been sent via Facebook Mobile]

Your truly shocked daughter,



Dear Mom,

So I was like, OVER the whole thing, because I screamed, and then he kinda yelled, and then I cried, and he gave me permission to never speak to him again, plus he gave me $500 cash, and some new earrings, but THEN. OMG. Then, I was in my room getting ready for bed and I can hear some weird-ass noises coming from the closet. So I open the door and it’s HIM. He’s in MY CLOSET. So I scream some more, and he’s like, “don’t worry, it’s no problem, it’s no problem.” So I was like %^&* you and told him I QUIT.

So there.


Me, Pamela.


Dear Mom,

I can never forgive him for being SO WEIRD, but he has increased my salary and promised I can give notice after the holidays are over. So…

Virtue safe!




Dear Mom,

OMFG I think Mr. B wants to sleep with me. WTF.




Dear Mom,

If you don’t know what those abbreviations stand for, I can’t tell you.




Dear Mom,

Today Mr. B came into my room while I was listening to Grizzly Bear and reading Nylon, pinned me to the bed and started kissing me all over my face and neck and I was like, “Back off you Pedophile!” And he was like, “You cannot hold on to your virtue forever! One day, you MUST give yourself up, and because I find you extremely attractive and I have more money than you, it should be to me!” And then he started to unbutton my shirt, and it was kind of hot, but I knew better, because of what happened to the blonde chick on Gossip Girl, so I screamed, “My virtue is all that I have!” And with superhuman strength I threw him off me, ran downstairs, and phoned child protective services.

I’m gonna sue the bastard for all he’s got!

Marriage is for L-O-S-E-R-S,



How to Dissertate

Well, it’s a new year and in the spirit of developing better habits, I thought I’d share my resolution: to become a more effective dissertator.  Please note that this article is not titled “How to write a dissertation,” because to me, “dissertating” involves a LOT more than the writing process. I know (basically) how to research and I know how to write… but what I don’t think I do well yet is focus—at least not on completing (or let’s be honest, starting and diligently continuing) a project of this magnitude. So, here I’m sharing a few bits of choice advice I’ll be implementing over the next several months to make my dissertating more sustainable and successful.
1.  Dedicate a few full work-days a week to dissertating. On other days, give at least a couple of hours.  This semester, my Wednesdays and Fridays are dissertation days. Mondays are for CV-building academic service, Tuesdays and Thursdays are for teaching, grading, and lesson-prep. Saturdays are for catching up, and Sundays are for recharging the spirit. I’m hoping that this schedule will help me focus on each task as I’m doing it, and give me permission not to worry about the tasks of other days. Less anxiety, less guilt, more productivity. Awesome.
2. Get out of the house.  I made the mistake of not doing this today (yes, a dissertation day. These are goals, people! I’m not perfect yet!)… and so I graded a few lingering student papers, wrote some thank-you notes, ran some errands, felt guilty, and sat down to write this blog as a record of my shame and a re-dedication to a better future. Then I’ll probably do the dishes, because I’m still at home, and the precariously-stacked dirty plates are driving me crazy. Don’t let this happen to you! Have a dedicated work-space someplace else, and go there early in the morning. Settle in, and focus on your work.
3. Check email at the end of the day, not the beginning.  Special thanks to Kirstyn Leuner and Lori Emerson for this piece of advice!  We all know how fast a quick email-check devolves into hours of correspondence, followed by (*ahem* undisclosed amount) of hours wasted watching slideshows of the Golden Globes’ best-dressed list. Once your browser is open, it’s hard to close. So stay away, at least for the first several hours of the day.
4. Just say no to side-projects. If you’re anything like me, then you don’t have trouble devoting large chunks of your time to worthy causes, both academic and non-. I think it’s healthy and important to have a few, but set a limit and don’t go over it! Especially clear out the little stuff that’s eating up your time and doing little for your CV. I have limited myself to my main teaching contract, one small, paying job for some extra cash, one major CV-building academic activity, and one church/community service. Even that is a lot! It’s painful to say no to projects that sound totally awesome (I turned down a gem just this week), but do it. Just say no. Protect your right to dissertate.
5. Set small deadlines for yourself. Currently, I’m scheduled to complete a chapter every three months. (I’m told this is about right in English, though apparently it’s pretty slow compared to some other disciplines). If chapters are 50-60 pages, then I need to write about ten pages every two weeks. Totally doable, right? Part of me resists, reasoning that it’s too modular and that my chapter will have no continuity… but I remind myself that revision can come later. For now, it’s important that research be linked to production all along the way, in small manageable chunks. Plus, as a bonus, ten pages is the perfect length to adjust into a conference paper!
6. Join (or form) a dissertation support group. Share work regularly, and keep each other accountable. My university has a general group for PhDs of all disciplines, which I think I might attend… but I also think it would be nice to form a group with folks in my own department. The idea is that you meet once a month, and everybody gives an update on their work. One person might be nominated to share 10 pages with the group, or everyone could bring 10 pages, and pair up to exchange. As long as you have deadlines, and people to keep you accountable (and probably some treats and commiseration and laughter), the effort will be worthwhile.

I’m starting with these six ideas, but if you have any tips that helped you dissertate more effectively, please do share them! The more wisdom, the better. And to all of us who are striving to stay on the wagon and produce some butt-kicking chapters these next few months, I say best of luck! Happy habit-building, folks. We can do it.

The human(ities) and the aesthetic: a NASSR response

I don’t know how many of you at this year’s NASSR attended the seminar on Aesthetics chaired by Frances Ferguson and Anne-Lise Francois, but it was packed. I came in five minutes late and wound up sitting on the floor along with fifteen or twenty other people. The nosebleed seats were worth it, though: the seminar was engaging and at times even combative. Though focused, obviously, on aesthetics—specifically, Kant’s aesthetics—the seminar also touched on wider critical questions. One of its liveliest debates concerned the problem of essentialism. Specifically, the universality of aesthetic response. Is there one? What are the ethical implications of assuming the answer is “yes”? What are they if we assume the answer is “no”?

For at least some of the attendees, the dangers of the former clearly outweighed its benefits—the adjective “essentialist” was at times deployed as a sort of polite insult. For others, there was still something valuable in the idea of a transhistoric or quintessentially human aesthetic response. Underwriting this debate was the question of what, if anything, is “essential” to our own discipline.

As someone who works in literature and medicine, I am used to seeing a rather different side to this question. The burgeoning field of Narrative Medicine often takes as its jumping-off point the claim that narrative—telling and listening—is a constitutively human activity. Scholars like Rita Charon and Kathryn Hunter have argued that illness unfolds narratively and analyzed such “stories of illness” as a baseline for constructing a therapeutic model that treats the whole patient. As Charon puts it, “Narrative studies, many physicians are beginning to believe, can provide the ‘basic science’ of a story-based medicine that can honor the patients who endure illness and nourish the physicians who care for them.”* In an effort to combat professional medicine’s reputation as uncaring and impersonal, Charon and her colleagues have begun exploring ways in which “literary” acumen can help doctors and patients better communicate. To my admittedly-biased mind, their work represents one of the best and most visible defenses of why the humanities, and English as a discipline, still matter.

What, then, do we make of the fact that Narrative Medicine is built on the back of an essentialist claim about humans’ dependence upon a particular aesthetic category (ie, narrative)? Much, I think—though again, I’m not exactly objective. I recall a conversation I had with a U of T medical student last fall on our respective degree programs. We were talking about forming a collaborative reading group for English and Medical students and faculty, and he said, “You have something we need. Humanity, understanding people. We need that.” This is an extreme statement, and I’m not convinced it describes most doctors (though it may flag, as do similar complaints of 500-student English classes, an inadequacy in professional forms of instruction). Nevertheless, his claim reminded me of the subtitle of Martha Nussbaum’s popular book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Notice the shared verb and its object; I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Though I would be the first to admit problems in Nussbaum’s argument, her work, laudably aimed at an audience beyond the already-converted, foregrounds the classificatory struggle our discipline(s) have adopted as eponymous: what (in contemporary democracy at least) it means to be human.

It seems to me that all defenses of the humanities—at least until we change the name—involve entertaining similar debates about what “we” collectively share, whether that be the ability to desire or the inability to empathize with the Other. And until English renounces its role as the study of language, of representation, those claims about humanity are somehow bound up with the aesthetic. To me, one of the most interesting and necessary developments in the slow critical turn away from historicism over the past decade has been an increasing eagerness to reexamine the nexus of these difficult but crucial categories (cf. Ian Duncan’s NASSR plenary on the novel as the genre of “human nature”).

Unlike in narrative medicine, talking about “human” essentials need not be prescriptive (ha). Nor need it be strategic, a stance that always foregrounds a shared category’s provisionality. There’s not much room between these poles, but I think it’s a ground we’re duty-bound to explore. For example: during the Aesthetics seminar, Frances Ferguson—revisiting a point from her book Solitude and the Sublime, that Kant’s sublime involves an “essentially narrative agreement, making representative structures more important than the objects that move into and out of their particular patterns” (31)**—ventured that a broadly-encompassing aesthetic response might be posited in terms of form, not content. In other words (though this is vastly simplifying Ferguson’s point), “we” react to beauty via similar mechanisms, though how we go on to value that beauty differs. Though I don’t necessarily agree with this paradigm, I applaud its impulse. Ferguson’s suggestion skirts the boundaries of psychology (and/or cognitive science), and in doing so loops right back to the eighteenth century, when writers concerned with aesthetics—Burke, Smith, Hume, and of course Kant—were also leaders in discovering how the human mind functioned. Theirs was an Enlightenment humanism, to be sure, with all its attendant problems and historical blinkers, but they helped buoy the aesthetic as a key location for exploring the grounds of human nature.

In an intellectual climate where the humanities have become a territory that needs defending, let’s not cede that ground too easily.
**Ferguson, Frances. Solitude and the Sublime. New York: Routledge, 1992.

NASSR 2011 Schedule Draft

NASSR program draft June 2011

Graduate Student Caucus events will take place on Thursday, the first day of the conference, and include a roundtable and social gathering.

1) Thursday, 8/11, 10:30 – noon
NGSC Sponsored Roundtable: The Job Market
*Remember that this is the morning of day 1 of the conference. We hope you will make travel arrangements accordingly.

Participants will include:

Rob Anderson (Oakland University)
Alan Bewell (University of Toronto)
Julie Carlson (University of California, Santa Barbara)
Frances Ferguson (Johns Hopkins University)
William Galperin (Rutgers University, New Brunswick)
Jonathan Mulrooney (College of the Holy Cross)
Juan Sanchez (University of California, Los Angeles)

2) Thurs, 8/11, 7:30pm
Join your brethren for the NGSC Pub Night Gathering. Location TBD. We will keep you posted!

Looking forward to seeing you at NASSR —



Post written in early spring

Scene: Last Friday, the elevator in the English department building, 6 pm. Having just polished off this semester’s pile of marking, I was headed home to relax: watch reruns of bad 80s sci-fi, or attack the issues of Scientific American that had been accumulating on my desk since March. In the elevator, I met one of our department’s senior scholars. I asked her casually if she was also headed home for some leisure time. She looked at me—to steal a line from A Christmas Story—as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. She then laid out, with good-humored acquiescence, her workload over the next few weeks. Between marking, administrative duties, conference-papers, and her own research, there was no “one day / [to] give to idleness.”

The episode set me thinking about my own future as an academic. One defining feature of our profession is its status as “vocation” in the older sense, from Latin vocare: a calling, not a job. We’re not in it for the money. Dedication to liberal humanism doesn’t clock in at 9 and clock out at 5, because our quotidian commitments are simply the lens through which we focus the larger “life of the mind” we’re supposed to be living. The inculcation of this attitude in our students—the love of knowledge and its importance to creating engaged citizens—is the M-4 carbine in the humanist’s self-defense arsenal: standard issue.

All of this is well and good, but I sometimes wonder if it also enables the development of a sort of martyr mentality. We’ve all, I’d venture, participated in commiseratory gripe-sessions with our colleagues in which we detail just how much work we’ve got on our plates, how little time we’ve got to do it, and how much sleep/fun/sanity we’ve burnt on the altar of academic aspiration. These conversations are a great pressure-valve, a useful communal catharsis, but in my experience they also carry a slight flavor of underlying competition. What we’re willing to sacrifice for academia becomes, like Isaac, an index of our devotion. Standing in the elevator, having just revealed that I had indeed “clocked out” for the day, I felt a twinge of guilt: was I a bad academic? Having committed myself to this calling, was it a moral and professional lapse to want to mute that call (even for a weekend)?

I think the answer is “no,” but an answer we’re oddly ambivalent about endorsing. I literally-just-now received a facebook message from a friend postponing our coffee date to discuss the new Doctor Who: “Holidays don’t matter in Grad School. No plans, just this albatross on my neck.” Really? The albatross, of course, is hung “instead of the cross.” My friend’s comment thus casts academia as convulsive penitential submission, the mortification required of sinners who will never meet the ideal. Where did this attitude come from?

I’ve already suggested one possible source, our need to distance ourselves from the utilitarian mentality that increasingly dominates university culture. I think another might be the job market, which has gotten so competitive that it sometimes seems like the only way to land a tenure-track position is to don the albatross. My colleague in the elevator may not have gotten where she is today if she didn’t sacrifice as much as she did. I guess, if that’s what it takes. But I can’t help wondering if that level of commitment drains our vocation of what made it so attractive in the first place. After all, Wordsworth may have celebrated reading and thinking “long and deeply,” but he still nagged Hazlitt (excuse me, “Matthew”) to ditch the books and go outside.

Then again, maybe all of the above is a manifestation of my own anxieties. Have any of you encountered the attitude I’m describing, and if so, what do you think of it? What is the right balance between academic-life and other-life? On this most fitting of days to discuss martyrdom, how much academic self-sacrifice do you feel is appropriate or virtuous?

Time Change for Journal Publishing Panel!

The NASSR Graduate Student Caucus’s Special Roundtable on Journal Publication, “‘What is now proved was once, only imagin’d’; or, What Every Graduate Student Should Know about Journal Publication” has been rescheduled:

Saturday, August 21st
10:30 – noon

Remember, this special panel is your chance to ask questions directly to the editors of three of the leading journals in our field: SiR, ERR, and RaVoN.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Website development ideas

We are in the process of developing a more functional website to be the NGSC homepage than our current blog. What ideas or requests do you have for this website? Please leave them here as comments.

For example:
– what kinds of pages would be helpful for you?
– what kinds of information would you like the website to contain?
– what sort of functionality would you like?
– Is there a website out there (like Romantic Circles, for example), that works really well and that you suggest as a kind of model?

Thanks for your input!
– Kirstyn