Tag Archives: conferences

Report from the Front: Professor Jeffrey N. Cox on the Waterloo Bicentennial

June 18, 2015 marked the two-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, that decisive event that signaled the end of the Napoleonic Wars and, more broadly, constant military conflict on the European continent since 1756. Notable not only for Napoleon’s defeat by the combined forces of England, Prussia, and the Netherlands under the command of the Duke of Wellington and the Prince of Orange, Waterloo remains one of the bloodiest military conflicts in history with nearly 48,000 causalities in only ten hours. Yet, even more than a political turning point, Waterloo left an inedible mark on the period’s cultural productions; as graduate students studying Romanticism, we remember the battle in terms of the massive literary and artistic output it inspired. From Wordsworth’s “Thanksgiving Ode” to a theatrical production at Sadler’s Wells that included the song ‘The Bellerophon, or Nappy napped,'” Waterloo became a permanent fixture in Europe’s cultural memory. Continue reading Report from the Front: Professor Jeffrey N. Cox on the Waterloo Bicentennial

Behind the Scenes: A First Experience Co-Organizing a Conference

I love conferences; I might even call myself a conference junkie. I’ve been to about a dozen of them in my academic life, and I’ve enjoyed pretty much every single one: visiting new places, staying in hotels, meeting the same people over and over, getting conference food and coffee and drinks and swag… not to mention attending panels and getting feedback on my work. It’s all my favorite part of being an academic.

But, I will never look at a conference the same way again after co-organizing our department’s first Annual Literature and Social Justice Grad Conference. I have a new appreciation for all of the stuff I love about conferences, which is painstakingly planned by people behind the scenes, people who usually don’t even get to participate in much of the conference once it happens. After almost two semesters of planning and a successful final product last weekend, here is my guide to organizing a conference.

Continue reading Behind the Scenes: A First Experience Co-Organizing a Conference

Geology, The Sleeping Giant

Geology is ever-present and abundant in the most expansive and also the most microscopic ways. I’ve been asked to serve on a panel next month at Southern Graphics Council International with three other printmakers who also incorporate geology as major themes in their work, and I’ve used this post as a research opportunity to develop my opening remarks. There are many ways that we use the history of the earth, rocks, and the crisis of the Anthropocene to make artistic statements. Some artists approach the work through the realm of the story teller. Others realize that our societal and economic structures depend on geological resources. Still others are interested in the multitude of phenomena that shape our world to create the landscapes we see before us. In all these ways we become thinkers that overlap artistic training with scientific thought and experimentation.

Continue reading Geology, The Sleeping Giant

Archival Research: The Poetic Personalities Of Keats And His Circle

Participants on the Heath.  Not all of us, but quite a few!
May 3, 2014: Keats and His Circle Conference participants on Hampstead Heath. Not all of us, but quite a few!

Hello and happy summer!  Since I last blogged, I passed my Ph.D. comprehensive exams and spent two weeks in England.  I presented at the Keats and his Circle conference along with my fellow blogger, Arden Hegele, and of course the conference was everything a Keatsian (or Romanticist) could wish it to be. Our weekend at Wentworth Place came complete with three days of really smart and innovative Keats studies, phenomenal featured lectures, and a “Keats walk” through Hampstead. But what I will talk about today is what I learned in the week after the conference. Continue reading Archival Research: The Poetic Personalities Of Keats And His Circle

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.

Wading Into the Conference World

As a first year doctoral student in literature at Arizona State University, there have been many occasions where I feel as if I have no idea what I should be doing (outside of my enormous course load and teaching requirements) or how I am supposed to be moving forward in what seems sometimes to be a never-ending academic journey. The last thing I want is to be bogged down with stress and forget why I signed up for this life, why I LOVE this life. I have found (at least it works for the moment) that the best way to deal with these questions, which arise on a regular basis, is to take everything step by step. As we attempt to professionalize ourselves amidst the daily hustle and bustle of the halls of the English department at our universities, submitting abstracts and presenting at conferences is an activity we need to be doing, but for those who are new to conferences like me, the whole process is a bit daunting.

Just three weeks ago, I presented at my first conference. Saying I had nervous butterflies in my stomach is an understatement. The nervousness started with the writing of the abstract, and it didn’t really subside until I got up from the presenter table and walked out the door. An abstract is a difficult thing to write but so important to our professionalization. Abstracts also are something we rarely get a lot of training on in our day-to-day course work, which makes attempting to write them a bit more stressful. Summing up what I will be arguing, or more realistically, what I hope I will be arguing in a ten page paper in 250 words is a trying activity. I’ve started to look at abstracts like movie trailers. Hit the best, most entertaining aspects and sell the readers that it is worth looking at the whole thing. And remember, every word counts, so focusing on style is important. Style is something I have been working on in my scholarly writing, and adding the pressure of the importance of style in an abstract raises the anxiety levels. But ultimately, I have been reminding myself that everyone has to write a first abstract, and it gets easier each and every time. Practice does make perfect when it comes to abstract writing. Plus, ask your colleagues or professors if they would let you look at some of their abstracts; it really helped me to see how other people prepare an abstract when I was working on my own.

Preparing the paper for the conference was probably the easiest aspect for me. I write papers all of the time—so I was confident with my ability to write a solid paper to present at the conference. The actual presentation of the paper was nerve racking, and then as luck would have it, I found out I was selected to chair my panel. I felt completely lost; I had no idea what I was supposed to do. After an email exchange with the panel coordinators and the other presenters on my panel, I was at least more confident about my roles as a panel chair: introduce everyone before their reading and moderate the question and answer section. I was hoping that my duties as the chair of the panel would keep me focused and calm my nerves before I read my own paper (but that obviously wasn’t the case ☺). Most people would suggest attending panel sessions before your own to get an idea of how the conference works. That would have been a really useful tool for me, but my panel was scheduled during the first time slot in the morning. I arrived early, found the room with plenty of time, and let the butterflies flutter. As soon as it was time to start, I introduced the first presenter and everything flowed from there. At the end of my reading it was time to start the question and answer time. I was prepared for no one in the audience (of seven people) to ask any questions, so I had thought up some of my own just in case. A colleague of mine has presented at numerous conferences and she had never been asked a question—so secretly I was hoping no one would ask me a question either. It was scary enough to read my paper, but then to have to answer more questions was a lot to think about. However, we had an enthusiastic audience that was ready to discuss the different papers. In the end, I am so glad that I was asked a specific question about my paper because it not only gave me the opportunity to discuss something I am fascinated with in more detail, but it also gave me an idea of how to adjust my paper to make it that much stronger (and my colleague had her first question too—conference success).

For all of the anxiety that I felt during the entire process from starting to write the abstract to answering the last question at the end of the presentation, it was a wonderful experience. If you haven’t experienced a conference presentation yet, you can trust me when I say, if I made it through fine—so can you. In the end, I had a lot of fun. And now I feel much more prepared for future conferences.

With a couple weeks left before many of the MLA Romanticism CFP deadlines, if you haven’t submitted an abstract yet, you still have time. If you are like me, and a novice to conference presentations doubting whether or not to send out an abstract, just jump in! And hopefully, I will see you there ☺

Romanticism: A State of the Union

Inspired by the President’s recent State of the Union address, I have decided to offer you, my Romantic brethren, a review of the state of Romantic studies. Despite our brooding Byronic ways, our Union is getting stronger. The house of cards may indeed have fallen, but our field is not languishing on the marble steps. Moneta will come!

::obligatory applause break::

The 2010 NASSR Conference in Vancouver, British Colombia took the idea of “Romantic Mediations” as its theme. Participants were encouraged to submit proposals that explored communication technologies and print culture. As the call for papers makes clear, “The era that saw the invention of semaphore, telegraphy, the continuous-feed press, and the difference engine, the Romantic in all its senses might be characterized as a period of significant experimentation in media and ideas of mediations” (NASSR). While many papers engaged with new inventions and their effects on Romantic era works – I heard an excellent paper regarding the influence semaphore had on theatrical gesturing practices – others utilized the concepts and language of media and mediation in order to offer new and perhaps more precise ways of engaging with and understanding key Romantic writers and texts.

The issues and concerns of last year’s NASSR conference are also being addressed by McGill University’s ongoing collaborative endeavor “Interacting with Print: Cultural Practices of Intermediality 1700-1900.” Founded in 2005, the interdisciplinary and interinstitutional research group headed by Susan Dalton, Andrew Piper, Tom Mole and others sets out to investigate “how people interacted with printed matter, how they used print media to interact with other people and how printed texts and images interacted within complex media ecologies.” The group focuses on the relations and interactions between various media. In order to more accurately, in its terms, “situate” print, the collaborative group sets out to debunk three prevalent scholarly “myths”: that print displaced other media, that print equals letterpress or engraving, and that print culture is national culture. In the online manifesto for “Interacting with Print,” the group claims that their “research activities will provide a more specific understanding of print’s place in the production, dissemination and reception of culture in a period that saw the development of mass media.” Print, as this quotation makes clear, was only one of many mediums for producing and disseminating culture and oftentimes incorporated other forms of media such as printed images.

Together, the conference and working research group speak to a set of issues being addressed by current critics of the Romantic period. Many scholars, including myself, have asked why this interest in media and mediation is emerging at the present moment. I believe that the answer, at least in part, lies in the new descriptions and definitions of the Romantic period and Romanticism offered by thinkers like Walter Ong and Friedrich Kittler. In his 1982 work Orality and Literacy, Ong claims that the Romantic desire for “autonomous utterance” is facilitated by print and speaks to the “alliance of the Romantic movement with technology” (158). That is, print mediates the Romantic desire for interiority and individuality. According to Ong, there is a clear correlation between the mediums of Romantic art, in this instance print, and the prevalent artistic ideology of the period. Relying on and citing Ong’s work with notable frequency, John David Black’s recent book The Politics of Enchantment: Romanticism, Media, and Cultural Studies labels Romanticism as one of the effects of print: “Coming some three centuries after the invention of the mechanical press, romanticism was the mature cultural expression of the cumulative effects of Gutenberg’s breakthrough” (134). This quotation makes Romanticism the result of the proliferation of print that started with Gutenberg’s press.

Similarly to Ong, Kittler’s landmark work Discourse Networks 1800/1900, published in 1985 in the original German and translated into English in 1990, draws attention to the relationship between media and Romanticism. Especially important to Kittler’s text is Foucault’s essay “Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside.” In this early work, Foucault develops what David Wellbery calls “a lexicon of exteriority” (xii). The French thinker sets out to distinguish between language itself and “the apparatuses of power, storage, transmission, training, reproduction, and so forth that make up the conditions of factual discursive occurrences” (Wellbery xii). Like Foucault before him, Kittler’s work situates what is said or written in a secondary position and instead focuses on these “apparatuses.” His decision to title his 1987 follow up work Gramophone, Film, and Typewriter further underscores the important role communication and storage apparatuses play in his thinking. For Kittler, scholars are always dealing with media, with the technological possibilities of any given epoch because it is through the media of a given moment that “something like “poetry” or “literature” can take shape” (Wellbery xiii). As Thomas Streeter points out, Kittler “suggests that one should understand romanticism, not as a collection of texts or a historical period, but as a way of organizing discourse through practices of writing, reading, and relating” (777). Streeter and other critics, however, also feel that Kittler’s work often places too much emphasis on technologies and, at times, veers towards techno-determinism. Yet, these criticisms aside, the German thinker’s influence over contemporary literary studies in general as well as Romantic criticism is undeniable.

Clifford Siskin and William Warner’s collection of essays, This Is Enlightenment, elaborates upon the ideas present in Discourse Networks as well as Gramophone, Film, and Typewriter. The two critics argue that every history constructed by literary scholars has its benefits but a history of what they term “mediation” has the potential to “clarify both the singularity of each local event and what those events have in common” (11). They “use “mediation” here in its broadest sense as shorthand for the work done by tools, by what we now call “media” of every kind – everything that intervenes, enables, supplements, or is simply in between” (4). In this passage we can begin to see the similarities to Ong, Foucault, and Kittler’s focus on the technologies and “apparatuses” of given historical moments. Siskin and Warner, who were the keynote speakers at the NASSR conference referred to at the start of this post, show that “mediation was always necessary but the forms of mediation differ over time” and therefore there exists “a history of mediation” (9). Under this new framework, the Enlightenment becomes “an event in the history of mediation” (1). The Enlightenment was facilitated by a historically specific set of forms of mediation such as print, reading, writing, and other associational and relational practices.

Naturally, redefining the Enlightenment in such a manner leaves critics of the Romantic and Victorian eras asking what place in the new history their own periods hold. Siskin and Warner address this question in their 2011 article in The European Romantic Review, “If this is Enlightenment, Then What Is Romanticism?” According to the article, “Enlightenment is an event, Romanticism is an eventuality, and Victorianism is a variation” (290). The forms of mediation do not change or proliferate in equal measure. That is, some moments, in this instance the Enlightenment, have both a greater variety and number of forms of mediation than others. The claim that Romanticism can be seen as an “eventuality” also reflects John David Black’s claim that Romanticism is the “mature cultural” result of the Gutenberg press.

If the “apparatuses” of storage, transmission, communication, etc. are worthwhile objects of inquiry and if the Enlightenment is an event in the history of mediation, then how is the current scholar of the Romantic period to engage with and comment upon a work or a collection of works? Or, as John Richetti asks in his review of the This Is Enlightenment collection, “How would foregrounding mediation change the kinds and areas of inquiry in our own epoch?”

Yours in Romanticism,

Randall Sessler, NYU

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 MTV.com

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!

This Little Graddie Went to Market…

Preparing for and Navigating the Job Market: Roundtable from NASSR Conference, August 2011

If you were at the NASSR conference last month, and happened to attend the job-market roundtable organized by the NGSC, then this post will be old news…but we figured there are at least some of you who want to know all the good advice!  For all their wisdom, pragmatic counsel, and encouragement, special thanks again goes to all our panelists: Alan Bewell, Julie Carlson, Frances Ferguson, William Galperin, Jonathan Mulrooney, and Juan Sanchez.  To protect the innocent, I’ve detached their names from the information below; please note that these are MY interpretations of what was said, edited and rearranged for your convenience.  May they prove useful to all those currently preparing to go on the job market, and to all of us hoping to get there soon!


Choosing between a postdoc and the job market

The Postdoc offers certain advantages over the job market.  It is generally much easier to get than a tenure-track position.  However, there are many kinds of postdocs, and you might find yourself with a kind of postdoc that you don’t really want; some will help you more than others to prepare for jobs.  The best kinds of postdocs are the ones that allow you to do research and get out some publications (these are generally 2-3 year postdocs).

Postdocs are also more difficult to apply for than jobs.  The job letter can describe your research and experience very broadly and can be used on several applications; postdocs tend to have very specified requirements that often result in more time and effort invested; you have to write several very different applications, rather than one that can be tailored to many.  Second, postdocs often want you to describe a NEW project: they don’t want you to go and finish your book; they want you to work on producing something new.  This means you will be pitching two book ideas.  Of course, when you go into the job market, you CAN say that you used the postdoc to develop a second book project, and you will have something to show for it…and this puts you in a really great position.

With the postdoc market, you may have more success because host institutions are interested in you developing new ideas and projects however you want to.  In a job situation, you have to fit in to the department, and you will need to fit your projects to the departmental needs.

Format of the Job Letter and the Dissertation Abstract

These are THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS YOU WILL EVER PRODUCE IN YOUR CAREER!  They will absorb hours and hours of your time, but you should recognize that time as a worthwhile investment.  Nothing will affect your future prospects so much as these two documents.  There is a standard tripartite form in the job letter, and you should adhere to it.  You don’t want anything quirky or grandstanding.  The entire letter should NEVER, under any circumstances, be longer than two pages.

Part 1: Announce your application to the job, and make clear your suitability for the position advertised.  Show that you can operate from the center, rather than the periphery.  Show that you are aware of their needs, and indicate your suitability to meet those needs.

Part 2: Describe your dissertation.  This will naturally be the most difficult paragraph, and you should be prepared to make 8-10 revisions!

Part 3: Indicate your teaching experience.  Every school, whether they are a research university or a teaching university, will employ you as a teacher, and they want to know that you have experience and enthusiasm for it.  (see “Teaching,” below.)

To conclude, your last few sentences should declare your availability for an interview.

Getting Help and Guidance with the Letter, Abstract, and Interviews

The placement committee at your university can help a lot by giving practice interviews, mentoring, pairing a job candidate with a faculty member who is NOT on their committee (who can thus see with fresh eyes, like the people on hiring committees).  If you can arrange such a pairing, you should meet with this person on multiple occasions.  From a student’s perspective, this can be a very irritating experience, and may seem pointless, and it might feel infantilizing.  It’s alienating labor for everyone involved, but everyone needs to be cheerful and grateful for it… and it can make a HUGE difference!

When to go on the job market

When to go on the market depends on where you are with your dissertation.  For the most part, you should NOT go on the market unless you are done with your dissertation, or very nearly done.  If you are an exception to this, let your advisor tell you that you are!  You need to be at a point when you can talk about your work with confidence, both in the broadest terms, and in the 11-second elevator conversation.  It’s up to you to figure out whether you want to do a “trial year;” but recognize that this will take lots of time that can feel slightly arbitrary, and it might be a better use of your time to move forward with your dissertation.  It is indeed a useful exercise, but it is more useful at certain times than at others.  Be discriminate.

How to interview and give a job talk (at MLA, or a campus visit)

Interviews are formal moments, and you should dress up – but you should also be comfortable!  You should not be distracted by your clothing, and neither should others.  Poise is also important; sustain it as best you can through all events, but especially make sure you have at least 15-30 minutes alone before your talk to gather yourself and your thoughts.

Clarity and conciseness are your best friends. You must learn to articulate quickly and clearly what you are “about.”  Learn who you will be speaking to, what the format is, and what will be expected of you (your advisor can help you find these things out.)  Keep in mind that you will be talking to non-specialists in your field.  You don’t need to dilute yourself and open yourself up to super-broad questions you can’t handle, but you want to give the broadest possible range of your work and its relevance.  Show that you know the specifics, but that you can participate in the larger conversation.   Your originality is most apparent in the CLARITY with which you articulate your ideas, NOT that you are the first person ever to think about them.  Avoid vague sloppy verbs like “negotiate”, “through the lens of,” or “this is a moment where…”

The quality of your research will probably be much like that of other candidates.  In the interview, the committee will probably not ask you much about your dissertation itself; they will want to know how it fits in with the larger academic conversation, the limits of your project, etc.  Also, the committee won’t know anything you haven’t told them in your application letter, and in the interview they will want to know about your wider academic interests.

Have Fun!!  We all got into this profession because we enjoy it!  That’s not to say that you don’t act rigorously professional, but in an interview you should communicate not only what you know, but HOW you know!  The people who are interviewing you want you to succeed; you don’t have to convince them that you have the intellectual goods; they already think you do because they invited you!  You are a colleague.  Keep in mind that it is a conversation!  The more it becomes a conversation, the less it becomes an interrogation…you win!  If the committee is having fun, it will make a difference.  Be human.  Respond to questions as they occur, but keep it natural.  This isn’t Trivial Pursuit.  It’s okay to acknowledge when you don’t know something; keep in mind that such times are opportunities that demonstrate how you think about new ideas.  Don’t be afraid to risk some intellectual playfulness.  You can go out on a limb and have conversations, and be willing to stretch yourself.

It’s not always all about you.  There is a good chance that at least one person on the committee will be crazy, and not necessarily liked by their colleagues… there are dynamics going on, like when you go to Thanksgiving with your in-laws. J  Not everything that goes on between the people there has to do with you.

Both research and teaching are important.  Don’t assume too much about what a school wants, based on its reputation as a research institution or liberal arts college.  Always be prepared to talk about both your teaching and your research, and how they integrate.  This will serve you well no matter what kind of institution you apply to.

Teaching – It is SO important! 

Different universities may have different degrees of emphasis on research, but they ALL will emphasize teaching!  In order to get an interview, you do have to have a strong letter and strong research; that is,  teaching will not get you the interview.  However, once you GET the interview, your teaching experience will often get you the job.  Make teaching matter to you as a graduate student, and make sure you get experience with it.  Don’t treat it simply as a part-time side job that you put second to your research. Make sure someone writes a letter of reference that can say something about your teaching.  Invite a faculty advisor to observe you, so they can write with real knowledge.

Make teaching important to you in the interview.  YOU can bring it up!  Ask questions about teaching.  Take time to find out about the kinds of courses offered at the university.  Put together some sample syllabi, and be prepared (and excited) to talk about them.  When you are talking to the director of undergraduate studies, teaching will be particularly important.

At this point in your career, a teaching portfolio is not really necessary, but you may want to leave some samples of courses you have taught or would like to teach with the committee.  However, don’t make the mistake of giving the committee too many papers before or during the interview…. You want them looking at YOU, not at the six syllabi that you have constructed.  Try to focus on perhaps one course that you might teach, and talk about it.

How to demonstrate your teaching skills at a campus visit

The job talk will likely be your most important teaching moment.  Approach it like a teacher.  Imagine the talk like a seminar, in which a lot of ideas are discussed, and everyone feels they’ve been engaged in an important exploration.  Then, think of the Q&A as a class about your paper, with you as the teacher!  Keep in mind that many search committees are new to the process too, and they sometimes fumble.  So, YOU are the teacher.  Find ways to let them know the important things about you.  Take control in a diplomatic way to make it work; find creative ways to engage with difficult people.  You’re at the beginning of your career, and no committee is under the impression that you aren’t!  They are looking for potential, for how you organize your thoughts and think on your feet, and how much you respect the ideas of others, and yourself.

It sometimes happens that interviewers set up a sort of artificial class in which to observe you.  IF this happens, discuss interesting and relevant things, listen to and interact with students, and finish on time.

How to act once you might have an offer.

Don’t get ahead of yourself.  A job offer is just a gleam in the eye of a department and a candidate until an official letter arrives from the university.  Until then, sit tight and be patient; don’t start asking questions about employment benefits and all those details.  You can do that later.

Once you have your official offer (and if you have only one), you should feel free to ask for some time to deliberate.  This is the time to inquire about various policies, money issues, and to make it known that taking the job might complicate your family situation.  Through all the discussions, stay focused on the most important goal: a good situation over the long future.  Don’t compromise your future relationship with your colleagues by being a tough negotiator.

If you have more than one offer, you should inform the chairs of both departments, so they can talk to each other.

If you don’t get a job offer, makes notes about the process while your memory is fresh.  Review your experiences and your materials.  Take a little time to remind yourself that jobs are hard to come by, and that it may not be your fault…then read something fabulous to cheer yourself up. 🙂


How is the job situation in Romanticism particularly?

Sometimes, Romanticism can get swallowed up by scholars of 18th or 19th centuries… romanticism does seem still to be regarded as its own “thing,” and as a component of an expertise, it still has a lot of traction.  The field seems to have been quite agile in adapting itself to academic categories, without losing its identity.

Should Romanticists spin themselves for 18th-century or Victorian jobs?  And if so, how?

Most importantly, you should make your own intellectual center very clear and honest.  You can speculate out loud in your letter about ways that you might pedagogically fulfill the university’s needs, but don’t fake it.  Be yourself, and be honest.  If the university wants 100 years, that’s probably a teaching mandate, not a research mandate. They just want to know if you can teach stuff from a full century.  As long as your research is interesting and worthwhile, and you can teach about a century of stuff, you’ll probably be fine.

Do interviews really sometimes happen in hotel bedrooms at MLA? 

There are some regulations trying to be put in place, but you may have to be creatively professional.  Don’t underestimate search committees’ bad behavior; awkward things may happen!  Make sure that you have enough time between interviews, even if they are in the same hotel, or in the same city.  If you are late, the committee won’t adjust their whole schedule for you.

Some departments are shifting to phone interviews, skype interviews, or interviews that happen even before MLA?

For better or worse, MLA is losing its centrality and control over the hiring process, and this does make expectations much less clear.  The “rules” set up by the MLA are voluntary, and universities can choose whether to participate.  Videoconferencing offers many advantages: not everyone can go to the MLA, you can reach internationally much more easily, and whole committees can be present.  We are moving into an era in which this will be more and more common, and more important to think about.  Check into what videoconferencing  options are available to you, and learn how to use them!

For those interviews/offers that occur before MLA, you can ask for some time to consider, at least until after MLA.

Skype interviews and phone interviews present a different set of challenges from in-person interviews, and you should definitely practice for them.   Especially practice when to know you should STOP talking.  Practice pausing 30 seconds into a response, to watch/listen for cues that others might want to redirect or jump in.  Practice putting your thoughts in order, so that if you get cut off, you have communicated the important information!   In a phone interview, it might be good to talk explicitly about the process, and invite the interviewee to break in, or to expect pauses from you.   It might be good to call your own voice mail, and practice talking to a machine for a limited amount of time!

In Skype interviews, be aware of the background you set up in your screen shot…there are lots of possibilities, and you can give people insight into the kind of person you are (both good and bad).  This is risky, though, and a neutral environment is probably best.

Should we devote our greatest energies toward publishing, or toward finishing and polishing our dissertation?

There’s no question that having a well-placed article will speak well for you.   However, the main decision is based on a very careful and scrupulous reading of the writing sample that you send in.  The published article can be very powerful window-dressing, and it puts you into a different echelon of candidates…but your submitted writing sample will be most important.

If your dissertation project is under revision, and you think of it more as a manuscript than as a dissertation, how do you talk about it – as your book, or your dissertation?

Committees want to know how close you are to finishing; they don’t want to see that your project is continually evolving into nowhere.  Be specific about what parts are truly finished.  (Did you finish the dissertation, and now you are beginning the book manuscript?)  The committee might ask “what are your plans for your dissertation”?  You have two options; you can turn it into a book, or chop it up into 3-4 essays.    Once you graduate, your dissertation is finished and done.  If you’re at that stage, talk about your book project, not your dissertation.   Talking about the book project allows you to talk about the dissertation without actually saying it. Committees aren’t expecting you to have your book already accepted by a press, and even having a book may not always work to you advantage.  It is just one of many, many factors.  Just do the best you can to present yourself as honestly as possible.  Keep in mind that when a university hires someone to tenure-track, they’re imagining hiring you for 40 years.  The big picture is the most important.  Keep your perspective.

If you’ve been NOT getting hired for a long time, and you’ve been adjuncting for ever, is there a point when you should cut your losses and consider other careers?  Is there a point when you’re just going to look stale, compared to other candidates?

Because the job market is tough, you are not going to look stale as fast as perhaps in the past…but you should be honest with yourself, and decide what your own psychological stamina is up for.  It is tough, and you will need to look inside yourself and decide what’s right for you.  BUT, don’t make a quick decision and get down on yourself too easily; be realistic about the fact that it may take 2-3 years to find a tenure-track position.  Recognize that such delays don’t necessarily mean that your work is not up to par.  Stay focused on what matters, and what makes you happy about your work – the research, the teaching, etc.

What other sorts of academic jobs are available?  And if you get an “alternate” kind of academic job, does it hurt your chances of going back on the market for a job as a professor?

In some ways, it depends on what you’re doing.  Some “alternate” jobs are perfect fits for the particular professorship.  And it IS important to think about alternate jobs too.  We are multiply talented people, despite being very focused…and sometimes developing ourselves on other disciplines can make our minds more fluid and mobile in terms of how we envision ourselves.