Guest Post: Disability and Visibility at the Academic Conference

By Caitlin Rose Myers

We would all agree that conferences are an essential part of the job of academic.  However, I’ve recently discovered firsthand that fulfilling this part of our job is extremely difficult for those scholars and graduate students who have disabilities, in ways that are often overlooked – not out of malice, but out of a lack of understanding or foresight.  On a recent trip to two conferences in the span of two weeks, I encountered many of the obstacles I’m referring to while using my wheelchair to try to navigate the conference atmosphere.  I’d like to share these obstacles in the hope of promoting more foresight and more activism for the rights of disabled conference attendees.  Since my disability is largely related to mobility, that is my focus here, although I hope that more conversation can occur about sensitivity and accessibility for all disabled scholars.  As a part of our job, we shouldn’t struggle as much as we do to engage with these events, and I hope to encourage those who notice some of these issues at conferences you attend to speak to organizers about promoting accessibility.
Continue reading “Guest Post: Disability and Visibility at the Academic Conference”

Dickens in Eden, 2.0

NASSR-time is upon us, and I am very excited to see many of our Romanticist writers and readers in Winnipeg! Readers can expect an update on the conference — and particularly the sessions for graduate students — next week. But first, I’d like to give my report on The Dickens Universe 2015, which I attended for the first time at UC Santa Cruz at the beginning of this month. This annual week-long event is part academic conference, part professionalism workshop, part Victorian reenactment, and part summer camp: it brings together faculty and graduate students from the US and abroad, but also “Road Scholars” of all ages whose admiration for Boz brings them back each year to discuss a new novel. And, while Dickens isn’t strictly part of the Romanticist repertoire, the conference has much to offer for the aspiring nineteenth-century aficionado/a. Continue reading “Dickens in Eden, 2.0”

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”

Practical and Not-So-Practical Tips for Getting into Switzerland

In the last five months I’ve been to Switzerland at least ten times, maybe more. The Swiss border lies so close to Konstanz that it’s possible to buy an ice cream in Germany and enjoy eating it on a Swiss part of the lakeshore. This proximity leads to an interesting relationship between the Germans of Konstanz and the Swiss of Kreuzlingen and the other surrounding villages, one in which the buying power of the Swiss Franc against the Euro plays a major part. Everywhere around the Bodensee there are Swiss people spending and German people—here I am thinking of one example in particular, my first German instructor—bicycling across the border to make a little extra money.
I sense no resentment from either side, and in fact each side seems self-possessed and untroubled. Perhaps both the result and cause of this tranquility is the fact that the border goes largely (in my experience totally) unattended, unguarded, unobserved. I have walked into Switzerland, bicycled into Switzerland, driven a car into Switzerland, ridden a train into Switzerland, but I have never, not even once, had my passport checked going into Switzerland.
That was the not-so-practical part of this post. Now, for some ideas you might actually employ if you are attending NASSR 2012 in Neuchâtel…
SwissBahn, or the Swiss train and transit system, is expensive. Too expensive, I firmly believe. Nevertheless, a few things to know:
1. Buy a half-fare card. The half-fare card lets you pay half of the normal price for all travel using train, bus, boat, (some) gondolas, funiculars and mountain trains (this is Switzerland, after all). The card is good for a month, so plan your travel accordingly.
2. Never buy food on the train. The trains are lovely—so lovely—for having a snack of cheese and bread and watching the countryside flow by. And this loveliness increases when you’ve purchased your snacks at a grocery store, because €3,50 for a bottle of water does not a happy traveller make.
3. Use the toilet on the train. The toilets on the trains look space age and are fairly clean, so there’s no need to wait until you get to the station where you will inevitably be paying to use a public toilet.
4. Print your ticket. This does not apply if you purchase tickets at the station, because they will of course give those to you then and there. If you have purchased your ticket online, however, you will need a hardcopy on hand, as well as the credit card with which you booked the ticket.
5. Be there early: because your train will leave on time.

On Being Yourself in Another Language

The first day of language class our instructor asked us to say, in German, one positive and one negative thing about ourselves. There were about ten people in the class, and we went around in a circle answering the question. I was nervous. When it got to be my turn, I said, as a positive thing, that I am “kreativ” (which is basically English, let’s be honest) and, because the only negative adjective in German that I could think of in that moment was “faul,” which means lazy, I said that.
At that point onward, I felt my classmates had misconstrued some basic part of myself. From the three beautiful Swedes in the corner to our teacher, the ex-feminist ex-hippy from Berlin, they all looked at me like I was suddenly an artistic layabout: as anti-German as one could get, given the state of the EU’s economy at the moment.
So let’s be clear: I am not lazy. I am so far from being lazy, that I de-skin tomatoes before making pasta sauce. That I whip whipped-cream by hand. So not lazy, in fact, that I have been known to bicycle to Switzerland to buy cheese. But there it was. Faced with a dearth of vocabulary for the first time in my life, I’d created this negative space, which I felt destined to inhabit for the rest of the language class.
I’ve since worked it out. Now I have a much larger German vocabulary to draw upon and, more importantly, now I am much calmer in German-speaking scenarios. This means the words come to mind without the heart-pounding effort I experienced in that first classroom. I can try and think around the problem of self-expression and find a way to say what I mean, even if it sounds awkward and more complex than it needs to be. It’s a struggle and also kind of freeing. Ich traue mich zu probieren. (I dare myself to try). The result of this kind of work is that I am beginning to know just how hard it is and must be, really, to get at the heart of something in translation.
For one chapter of my dissertation, I am reading Friedrich Hölderlin’s poems and fragments; I think Hölderlin’s complicated, brittle elegies are fascinating. At the University of Konstanz, where I am currently on exchange, I have been meeting about every second Monday morning with Ulrich Gaier, Professor Emeritus and President of the Hölderlin Society.
Here is a synopsis of our relationship: I send him my ideas (which are largely based on translations and heavily influenced by English-language scholarship which may or may not also be in translation) and then we talk about the extent to which my resulting conclusions are mediated by the word choices of translators, are misconstrued derivations of certain words that I take to mean one thing but that, in German, have totally different connotations, or are unmoored from Hölderlin’s poetic tempo because I’ve missed the implied caesura between accented syllables in the German original (that was yesterday).
Professor Gaier’s immense generosity and insight are unmatched. I am so thankful that he is willing to spend time with me thinking about these issues; his big-heartedness has made this time in Germany so valuable and generative. And incredibly, I have found that from this discourse about what is lost in translation there has arisen one the most incredible things: an experience of being more completely myself. When you are truly out of your element, the impulse to take risks is not undermined by expectations of what you “should” be doing. The question you want to ask is the question you do ask, silly or no. Being yourself in another language: ich traue mich zu probieren.

Graduate Study: Abroad and at Home

Many of the top graduate programs in British Romanticism can be found in the United States. Some might find this strange: that, for many of us, our academic interests, geographically-speaking, lie so far from where we live, work, and study. Why, if we’re so invested in learning about the culture of another country, regardless of how far in the past it is, do we not all flock to the UK to study our Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats? The easy answer is that we don’t have to, especially as more and more unpublished and out-of-print manuscripts find their way to online archives and databases.  At the same time, for some scholars, a British education can provide benefits that studying at an American university cannot and vice versa. In this post, I will discuss some of the basic differences between the university systems in these two countries for prospective graduate students who may be considering options beyond their own country.
Drawing on my own experiences studying at the Masters level in both the US and the UK, my observations are, of course, limited to what I know of Lehigh University and the University of Stirling. There will be many exceptions to the systems in which I have participated, just as there are many variations on English or Literature degrees within the same country.  I know the structure of education in Cambridge and Oxford are fairly different from other universities, still deeply embedded in historical tradition.  However, these two universities aside, there are a few basic aspects that seem to consistently differentiate the British from the American experience of graduate (or postgraduate) education.
The US:
Though structures vary, PhD candidates typically take at least two or three semesters of coursework before taking the comprehensive exams, which cover two or three fields of specific study and include both written and oral components. These fields consist of areas in which the student wishes to write but also to teach. During this time, most American universities also require students to fulfill a language requirement in one or two languages in addition to English. Some programs also require a portfolio of writing before the exam process. After taking exams, the student develops a dissertation proposal, after which the student is classified as ABD (all but dissertation) and spends the rest of his or her time completing that dissertation. This typically lasts 2-4 years, bringing the total time spent at the PhD level to 4-6 years (in addition to the one or two years for the Masters degree). Give or take, anyway. Students generally support themselves by teaching one or two composition or literature classes per semester, usually at the introductory level.
The UK:
For the most part, postgraduate study in British universities is condensed in terms of time-commitment, placing more emphasis on writing and professional development than coursework and teaching. The Masters degree typically takes one full year: two semesters of coursework, and a Masters thesis (called the dissertation), which is produced by the end of the following summer. The PhD candidate, or research postgrad, then jumps right into thinking about a dissertation, and part of the application for admission includes a detailed dissertation (or thesis) proposal. The nice part of this, of course, is that there is no language requirement and no comprehensive exams (well, “nice”, depending on how you look at it), though there are similar hurtles throughout the writing process.  The program, then, encourages independent study right from day one. The first semester is spent mostly reading and revising ideas formulated in the proposal, and, at the end of the second semester, the student undertakes a transfer interview, during which he or she presents a piece of written work, including where that piece fits into the larger project, and an extensive literature review (similar in some ways to the comps reading list, from what I understand) that shows where the project will fit into the much larger field. After the transfer interview, the student typically spends an additional two-three years completing the thesis in order to present it to the examiners.  Students support themselves with some teaching, though these opportunities seem to be somewhat limited, depending on the university.
Obviously, there are very strong pros and cons to both of these systems.  In a practical sense, the British experience is much shorter and gets you out into the job market much quicker than the grueling American 7 years. At the same time, however, the practical thorn in all our sides, money, is much easier to come by in American universities, where undergraduates pay exorbitant tuition fees. In British universities, fees are reversed: undergraduates pay comparatively low fees, while postgraduate students pay tuition fees that are still relatively low for British and EU students, though funding opportunities seem less readily available. While full-tuition scholarships are not uncommon, extra stipends are much rarer.  For American students (non-EU), British tuition rates line up more closely to American rates and can be a challenge to cover without the safety net of teaching assistantships and university fellowships. This having been said, both countries have their strengths and weaknesses in particular fields, making the extra time or extra money spent in grad school worth considering.
Especially if you’re working in British literature, there can be obvious benefits to studying in the UK for archival and travel purposes: the ease of public transportation makes it easy to take a day trip to the Edinburgh Writer’s Museum, the Charles Dickens House, or the home of the Bronte sisters. For many of us, studying abroad as undergraduates has allowed us access to some of these places, but I think there is a lot to be said for importance of work environment. Who wouldn’t find writing a dissertation chapter about Northanger Abbey in a coffee shop in Bath a much more enjoyable experience, after all?
Personally, when I was deciding whether or not to return to the United States after completing an MLitt (Master of Letters) at a Scottish university, money ended up being the deciding factor, despite the fact that the UK is years ahead of the US in terms of Gothic Studies. Another consideration I had was a (perhaps masochistic) appreciation for the comprehensive exam process and the expertise it would help me achieve for teaching.  For scholars who plan to specialize more in research than teaching, however, the exams may not hold as much value, and sometimes it can be worth taking out loans if you think you can cover them later. It completely depends on the student and the student’s ultimate career goals.
If you’re currently looking into Masters and Doctoral programs, my advice is, don’t limit yourself to your own country! What works best for you may be found across the pond.
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Conference Planning & Dreaming on Such a Winter's Day

My friend and colleague (and fellow blogger) Kelli Towers Jasper and I are in the early stages of planning our first conference: the British Women Writers Conference (BWWC) 2012, which will be held at CU-Boulder next year (click here for the upcoming 2011 BWWC website — if you’re presenting, Kelli and I will see you there!). We were advised that planning a conference is like planning a wedding (luckily, we’ve both done that), complete with anxieties about finances, timing, food, lodging, speeches, number of guests, transportation, and more. Though there will be no vows that I’m aware of, I have been chastened by early planning and organizational efforts and feel blessed to have such a well-organized and motivated co-chair, Kelli, and experienced faculty advisor, Jill Heydt-Stevenson, in this effort. (If you have organized a conference and have advice or experience to impart, pretty please post a comment to this blog and share your wisdom with us!)  Continue reading “Conference Planning & Dreaming on Such a Winter's Day”