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Conference Report: ‘Romanticism Goes to University’, Edge Hill, May 2018

A detailed report from the BARS-sponsored conference that took place last month. Visit our website to find out how to apply for BARS conference support.

Conference Report: Edge Hill Symposium ‘Romanticism Goes to University’, 19-20 May 2018

by Juliette Misset

‘Romanticism Goes to University,’ the third installment in a series of three annual symposiums held at Edge Hill University, took place over a warm and sunny weekend this past May. Following ‘Edgy Romanticism/Romanticism on the Edge’ in 2016 and ‘Romanticism Takes to the Hills‘ in 2017, ‘Romanticism Goes to University’ offered participants the chance to consider the Romantic period both as researchers and as teachers, complete with keynote presentations, panels, and workshops, and even live-tweeting.

The first day started off with a panel entitled ‘The Romantic University and Romantic Poetry,’ where Matthew Sangster’s opening paper discussed a number of Romantic poets’ diverging takes on the university experience in their verse, highlighting the conflicting views of higher education at the time. Catherine Ross gave us the institutional perspective in the paper that followed, detailing the organisation of academic curricula in Oxford and Cambridge in the period, along with how students would typically spend their time outside of class, arguing for the importance of the whole of the university experience for emerging poets.

The second panel saw us venturing beyond the borders of Great Britain and into universities on the European continent. Maximiliaan van Woudenberg first explored the intellectual exchanges at the University of Göttingen, where a number of British intellectuals found an alternative to the traditional curricula offered to them in Britain, and the ways in which the German university and particularly its library has become significant for Romantic thought. Fittingly, Michael Bradshaw then turned to a specific British student of the University of Göttingen, considering the theatrical and performative element of Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ experience there. Moving farther east on the continent, Daiva Milinkevičiūtė studied the relationships between university teachers and students who belonged to the Philomaths and Philaretes organisations at Vilnius University. In the final paper of the panel, José Manuel Correoso-Rodenas presented an ongoing research and development project taking place at Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha in Spain, which aims at digitising all the existing illustrated editions of Edgar Allan Poe’s works.

The last panel of the day gave us rich and complementary insights into education in the Godwin-Wollstonecraft circle, extended to Mary Hays and her niece Matilda. John-Erik Hansson first looked at the ways in which William Godwin reworked the fable for innovative pedagogical purposes that move away from didactic moralising in order to focus on opening the mind of the child-reader to a myriad of subjects. Colette Davies moved on to  how Mary Wollstonecraft instructed other female writers through her professional reviews in the Analytical Reviews and in her private correspondence, and persuasively argued that Wollstonecraft was far from maternally supportive of all literary efforts by women. Finally, Susan Civale reconsidered Mary Hays’ image as a revolutionary turned isolated conservative by looking at the textual and personal ways that she mentored her niece Matilda.

After an afternoon tea that allowed for conversations to continue beyond the panel, Katie Garner gave the first keynote of the weekend. Taking advantage of the records kept by the University of St Andrews library, Katie reconsidered the assumption that universities were exclusively male spaces in the Romantic period. Her research on the borrowing records of the period showed that women who were connected to academia through a male family member, such as professors’ wives, had access to the library collections, and that there was no clear boundary between reading material borrowed for academic purposes or for pleasure among library card holders.

Katie then led the workshop on teaching Romanticism, which ended the day in the beautiful rooftop garden of the Business School building. This first workshop devoted to experiences of teaching the Romantic period in university today allowed for everyone to engage in a conversation that helped to bridge the gap between teaching and research, in an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere where early-career teachers and researchers felt comfortable sharing their experiences and thoughts with their more experienced colleagues. We discussed expanding the Romantic canon and trying different ways of teaching and assessing students. A wonderful end to a rich and stimulating first day, where dialogue continued all the way through to the conference dinner.

Sunday began with the second keynote and workshop of the event, given and led by Judith Pascoe. Judith presented various examples of the use of digital methods both in research and teaching, at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, keeping in mind the challenges such methods represent. One of the examples that most stood out was probably the recording of part of an ongoing doctoral project in the form of a podcast as opposed to the traditional thesis, which was a wonderful example of combining creative and critical work. The teaching workshop was embedded in the keynote as participants were asked to think of syllabus design including assessment during the presentation before discussing our picks during the workshop.

The following panel considered alternative approaches to education, with two papers that explored Romantic poetry in terms of vitality and mourning respectively, in a fitting duality. Shiwa Mun looked specifically at Percy Shelley’s ‘The Sensitive-Plant’ and its manifestation of ‘vegetal vitality’ where the poem becomes a textual garden, while Emily J. Dolive demonstrated how Mary Robinson and Jane Alice Sargant used the printed page as a physical space to guide Romantic readers through grief in the war-torn period.

The final panel explored ways of engaging with the Romantics beyond the classroom, digitally and otherwise. Lindsey Seatter traced the evolution of a digital editing project that originated as a classroom assignment and developed into a scholarly portfolio, delineating the challenges and constraints of such undertakings, while highlighting the exciting avenues for editing and research these represent. Val Derbyshire closed the panel with the presentation of a project involving a public re-enactment of Revolutionary addresses at The Old Bell pub in Derby, that historians believe to have taken place in the same pub in 1792. Val related how the performance eventually turned into a social protest event anchored in contemporary times, movingly showing just how relevant studying the Romantic period remains to this day.

This rich and diverse symposium closed with a final keynote and workshop by Alice Jenkins, highlighting once again the relevance of the Romantic period today through a comparative overview of some of the dilemmas facing universities then and now. While universities have changed to a great extent since the Romantic institutions of Oxford and Cambridge, fundamental questions such as whether and how to teach so-called ‘useful’ subjects—subjects that are understood to constitute a direct path to employment—within the university still very much apply today.

Overall, the weekend proved an extremely stimulating as well as welcoming event, where the single-track format allowed everyone to appreciate the careful constitution and progression of the panels, workshops, and keynotes. As a first-time attendee of an academic conference of this kind, I very much look forward to many more.