It is always a risk setting a broad theme for a conference. Increasingly, diverse and detached topics have been known to find shelter under the over-generous canopy of an umbrella term.
When the PGR conference announced the theme of “Communication and Interaction” you might have been forgiven for thinking that this would be an invitation for just such an incoherent jumble of papers. However, many candidates commented that the joy of this particular conference lay in the surprising consonances and overlaps which emerged within and between panels. To a large extent, this was a reflection of the far-sightedness of the committee chaired by Marina Hannus. It was also down to the team of staff in the humanities postgraduate office who brought their unfailing support to the committee’s vision: Cathryn Baker, Lizzie Millican and Matt Barber. These people showed that the organisation of a conference is as much a part of its success as any other aspect of it.
After Professor Richard Toye’s opening address, which encouraged candidates to eschew cloistered scholarly isolation in favour of sharing and presenting, Professor Regenia Gagnier opened the conference with a lecture about cross-cultural influences and cultural appropriation. The lecture theatre were amazed to discover that the tenets of Western liberalism, derived from Marx, gained linguistic currency in China in the early twentieth-century while Walter Pater’s coinage for decadence, “Art for Art’s Sake”, had an afterlife in Vietnam. The theme that emerged out of the first panel was that of a struggle to break away from stereotyping. Hasnul Djohar’s lecture discussed how Arabic words like “Jihad” and “Hijrah” have specific historical meanings and more general personal meanings relating to personal struggle and journeys of self-discovery. Similarly, Katie Newstead discussed the struggle of actresses in their forties such as Angelina Jolie and Meryl Streep to find new roles outside the simple Hollywood caricatures of witches. Finally, Jacqueline Hopson pricked the conscience of our Western society with a shocking insight into the reductive and shallow presentation of psychiatrists in popular culture.
During the lunch-break there were some poetry readings. Esther Van Raamsdonk Mike Rose-Steel gave us a taster of their project to translate seventeenth-century Dutch poetry into English iambics. Their reason for doing so became arrestingly apparently as the poems are beguiling beautiful in their original language and the translations rise admirably to the challenges they present. The poetry reading was brought to a close by Alison Stone, whose crisply-worded, sensuous poems, often emerging out of her own experiences living on Dartmoor, were a short-lived joy to hear.
In the post-lunch panel, chaired by Imogene Dudley, medieval and early modern worlds collided. Henry Marsh and I were talking about signs and symbols, in his case the prodigies and portents in which God revealed the future to the medieval chroniclers like Adam of Usk and in my case the spots and features in which God revealed therapeutic uses to herb-enthusiasts like Shakespeare. Michelle Webb and Sarah-Jayne Ainsworth brought great sensitivity and insight to the social problems of facial disfigurement and dying well respectively.
Dr Natasha Lushetich spoke to candidates at the conference dinner, describing an art installation in which the artist extracted the breath from an inflatable object blown-up by a friend who had passed away. The condensation and the re-vaporisation of the breath in the vessel in which it is currently contained means that the art installation poses unique questions about what it means to be alive and to breathe. Conference delegates moved stones with each other’s breath—contained within plastic bags—participating in this artistic initiative in more modest ways. This meant that by the time the food had arrived everyone was feeling like they had earnt it through their small but significant artistic endeavours.
The following day opened with a panel in which a theme of female presentation in the media united the three papers. Aqeel Abdulla, with a stylish lecture, suggest that just as in the old magic trick, society delights in putting women in boxes until they disappear. He examined this pigeon-holing with relation to dramatic presentations of Muslim women. Gill Moore then took us into the field of nineteenth-century clothes advertising, which sounded at once familiar and very alien to twenty-first century ears. Victorian ladies were bewitched by ingenious turns-of-phrase promoting tiger-skin alongside “the dusky fluff of the Thibetan goat.” Finally, Leonie Thomas described the ascent of 1930s BBC producer Hilda Matheson, who managed to break out of many boxes, having no less than six careers at a time when few women were able to work.
One panel covered a lot of ground: the transatlantic of eighteenth-century Bristol and Boston; a particularly fertile stretch of land along the Amazon River and the Trent Valley in the Midlands where the Anglo-Saxons had set up a system of defences. The last two in particular came to focus on fire: use of fire to create the fertile black soils which were such an important part of the Tapajó tribe’s foodscape and the use of fire in hill-top beacons to communicate the approach of the Dane in long-ships.
The final panel of the day brought the conference right up to the present hour with a discussion of digital media. Gemma Edney discussed the origins of Youtube and the way that make-up tutorials and baking instructions can be interpreted as feminist voices. Sofia Romuldo explained the concept of “gameful play” and argued that we should strive to reconcile the playfulness of games with knowledge acquisition and learning. Richard Carter’s lecture, which was given in a wistful vein now that he has achieved his doctorate, discussed how writing can hamper academia from embracing its digital potential. It would be fair to say that all three lectures left us wondering if there might be a less serious, writing-orientated way of approaching academia and offered the audience some attractive alternatives.
The conference was brought to a close by Professor Steven Barnett, who whilst pointing out that there was good journalism in tabloid press, also exposed some of the worst excesses of journalism, when it could be malicious and cruel. He referred to Tony Blair’s words about the “feral beast” of the press and suggested that enough was not being done in the wake of the Leveson Enquiry to keep the beast chained.
Of course, not all the conference happens in the panels, much of it occurs in conversations over tuna sandwiches, in the swapping of cards and asking of questions, and in the tireless work of its organisers. Nevertheless, the panels themselves made for a bold, eclectic conference, striking up surprising dialogues like a well-ordered anthology of poetry.
Author’s Bio – Harry Ford
I am a first-year PhD student trying to why Shakespeare introduces so many plants into his writing and where his plant knowledge fits with regard to the reformation. One of the disadvantages of studying Shakespeare is that his mode of punning is carried uncomfortably into your own writing style and into every-day life. Most of my other puns are lifted from the “Joke of the Week” in the window of an Exeter tea-shop called Cake-a-doodle-do.
This blog was first published here. To learn more about Harry’s research visit his e-profile