Reflections in Durham
The conference I attended in Durham, entitled Reflections, was altogether a great success. It was put together by four grad students there (or “postgraduates” as the British term them), with “reflection, doubling, mirroring, echoes, parallels, imitations, representations, illustrations, and replications” being the general interdisciplinary themes addressed.
These thematic conferences are their own odd genre in academic life, wherein instead of proposing something straightforward like medieval painting, Czech surrealism, or animals in art and literature, the organizers try to jazz things up. My first few years in graduate school were marked by reactions of “Well, I’m not doing anything remotely like that” every time I saw a Call for Papers. However, I have now learned that with these trendier topics there is usually some way of making my work fit, at least metaphorically. The agreeable thing is that when such a conference is done well, there is a stimulating diversity, while all the same there is some hope of following everyone’s ideas.
This conference attracted speakers studying in at least four countries (England, Ireland, France, and the US) whose academic interests included literature, film, art history, and visual culture. The papers presented dealt with topics pertaining to the culture of France, Spain, Cuba, Russia, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, and time periods from the medieval to the present.
Overall, I was massively impressed by the quality and interest of the presentations. Since I had been finishing up my own paper (“Toyen and the Uncanny Feminine”) on the plane and on the train, I was initially nervous that it would come off as insufficiently intellectually rigorous in comparison to the others, although I thought it would sound passable. Fortunately, due to the quirks of reading-aloud versus reading-on-the-page (texts for the former must always use simpler words and constructions in order to remain intelligible), my paper went over very well and elicited lively questions and commentary. I was very relieved.
Furthermore, the participants were a friendly and enjoyable group. The planners (Sara, Tracey, Elise, and Laura) did a wonderful job of structuring both the panels and the meals and entertainments. We had nice meals together and those of us who had some time at the end of the conference were treated to a splendidly informative tour of Durham Cathedral.
One of the topics of conversation among us related to the similarities and differences of (post)graduate education in our various countries. I was much surprised to learn that the British are expected to finish the PhD in only three years after the MA (the French take 5-6 years, while in the US there are now efforts to get humanities students done within 7 years or so). I was baffled how the British students attain such expertise in such a short time, until it was explained to me that they specialize much earlier in contrast to our broader pre-PhD education. Consequently, a British student working on French literature will know more about the field of French literature, but perhaps not much about the broader context. Well, as one of my Czech teachers liked to say, “Každý má svůj plus a svůj minus.”
But, after such a pleasant and stimulating weekend, I anticipate that many of the participants will be keeping in touch with one another in the future.