I’m very pleased to introduce the third strand of our conference: the Student Engagement Project. As we plan Placing the Author and run our online projects, Claire, Joanna and I will be assisted by three enthusiastic undergraduates from our respective institutions, Laura Lutton from Bishop Grosseteste University, Beatrice Lord from the University of York, and Holly Williams from Keele University. All three of our assistants have a longstanding interest in nineteenth-century literature and literary culture, and share a curiosity about authors’ homes and the reasons for our enduring fascination with them. Even at this point in their academic careers, they are interested in scholarship, in research and in the production of knowledge. Yet, while many conferences welcome papers from postgraduates and early career researchers, and offer workshops to help them with publications and career planning, undergraduates are rarely included these academic exchanges. We wanted to change this and to create a space for undergraduates to learn about, participate in, and contribute to research culture, develop their own research interests and writing skills, and gain experience in administration and events planning.
The idea for the Student Engagement Project had a long gestation. As a postgraduate at the University of Leeds, I had the opportunity to carry out archival research at both the Brotherton Library and the Brontë Parsonage Museum library at Haworth and to access the literary remains of the authors I was studying. I can still recall the thrill of handling the tiny illuminated books that Branwell Brontë created as a child and the animated, gossipy letter in which Elizabeth Gaskell detailed her first meeting with Charlotte Brontë. These experiences powerfully brought the past into the present. Handling the handwritten documents of famous Victorian authors dispelled the sense of distance from their lived experience and made them seem like living presences.
However, when I started teaching, I found that my students had a very different sense of what research was and how they might engage in it. During my first year of teaching at Bishop Grosseteste, a small university dedicated to widening participation, I encountered students who were curious about the authors and texts we were studying, but who tended to see research as a daunting task that needed to be done in order to meet marking criteria rather than an activity that could be immensely pleasurable and rewarding in its own right. Furthermore, my students seemed confused about what research actually was. I wanted to change their perceptions of research and convey the sense of excitement that could come from accessing original documents and exploring archives. I wanted to help them access and articulate their own critical voices. And I wanted to find a way to introduce them to the exciting and supportive climate of intellectual exchange that Claire, Jo, and I have been fortunate enough to experience. Together, we have developed what we hope will be a stimulating and enriching experience for our three undergraduates.
Over the course of the project, our student assistants will work closely with us as we plan this exciting international conference. They will learn about all aspects of conference organization, be involved in publicity and communications, and help ensure the smooth-running of the event itself. All of this will allow them to develop and demonstrate a range of skills valued by employers. The conference assistants will also have the opportunity to develop their own research interests by contributing to the blog, writing about their own visits to the homes and graves of nineteenth-century writers, and reflecting on their experience of taking part in the conference. It is our hope that they’ll gain a better understanding of why academics engage in research, how it contributes to academic knowledge, and how it can generate impact.
Just as part of this conference explores the varied motivations people have for accessing the physical environments associated with nineteenth-century authors, we hope that Placing the Author will inspire our volunteers to begin to think about how they can access and engage with the writers of the past as critics and scholars.