Some reflections on the Student Engagement Project

The Placing the Author team (sans Holly!) on the steps of Elizabeth Gaskell's House

The Placing the Author team (sans Holly!) on the steps of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

From the earliest stages of the planning process, we wanted to create a space within our project for undergraduates to develop their abilities as writers and researchers and to take part in academic exchange. We developed the Student Engagement Project as a way to facilitate their inclusion by offering one-to-one mentoring to three talented and motivated undergrads. Our three conference assistants, Laura Lutton (Bishop Grosseteste University), Holly Williams (Keele University), and Beatrice Lord (University of York), gained hands-on experience of planning an academic event, from drafting a conference programme to liaising with speakers and delegates. In return, they brought a tremendous enthusiasm to the project, a fresh perspective on the reasons for our enduring fascination with the homes and haunts of nineteenth-century authors, and a social media savvy that ensured our project reached people around the world. Here are their reflections on being part of the Placing the Author team. We hope you enjoy them.

Laura Lutton, Bishop Grosseteste UniversityLaura crop

I had the great pleasure of earning a place as a conference assistant for the Placing the Author conference. This event took place on Saturday 20th June 2015 in Manchester at the wonderful and inspirational Elizabeth Gaskell’s House.

The weather was beautiful, and from the moment of arriving at the house from the outside, I could see this venue was the perfect choice for such an insightful event. I was not only a conference assistant that day but I was also very aptly a literary tourist, there to assist but also to listen, learn and absorb the history.

Once inside the venue, I continued to feel in awe of such a grand lady as Elizabeth Gaskell having lived in this house. I felt a sense of calm and tranquility as I explored the house, retracing the footsteps of literary greats who were friends of Mrs Gaskell’s.

I chose panel A: ‘Il turista: tourism and literary networks in Italy’ as my first panel. Each of the three speakers was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about her chosen subject, and I went to lunch feeling inspired and lifted to learn more about these subjects.

After a delicious and refreshing lunch, during which I had the chance to meet some lovely people, there happened to be a very engaging panel: ‘The Brontёs at home’. This panel was charming and poised, much like each of the four speakers. Each speaker had something new and exciting to present and I felt especially drawn to this panel due to my already existing love of the Brontё sisters and their works.

After a short refreshment break, I once again chose panel A: ‘(Re-)visiting the past’. Three papers were presented by two speakers and each one was educational. I already have a great love for Shakespeare and his works, but hearing how Shakespeare was adapted for children by fellow author E. Nesbit was quite remarkable.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity and experience I was given. I aspire to gain more knowledge based upon some of the speakers’ papers and I will endeavour to become a more frequent literary tourist. The conference was a trip I will never forget, beautifully organised, smooth transitions from one panel to another, a delicious lunch and lovely refreshments all set within such a delightful and easily accessible venue. The venue staff and volunteers were all very polite and friendly and I enjoyed having the opportunity to speak to so many lovely people who share my love of literature. I do hope there will be another conference soon. I will definitely attend.

Holly Williams, Keele UniversityHolly crop 

The papers presented at the conference covered a range of topics including arguments surrounding relics, myth and nostalgia. Charlotte May and Dr Christopher Donaldson tackled the idea of literary figures engaging in tourism themselves, opening discussions of how writers such as Samuel Rogers and Harriet Martineau may have taken on qualities associated with their respective surroundings. Lively discussion also surrounded all four of the papers which made up ‘The Brontёs at home’ panel. The use of letters, discussed by Kimberly Braxton as another form of physicality, a link to the body which no longer exists, was particularly fascinating to me, paving the way for some re-evaluating of my own desire to see Keats’s letters.

The setting of such talks and discussions was perfect, as we heard from Dr Irene Wiltshire about how houses such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s make the transition to literary shrine whilst being able to appreciate the very place around us. The varying arguments posed as to why we feel motivated to make such pilgrimages became even more poignant as the guests, myself included, had all undertaken journeys of varying lengths to be there on the day, in the house of Mrs Gaskell herself.

The overwhelmingly positive response to the postcard project, both during its running pre-conference and in the open discussion, was a standout feature of the day, and for me, of the experience as a whole. People’s eager attitude and willingness to share made me question some of my pre-existing assumptions which labelled literary tourism as a rather solitary act. Contrary to this, although the motivations for engaging with relics and literary tourism may be intensely personal, the desire to share and communicate is also present for many. Whilst visiting a literary home may create a link between ourselves and an author, sharing the experience offered the opportunity to create links with others who share similar sensibilities, affording these trips a new lease of life and a way to continue. Spending the day interacting with people who are eager to explore and discuss such activities only strengthened my interest in the subject. Each speaker prompted a response in me, be that either agreement or disagreement that was welcome and has excited me about the future and the direction of my own ideas and work as I enter my final university year.

Beatrice Lord, University of York

Beatrice cropPlacing the Author enabled me to explore three different worlds. It seems only appropriate given the conference’s focus on spaces, both physical and imagined.

The world I first explored is that of academia. As an undergraduate, I naturally spend a lot of time within a university environment, listening and learning at seminars and lectures. But in becoming a volunteer conference assistant, I was provided with a different and valuable opportunity to collaborate with a team of academics. Through my mentor Claire, I experienced a wealth of hands-on activities. I gained insight into organising an academic event, from the logistics of expenses to the art of timetabling.

Throughout this learning curve I was encouraged to take an active part in the process, an experience which has really helped me in deciding to pursue a postgraduate course.

Literary tourism is the second world I was able to delve deeper into. It was thrilling to be swept up in the great wave of enthusiasm for the subject. Helping to manage the blog and Postcard Project opened my eyes to just how diverse and far-reaching this world is, as did the conference itself. Everyone wanted to be there, to soak everything up. And everyone brought something new to the conversation. The realm of relics and souvenirs is much darker than I realised. Human hair and teeth will forever stick in my mind as possibly the most disturbing connection to dead authors.

Finally, I was able to access Elizabeth Gaskell’s domestic world (although Placing the Author has made me hyper-aware that this ‘access’ reveals more about my own than the author’s world!). It might seem strange but I found it difficult to take in. Her house was beautiful. They had so perfectly captured the splendour of Gaskell’s beloved garden and the date of the conference meant we saw it in full bloom. Inside was an array of elegant rooms with high ceilings. Could this really have belonged to the woman who wrote so knowingly about devastating poverty?

To some extent though, my weeks of working on the Placing the Author team had prepared me for this. The dozens of accounts I had read told me that we can develop such strong preconceptions about places and experiences, only to find them remarkably different to or even better than what we imagined.


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