BAVS Talks 2015

Oxford postgraduate students Alison Moulds and Sarah Barnette share their thoughts on BAVS Talks 2015. 

Alison Moulds: All four papers at BAVS Talks 2015 were suffused with energy; one thing which I feel has translated particularly well to screen. Isobel Armstrong set the tone when she challenged us to reflect on how our literary analysis might be circumscribed and to think afresh about how we could engage with nineteenth-century fiction. Meanwhile, Hilary Fraser shared some of the “buzz” around Victorian sculpture; Martin Hewitt – in a timely intervention into the debates about the V21 Collective – made a measured but passionate plea for the value of historicism; and Helen Rogers illustrated how social history had been energised and reformulated by digitisation, the opening of the archives and social media projects.

When I attended BAVS Talks I was days away from my end-of-first-year upgrade assessment. I was anxious about sounding polished during my interview. What I took away from these talks personally was a reassurance that it’s perfectly okay – even productive – to frame our ideas as provisional or work-in-progress. I welcomed the fact that Rogers opened her paper by saying she hadn’t brought an agenda, but rather some thoughts and impressions about what was happening in the field of social history. Similarly, I was interested in the way in which Armstrong framed students’ initial responses to fiction as rich and stimulating, and how her approach to literary criticism foregrounded a tone of inquiry and questioning.

For me, there was a concerted energy around ideas of reinvention, the provisional, and accessibility, as well as a real commitment to creativity and interdisciplinarity. Ultimately, this gave BAVS Talks a democratizing feel, which seems particularly apt given that papers were also intended to serve as a series of online videos available to a wide audience. I hope that, in the coming months, they will encourage both newcomers to the field and seasoned academics to engage in broader discussion about the direction and status of Victorian Studies, as well as the challenges and opportunities it presents.

Sarah Barnette: A cross-pollinating impulse prevailed at the recent BAVS Talks. Calling upon scholars to be both introspective and inclusive, this rousing series was infused with a desire to liberate the field from the calcifying effects of “ideological pessimism” and to break new ground through interdisciplinary endeavours. I was struck by the event’s vibrant focus on the fruitfulness of engagement: with other disciplines, with non-academic researchers, and with digital media as it alters how we present and transmit material.

Dismantling the Ivory Tower seemed to be the order of the day. Armstrong highlighted the noxious disparity between classroom and critical responses to the nineteenth-century novel, laying out four principles by which academics may reinvigorate their literary criticism with the kind of enthusiasm, energy, and delight experienced by students. Martin Hewitt made a bid for self-reflection, calling upon scholars to industriously reassess, reconfigure, and reapply historicism in response to anti-historicist currents. Hilary Fraser’s inquiry into the reception and symbolism of late-Victorian sculpture was also naturally reflective, and lent itself perfectly as an example of how historicist projects contribute to our understanding of the relationship between the abstract and the concrete. Helen Rogers’ talk highlighted the very real impact of socio-political movements on literary studies, and presented perhaps the most direct call to public engagement.

As a third-year DPhil student, my mind is presently flooded with questions of methodology and meaning. I came away from these talks thinking more about what it means to be an academic; to be publicly engaged via my research and teaching practices. As an abject historicist, Hewitt’s call to introspection has had a timely resonance. Armstrong’s points spoke directly to my personal experience of disorientation as I moved from the inspirational environs of the undergraduate classroom to (what has often felt like) the enervating confines of graduate research. My heart leapt when Armstrong commented during the Q&A, “We should not make a hard and fast distinction between criticism and creative writing.” I look forward to seeing more of this attitude fuelling future literary criticism, and to gearing my own work towards the creative and collaborative.

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