On Sunday 19th February I headed off to King’s Cross Train Station to catch an 11 o’clock train up to Edinburgh for the Annual Edinburgh Undergraduate Literature Conference. The theme of this conference was “Diversion and Connection”, and Queen Mary’s School of English and Drama had generously sponsored my travel and accommodation for the event. I had four long hours alone on the train to go over, and over, and over, my presentation, getting progressively more nervous and apprehensive. Since I wasn’t presenting until the following morning I tried to take my mind off my nerves by working on other things too.
I got into Edinburgh at about 4 o’clock in the evening, dropped my things at the cheap hotel I had found 5 minutes from the station, and spent the evening walking around the city. I hadn’t been to Edinburgh before. It is beautiful! If I were to give you one piece of advice when attending conferences outside of London, aside from making the most of the intellectual and academic opportunities, it would be to be a tourist. I really enjoyed taking the time to explore the city, the university and to learn a little about the area. It was great to see where fellow students are making their work. Edinburgh has such a rich literary, artistic, and cultural landscape that it was exciting to have the chance to be there for a little bit.
I had submitted a proposal in January this year to speak about my 3rd year dissertation research into Shakespeare’s glorification of the 17th Century concept of “Englishness” in his trilogy of Henry VI plays. These plays were produced in the 1590s but stage the struggles and bloodshed of the 1420s-1470s amongst the English and between the English and French. Shakespeare emphasizes the differences and divisions between the English/ foreigners (the French); men/ women and Church of England/ Catholics. With only 15 minutes to speak, I focused on the presentation of gender and, in particular, on the characterisations of Joan of Arc and Margaret of Anjou in the plays. I considered both the Elizabethan context and the modern-day resonance of the gender and xenophobia issues. In today’s post-Brexit Trumpian world this work contributes to wider urgent conversations around cultural appropriation, nationalism, and the portrayal of other ethnicities, sexes, and religions.
The conference divided into three sections. The first section of the day consisted of two groups of undergraduates (including myself) presenting literature papers ranging from The Medieval and Shakespeare to 18th and 19th Century writers. Speakers spoke about Virginia Woolf and the progression of feminist theory; the contrast between the representation of male and female desire in Troubadour poetry; the way Merlin and King Arthur are presented in Medieval literature; as well as an exploration of the boom in children’s literature during the Victorian era. My presentation went well which was a relief. Everyone reacted viscerally to the photo montage of Trump, Farage, Wilders, May, and others, with which I concluded my presentation. I was delighted that this resonance of the ideas with current issues provoked lots of conversation and I had some really stimulating questions about crossover work and ideas from other peers presenting.
After the tea break (where I am unashamed to say I stuffed my face on all the cakes, cookies, and free coffee ), another two panels of undergraduates spoke firstly about 20th Century Literature, and then International Literature. The speakers in this section spoke about the relation between the genocide of Australian aboriginal people and Jewish people in the Holocaust through literature (with this speaker having flown in from Canada); the dichotomy between the East and West as expressed through Arab literature, with a specific focus on the work of Rabih Alameddine, Chinese language internet literature, and the struggles of national identity and sexuality in Mexican literature.
The day concluded after lunch (again free and plentiful) with a Postgraduate Panel talking about their research in Universities including Edinburgh, York, Durham, Oxford, Cambridge, Canada and Spain, the benefits of postgraduate study. We also heard from the conference Keynote Speaker, Dr Richard Walsh from the University of York, about narrative structure and wonder.
Attending this conference was beneficial in three key ways: firstly, it was great practice presenting and discussing my research with fellow literary scholars who could identify and question gaps in my research and suggest theorists and texts I could explore to broaden and deepen my research; secondly, it was a great opportunity to hear about other sections of literary research which I would have otherwise not had the opportunity to hear about; and thirdly, it is extremely enjoyable to meet with fellow literature lovers and hear about other university courses, and experiences as I go on to consider the possibility of Masters degrees and further academic study in the future. There was a lot of free food, coffee, tea, and wine to drown our nerves with, and everyone was really friendly and constructive. I have set up an online group for participants where we have already shared our written papers and exchanged messages since the conference. I hope to keep in touch with them.
It was an honour to represent Queen Mary’s English Department at the conference, which has an open application policy. I would recommend other students to make an application to attend next year.
In the meantime, The Centre for Early Modern Studies at King’s College London is holding a Bodies in Motion in the Early Modern World Conference this June. Worth trying to go to it, or there is also the opportunity to submitting a poster, linked to a paper of yours, for presentation at the conference. If you’re interested email firstname.lastname@example.org.