The Literary Self: from Antiquity to the Digital Age

Consuelo Martino is a second- year PhD candidate in Classics at the University of St Andrews. Her research focuses on the literary interactions in Suetonius’ Life of the Caesars, a collection of emperors’ biographies of the II century A.D. Matthew Tibble is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh where he researches early modern political theory and English literature, focusing particularly on the imperial poet laureate Nicolaus Mameranus. Caitlan Smith is a postgraduate researcher at the University of St. Andrews with research interests in the ancient body and its artistic representation with a focus on the study of ancient Greek athletics. Miles Beard is a PhD candidate at the university of Strathclyde with a focus on the author Anita Brookner and contemporary British literary culture.

 

The journey to the formation of the conference The Literary Self: From Antiquity to the Digital Age began when Consuelo Martino and Caitlan Smith from the University of St Andrews who took part in an Interdisciplinary workshop at the SGSAH Summer School in 2017 (“Interdisciplinary Research: what is it and how do I do it?”, presented by Dr. Elspeth Jajdelska). During the workshop Consuelo and Caitlan brainstormed a conference that could take an interdisciplinary look at confidence and the self.Picture 1 Soon after, Consuelo and Caitlan, both working in different areas of Classics, put out a call for additional organisers to further widen their multi-disciplinary scope. Miles Beard and Matthew Tibble, from the Universities of Strathclyde and Edinburgh, respectively, were selected to join, bringing backgrounds in literature with them.

 

With so much collaboration between different disciplines and research areas that span from ancient times to the contemporary amongst the organisers, our initial idea for the conference changed. The perspective of authorship became an attractive idea of exploration for us because while there is a strong base of research for it, most of the academic dialogues on it were from 20th century and hadn’t responded to the new internet-based media forms that had rapidly developed since. But we did not stop there. We wanted to present a conference in new innovative ways and offer the research community something that it hadn’t seen before. The basis of this innovation was twofold. First, we decided that we wanted to host new conversations on authorship from across periods and disciplines, with hopes that this would highlight the links and patterns discoverable across time and research methodologies. Second, we wanted opportunities for our postgraduate presenters to interact and network with senior researchers as a means to strength their own professional backgrounds. What we offered, then, was an interdisciplinary conference featuring postgraduate students as well as academics at the top of their fields who could facilitate discussions and offer their own perspectives on the subjects presented that in turn would hopefully influence new ideas and scopes of research others had not considered before the conference.

After clarifying what the theme of our conference would be, we started to investigate different ways to secure funding for the conference. Consuelo and Caitlan applied and obtained some funding from the School of Classics in St Andrews and Matthew suggested to apply for the Regular Grant offered by the Institute for Academic Development Action Fund. The only requirement for this application was to hold the conference in Edinburgh. We agreed to do it at Edinburgh which also was very easy to reach from other parts of Scotland. As the deadline was approaching, we did some hard work to produce a successful application. The outcome of our efforts was very encouraging: the research committee of the Action Fund not only awarded us in full, but also praised our conference’s application, stating that “it aims to establish a new network of academic communities via an innovative conference” and “excellent application.” Particularly, it was praised for “the involvement of staff and students from a range of disciplines and several institutions.” After securing this initial amount of funding, we started our long application for the SGSAH Cohort Development Fund. We ran for the Fall Deadline in November and presented a Student Led Conference application. First thing that was done was contacting the SGSAH Administrative Secretary, Ms. Lindsay Wilson, who suggested to discuss the topic of the conference with the Chairs of the Panels involved. Therefore, we emailed Mr. Nicholas Oddy (Glasgow School of Art), who supported the proposal and gave us very useful suggestions to empower our application. In addition to Mr. Oddy, Prof. Jason Koenig (Head of School of Classics, University of St. Andrews) was very helpful, and provided us with some feedback before submission. The application form was very challenging: it led us to discuss actively about the different aspects we wanted for our conference and, mainly, how we were going to realise them. We developed new skills, as being able to provide projected budget plan and arrange accommodation and travel funding, as well as discuss the various possibilities to advertise our event outside academia. The panel also made us think about aspects that were not entirely clear at the beginning and help us to present them more precisely. In late January, SGSAH confirmed that our conference was awarded in full. Such generous funding allowed us to put on the full two-day conference that we had envisioned.

 

In January 2018 we published our call for papers. We aimed for a wide breadth of subjects and students represented. While our main focus was towards Scottish Universities (within the SGSAH) we still distributed our call for papers widely. This was successful far beyond our expectations. Soon papers from universities in the USA, Europe, and Asia, began to come in, as well as a high number from students in Scotland and England.

 

Organising the paper proposals into panels and deciding who fit the best into our conference was another challenge to face, and we met in-person for the first time to deliberate at length on these papers. This proved to be one of the hardest parts of organizing the conference. We had several high-quality abstracts that, sadly, we were unable to fit into a cohesive panel. However, a number of papers stood out as working particularly well together, and within the panels we established and were glad to see that a variety of disciplines and periods represented, and also offered opportunities to students from outside the U.K. to join us and offer their perspectives. For our senior academic discussants, we were ecstatic to recruit Dr. Roger Rees from University of St Andrews and Prof. Simon James from the University of Durham. Simon also agreed to deliver a keynote lecture on our conference themes.

 

As we came closer to June, everything fell into place. Programmes and name badges were printed, the conference dinner was arranged, and hotel rooms for those from outside of Edinburgh were booked. Thanks to our funding bodies, we were able to print professional conference materials that displayed our logo and give credit to our sponsors.

 

picture 2‘The Literary Self: from Antiquity to the Digital Age’ took place on 4-5 June 2018 at 50 George Square on the University of Edinburgh campus. We held two panels, ‘Identifying Authorship’ and ‘Reception’ chaired by Consuelo and Caitlan respectively, on the first day. With our final panel, ‘Exploration of the Self,’ chaired by Miles, and our keynote lecture, presented by Prof James, ‘Dickens, Autobiography and Mental Time Travel’ on the second and final day. Keeping with the aims of our conference—to stimulate interdisciplinary discussions on the construction of authorship or ‘The Literary Self’—we only allowed speakers twenty minutes to present their papers and held all questions to the end of each panel. After all, four speakers in each panel finished presenting we held a discussion session at the end. Each of these was led by one of our senior academics.

As we hoped, the conference brought forth several themes, interplays, and areas for discussion on authorship. Our first panel was ‘Identifying Authorship’. It was chaired by Consuelo and brought together Katharine Mawford from the University of Manchester, Francesco Arena from the University of Edinburgh, Lukas Spielhofer from the University of Graz in Austria, and Lisa Nais from the University of Aberdeen. Each investigated who the author in the text was and what the ways of identifying the author in a text are. We saw issues of how authors established credibility or authenticity for themselves within their literary, how the literary medium (starting from the oral tradition, to the codex, and works written in the post-printing press era) affected the credibility of the author, or how it was used to commodify the author to the mass media. A major theme of Truth and Fiction emerged early on and resonated throughout the conference papers. Roger led an exciting discussion on the sense of persona, knowing oneself, and how self-knowledge comes out in literature.

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Next, Caitlan chaired the “Reception” panel, which brought together Talitha Kearey from the University of Cambridge, Alley Marie Jordan from the University of Edinburgh, Rossana Zetti from the University of Edinburgh, and Alexandra Grunberg from the University of Glasgow. This focussed on how authors can respond to, as well as be informed, by the reception they receive. Papers discussed the concepts of multi-authorship and the anxiety of competing voices within receptions or retellings of texts. Roger led the following discussion and offered how a ‘reverence’ for the author could be developed and shape future discussions of that author.

 

On the last day, Miles chaired the “Exploration of the Self” and brought together Salour Evaz Malayeri from the University of St Andrews, Natalya Sarana from the Humboldt University of Berlin, George Cox from the University of Nottingham and Ida Hummel Gabrielsen from the University of Edinburgh. This panel centred on how authors are able to represent themselves in their texts, how this relates to our conceptions of ‘truth,’ and the nature of the self generally. In the papers presented, we saw persona and literary agency come out through the text, and literary innovations were explored as a means to communicate the author’s journey to the reader. Simon led this panel’s discussion on the evolution of representations of the self over time, and how the perceived role of the author, as well as the self, can differ across the periods, places, and cultures in which they find themselves.

Simon presented to us his fascinating keynote lecture, ‘Dickens, Autobiography, and Mental Time Travel’. Looking particularly to the role of memory, Simon took us through Dickens’ view of the self, focussing on the portrayal of an author in David Copperfield and how it can be said to relate to Dickens’ own aborted attempt at an autobiography. Simon was able to manoeuvre his lecture around many topics that had been raised over the past two days and also made mention of the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of his own project, encouraging us to continue working in this vein.

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Thanks to the support and collaboration of Inciting Sparks (of which Matthew is one of the co-founders), an interdisciplinary, multimedia platform for developing the impact of graduate and community research across the Arts and Humanities. Through Inciting Sparks we hosted our social media platform, live tweeting the event and publishing a blog post of the event afterwards. Followers of Inciting Sparks via Twitter, then, were able to have a hint at the exciting discussion that Simon offered us, as well as the others exciting moments of the two days. To improve the impact of our conference, we also contacted FORUM: University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, who agreed to host their fifth special issue on the topic of our conference. This allows participants the opportunity to publish their research in a peer-reviewed journal in the months following the event.

 

Throughout the many breaks over the two-day conference, in the wine reception, speaker dinner (deliciously booked at the Scottish restaurant “The Cellar Door” in Edinburgh) and lunch on the second day we were pleased to see more discussion of the topics that had been raised. Simon concluded our conference with a call to continue innovating and to determine what it is that hasn’t been said about the literary self and to say it ourselves. All in all, the conference was a great success, and this was borne out by the feedback that we received as well as the emails of gratitude from the speakers in the days after the event. Everyone who returned our feedback form would recommend the conference to somebody else and many specifically praised the theme and interdisciplinary nature of it, the two things we hoped would most excite our attendees.

 

Organising the conference was a great experience and showed us first-hand what the other side of the conference is like, not just logistically, but in terms of the intellectual and theoretical frameworks that underpin them. We owe this experience to our funders and would like to thank the SGSAH, the Institute for Academic Development Action Fund at the University of Edinburgh, and the School of Classics at the University of St Andrews. We would also like to thank Dr Roger Rees and Professor Simon James for all of their wonderful contribution, Ms. Sam Dixon (St Andrews School of Classics) and Ms. Nicol Smith (University of Edinburgh, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures) for the administrative support, Edinburgh First, which provided the coffee and lunch breaks and, not least of all, all of our presenters who took time out of their busy postgraduate schedules to share their knowledge with us and facilitate the dialogues on the literary self that we had envisioned.

 

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with David via email at d.peters.2@research.gla.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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