Roundtable: Inside look at the NAVSA Academic Conference

Story by Katherine Jovanovic and Hannah Calderazzo

The North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA) Conference took place in Columbus, Ohio from Oct. 17-19. The annual conference invited scholars to present research on Victorian literature, history, or art history related to the theme Media, Genre, & the Generic. Each day included four 1.5-hour panels in both the traditional and roundtable style. Among the attendees from UF included Honors students and PRISM members Hannah Calderazzo and Katherine Jovanovic, both of whom presented in the undergraduate poster session. 

For the poster session, undergrads created 4×3-foot posters to display their research. These posters were then set up in a long hallway adjacent to the panel rooms. Students would then stand by their posters, and academics could walk around and ask questions. In this article, Calderazzo and Jovanovic will give a behind-the-scenes look at an academic conference through a roundtable-style dialogue. 

Which panels were your favorite? 

Hannah: I was surprised to find that my favorite panels were the ones on Neo-Victorianism, which deals with examining modern-day interpretations of Victorian England/Victorian novels. For example, one of my favorite presentations was “‘I’m merely an observer of men’: Gender, Agency, and Genre in The Woman in White (2018),” given by Jennifer Camden from the University of Indianapolis. In her presentation, Camden discussed the most recent BBC miniseries adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, starring Ben Hardy. She tied the BBC mini series back to the #MeToo movement, discussing how the characters were sexualized in the adaption—as they were portrayed as far more attractive than their novel counterparts. Wilkie Collins’s novel is also notable for its complete lack of sex; Meanwhile, the mini series not only adds passionate kisses and scenes of sexual tension, but also scenes of sexual violence and abuse. Although filmed before the #MeToo movement, it was released afterwards, prompting scholars to ask, “Why add so much sexualization to a sex-less novel?” Another fascinating presentation was “Not Just a Ghost Story: Crimson Peak and the Neo-Victorian Gothic” by Sylvia Pamboukian from Robert Morris University. In her paper, she gave an overview of how Crimson Peak utilized Victorian supernatural and gothic tropes, such as incest, ghosts, and a decrepit house. Yet Crimson Peak also brings itself into the modern era with its grotesque phantoms, which differ from the typical pale spectre. Dwelling on the ghosts, Pamboukian argued that despite their monstrous appearance, they are women seeking to aid the heroine of the film, giving it a more feminist twist than the average Victorian tale. 

Katherine: I also saw some similar feminist twists in my favorite panel—a roundtable called “Decadent Women, Aestheticism, and Genre.” For instance, Nicole Fluhr (Southern Connecticut State University) spoke about Vernon Lee’s undisciplined prose, as in the 1880s she turned away from traditional historiography and reimagined her work through aesthetic subjectivity. For example, she called her research “scattered, impressionist work,” which added an element that suggested refusal of mastery of knowledge, which ultimately encouraged inquiry. Fluhr argued that this aesthetic subjectivity manifests in Lee’s “Dionea,” a story where an Italian doctor wishes to write the fate of the pagan gods, but unbeknownst to him, he is actually raising Dionea, the incarnation of Aphrodite. He fails in his endeavor to write out the history, and he ironically never takes Dionea’s telling of myths seriously. Through this analysis, Fluhr posits that Dionea herself functions as a budding aesthetic critic. I love thinking about the relevance of retelling mythology, which has happened even before the nineteenth-century up until now. It especially ties in with Lee’s notion of her research as “not even fragments but impressions,” which underscores how history cannot always be objectively captured on paper in words. Rather, I think it keeps evolving from these “impressions,” and resurfaces, as represented in intuitive and mysterious figures like Dionea. Maybe we can’t always understand history, but it always lurks beneath our present surface.

Attendees from the University of Florida shown above. Photos provided by Katherine Jovanovic.

Was the conference what you expected it to be?

Katherine: I didn’t expect the conference to feel like a community. I thought it would be formal in a daunting sense, but since many professors and scholars knew one another, it was evident they just wanted to share their research and have open, intellectual conversations. The keynote speakers really surprised me because they did not address conventional Victorian topics. The first keynote speaker, Priya Satia, Professor of History at Stanford University, spoke about the evolution of historical imagination, and she covered historical events before and after the Victorian period (what she called a Victorian sandwich). For example, she shared how the perception of guns in the late-eighteenth century as a sign of self-command allowed a Quaker family like the Galtons to sell them without any criticism from the Quaker community. However, in the 1790s, once guns were criticized for their role in perpetuating slavery, the Quakers, who held anti-slavery beliefs, turned against the Galtons. In response, Galton published a treatise to justify his business in selling arms, arguing that everyone is ultimately complicit in causing war, so his gun business was no different. The second keynote speaker, Mike Leigh, directed films such as Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Turner, and Peterloo. It amused me to see how many scholars in the audience tried to pick apart his films and search for “meaning” and “intent,” whereas Leigh ultimately focused on artistic imagination and production that occurs in the moment of filmmaking. 

Did you have a favorite audience question from the keynote panels?

Katherine: I can’t remember the exact question, but one of the audience members asked Leigh about the research required to make a film like Peterloo, and Leigh, in his brilliant way, dodged the question and rather expressed that no matter how much research you do or how many history books you read, only doing that doesn’t produce a film. A lot of what transpires emerges in the moment of shooting on location with the actors. That’s what makes a film come to life. I think that’s really crucial in remembering that the figure of the director or the author is not an omniscient genius that simply pulls the film out of his or her head. There are multiple facets to artistic production and not everything can be planned or have grand meaning behind it. If that weren’t the case, films would lose organic, genuine feeling. 

Hannah: He did that a lot. Remember when one person stood up and mentioned how he had included an obscure historical figure in one scene of Peterloo? The audience member was so enamored with the idea that that he had put it in the film as a special “easter egg” for Victorian scholars. To which Leigh quickly responded along the lines of “No, I did not do it for you.” 

How did this conference compare to the one last year? 

Hannah: I personally enjoyed this conference more than the one last year, but I think a main factor was traveling to a completely different state, rather than just staying in Florida. Being in Columbus was especially fun because of the crisp fall weather, where it was chilly and the leaves were gorgeous colors. In terms of the actual conference, I thought the undergraduate workshop, where we discussed our topics with one another, was more relaxed and enjoyable than the one last year. I think this was a combination of there being more undergraduate presenters, 20 compared to last year’s eight, and the fact that it was not the first time they had offered the undergraduate poster session. I feel like this contributed to a reduced feeling of nervous tension about creating perfect “elevator pitches,” or short summaries to go along with our posters. 

Katherine: I really liked how we scrapped the concept of the “elevator pitch” in the workshop because that can feel so formulaic when you’re presenting research. I remember Nathan Hensley (Georgetown University), our undergraduate workshop leader, told us to think of it as a “live electric wire” to create “research in motion” when we spoke to people. It’s much more approachable to hone in on key words and get at the heart of your argument and see how the person interested in your poster responds. Then, you can fall into a natural flow of conversation that leads you to new pertinent research angles.  

Hannah: Especially since the first panels officially began at 8:30 a.m., so if you wanted to attend all the panels, or if there was one you really wanted to see during that time slot, you had to wake up fairly early. It also didn’t help that we stayed up late after leaving the keynote speeches a little after 6 or 7 p.m.. You needed to get dinner and then relax, so usually you might be up until 11 p.m. or later. To use a colloquial phrase, the grind also did not stop, as we did have homework due during the conference. 

Would you attend NAVSA again? 

Hannah: Oh 100%. While I’m not completely certain about attending graduate school, I love being in the academic atmosphere of NAVSA, where you are surrounded by people who love a subject, and are so eager to talk with you about it. It’s also wonderful as an English major to feel a sense of community and support—to tell someone you’re an English major and not be met with a polite, “Oh really? How nice,” but rather hear, “That’s amazing! What are you studying? What are you especially interested in? What are your favorite books?” etc. No one questions your major because everyone else is an English academic, graduate student, or historian, and they are all so kind and uplifting. 

Katherine: That’s so true. It’s also comforting when they tell you they hadn’t done this caliber of research in their undergraduate careers. It makes you realize that there’s still a long way to go and change as a person, no matter what you want to do.

Do you have any advice for someone who might be interested in attending NAVSA, or a similar conference?

Katherine: I would reach out to your professors because they’ll know which conferences are best for undergraduate students, either for presenting at or attending. You also don’t have to travel far to get a glimpse into what an academic conference is like. There are conferences at UF like the UF Conference on Comics, but I think no matter which conference it is, participating in one at the undergraduate level shows tremendous dedication and interest that sets you apart. 

Hannah: Definitely. I was fortunate enough to attend NAVSA last year because one of my instructors reached out to a number of her students and told us about the opportunity. From there, it was a matter of thinking of a topic and writing a proposal. After submitting my abstract, along with a letter of recommendation, I was eventually accepted to the conference. It is certainly important to keep in mind that participating in a conference in your field of interest is entirely possible for anyone who truly desires to attend.

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