The Northeastern Victorian Studies Association’s annual conference next year (in Boston, currently scheduled to overlap with the home opener of the Red Sox) is proposing something unusual, departing from the conventional thematic approach and opting instead simply for “1874.” You can read the full call by clicking here

While I’m sure most who read this blog will find the NVSA call along the usual channels, I’m devoting a post to this one because I’m really not sure how I feel about their decision. I’m genuinely interested to see how it will turn out.

The reason I’m so interested stems from the way NVSA decides its annual conference topic. Every year they devote one lunchtime session of the current conference to a lively (read: collegially snarky) debate about the next year’s topic. Suggestions are taken from the floor; proponents have a minute or two to pitch their idea; and the floor then votes, Highlander-style, for favourites. Basically, it’s a hybrid of an Athenian democracy and a reality television shows like Survivor. It’s a pretty fair process–as often as not, the winning idea comes from a grad student or a junior scholar.

Personally, it’s my favorite part of the annual conference and I wish more organizations did something similar–although I understand the logistical obstacles for large associations like NAVSA. My feeling is that NVSA’s bottom-up approach allows a cluster of active scholars, rather than an executive body, to talk among peers about what’s exciting them and which new directions they our research is heading. In other words, to the “look-at-what-I’ve-done” feel of most conferences (where we share the results of previous research with each other), NVSA adds a “look-at-where-I-think-we’re-going” component.

This is why so I’m sincerely, truly, puzzled by the decision at the 2012 conference to choose simply the year 1874. Having been there, I can report that the intention was not to choose a “famous” Victorian year (say 1837 or 1851) but merely “just” a year. The authors of the CFP make clear the object is to initiate questions about what they call “micro-periodization.” Among others, they suggest:

  • What are the consequences of thinking about Victorian works of art, texts, objects, and events in relation to their specific year in history?
  • How is our perspective on the period—or on periodization itself—altered by this vantage point?
  • What does the close examination of a single year reveal about the relationship between dates that “matter” in Victorian Studies and dates that do not?
  • Is the calendar year a significant unit of time or useful organizational framework for our exploration of the Victorian period as a whole?

I’m someone who generally dislikes the often arbitrary and always ex post facto limits imposed by any kind of periodization; hence my unease. On the other hand, the very unsettlement I feel is likely part of the desired effect. It’s such a provocative exercise: how much will we learn about the way we construct our knowledge of the Victorian period? We’ll have some answers in less than a year. The deadline for submissions is 15 October 2012.

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One thought on “NVSA 2013: “1874”

  1. I share your unease about the chafing restrictions of periodization, Eddy – it’s for that very reason that I love the idea of randomly picking a year out of a hat for a conference theme. This approach highlights the artificial aspects of calendric organization while emphasizing the confluences and coincidences that make that kind of organization so tempting in the first place. I can’t wait to see how this all turns out!

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