I attended two terrific conferences in April that have spurred me to think about methodological questions in the field of Victorian Studies. The first one, “The Victorianists Workshop: New Approaches to Archives, Methods and Pedagogy,” which took place at Western University, was the first conference I have attended where attendees were asked to think specifically about methods instead of presenting a conventional research paper. The CFP encouraged us to consider the “developments of new critical methodologies, archival resources and pedagogical practices [that have] radically transformed Victorian Studies” and then, at the conference itself, we presented short, 2-3 page papers on our own work as it intersected with these new developments.

I took this opportunity, as did many of the other presenters, to offer a different kind of paper than I usually write, one that framed my current research project, outlined my methodology and then offered questions about the various challenges (whether theoretical or archival) I was facing with this work. The result was a deeply collegial and useful conversation around the seminar table, where my colleagues offered their own insights and suggestions for my research. By asking for feedback on some of the methodological dilemmas I had been working through alone at my desk every day, I was offered a wide variety of innovative solutions and new approaches to thinking about my research. It was a deeply useful exercise to offer questions instead of answers in my paper.

This event shouldn’t seem so remarkable. After all, this experience of communal reflection and mutual engagement would ideally mark every academic conference we attend – and at most conferences we do receive generous and thoughtful feedback on our work. However this conference felt different because these short papers — focused on archives, pedagogy and methods — managed to shift the framework of the conversation so that we were able to wrestle with some of the macro-level issues that emerge in our work with new theoretical fields, archives or technologies. The framework of the conference also forced us to discuss our methodological approaches explicitly and transparently in our papers.

The questions I posed, for instance, related to the challenges of doing research on Victorian Animals in a post-humanist way, especially in the face of archival constraints. My fellow Floating Academicians, Alan Galey and Karen Bourrier, both presented fascinating papers on their own work. Alan’s talk “Performing Hamlet with Alexander Graham Bell: Victorian New Media Prototypes as Digital Provocations” asked us to think about what he called the “idealized transmissibility” of Shakespeare and the rewards of doing cross-period research. Karen’s paper, “Universal Design and Disability in the Digital Archive,” focused on the uses and limitations of “universal design” elements, especially as she has incorporated them into her archival project, Nineteenth-century Disability: A Digital Reader. Scholars working in the Digital Humanities were well represented at the Victorianists’ Workshop, including at the keynote address that ended the conference, where Dennis Denisoff presented a rousing argument about the benefits of digitality for scholarly research (see, for instance, The Yellow Nineties Online project he co-directs with Lorraine Janzen Kooistra) and the potential failures of how we use digital technologies in the University (see: MOOCs).

After the Victoriansts’ Workshop conference, I attended the wonderful 2013 Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada conference on “Victorian Humanity and Its Others,” which was also a terrifically collegial and useful experience. If you haven’t attended a VSAWC conference in the past, I highly recommend you do so in future! With an interest in the methodological, I watched a range of engaging papers on issues including gender, animals and disability. (Connie has already written about the conference on the Floating Academy).

It was when I watched the disability-focused papers, especially, that I was struck by the sheer diversity in methodological approaches to the material. I had hoped to be able to write a conference round-up of sorts for the Floating Academy, one that outlined some of the dominant approaches in the work being done on disability in Victorian Studies, but, instead, it seems that there are no particularly dominant approaches. Elizabeth Anderman used a book history-informed approach when she discussed the interactions between illustration and text in Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady. Vanessa Warne seamlessly wove together literature and periodical reports with aesthetic and cultural history in her paper “The Blind Connoisseur: Art Appreciation, Visual Disability and Difference.” Kylee-Anne Hingston worked with a narratological approach as she discussed focalization and disability in a French text, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Ryan Sweet used a history of medicine framework to discuss “One-eyedness and Primitive Ocular Prosthesis in Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby.” My own paper attempted to bring together theory in the fields of Disability Studies and Animal Studies in order to read the textual presence of the “Blind Man’s Dog” in Victorian culture and the complexities of using a living creature prosthetically. While these scholars all demonstrated how Victorian writers represented physical difference  – and, I should note here that a focus on physical instead of mental or cognitive disability was shared by all the disability papers – they did so in vastly diverse methodological contexts.

Overall, April was a terrific conference month for me, (even as I had to miss the NVSA and VSAO conferences that took place over the same weekends), because of the high caliber of papers at both conferences, the thoughtful conversations and feedback, and the overall incitement to pose more questions about methodologies (whether my own or others’). Have you ever presented at a conference like the Victorianists’ Workshop, where you were invited to pose questions instead of provide answers? And, I have a more complicated question for the brave among you: How would you describe your own methodologies?

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4 thoughts on “April Conference Report: Methodologies in Victorian Studies

  1. Thanks so much for this post Jen! I am again so sorry to have missed out on so many great disability studies papers at VSAWC. I loved reading this though, and realizing that all of those folks have contributed to the digital archive! I love the idea of people’s work being more accessible through resources like the site and blogging.

    It was an embarrassment of riches to have so many conferences to choose from in April, and a bummer that we all inevitably have to miss some. I was at the annual CUNY Victorian Studies conference on Friday, on “Inventing Victorian Race” (http://victorian.commons.gc.cuny.edu/), and particularly enjoyed Patrick Brantlinger’s keynote (so many great images) and Aviva Briefel’s paper on the significance of cutting off hands as punishment in the Congo–there’s certainly a disability studies perspective in there somewhere.

    1. We were also sorry that you weren’t there, Karen! But your disability reader was mentioned at one of the disability panels as a wonderful site that we had all contributed to.

  2. The Western conference sounds really interesting, Jen. Was there any talk of Victorian literature and contemporary critical theory? I ask because I’ve been finding a lot of studies lately that seem to suggest certain Victorian writers have “anticipated” Derrida or Foucault or Levinas, etc. and I’m finding such readings a bit troubling. If we’re locating such arguments in Victorian writers already (and I suppose that too is debatable), then what is the utility, I wonder, of tacking them together with contemporary critical theorists? I’m not suggesting that there is nothing useful about this exercise, but I’m not sure where it gets us, exactly.

    1. There actually wasn’t any talk about contemporary critical theory that I can recall at the Victorianists’ Workshop conference, which may be interesting in itself! I’d be interested in looking at some of those studies you are referencing, Tara, that argue for some kind of Victorian priority or purchase on contemporary critical concepts. I wonder how the scholars themselves frame the utility of yoking together the Victorian writer and the 20th century theorist.

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