19th century conference connects past and present

Interdisciplinary conference organized by English professor showcases the university and western North Carolina, while impacting what is taught in the classroom

Dr. Jill R. Ehnenn, director of undergraduate studies and English professor at Appalachian State University, was the lead organizer for the Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-century Studies (INCS) conference held in Asheville recently.

More than 250 presenters from over 150 institutions from nine countries (U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, Taiwan, Singapore and Japan) attended as well as faculty and students from Appalachian. Dr. Darcy Gardner, French professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, presented as did two graduates of Appalachian’s English MA program.

Highly interdisciplinary, this year’s gathering included English professors and art historians, scholars from gender studies, museum studies, French, Spanish, German, religion, philosophy and more.

Ehnenn said hosting the conference was a great opportunity to showcase western North Carolina “A lot of the attendees had never been to western North Carolina. Their ideas were perhaps stereotypical, thinking it was not an interesting or diverse place. So, there was an element of joyful surprise. They were very impressed with what Appalachian was able to provide as the conference host. And it made me proud to put on a high-end, educationally sophisticated, and successful conference that usually would be hosted by Ph.D.-granting institutions that are not in our institutional peer group. It was an opportunity to show how much we have going on.”

Cultural significance in the ordinary and a payoff in the classroom

One of the two keynotes, “Seaweed,” was presented by Kate Flint, provost professor of art history and English at the University of Southern California. According to Appalachian professor and conference attendee Tom McLaughlin, the talk was a tour de force. “It is a trend today,” he said, “to take an object, a concept, a practice that one would think too ordinary to think seriously about, and see what the cultural significance is...to spin it out in an insightful way.”

On that order, Flint shared slides of 19th-century collections of seaweed, drawings and paintings. She talked about the role of seaweed in economics and in the symbolic transition between sea and land.

McLaughlin, who is a professor in the Department of English, said there is movement away from high art, elite culture, and toward exploring our daily lives. “People are interested in the history of literature,” he said, “but also in trying to make a connection with contemporary concerns – gender, sexuality, ecological issues – and to get a sense of connection between past and present.”

This type of conference, McLaughlin said, “has a payoff in the classroom and has an influence on what gets taught. In the last generation there has been a great change. Writers who were neglected during their time have been rediscovered, new material gets taught and new perspectives on their thinking are introduced.”

The other keynote, “How the Victorian Novel Got Realistic, Reactionary, and Great,” was given by Elaine Freedgood, professor of English at New York University. Freedgood’s talk encouraged the audience to consider when, how and why we formed the ideas we currently have about which texts and which authors are important. “This, too, is really useful in the classroom,” said Ehnenn. “It helps students to think critically about context, which of course is useful for thinking about today’s society, not just the cultures of the past.”

Tying conference theme to location

Ehnenn, a veteran of many INCS conferences, said the second one she attended was in Durham, England, and especially meaningful in that the experience of the conference was tied to the history of the area. “It included a tour of Durham castle and cathedral, a concert of 19th-century music in a 19th-century music hall, played on 19th-century instruments. When I started planning this two years ago, I wanted to similarly tie our theme, ‘Natural and Unnatural Histories,’ to location and highlight what is really special about this area.” The Asheville conference included an outing and reception at Biltmore Estate where Phil Jamison, a professor at Warren Wilson College and a nationally known dance caller, musician and flatfoot dancer, gave a plenary talk about transatlantic influences on Appalachian music and dance. Many of the conference papers examined historical and literary representations of environments, landscapes, animals, plants and social problems. “These issues are still important today, and are central to Appalachian’s sustainability mission,” Ehnenn remarked. A reception at Asheville’s oldest jazz and blues club and a graduate student happy hour that featured local microbrews rounded out the agenda.

Ehnenn said she formed a coalition of partners from 10 universities in the region who gave both monetary and organizational support. “And I was so pleased with the support personnel, the emotional support I got from Appalachian. To be able to pull off something of that caliber was wonderful,” she said.

In addition to team members from other universities, helping to peer review abstracts were Appalachian’s Gardener, history professor Dr. Michael Turner, French professor Dr. Jean-François Fournier, and music professor Dr. Hui-Wah Au. Dr. Bill Brewer, English professor, helped assemble the program. Dr. Kim Q. Hall, professor of philosophy and director of the gender, women’s and sexuality studies program, moderated a session on “Narrating Disability.” Dr. Tony Calamai, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Sue Edwards, interim vice provost for faculty affairs, and Dr. Carl Eby, chair of the Department of English, welcomed guests on behalf of Appalachian. Abby Nichols, undergraduate English major, and two English graduate students, Paige Hinson and Samantha Harvey, also attended. Harvey is Ehnenn’s graduate student and helped organize the conference. She said Ehnenn “was a rock star” with regard to attitude, efficiency and organization.

Ehnenn’s academic specialty is Victorian literature and culture, queer theory and LGBT studies. She is also affiliate faculty in the gender, women’s and sexuality studies program.

About INCS

The INCS conference was initiated in 1985 by Richard Stein, professor emeritus at the University of Oregon, with two goals: to be interdisciplinary and to devote the majority of time to discussion rather than to lengthy presentations.

According to Ehnenn, “Unlike many other conferences which non-specialists might find intimidating, INCS is a scholarly environment that, in addition to being rigorous, is also very friendly for students and junior faculty. It is high level, but welcoming.”

According to the conference website, “the ‘identity’ of INCS is entirely based on the annual conference, with many regulars attending simply to reconnect to friends, colleagues, intellectual roots, and ongoing conversations about issues that can’t be raised as easily elsewhere.”

Upcoming conferences will be held in Philadelphia, at San Francisco State University, and in Rome.