William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

Dear Blog,

Lots has happened recently. We’ve finished the filming for our MOOC (a massive open, online course) on William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place. Filming took place at Dove Cottage with the full support of the Wordsworth Trust (https://wordsworth.org.uk/visit/dove-cottage.html). The course is online and completely free. You can watch the trailer and sign up for it here: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/william-wordsworth/details. The course will begin on Sept 7th and run for four weeks. My bit is in the second half of the fourth week and I’m talking about Dorothy Wordsworth. There’s some film from inside Dove Cottage, quizzes about Dorothy’s life and her journals, some lovely audio readings of the journal extracts from my colleague Jenn Ashworth (http://jennashworth.co.uk/) etc etc. I think it will be a lot of fun. In any case, it’s worth checking out the many courses offered by FutureLearn. I quite fancied a few of these myself and it’s pretty amazing that they are completely free.

Since then it’s been pretty manic. Those people who think that academics get three months off in the summer are very much mistaken. We finished teaching before Easter at Lancaster and I’m not sure that it’s made any difference at all. In fact I’ve found myself wondering how I used to fit teaching in. I spent a week in Glasgow as external examiner, I’ve been doing REF2020 interviews with every member of staff in the dept, and I haven’t managed to revise my ‘Literature and Chemistry’ chapter for the Ashgate Companion. We have our own exam boards this week, a Davy Letters meeting arranged for 29th June and I’m hoping that after 3rd July I might be able to get back to some research. I’m attempting to do the revisions on that essay, work on the collection as a whole with my co-editor John Holmes, and write another essay for the Literature and Medicine journal over July, August and September. I’m going to the BARS conference in July and contributing to the Analogy symposium in Cambridge in September. I’ve booked a week in London at the end of July so that I can get lots of reading done in the British Library. So, well, research is being planned but not yet executed. Lots to do before then.

Best,

Sharon

Thinking about Interdisciplinarity

Dear blog,

Last Wednesday on 20th May we held an AHRC block grant-funded doctoral training day called ‘The Visual and the Verbal’ at Lancaster University: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/english/events/visual-verbal.htm. It was a brilliant day. We had 14 students participating from lots of different disciplines (English Lit, Creative Writing, Art, Art History, History, and Museum Studies) and lots of different universities (Lancaster, Liverpool, Manchester Metropolitan, Lincoln, the Courtauld Institute, Keele, Manchester, etc etc). It really reminded me of the LitSciMed events that I ran between 2009 and 2011 (http://litscimed.org.uk/) and it made me remember which bits of my job I really do love and why. One of the best bits of the day for me was the five-minute presentations that the students gave about their projects, which were all so fascinating and exciting. We also spent the afternoon in the Ruskin Library (http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/users/ruskinlib/Pages/welcome.html) and it was a real thrill for the students to be able to handle Ruskin’s drawings and letters and see his notebooks.

We started off the day with a session run by me on interdisciplinarity. I used Joe Moran¹s book with this title (the New Critical Idiom one) which he revised in 2010 and which is still really great and even more up to date now. In this session we spoke about whether institutions (jobs, depts, funding bodies) encourage or discourage this kind of research.

I learned yesterday too, from Martin Willis, Chair of the British Society for Literature and Science (https://www.bsls.ac.uk/) that ‘the British Academy has invited contributions on issues of interdisciplinarity to inform a report they will shortly write. In order to receive evidence of interdisciplinary research they have tasked a Working Group with inviting
and organising submissions.’ You can read more about this here: http://www.britac.ac.uk/news/news.cfm/newsid/1272

After reading Moran’s updated conclusion to his book, I wonder whether there is a bit of a backlash coming now about interdisciplinarity or whether this British Academy report will continue to be positive? For my part, I always maintain that explicitly working with an interdisciplinary approach actually makes me far more aware and reflective
about my own (home) discipline. I think of English as a set of skills or approaches perhaps more than a canon of texts. Applying a literary critical approach to, say, early nineteenth-century scientific writings can reveal the rhetorical devices used to achieve political ends, which might not otherwise be very obvious. There are lots of other ways to work in an interdisciplinary way too though.

I guess, ultimately, I’m with Moran when he writes that interdisciplinarity shouldn¹t result in a big mess of stuff which is neither one thing nor the other but a carefully
defined, honed new way of thinking or working which is truly transformative.

More soon,

Sharon

Analogous Thinking

Dear Blog,

So today I have mainly been thinking about analogy. I’m giving a paper in a roundtable discussion at the British Society for Literature and Science conference in Liverpool (http://www.bsls.ac.uk/2015/03/bsls-2015-conference-programme/) later this week on this subject. My methodological approach to the literature-science subdiscipline has been largely based on analogy. Analogy has also be the subject of work that I’ve done in this area.

The 1814-19 debate on the nature of life in the Royal College of Surgeons (the focus of my PhD and then my first book) was fought partly on methodological grounds: John Abernethy argued that analogy had to be used because the senses would never be able to perceive the immaterial, superadded, something that was the vital principle. His colleague (and erstwhile student), William Lawrence, argued that empiricism was the only way for physiology to proceed: for his detractors though, this was tantamount to an admission of materialism. Abernethy argued that life worked in the same way that electricity worked; Lawrence said this was a nonsense. Using the words of Hamlet, Lawrence declaimed ‘’Tis like a camel, or like a whale, or like what you please’ (Introduction, pp. 169–70). He was unequivocal: ‘The truth is, there is no resemblance, no analogy between electricity and life: the two orders of phenomena are completely distinct; they are incommensurable. Electricity illustrates life no more than life illustrates electricity’ (Introduction, pp. 170–1). Abernethy was quite explicit in other analogies that he made: a separate, independent vital principle was necessary to control and regulate the body. Lawrence correctly identified the analogy Abernethy was making with such repressive state apparatuses as Bow Street and the Old Bailey, institutions that kept the poplace in check.

Analogy is such an interesting idea; it seems to mean finding a parallel or finding corresponding characteristics in two things. For the chemist Humphry Davy, the existence of analogous elements made him think that there was some essential, primary element(s) contained within all things which enabled the transformations witnessed in matter. By this point in time, chemists believed there was a finite amount of matter in the world but that it was continually changing and transforming into new forms. In my paper for the conference, I argue that Davy’s theory is analogous to the way that I use analogy: the reason that I find parallels between literature and science is because both are the cultural productions of politics and history. The both have within them the primary elements of a particular historical moment. In Davy’s chemistry, analogous elements have the potential to transform to become something new, while still retaining their identities. This in itself is a nice metaphor for our sub-discipline of literature and science.

It’s nice to be thinking big thoughts again, if only for a day, and I’m excited about the conference since that will hopefully get me thinking again. In other news, we’re deciding tomorrow on the participants for the AHRC NW Partnership doctoral training day to be held at Lancaster on Weds 20th May, ‘The Visual and the Verbal’, so I should be able to write to people to let them know that they are in. Now to get back to the marking: how can a four-week turnaround period be so difficult to manage??

Best,

Sharon

Post from an actual library

Dear blog,

I’m in Chetham’s Library in Manchester (http://www.chethams.org.uk/), which is bloody lovely, if a bit on the cold side, though I’m sure that’s about keeping the books here in a temperature controlled environment. It’s the only place that I could find a particular edition of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Zanoni, which I need for this essay I’m writing for the Ashgate Research Companion to C19th Literature and Science. I originally downloaded the novel for free from Amazon, which I thought was pretty cool (there are loads of these kinds of novels to be downloaded for free from Amazon) but you get no sense of the edition that you are reading, no publication details, no page numbers etc etc. Probably everyone out there already knows this but I didn’t. It’s been a right pain to find the edition that I need. Another contributor to the collection has used this novel (Bulwer-Lytton has never been so popular!) and the British Library didn’t have the right one. So, I used COPAC (http://copac.ac.uk/) to find out which libraries did have it and here I am at Chetham’s, a very beautiful library, and I’m sitting just by the very spot where Marx and Engels did their research for The Condition of the Working Class in England.

I’m very pleased to have been awarded the funding for an AHRC NW Partnership training day at the Ruskin Library in Lancaster University on Weds 20th May (http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/english/events/visual-verbal.htm). We’ll be using Ruskin’s manuscripts (in their many forms) plus paintings and photographs to think about interdisciplinarity, how to do manuscript and archival work, and the relationship between the visual and the textual. I hope we get some takers for this – both AHRC-funded and non-AHRC-funded PhD students can apply. We’ll give priority to those nearing the end of their degree. I’m hoping that we’ll offer something like this every year, with a slightly different emphasis, maybe literature and science next year? The Ruskin collection is so diverse and interesting that you can use it to discuss all kinds of things.

Right, on with my essay which I have to finish by 5pm when two of my lovely colleagues have offered to read it for me. We’ve formed an ‘essay club’ so that we can read and comment on each others’ work. How ace is that!

More soon,

Sx

Writing!

Dear Blog,

So, since my last post I have reduced the emails in my inbox from 105 to (currently) 18! This may seem daft but I can’t tell you how much of a relief it is to me. I once again feel some semblance of control over my life and as if there’s a chance I may get back on top of things. I’m also up to date with the reading of draft essays that have been submitted for the Ashgate Research Companion to C19th Literature and Science and have even managed to find some time to look at my own essay.

I do worry that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew for my essay which is on ‘Chemistry’. I really only know about the first 20 years of the C19th and in a 7000 word essay it would be impossible to give any kind of comprehensive sense of chemistry during the entire century. I have read some excellent essays for this collection that have done just that though — really impressive surveys of both the primary and the secondary materials on their subject. Instead, I’ve had to build parameters into my attempt to do justice to this. I’ve decided to expand the essay to take in Alchemy too since many of the literary responses to chemistry are couched as novels about alchemists rather than chemists it seems. And I’ve selected three main texts, written across the century (though, interestingly, they are all historical novels that are set much earlier than their date of publication): Frankenstein (1818), Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842), and Balzac’s The Alkahest. My argument is that the link between alchemy and modern chemistry in these novels is that both are interested in the transformation of matter and that these disciplines study (and can effect) such transformations. I have managed to get today and Friday to work on this so I’ve turned off my email and am going to get on with it. Wish me luck.

I should mention that I went to London yesterday to see Prof Frank James’s inaugural lecture at UCL, which was just wonderful. He spoke about Davy and there was lots of good new stuff in there. Frank is one of the advisory editors on the Davy Letters project and he’s been finding new letters all over the place. See the news section of our website for details (http://www.davy-letters.org.uk/) or follow us on Twitter (@davyletters), though, we have yet to send our first tweet!

More soon,

Sharon

Exeter and lots of research bids

Dear blog,

So, it’s been busy of late. We’ve been working with candidates for the Leverhulme Early Career Fellowships, which we haven’t been allowed to apply for before here at Lancaster. It is great news that we now can though of course it’s highly competitive. Applications came in early January and we’ve been through two sets of revisions so far. They are both great applications and I really would love it for one (or both!) to get funded. How brilliant would that be for all concerned.

In other news, I gave a research seminar paper at Exeter this week. There was an excellent — if quite scary — audience. I talked about the idea of transformation and Davy’s poetry. I’ve been thinking about this for a while and the essay I’m hoping to work on again this week and next (it’s reading week!) on literature and chemistry explores ideas of how chemical processes might be useful ways of thinking about the literary. The questions were stimulating and wide-ranging. I’m not sure that I answered them all very well but they certainly made me think. I’d really like my next book to be something on Romantic Transformations. It may be a while before I get there though!

We had our first ever Medical Humanities Research Group meeting today. There were four excellent ten minute talks from postdocs and colleagues in the department. There were lots of synergies and points of connection. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon and we’ve decided to meet once a term and use the time as we feel we want to, whether discussing an essay someone is writing, giving a short paper, that kind of thing.

I’ve just put a new letter into the Davy Letters database too. Prof Frank James found it in the National Archives. It’s from Davy to John Barrow at the Board of Admiralty. It’s great to enter another letter though there are some issues with a name and a word that I’m not sure of. My co-editor will be along soon and perhaps he can help.

More soon,

Sharon

Submission Imminent

Dear blog,

So, this is it. I’m going to submit this AHRC research grant bid this Thursday no matter what (come hell or high water… etc). I’ve managed to give myself three full days at home to do this and am trying not to look at my email and to get distracted. It is hard though (I do have other things to do: reading bits of five dissertations, PhD upgrade material, preparation for this week’s teaching). These other things will have to be done late at night when I’ve done my full day on this, which has to be done now. Quite apart from the fact that it’s sending me mad; I’d have to rewrite the entire thing if it goes into next year. Kill the beast. Always good words of advice.

I’ve found it really tricky adjusting to a new university (I’ve only been in Lancaster for a year) while working on this bid. There really is a different level of support offered by Research Services at Lancaster. I have been used — when I worked at Salford University — to having a research support officer who worked with you on the bid, someone who told you more about the scheme to which you were applying and helped you interpret the various headings under which you write (eg. what are the ‘objectives'; how do you describe your ‘methods’, what would be expected for this scheme, etc etc). It was all much more hands-on at Salford. I’ve also really struggled filling in the figures etc in the JeS form myself at Lancaster, something I’ve never done before.

Oh well, in any case, there are only two and a half more days of this hopefully and then it’s in and done. It’s the last week of term and then I’m off to the University of Padua to give a paper, which will be a nice place to spend my 42nd birthday. The REF results come out that day too…

Sx

How will the Davy Letters have an impact?

Dear blog,

So, I’m right in the midst of this Fellowship application and I’ve come to the bit where I have to say who the work will impact and how this impact will occur. I have lots of public engagement activities planned, eg. public talks, an exhibition, etc. But it’s really difficult to say exactly why it’s beneficial to know about Davy and his letters (and early C19th science) etc. It’s a difficult language for me, when I tend to think these things are self-explanatory, that of course they’re good for us, and haven’t really tried to put this into words. I guess it’s good to know more about Davy because he was an important figure in so many different ways (as a scientist, for the safe extraction of coal, as a chemist who wrote poetry). But how does it change you for the better to know about this? I suppose it means that we’re reflecting upon and preserving our national heritage, but we’re also thinking about what role the sciences play, and what the relationship of science might be with the arts. But why is this beneficial? I guess discussions of these kinds of topics encourages people to actively participate research and to shape the kinds of work that is done in this area in the future. Answers on a postcard please…

I’ve managed to get almost two whole days to work on this (today and yesterday), though I’ve also done a million other things in the early morning and late at night. It still won’t be finished before I go back into the office tomorrow though! We’ve got a conference in the department at Lancaster tomorrow, part of our jubilee celebrations (the university is 50!): https://anothersideof1964.wordpress.com/. And, on Thursday, for the same reason, there’s an event at the castle (which is now sold out) called ‘Beyond the Lancashire Witches’ which promises to be lots of fun (http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/steps/events/public-lecture-beyond-the-lancashire-witches–writing-and-freedom/).

All best,

Sharon

November already?

Dear blog,

It’s half way through term: it’s reading week this week. And what a term it’s been so far. I don’t think I’ve ever been so busy except that probably that isn’t true. Maybe it’s always this busy… This week alone I attended the creative writing poetry reading by Zaffar Kunial (which was excellent) on Monday; on Tuesday, Prof Peter Hulme came to give a research seminar paper on the pan-American dinner attended by poets in New York in 1919 (which was brilliant); and on Thursday I interviewed Stella Rimington, the first female Director General of MI5 and now novelist of Liz Carlyle spy novels, at Manchester High School for Girls. The final event was obviously a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet someone who broke the glass ceiling so spectacularly and occupied such a critical position. Dame Stella was absolutely lovely; really modest and humble, very bright, and said all the right things about, say, how GCHQ shouldn’t be doing anything that breaks any laws. It was a very enjoyable event.

The Davy Letters project continues apace, not that I am getting any time to devote to it. The MHRA Research Associate, Andrew Lacey, is a wonder: he’s updated the website, copyedited Tim’s annotations of the first two tranches of letters, and has compiled a Calendar of Letters, which will be used in the edition. I’m still trying to write the AHRC Fellowship proposal which would enable me to spend some more time on the project. I started it in August and it’s taken ages for me to find any time to work on it this term. I’m hoping that I’ll get it in by December though. I’ve got lots of ideas…!

I’ve written a couple of new lectures this term so far, on Ovid and Dante; I really enjoyed doing them. Their for a new course for our first years called World Literature. It’s been hard but really fun to write these. But, right now, I’m just relieved to be back in Manchester for a couple of days and to work on this application. I’m going to Chawton House near Southampton on Thursday to give a talk about Wollstonecraft. I’ve never been there before so that’s exciting too.

Wish me luck with the proposal; I’m hoping to finally get it in this side of Christmas!

Sx

September Psychosis

Dear blog,

Well, not really psychosis, that definitely was an exaggeration for alliterative effect, but it is still crazy busy in my world and showing no signs of letting up. I did manage to get two days in the British Library last week, which was excellent, except that it was impossible to get everything done that I wanted to get done in two days. Still, I guess that’s better than nothing! I was trying to research the essay I’m writing for the Ashgate Research Companion to C19th Literature and Science. I’m writing the chapter on literature and chemistry. I read some absolutely fascinating stuff — lots about alchemy and its resurgence in the later C19th and early C20th. They called the discovery of radium ‘modern alchemy’ and then nuclear physics too. That’s all outside the reach of the essay but still brilliant. I also did read some things that were useful for the essay – lots of C19th textbooks that had some really interesting definitions of chemistry. I’m still preoccupied with the idea that the major discovery in chemistry in the early C19th was that there was a finite number of elements in the world that were organised and arranged in a multitude of ways. This is so suggestive for theories of creativity, such as Mary Shelley’s stated idea in the Preface to Frankenstein that her book was ‘invention’ rather than ‘creation’ because nothing can come from nothing. She writes that ‘Invention [is not created] out of the void, but out of chaos. The materials must first be there.’

I’ve left the essay again now to return to my application for the AHRC Fellowship, which I am really struggling with. It’s not really worth going into this since I’m boring myself with the ins and outs of the application, which is huge, and time-consuming (I’ll have spent at least a month full time on it), and to be completely honest I’m not sure how likely it is that I’ll get it. There’s about a 10% chance looking at the stats on the scheme.

Some nice news though, I wrote three articles for the Discovering Literature section of the British Library website (www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians) and the section is doing really well. Apparently they have had 150,009 unique visitors and 410,952 page views since launching in mid-May! How cool is that!

Anyway, I shall plough on. I am looking forward to a Exec Meeting of the British Society of Literature and Science in London this coming Monday and the start of term comes ever closer (though it’s not till 6th October in Lancaster!).

Best,

Sharon