27 June 2012

Courtney Salvey - conference report

Courtney Salvey (Kent) writes on the conference theme:

In titling this conference, Nicole Bush and Anna Hope catalyzed a productive academic chemical reaction by combining two terms that are fruitful in themselves: objects and transformations.

The individual papers focused on specific objects, providing the conference-goer with a cabinet of curiosities: Victorian dolls, science teaching tools, shawls, books, tea, models, letters, scientific instruments, Wordsworth’s umbrella, steam engines, roller skates, cigarettes, feathers, drugs, museum buildings, beds, paper, and art objects both visual and textual.  Yet these objects were only virtually present: the conference presented words about objects, not the objects themselves.  A few papers, like Sally Holloway’s on birth and courtship tokens and Jane Insley’s on the crystal models in Watt’s studio, were about the object as material thing, but many of the papers were about words about objects, considering how objects were transformed in literary works and through language.  From Emalee Beddoes’s study of late-Victorian tea advertisements, to Eugenia Gonzalez’s consideration of Victorian narratives of doll production, to Greg Lynall’s tracking of eighteenth-century literary absorption of the burning mirror as an image, to Tara Puri’s exploration of the shifting meanings of specific exotic objects in North and South, these papers focused on the ‘transformations of objects’, rather than ‘transformations effected by objects’.  Although explicit discussions of theory were noticeably absent, the papers taken together implied a theoretical stance maintaining the power and importance of words and discourse in the creation and transformation of the meaning of objects.  Overall, they exhibited confidence that culture transforms objects, implicitly rejecting technological determinism and asserting the importance of the humanities to understanding both history and the contemporary world.

Yet the conference was not a denial of the transformational power of objects or technologies, but it considered transformations in the academic methodologies of the now rather than the cultural changes of the past. The panel on academic blogging (with Lucinda Matthews-Jones, Martin Paul Eve, Kieran Fenby-Hulse, Charlotte Matthieson, and James Mussell) raised and discussed how a relatively new online platform—the blog—can and is transforming academic practice.  Although focused on comparing two types of blog, the round-table implicitly reflected on the options that academic blogging opens for teaching, for publication of research, for development of ideas, for increased interface with the public, for career development, for community-building, and for changing the public image of academia and of research.  Thus the blog itself becomes another transforming object.

The subtle ways blogs can change academic practice were reflected in the organization of the conference itself: its website was a blog rather than a traditional website.  The blog platform offers small conference organizers an inexpensive and accessible alternative to either expensive stand-alone websites or university-hosted sites that require time-consuming work with university web-developers and web-masters.  But ease and affordability are not the only positive features of the blog-as-conference-website: a blog allows the conversation to expand beyond the chronological borders of the conference.  Before the conference, the blog format is flexible to allow easy updates which participants can track through RSS feeds and blog-readers.  Indeed, the blog format encourages participants to expect multiple entries, facilitating interest in and anticipation of the conference itself.  The blog format also fosters continuation of discussion after the conference has been adjourned.  Reports, like this one, can reflect on the questions raised during the conference, making responses to papers and topics available to those who were unable to attend the conference or who attended different panels.  Thus the blog format makes the conference into a living and vibrant thing, not an academic mummy sealed by time and space.

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