The Future of English Studies: Conference Report I

A Guest Post by Professor Fraser Easton.

As the Chair of an English Department that I think has quite a bit to offer when it comes to the question of the future of our discipline, I was delighted to be able to speak about what my colleagues are doing at an international conference in Kolding, Denmark, last month on “The Future of English Studies.”

The conference held a few surprises for me. First of all, it was a conference on English Studies held in a non-English speaking country (well, not really: all Danes seem to be able to speak excellent English; still, the first language is Danish, and most media is in Danish, with some Swedish, Norwegian or German language channels). This meant that English Studies was viewed in an international framework, and not only in terms of the global spread of English Literature. Issues in linguistics, ESL, and English as a Lingua Franca (for which there is even a journal) were among the hotter topics. So all in all it was a nice decentering of some of the normative assumptions one makes about the focus of the study of English in an English-speaking context—that, for example, the study of national literatures, particularly our own, should be central.

The next pleasant surprise was a talk by Dr. Janette Ryan on “Internationalising teaching and learning: Making room for other knowledge, language and academic values.”  The talk spoke directly to the challenges international students face when English-speaking institutions are happy to charge them higher fees, and then leave them to sort out all sorts of hidden assumptions about the classroom, curriculum, and even the nature of English competency (what Dr. Ryan calls “A ‘native speaker norm’ [that] exercises tacit power in pedagogy and assessment”).  It was particularly fascinating to learn that Dr. Ryan had taken a university degree in China, is fluent in Mandarin, and can speak convincingly about the nature of Chinese and Western educational assumptions.

Another wonderful surprise—although it shouldn’t have been—was the talk given by my colleague Sarah Tolmie on “Poem/Design: Translating Piers Plowman into Virtual Reality.” I have known about Sarah’s Virtual Reality, Critical Media Lab-inspired project for some time, but this was the first time I had heard her speak about it.  The effect on the audience was electric: to take Langland’s poem, digitize it into a virtual realm, and then to use that as a way to test the theories of embodiment that are in part the subject of this dream vision was intellectually provocative and exciting. That Sarah was able to show the VR in action was all the more “immersive” for her academic audience.

My talk was titled “The English Department of the Future,” and there was a really bad photo taken of me as I was giving it. No, I didn’t talk with my eyes closed: I was just looking down when someone snapped the shot!

On a personal note, I got to stay in an eighteenth-century warehouse in Copenhagen that is now a hotel on my way back from Kolding. On the way to Kolding I got to speak with a PR rep for LEGO, which is based a few miles away from Kolding in Billund, and ask lots of questions on behalf of my eight-year-old son.

Your blog admin speaking now: Come back tomorrow to read a post by Professor Sarah Tolmie about her experience of the same conference. Such fun this academic tourism thing.


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