The Future of English Studies: Conference Report II

A guest post by Professor Sarah Tolmie.

Back in October, just around Thanksgiving, I attended a conference at the University of Southern Denmark, in Kolding, on the Future of English Studies. Fraser Easton, as chair of English, had circulated a call for papers several weeks before, and very spontaneously I decided to go. A flurry of e-mail with the organizers, Jane Vinther and Gordon Slethaug (former chair of English here at uW and our main connection to the institution) followed, and then I found myself on a plane to Copenhagen (via Reykjavik and its shockingly expensive airport) and subsequently on a train down to Kolding, about an hour from the capital, along with my husband Scott Straker, a medievalist who teaches at Queen’s University. As it happens, we met Fraser at Pearson airport, at which time we all figured out that we were going to the same conference; we then managed to lose each other shortly after arriving in Copenhagen and didn’t catch up until the following day. Academics are fairly hopeless at this sort of thing.

However, after checking in at the lovely old hotel, the Saxildhus, mid 19th century and a bit down at heel, and eating a fabulous meal at a restaurant in the oldest building in town, a 16th-century merchants’ hall, we felt we were in shape for the conference, despite imminent jet lag.

After a 10-minute walk through the commercial part of Kolding the next morning, we arrived at the University of Southern Denmark campus (one of three campuses in the region that amalgamated only a few years ago, the others being at Aarhus and Odense). Scott’s paper, on cross-border anxieties in the 15th-century Anglo-Scots text The Kingis Quair (proving that some problems of globalization are hardly new), was in the first session. Mine, on the Salvation Suit project — a virtual reality translation of the 14th-century visionary poem Piers Plowman, a “wearable poem” as I am calling it — was the following afternoon. Fraser’s, on “The English Department of the Future” (which means us here at uW, apparently) was shortly before mine. We all got our words out, and they were all cordially received. There were about thirty international attendees, plus graduate students from the university. Papers were various, many tending towards language learning and pedagogy, as you might expect from the conference theme. It was interesting to observe that a main focus of the conference — namely, English studies — has a particular institutional inflection in Denmark, one that is currently under scrutiny, if not attack, by a populist and pragmatic government. There was some fear that current departments of English studies, which teach both literature and language, would be dismantled in face of increasing pressure for market-driven, competence-based language learning — and that literature teaching would be the automatic loser. Thus, a major effort at disciplinary re-branding and reclamation of humanist identity was underway, to which the conference was contributing. Overall, probably the most interesting aspect of the conference for me was witnessing this difference in institutional status, in a culture that is unofficially, at least, bilingual, Danish and English. Most Danes, both in the university context and outside of it, speak astonishingly good English. The present educational system is clearly serving this function amply: the question is, seemingly, what is value-added by having students read literary texts?

Your admin speaking now: Good question, Sarah. Any responses to “what is value-added by having students read literary texts?

Also, here are some photos from Sarah’s Danish experience.

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