Sunday, March 09, 2008

the Winter School

The Winter School at Grasmere is very different from the Summer Conference. Several notable scholars spoke, but most of the attendees were older hobbyists. There were a couple of times when I found myself in the very odd position of being both the youngest and, apparently, the most educated person in the room. I'm not saying that to brag; Wordsworth is not my specialty, and I make no claim to be a Wordsworth scholar. But many of the other people there were, for lack of a better word, fanbois/fangirls. They neither knew nor cared about other poets or authors from the time period (although some of them admitted Coleridge to the discussion by virtue of his relationship with WW); they had come to bask in the glory of all things Wordsworth, and anything else they deemed superfluous at best.

The lectures were mostly aimed at a less scholarly audience, which made it easier to relax and enjoy them. Seamus Perry's lecture on Coleridge and women was a personal favorite, and may even end up helping me with my thesis research. Nick Roe's lecture comparing the Lucy poems to the work of modern poets like Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon was, I think, intentionally provocative. Some of the hobbyists seemed ... offended might be too strong, but certainly a little shocked.


Heidi said...

The provocative essays are the best! Especially when there are two people in the room who not only strongly disagree with each other, they also strongly dislike each other. Sparks fly! (You should have been at my thesis defense... not that I didn't like any of my committee, I liked them fine, but I was certainly in firm disagreement with at least one of them!)

Octavia said...

I would loooove to hear that story.

There were a lot more "sparks" at the conference last summer. At the Winter School there are no Q&A sessions after the lectures, just seminar groups for discussion. Plus I think the hobbyists would have been too polite to say anything publicly if they disagreed with what was said. Some of them did disagree, but they tended to voice their opinions calmly, over tea. :)

Heidi said...

Over tea. Of course, over tea. England... I keep forgetting I'm here! lol

Anonymous said...

Two questions...
1. Are you aware that you were in the presence of the icons of British Romanticism, many of whom are or have been university professors throughout the world, many of whom are recognized as the authority on British Romanticism, and many of whom are authors?
2. If there were "hobbyists" as you say, what exactly would their offense have been? Does one have to flaunt his knowledge to be considered educated?

Octavia said...

@ anonymous:
1. Yes. Clearly they are not the ones I refer to as fanbois. Emeritus is not equal to "hobbyist."

2. Why do you assume that, in my estimation, the hobbyists had committed some "offense"? In one sense, I myself was there as a hobbyist, since Wordsworth is not my specialty.

I admit that I was surprised by the attitude some of the attendees had toward Wordsworth studies. In general, they seemed very reluctant to engage with any topic that didn't appear to them to be directly concerned with WW, such as historical information about the time period in which he lived, or the work that other poets were doing at the time. To me, this information seemed germane; increasing my understanding of WW's context should inevitably increase my understanding of the poet and his work. For the hobbyists, however, this information seemed to be irrelevant at best. More than once I heard other attendees, after a session covering such topics, make comments such as, "Why are we talking about this? What was the point of that?" While this was by no means the only attitude I noticed, it represented a stark contrast to the prevailing attitude at the summer conference, which is, I suppose, why I felt it worth remarking upon.

As far as flaunting one's knowledge in order to be considered educated, that seems like a bit of a loaded question. Is everyone who verbally displays his/her knowledge "flaunting" it? Is it therefore rude to speak about whatever knowledge one has? Wouldn't a conference devoted to William Wordsworth seem like an appropriate place to display one's knowledge about Wordsworth, with or without "flaunting" it?

If I'm reading your question correctly, you're actually asking what makes me think I'm qualified to judge other people's level of education based on their comments at the conference, since they may have had more knowledge/education than they chose to share.

While this is entirely true, I based my assessment on the fact that in some instances, some of the attendees appeared not to be aware of recent Wordsworth scholarship and, more generally, the historical context in which he lived and worked. Hence my description of them as "hobbyists" - they love Wordsworth, and they study him, but in a non-scholarly way. They would have been just as happy to come to a week-long event where the only activity was reading WW's poems, with no commentary offered. There's nothing wrong with that. But again, it surprised me, especially compared to my previous experience with the summer conference.