KCL English Department Postgraduate Conference 2010: ‘Relics’

On the May 17 2010, various representatives of KCL’s English research community gathered in the council room for the annual Postgraduate Conference. Postgraduate Conferences are informally known for the eagerness with which they employ loosely interpretable themes towards which almost any kind of research can be directed to gesture: ours was ‘Relics’. Conscious that many of the papers presented at the event will be reappearing (in edited forms) in this inaugural issue of Stet, I wish to use this space to deliver, rather than a blow-by-blow account of what took place on the day, a specific comment about academic practice which I believe the conference underscored nicely.

Today’s research students go about their business under the shadow of words like ‘impact’ and ‘relevance’, so I believe it is important to have a conversation about these awkward conference themes out in the open. Superficially, you see, they look like a perfect example of the academy failing to be worthwhile – what could be less ‘impactful’, or less relevant to ‘real life’, than a number of intelligent people sitting down to force their current research obsessions to bear, in however arbitrary a way, on a theme chosen almost equally arbitrarily, and approved precisely for its critical malleability?

Anyone present at ‘Relics’ would quickly have seen the other side of this argument as the day went on, speaker after speaker demonstrating increasingly creative takes on the subject at hand. Panels being very sensibly arranged by sub-theme rather than by field or period of study, we hopscotched swiftly between subjects as diverse as theatrical stageability, tombs, medical jargon, the cult of the author, psychic detectives, and museum theory – to name just a few. Far from showing the endemic weaknesses of an academy which was a ‘relic’ unto itself (I have instead commandeered all of the navel-gazing for this report, where it can be easily ignored), what the conference really demonstrated was that if you give fourteen researchers an idea to play with, they will come up with fourteen different things; moreover, that all fourteen can usefully participate in a stimulating conversation with each other.

It was well said by Jo McDonagh in her closing remarks that the conference had “brought together in interesting juxtaposition” of periods and ideas. For, a slight overemphasis on the fashionable areas of Shakespeare and the nineteenth century notwithstanding, we get up to an awful lot of different stuff at King’s, even within just one department, and it’s easy to lose sight of that when you’re cocooned in your own research. It can serve more than mere passing interest to keep different areas on the horizon, too: watching those panels whose speakers were drawn from different centuries of study, it was remarkable how many correspondences immediately became visible, even under the slightly forced auspices of the theme of the day.

Returning, then, to ‘themes’, it’s important to recognise that despite the fascinating papers it stimulated, the fundamental perception about ‘Relics’ with which I began is a correct one. The theme was an excuse – our excuse – to celebrate not just what we do, but the diversities of what we do. These are diversities of critical thinking, research methodology, period, text, object or author of interest. The conference showed that not only can these differences be brought to bear upon each other to great profit, but that working on one of these fields by no means precludes an ability – a necessity – to be interested in and engaged with the others. Impact assessment is a scary prospect because it demands homogeneity; if we are to be saved from it, it will be by convincing people of the importance of “interesting juxtaposition” which this conference so well demonstrated.

Will Tattersdill

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