2016 Dickens Universe

Recently, Professor Nancy Henry and graduate students Caroline Wilkinson and Alli Clymer attended Dickens Universe at the University of California-Santa Cruz. This year’s conference centered on Dickens’ Dombey and Son and raised cross-disciplinary questions about Dickens, Victorian studies, and the field’s role in academia more generally.

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Alli Clymer, Nancy Henry, and Caroline Wilkinson exploring local beaches along the famous Pacific Coast Highway.

Nancy Henry has been taking two graduate students with her to the “Universe” since 2009, when she joined the UTK faculty. As second co-planner of this year’s event, Henry, along with James Eli Adams of Columbia University, selected such lecturers as John Bowen (University of York), Claire Jarvis (Standford University), and Ryan Fong (Kalamazoo College).


In-between the the lectures that bookended most days, Universe scholars from across the world participated in literary and professional seminars, workshops, and various other activities.

Graduate student Caroline Wilkinson attended a graduate student seminar led by Jill Galvan (OSU) and Jonathan Grossman (UCLA):

“The graduate seminar allowed me to re-envision not only Dombey and Son, but the form of the novel in general. Together, the professors and students built upon each other’s insights as we constructed a vision that remained focused on Dickens’s text. We came to see how minor characters can play major roles, how plot lines can push against tone to great effect, and how a character’s hidden desires can surface through repeated action. Our understanding would not have been possible without Jill and Jonathan who, through their own example, led a class that always remained creative in spirit. I am certain I will remember this seminar when thinking about not only Dickens’s accomplishments with Dombey but the future possibilities for the novel.”

Caroline also participated in a publication workshop led by Carolyn Williams (Rutgers):

“We examined a variety of published articles, discussing what organizations, styles, and critical approaches proved to be the most persuasive. Carolyn Williams encouraged us to express–and remain true to–our own tastes and critical perspectives; and, as a result, she gave us the resources to actively engage with published work both as readers and writers. She, furthermore, talked about the process of submission, bringing editors Jonathan Grossman and Rae Greiner (Indiana University-Bloomington) to discuss their work at academic journals. The combination of generous encouragement with practical explanation will allow me to continue learning about publication on my own.”

Graduate student Alli Clymer, on the other hand, participated in the “Active Listening” workshop led by Teresa Mangum (University of Iowa) and Helena Michie (Rice):

“This was the first year that DU offered such a workshop and it was, in my opinion, incredibly successful. We focused on listening to academic arguments, writing and speaking to be heard, and asking questions in our daily meetings as well as throughout the Universe itself. We were challenged to take notes during the lectures using different techniques and present our own conference paper to the group in order to cultivate a better understanding of how to successfully ask or field questions. As someone who has struggled with the genre of oral professional presentations, I found this workshop invaluable. I will carry the tools and methods I learned throughout the rest of my professional career.”

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Participants of the “Active Listening” Workshop

Alli also attended a graduate student seminar led by Iain Crawford (University of Delaware) and Michael Rectenwald (NYU):

“The graduate seminar offered a stimulating opportunity to digest the morning’s and previous evening’s lectures and delve deeper into the questions they raised about Dombey and the complex themes of the period. In addition to Victorian-era content and context, the daily lectures often presented challenges to various paradigms and methodologies in the field, such as Garrett Stewart‘s (University of Iowa) appeal for more deep reading and linguistic analysis in the classroom, and Peter Capuano‘s (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) call for greater cooperation between digital humanities and traditional literary research. This seminar became a productive space for graduate students to engage in discourse about such methodological positions and discuss the future of nineteenth-century studies in academia. It not only gave me a better understanding of the current questions at issue in the field, but also left me with greater confidence to engage in such important debates about the profession.”

Although most of the Dickens Universe days were filled with lectures, talks, workshops, and seminars, the UTK attendees also made time for the Universe’s festive activities, including PPPs (post-prandial potations), Victorian high teas, a Grand Party filled with extravagant cheeses and desserts, and a Victorian dance (with period dress, music, and dancing!).

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Catherine Robson (NYU), Elsie Michie (LSU) and Nancy Henry (UTK). Michie visited UT last year through the Nineteenth Century British Research Seminar to speak about Frances Trollope.

Students who attend the Universe are also fully funded for attendance at the corresponding Dickens Project Winter Conference the following year. This year’s winter conference will be held in February at the University of Kentucky.

Next year, Nancy Henry will be the lead co-organizer of Dickens Universe where, for the first time in the event’s 37-year history, a non-Dickens novel will be the focus: George Eliot’s Middlemarch!

**UT students need not be specialists in Dickens or even in Victorian literature to attend the conference, but students who have attended the Universe have also participated in the Nineteenth-Century British Research Seminar. Applications to represent UTK at the Dickens Universe are usually solicited in February by Professor Nancy Henry.**