On April 8, the English Graduate Student Association (EGSA) hosted its yearly symposium, Aestheticism and Beauty: Reimagining the Mind, Art, and Life.
The topic was the outcome of a brainstorming session among EGSA officers. “Several of us had dealt closely with aesthetic theory in a recent seminar, and it struck us as a promising way to think capaciously about literature across eras and genres. With the world changing in response to social media, artificial intelligence and other technologies, we were keen to cultivate conversations about how notions of beauty do or do not change under the pressure of these developments, affecting our work as well as our sense of what literature is and does,” EGSA President Ciara Graham explained.
The online event began with brief greetings by Jennifer Airey, vice provost and dean of TU’s Graduate School; Professor Laura Stevens, department chair; Professor Jeffrey Drouin, director of English Graduate Studies; and Graham. Attention then turned to the keynote speaker, Kristin Girten, associate professor of English and assistant vice chancellor for arts and humanities in the Office of Research and Creative Activity at the University of Nebraska. Her talk, Aesthetics Without Distance, delivered a bold and engaging feminist revision of Enlightenment aesthetic theory. First detailing a presumption of distance between artwork and spectator in the philosophy of figures such as Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, Girten showed how three female authors of the late 18th century – Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith and Phillis Wheatley Smith – described and invited a more interactive, intimate relationship between text and reader, fostering an aesthetics embedded in human contact. Of the talk, master’s student Stasha Cole said, “Dr. Girten’s presentation disrupted notions of aesthetic distance in a way that privileged female notions of experiencing nature. It was a beautiful and informative talk that prompted a lively discussion.”
Following Girten’s presentation were three panels, New Ways of Reading the Early American Novel, chaired by Don James McLaughlin, associate professor of English at The University of Tulsa, as well as Aesthetics, Gender, and Sexuality and Aesthetics and Contemporary African American Poetry, both chaired by TU doctoral students. The three panels were connected through the question of identity and what that means for author, reader and characters.
Sarah Harris, EGSA vice president and doctoral student, reminded attendees of how varied research can be, even with a central theme such as aesthetics and beauty, and the importance of yearly symposium. “The EGSA symposium presentations were insightful, intellectual and thought-provoking. The topics covered a range from understanding the meaning of spells in Configurations of the Witch by Cole to a deep dive into string theory in Good Vibrations: Theorizing Strings in Nathanial Mackey’s Blue Fasa by Nathan Blue. The comments and feedback from the community were invaluable. Overall, it was a success,” she said.
Following a series of article revision workshops led by McLaughlin along with a new literary theory reading group, the symposium deepened and sharpened lively ongoing conversations among the graduate students and faculty. “Those conversations are some of the most important outcomes of the event,” observed Stevens, who hosted a reception at her home afterward. “The symposium enhanced the students’ educational and professional development, but it served an even more important purpose in fostering an intellectually intense and supportive community.
Airey summed up the impact of the April 8 event: “The EGSA symposium is one of my favorite parts of the English graduate program. It provides an amazing forum for our students to showcase their work and to learn from colleagues at other institutions in the region. This year’s forum on Aestheticism and Beauty featured provocative new scholarship on gender, sexuality, African American poetry and the early novel, and I was so excited to learn more about our students’ scholarly pursuits!”