Category Archives: Faculty News

FMU Patriots Attend Dickens Universe

In this joint-authored post, Dr. Catherine England and English majors Thomas Wampler and Meagan Hooks recount their trip to Dickens Universe, an annual event in Santa Cruz, California. 

There’s a foggy, seaside town in California where scholars, students, and enthusiasts gather to discuss, analyze, and enjoy Charles Dickens’s works every August for a week. It’s called the Dickens Universe, and it has been hosted by the University of California, Santa Cruz for thirty-four successful years. I was lucky enough to take Thomas Wampler and Meagan Hooks, two FMU English majors, to this event last summer because of the generous support of FMU’s REAL Grant program. We attended lectures, seminars, and workshops to enrich our knowledge of Dickens, Victorian culture, and the field of English Studies more broadly. I am excited for Thomas and Meagan to tell you more about the Universe and their wonderful experiences in their own words!

Thomas, Meagan, and Dr. England at Dickens Universe

Thomas, Meagan, and Dr. England at Dickens Universe

What is the Dickens Universe?

One of the organizers of the Dickens Universe calls it a combination of a “scholarly conference, festival, book club, and summer camp,” and it lives up to that billing. Each year the Universe focuses its lectures, seminars, and other events on one novel by Charles Dickens. In 2014, the Universe focused on Dickens’s final, completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, a dark work that takes its readers from scenes of dead bodies floating in the Thames to massive heaps of “dust” (something like a Victorian landfill) as it explores the relationships between life and death as well as money and filth.

At the Universe, top scholars powerfully deliver lectures once or twice each day, and between these lectures, participants attend seminars and workshops lead by English faculty and graduate students from all over the world. It is an opportunity to listen and learn from others while formulating and expressing your own ideas about literature. As an added bonus, you get to stay in beautiful Santa Cruz with access to unbelievable views of the mountains, the Redwoods, and the Pacific Ocean. This unique event concludes its scholarly conversation by embracing whimsical fun with a Victorian ball on the final night, during which you can, despite your jeans and T-shirts, learn and practice nineteenth-century dances. The Dickens Universe provides daily intellectual stimuli, a very busy schedule, and the opportunity to learn all about Charles Dickens, the Victoria era, and contemporary scholarship.

Reading under the Redwoods at Dickens Universe

Reading under the Redwoods at Dickens Universe

Thomas’s Experience

One of the most exciting things that happened to me while attending the 34th Annual Dickens Universe was the opportunity to interact with Professor Jessica Kuskey. Dr. England, as part of our summer preparation before attending the conference, had us read “Our Mutual Engine: The Economics of Victorian Thermodynamics” by Kuskey. We were required to summarize the article and also prepare a basic response in support or disagreement with Kuskey’s work. I found out the first day we arrived at Dickens Universe that I was going to be in Kuskey’s seminar. I had the opportunity to discuss her paper in class and later one-on-one. She answered my questions and proved as kind as she was smart. She took the time to tell me her thought process in writing the paper and how she eventually “stumbled” upon the subject of thermodynamics, which was not originally her topic.

Another aspect of the Universe that struck me was how international its make-up was. In my morning seminar, there was a student from Japan. In my mid-morning session, there was a participant from Australia, and the session was led by a graduate student originally from India. In all my classes we had a variety of people from all over the United States: Colorado, Washington State, Washington, D.C., Maine, New York, Iowa, Hawaii, to name just a few. The fact that I was exposed to so many different people with different backgrounds only enhanced the educational and cultural experience.

reading thomas and meagan

Meagan’s Experience

I really enjoyed my graduate-student led discussion group at the Dickens Universe. This open forum was great for allowing participants to delve deeply into Our Mutual Friend and analyze critically through close reading and class discussion. In these forums, I was able to learn a lot from the grad students along with my fellow classmates, who all brought unique perspectives. I feel confident I will be able to apply what I learned from my experience in my own English studies, and hope to be able to apply teaching strategies in the future when I may have students of my own.

There was much more to Dickens Universe than just the classroom, however. One of my favorite activities was the Grand Ball on the last night of the conference, during which we were taught traditional Victorian dances. The dance was a great way to have fun and socialize with other participants, as well as get a taste for Victorian culture. Overall, Dickens Universe was a truly unique academic experience unlike anything else.

Dr. Edwins Wins Carrie McCray Nickens Poetry Fellowship

Dr. Jo Angela Edwins, who teaches creative writing courses in poetry, is the winner of the 2014 Carrie McCray Nickens Poetry Fellowship. Dr. Edwins will be honored in April at the annual induction ceremony for the South Carolina Academy of Authors. She also will be awarded a cash prize.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user the learnedfoot_

CC-licensed photo by flickr user the learnedfoot_

According to the South Carolina Academy of Authors website, the fellowship  ”was established in 2009 to support South Carolina poets whose work employs skilled verse composition and reflects a heightened awareness of the human condition.” The competition is held annually, and submissions are accepted each fall.

Writer and professor Lavonne Adams, who judged this year’s competition, praised Dr. Edwins’ winning poetry collection as

hav[ing] a coherence of voice—poems that speak to one another, that echo… The author exhibits mastery of form—a gracious breaking of line and stanza—which enhances the language, the imagery, and the sound devices, all delightfully tactile. [1]

Congratulations, Dr. Edwins, on this fine accomplishment!


Resurrecting Forgotten Literary Texts Widens Notions of Genre, History

In this post, Dr. Chris Johnson, chair of the department, discusses a forthcoming publication about a little-known eighteenth-century biography. Although the biography commanded a huge following for decades after its publication, it’s been largely forgotten today, but studying it and other overlooked literary texts has its own rewards. 

Much of my scholarly work involves recovering old texts that may have enjoyed considerable popularity in their own day, but that have been largely forgotten by literary historians and critics. These works, I’ve discovered are often quite readable, and they give us an opportunity to reconsider some of our assumptions concerning a particular genre or time period.

For the past few months, I have been working with a nearly forgotten text, Philip Doddridge’s Some Remarkable Passages in the Life of the Honourable Col. James Gardiner, which was first published in 1747. The biography, which was enormously popular throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, records the life of a famous solider who endured horrific wounds as a young man, repented and early life of sin, and fought valiantly in the Battle of Preston pans, where he was killed.

Although readers of the biography will learn a bit about eighteenth-century weapons and tactics, Doddridge does not focus on Gardiner’s military career. Instead, he directs our attention to his subject’s spiritual life. This focus seems logical when one considers the author. Doddridge himself was a dissenting minister, who published dozens of sermons and theological works, including the tremendously successful Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul.

For Doddridge, the important part of Gardiner’s life is his transition from sinfulness to redemption, and his work follows many of the conventions of spiritual autobiography, which English majors will remember from John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Doddridge’s work, however, is notable for the quality of its writing. Reading very much like a novel, the work is a rhetorical masterpiece, and it contains many of the features that Doddridge incorporated in his sermons and that he taught to young ministers. Particularly noteworthy are Doddridge’s many appeals to his reader’s emotions, which align his work with later eighteenth-century sentimental literature.

In the end, I argue that the biography helps us understand the complicated dynamics that exist among novelistic fiction, biography, homiletics, and hymns.

–Dr. Johnson

Dr. Johnson’s article about Doddridge’s biography, “Artful Instruction: Philip Doddridge’s The Life of Colonel James Gardiner” is forthcoming in Beyond Sense and Sensibility: New Perspectives on Moral Education in the Late Eighteenth Century, ed. Peggy Thompson (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press).


Welcome, Ms. Kim Turner!

Earlier in the semester, the Department of English announced the appointment of several new faculty members. In this post, we get to know Ms. Kim Turner as part of an ongoing “Q and A” series with our recent faculty additions. 

Ms. Turner previously taught at Florence-Darlington Technical College and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, but she’s no stranger to FMU: she’s a recent alumna!

In this Q and A, Ms. Turner discusses pursuing an MA in English, which she completed from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2013. She also explains how minoring in Gender Studies at FMU shaped her current research interests.  

What made you decide to specialize in your current subfield in English?

I minored in Gender Studies as an undergraduate, and I found the coursework particularly interesting. Modern American society, for all its progress, still possesses relatively archaic views of gender, sex, and sexuality. We find these issues played out over and over again in literature and popular culture, and research concerning these themes are particularly crucial for our cultural advancement.

What would you have liked to tell the 20-year-old version of yourself about college?

It’s okay if you need to take time and go a little slower. You’ve got a lot of life left. Take your time and learn.

What is the most intriguing or quirky idea that you have learned from your recent research?

I’ve been researching the HBO show Girls, and I’m still awed that my work is part of a legitimate field! It’s great to study in a field which entertains and interests you AND yields academic work!

Did you go straight to graduate school after college? If not, what was the most interesting thing you did in the interim?

I took a year off in between my undergrad and grad degrees. In the year off, I taught at a tech school and learned that being a teacher is not for the faint of heart!

Welcome, Dr. Mica Hilson!

Earlier in the semester, the Department of English announced the appointment of several new faculty members. In this post, we get to know Dr. Mica Hilson as part of an ongoing “Q and A” series with our most recent faculty additions.

Dr. Hilson comes to us from Indiana University, where he taught literature and composition courses, or as Dr. Hilson explains, “everything from critical theory to drama to stand-up comedy to professional writing.”

Below, Dr. Hilson explains his teaching and research interests as well as the importance of cultivating new experiences, especially during one’s college years. 

Right now, you’re teaching an English 200 class on the topic of “Hospitality and Sharing.” What inspired you to come up with that theme?

The concept for the course came from a combination of personal experiences and research interests. First of all, when I came to Francis Marion to interview for this position, I was immediately struck by the amazing hospitality I received. For instance, Dr. Chris Johnson, our department chair, not only personally picked me up at the airport—he drove me back to the airport at 4:30 in the morning, so I could be back in Indiana in time to give my students their final exam. Ideas of hospitality and gift-giving are also central to the book project I’ve been working on this summer, which examines the different conceptual structures that we might use to define “family” and “inheritance,” as well as the ways in which certain family relationships might strain the customs of hospitality.

Also, in two chapters of my dissertation, I looked at fiction that was posted to freely accessible story-sharing websites, and I explored how the plots of these stories often celebrated the sharing of items that would be normally be considered private. From that, I became interested in how issues of sharing and private property were key to many different issues in 21st century life—everything from tissue samples to music samples—and thus could be related to a lot of different disciplines. Since English 200 is all about learning how to write for different disciplines, it seemed like the perfect fit of course goals and topic.

Many of the texts and authors you study are pretty obscure. What do you think is the value of studying and teaching lesser-known works?

Although the process by which books and films and albums become famous isn’t totally random, there is a fair amount of luck involved, and as a result, there are some truly fantastic works that never achieved the fame they deserved (or were once famous, but have now fallen out of fashion). You’ll sometimes see lists of “100 Great Books that You Must Read,” but as a voracious reader, I can tell you that I’ve read a lot more than 100 great books. And so when I teach literature classes, I try to include a combination of well-known and lesser-known works, because I feel like that encourages students to venture off the beaten path and seek out literature that really speaks to them.

Back when you were a college student, you had a pretty unusual double major—English and Math. How did you end up deciding to pursue a career in English rather than Math, and do you ever still use what you learned as a Math major?

I was lucky to have some really good mentoring in English, with professors who both served as role models and let me try my hand at the kind of work that professional literary scholars did. I already knew that I loved teaching, but finding out how much I enjoyed doing literary scholarship really sealed the deal for me. On the other hand, I knew I had fun in my math courses, but I wasn’t so sure that I would love doing advanced research in math. Though some of the “math muscles” in my brain have now gone flabby, I still find lots of opportunities to apply concepts I learned as a math major—whether it’s discussing logical proofs with my English 112 students or simply showing students how to calculate their grades, math still comes in handy!

Finally, if you could pass along one piece of advice to your students at FMU, what would it be?

Well, not long after I graduated college, when I was in my early 20s, I went through a rough couple of years—I was an only child, and my mom and dad died within a year of each other. One good thing that came out of that experience was that it taught me just how short life really is. In the following years, I went on trips to a number of places I’d always wanted to visit (including Spain, Turkey, Australia, and Croatia) because I realized that I needed to seize those opportunities while I could. In my English 200 class, we’ve been thinking a lot about the value of encountering new people, places, and languages, even when those interactions take you outside of your comfort zone. So I guess my advice for students would be to embrace all the opportunities that FMU offers for travelling to new places, meeting new people, learning new ideas, and working at new jobs—even if those experiences initially strike you as a little too foreign or make you uncomfortable at first.


Welcome, Dr. Catherine England!

The Department of English is pleased to announced the appointment of several new faculty members. In this post, we get to know Dr. Catherine England. 

Dr. England comes to us from Wofford College, where she taught Victorian literature, British literature surveys, and composition. Her research interests include British marriage plots, the history of the novel, cultural studies, and gender. At FMU, you’ll find Dr. England teaching a variety of composition courses.

We sat down with Dr. England to talk about her love of Victorian novels, her first time reading French feminist Hélène Cixous, and her advice for students.

Describe your approach to teaching in three words.
Passionate, productive, and interactive

Any advice for students — current or future?
Allow yourself quiet time to think not only about your coursework but also about who you are and what matters to you. This quiet, independent time will make your thoughts more subtle and original, and it will also make it easier for you to make decisions about the future because you will know yourself better.

Did you have a favorite class or text in college? What made it your favorite?
One of my favorite texts from college that will always stand out in my memory is Hélène Cixous’s “Castration or Decapitation?” which I read in a gender theory course during my sophomore year. This essay enriched my understanding of feminism and caused me to rethink how I had read familiar stories. But most importantly, it showed me a style of nonfiction that was playful, creative, and audacious. It opened my eyes up to the diverse ways in which literary theory and criticism can communicate, including styles that I might have thought were reserved only for fiction. I continue to teach this essay, because I want my students to have the same broadening experience it gave me.

It’s no secret that you love Victorian novels, which are often very long. Why should undergraduate read long Victorian novels?
The Victorian novel offers three things that many undergraduates look for in fiction: frequent plot movement, diverse and developed casts of characters, and complex, absorbing worlds.

Many young adults enjoy entering the detailed societies that fantasy fiction offers, and I feel that Victorian novels offer a similar experience as they present the intricacies of nineteenth-century society. Students may also be surprised at how authors such as the Brontë sisters and Dickens mix realistic depictions of characters’ living environments and emotional dilemmas with supernatural elements such as ghosts, telepathy, and spontaneous combustion.

Additionally, I feel that fans of today’s long-running television dramas will find equal rewards in Victorian novels, which were often serialized as installments over several months. Consider how much more involved you are with a series if you watch it week in, week out over several months as opposed to a single all-night marathon. It’s true that you don’t have one-night stands with Victorian novels. They stay in your book satchel and on your nightstand for a while, but in the end, you may form some great relationships.

Conferences and Community: The Social Side of Academia

In this post, Dr. Veenstra describes what happens at academic conferences and notes some memorable learning experiences from conferences she’s attended. She also explores how conferences nourish vital social and intellectual communities in academia.

Every February, the University of Louisville hosts their conference on literature and culture since 1900. Almost every February, I am one of the many hundreds of academics and independent scholars that flock to the city of bourbon, basketball, and derbies. It has become a tradition for me and for many of my colleagues from graduate school, who first started attending the conference under the guidance of our advisors. In fact, it feels much like a mini-reunion each year, as we come together again, from increasingly diverse locations and jobs.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user sniggie

Once we were all in graduate school together at Michigan State University and we clung to each other out of excitement – who doesn’t love continuing conversations about Jean Baudrillard or Virginia Woolf over coffee? – or out of desperation – at the end of the semester, with 40 pages of seminar papers to write and even more grading to do, we needed all the friends and commiseration  we could find – or out of genuine affection. Indeed, I met some truly amazing people in graduate school. Not only are they smart and committed to both the intellectual life and the service of teaching, but they are also genuinely interesting people.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user lilcrabbygal

I don’t use that word lightly—interesting. What I mean to say is that they helped me see the world in a different way as we talked about literature, theory, teaching, and life. And, without exception, they knew how to laugh and make others laugh. In hindsight, I am pleased to discover that, although we were engaged in a deeply serious endeavor, we somehow managed not to take ourselves too seriously. And that makes for true character. It’s easy to get beaten down by grad school and the pressures of making it in the world, especially when you’re living on the meager wages of a graduate student and pondering the increasing difficulty of landing a job as an English professor. But if you can make it through that and be able to laugh about the absurdity that is academia  or even the absurdity of being an adult, then your character has been forged in just the right way—you remain open to the possibilities of the world, don’t ignore the harsh and unfair truths that come at you every day, and remember that we are all in this together, so we might as well make friends.

And that brings me back around to the conference. Sure, I ran into people I knew from “back in the day.” But every year I see more familiar faces that are part of a different community – the mobile collection of scholars, thinkers, and fans of literature and culture that are a distinct hallmark of academia. As a scholar of modernist literature, I also attend the Modernist Studies Association conference most years. I start to see overlap between attendees at the two conferences, and we are able to follow the development of eachother’s ideas from year to year. Some of the people I have met at conferences were introduced to me first through their papers and ideas, and then I got to meet them in person. Some of these people – often the keynote speakers – I met long ago through their writings, and it is a curious phenomenon indeed to see the physical person who has produced such work. They are all just people like us, people who started plugging away at some ideas decades ago and are still engaged in the process of searching for and creating new knowledge.

Sylvia Plath’s copy of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Photo courtesy of Dr. Veenstra. All rights reserved.

This year, I heard noted feminist scholar Jane Marcus speak about Adrienne Rich, her friend, fellow feminist, and poet who passed away last year. Afterwards, I joined her and a small group of others to see an exhibit displayed for us by the University of Louisville’s special collections librarian. Included in this display were some rare editions of books by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.  Many of those in the library, Jane Marcus included, were thrilled to see a copy of A Room of One’s Own with Woolf’s signature on the title page. My favorite book was the copy of Woolf’s novel Orlando, which had been owned by Sylvia Plath. In the first page of the book, Plath had taped a newspaper clipping, a photo of Woolf with the caption “morbidly affected” underneath. What a delightful discovery to make – how one author, clearly influenced by Woolf herself – chose to think of this past icon, through a lens that intensified her complex and ultimately disturbing emotional life.

Why go to a conference? I am struck by the generosity of all the people I meet, people who are deeply invested in their work and in the collective endeavor of intellectual discovery that goes on display at conferences. The librarian was a scholar in her own right, and she was eager to help others with their research interests. Within the conference itself, after papers are presented, audience members often ask questions and suggest ideas that help expand the thinking of the presenter. Since there is a healthy mix of graduate students and established scholars, there are always moments when the older generation reaches out to help the younger generation in their work. Many years ago at one of the conferences of the Modernist Studies Association, I added my thoughts during the Q&A portion of a panel and mentioned that I was working on Ford Madox Ford.  Afterwards, Max Saunders – author of a biography of Ford and one-time Chair of the Ford Madox Ford Society – came up to me to express his gratitude that the younger generation was continuing work on this author in whom he was so deeply invested.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user Eric Mills

I always return from conferences reinvigorated to do my work as a scholar and a teacher. I am reminded of what I love about this field—namely, how one’s mind can get expanded over and over again by the thoughts of other people. I used to find this sensation somewhat intimidating and overwhelming, especially when it seemed to suggest that my research had only scratched the surface of something that had turned out to be much larger than I had initially imagined. I felt that there was so much to know that I had not accounted for in my research, and I despaired at ever mastering it all. Now I am pleased to realize that it’s true – the quest for knowledge is indeed endless – but it is much less solitary than it appears at first glance. At conferences, in the classroom, in coffee shops, and through the many publications that connect academics, there is a thriving community of people who take pleasure in the quest, and who invite the next generation to add their voices.