Evolution and Victorian poetry

John Holmes’s essay ‘The challenge of evolution in Victorian poetry’ has just been published in Evolution and Victorian Culture, edited by Bernard Lightman and Bennett Zon. This is the first book to take a look at the  significance of evolutionary thinking across the arts in the Victorian period, from fiction to dance, cinema to architecture. To take a look inside, and get a flavour of the book and its coverage, visit the CUP page for the book by clicking here.

Science in modernist poetry

Our next work-in-progress meeting will be on science in modernist poetry. The IRHS was invited to submit a panel to the conference of the British Association of Modernist Studies, so Stephen Thomson and John Holmes will be sharing their work in progress towards this panel on Wednesday 4th June at 1 p.m. in URS 2n10. Stephen will be talking about the place of Descartes within the thought and poetics of the French poet Paul Valéry, and John will be looking at the significance of evolutionary ideas within modernist epic poems by Ezra Pound, David Jones and Ronald Duncan. Members of the IRHS and non-members are both welcome.


Two upcoming talks

Here are the details of two upcoming talks by members of the IRHS on aspects of their interdisciplinary work:

  • John Holmes will be speaking on ‘“A Just Debt of Gratitude”: John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Oxford Museum’ on Thursday 22nd May at 4 p.m. at the Ruskin Research Seminar at the Ruskin Library and Research Centre, Lancaster University
  • Alison Martin will be speaking on ‘Creative Forces in Nature: British Women and the Internationalisation of Romantic Science’ on Friday 23rd May at 3.45 p.m. at a conference on Revealing Lives: Women in Science 1830-2000 at the Royal Society in London

IRHS interdisciplinary teaching on Humboldt

Alison Martin (German) writes:

At the start of the year, I met up with Hilary Geoghegan from Geography who told me she was running a session on earth-writing for her 1st year geographers as part of her
GV1HUM Human Geography: Practice and Principles seminar. I’ve just spent the past six years researching style in the English translations of works by the great Prussian scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who was obsessed with writing in an engaging way to make his works readable, enjoyable and (rather importantly) profitable. In this seminar we looked at reflections by Humboldt and his English contemporaries Michael Faraday and Charles Darwin on the difficulties of producing clear and vibrant prose – something we all grapple with as we write our essays, articles and books.

Modern art, Victorian sculpture and natural history

On Thursday evening  John Holmes will be discussing the decorative art of the nineteenth-century Irish stone-carvers James and John O’Shea at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History with the contemporary artist Sean Lynch, whose show A blow by blow account of stonecarving in Oxford inspired by the O’Sheas and their work has recently opened at Modern Art Oxford. After their talk, there will be a launch party for Lynch’s book accompanying the show. Here are the details of the event if you would like to join us:

Event: Chipping away at a block of stone carving history

Venue: Modern Art Oxford

Time: 7.00-7.45 (conversation); 7.45-8.15 (book launch)

Charge: Free

All welcome.


George Levine’s talk

A quick reminder that George Levine, Emeritus Professor of English at Rutgers University, will be speaking tomorrow  (Wednesday 30th April) at 2 p.m. in the Harborne Lecture Theatre on ‘Science and Religion from Herschel to Gould’. The lecture is open to all, so please do join us for a rare opportunity to hear one of the leading scholars of literature, science and religion.

George Levine speaking on science and religion

George Levine, Emeritus Professor of English at Rutgers University, will be coming to speak at Reading next Wednesday (30th April) at 2 p.m. in the Harborne Lecture Theatre on ‘Science and Religion from Herschel to Gould’. Professor Levine is one of the world’s most eminent scholars of the relationship between literature and science. His books include Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction (1988), Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England (2002),Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World (2006), Realism, Ethics and Secularism: Essays on Victorian Literature and Science (2008) and Darwin the Writer (2011), as well as several edited books on science and literature. Please do join us for his rich and stimulating talk. 

‘The Odd Ones’: Early Career Workshop in Science and the Humanities

Last week, I attended a one-day workshop at the University of Reading for early career scholars in Science and the Humanities.  Funded by the British Academy, the workshop aimed to bring together a group of scholars working primarily in history or English with an interest in science to discuss making connections – be they intellectual or methodological, or practical – including approaches used by and issues facing interdisciplinary scholars working in the cross sections.

Following David Stack’s introduction (to which the title of this blog post is indebted) we launched into the day with Charlotte Sleigh’s keynote address: ‘Scientifiction: Methodological Problems’. Charlotte moved through a discussion of methodological approaches to the study of literature and history and on to the idea of ‘scientifiction’ – a term coined by Hugo Gernsback in 1926 for stories that offered the pleasing combination of scientific facts and stories.  Sleigh led us through the 1930s science fiction landscape, highlighting difficulties of exploring this period – the objects themselves are not necessarily directly available – and also interesting period-specific aspects – the interconnections of writers who formed networks such as the British Interplanetary Society, and the nature of the technology available to them in publishing for a select audience.

One of the most effective aspects of the day (aside from the tea and coffee breaks, which provided delicious snacks and the opportunity to meet and talk with the other delegates) was the breakout sessions, which enabled the discussion of key ideas in the study of science and the humanities in smaller groups.  In the first of these sessions, ‘Comparing Methodologies and Assumptions’ our group began with a discussion on the materiality of objects and the way this can affect the way in which we approach and explore our texts – for example, the placement of advertisements in 19th century periodicals – and moving on to the approaches we could take to images or objects within our research, alongside levels of intentionality in promoting science.

Following lunch, Neil Messer spoke on ‘The Research Funding Context’, offering us an overview of humanities and science funding sources such as the AHRC, British Academy and the Wellcome Trust, giving an outline of the AHRC’s Science in Culture theme (more information here) and general pointers for research funding applications.  Neil was followed by John Holmes on ‘Impact and Interdisciplinarity: Finding Pathways’ who examined alternative pathways to research funding in science and the humanities, expanding on his own experience, indicating a range of funding options, the potential of funding from scientific bodies and the importance of impact for these applications.  The second breakout session consequently focused on ‘Designing an Interdisciplinary Research Bid’, and our group entered into a discussion on the definition of the finer points of writing and presenting research bids, including the approach of museums and learned institutions for collaborative work.

The day finished with a roundtable plenary on ‘Science and the Humanities’ chaired by Michael Fulford with contributions from Peter Bowler and Martin Willis as well as the day’s other speakers.  Michael noted that small grants could be used as pilots for larger bids to come later, Martin argued the case for being an expert in both fields for interdisciplinary scholars, and Peter warned against hero-mongering in the history of science. That literature and science and the history of science pull in slightly different directions in the questions they ask should not be a disadvantage; instead, the panel indicated, we can use this to ask questions from both approaches.  Also, as Neil pointed out, bringing scientific understanding into the debate too provides another perspective altogether, with a view of science from the inside.

All in all, a day which made me proud (and excited) to call myself interdisciplinary.  With thanks due to the speakers, the British Academy for funding the conference, the Reading conferencing staff, and David and John for putting the day together.

Katherine Ford

Science and the Humanities Workshop

Last Friday Reading played host to a British Academy funded workshop entitled Science and the Humanities for Early Career Scholars. Here the workshop organiser, Prof. David Stack explains the purpose of the workshop and the importance of support in the post-PhD period.

The truism that the first step is the hardest is not, as any toddler could tell you, always true. For wannabe walkers the first step is relatively straightforward; it is the third and fourth where the pace quickens, balance falters, and the bipedal experiment ends with an unceremonious slump onto a nappy-padded bottom. A similar pattern characterizes the early stages of many academic careers. Gaining a degree and then a Masters are relatively straightforward steps, and the momentum of the brightest and most determined carries them forward into doctoral study. The end of a PhD, however, is often a moment of uncertainty as well as achievement.

It is not just the uncomfortable mathematics of a job market in which candidates and posts are frighteningly disproportioned that one has to contend with. The cold turkey of completing a project that has dominated three years of one’s life is frequently accompanied by a loss of both institutional affiliation and the mentoring support that a good supervisor provides. And yet it is precisely at this moment that the newly titled ‘Dr’ would be well advised to develop a new project; win a book contract; and submit a funding application! Little wonder, therefore, that this is the point at which many a ‘career’ teeters from noun to verb – without the comfort of a padded backside on which to land.

The need for support in the post-PhD period has long been obvious, so I was delighted when the British Academy invited me to apply for funds to stage a one-day event to support early career scholars. The decision to make the day interdisciplinary was equally easy. The post-PhD period is particularly precarious for those whose work is self-consciously interdisciplinary, not least because they have to convince appointment panels whose default is to recruit in their own disciplinary image.

The unifying theme of our Science and the Humanities workshop was ‘making connections’: both intellectual and practical. Rather than a day of conventional academic papers we had a keynote address from Charlotte Sleigh (Kent), which explored the methodological problems of combining historical and literary techniques, and further sessions on the AHRC and interdisciplinarity (Neil Messer, Winchester), and how humanities scholars can best exploit opportunities for impact (the IRHS’s John Holmes). Alongside these, Martin Willis (Westminster) discussed how his own work combines the historical and the literary, and Peter Bowler (Queens, Belfast) shared a lifetime’s experience working on Darwinism. The aim, however, was not an asymmetrical advice session, but a genuine interaction between established and early career scholars, which would leave the latter better equipped to navigate their post-PhD path.

The workshop attracted delegates from Oxford, Cambridge, QMUL, Imperial, Birmingham, Exeter, Warwick, and, of course, Reading. What united the delegates was the verve, enthusiasm, and the sheer intellectual excitement with which they approached their topics, often in intriguingly innovative ways. Throughout the day I was struck by the breadth of work being undertaken and how well equipped this next generation of scholars is to articulate their research agenda both to each other and the wider public.

There is, of course, a limit to what days like these can achieve. That the University sector faces an uncertain future is probably a more valid truism than the ‘first step’ one with which we began. But the day ended on two positive notes. First, many delegates expressed a desire to hold further events and to develop a mutually supportive network. Second, Professor Michael Fulford, Vice-President of the British Academy, who chaired our plenary session, restated the BA’s commitment to its Postdoctoral Fellowship programme. Over many years this programme has helped generations of scholars through that faltering fourth step and enabled them to go on to make great, confident strides through academia.