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An inside look into an English professor's academic conferences and conventions

By Patrick Phillips
On February 10, 2013

Dr. Niamh O'Leary is Xavier University's resident Shakespeare scholar. Teaching upper-division and graduate Shakespeare courses, Dr. O'Leary has been sharing her love of Shakespeare with students since she began in the fall

  • of 2010.However, Dr. O'Leary doesn't just share her Shakespearean knowledge with Xavier University students. She attends multiple  Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) conferences, where she dialogues and connects with other Shakespearean scholars from across the nation. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. O'Leary to  find out more about an academic Shakespeare conference.
  • Xavier Newswire: What is the general setup of an academic conference?
  • Dr. Niamh O'Leary: The SAA academic conferences can take many different shapes and sizes. In the humanities, in particular English and literature, you tend to have panel presentations with three or four speakers. They present papers or arguments thatare about 20 minutes in length. They're all organized around a specific topic. However, the Shakespeare conference I'm going to over Easter weekend hosts seminars. There are about 12 people in a seminar and everyone writes a paper to pre-circulate via email before the conference. You read the papers and you have all of these virtual discussions. Then, at the seminar, you meet and talk for about two hours. This leads to a rich conversation that can result in book or article projects.
  • XN: What are the other professors and scholars like?
  • NO: There is a wide range of experience. There is young faculty, like myself, as well as emeritus faculty who are incredible heavy lifters in the field who have tons of books out, but everyone is on a level playing field. Everyone brings new work on a related topic,  so the conversations can be really rich and helpful.
  • XN: What was one of the most influential or interesting seminars you attended?
  • NO: One of my favorite and most productive seminars for research was from a seminar titled "Shakespeare's Female  Icon." Every paper looked at Shakespeare's most notable female characters. One of the papers investigated  Manga Macbeth, a comic book version of Shakespeare's tragedy. Another observed representations of the drowning Ophelia posted by users on Flickr, and it was really interesting to see all of this pop culture intrigue in these female figures. These papers influenced my work on my upcoming publication with Upstart Crow  titled "Ambition and Desire: Gertrude as Tragic Hero in Feng Xiaogang's The Banquet. The seminar made me examine all of these incredibly frustrating female figures and learn how to teach from a pop culture angle.
  • XN: Are there ever any arguments between professors or scholars at these conferences?
  • NO: Well, there is an ongoing argument between scholars who see Shakespeare as awriter for the stage and those who see him as a writer of the page. During my first conference, this panelist stood up and talked about the poems and sonnets. His presentation talked about Shakespeare as an author invested in his publication and crafting a literary career. During this presentation, this woman stood up and started yelling, "What about the plays?" and wouldn't shut up. It was just absurd. My friends and I were in grad school and we just looked at each other.
  • XN: Do you have any final comments you would like to share?
  • NO: I keep saying the word "rich" over and over again. A good conference can be such a wonderful experience because it can be a reunion with friends whom I haven't seen in a long time as well as an opportunity for some stimulating conversation and dorking-out. It really renews my enthusiasm for what I already do. That's why I come back from these conferences re-energized to teach.

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