Andrea Kaston Tange is a scholar of Victorian literature and culture whose research interests include travel and empire, nineteenth-century Anglo-Jewish life and migrations, gendered identities, and domesticity. She has been a member of the faculty at Eastern Michigan University since 2000 and will be joining the English Department at Macalester College in fall 2015 as a professor of nineteenth-century British studies.
She is currently at work on a book-length project tentatively entitled “Palimpsests: Victorian Travelers and the Problems of Authenticity,” in which she considers the expectations that shaped the mind-set of travelers in a range of subject positions—the journalist reporting on conflicts in India, the colonial settler in Tasmania, the tourist in newly opened Japan, the expatriate seeking health in Egypt—to explore how individual voices intervened in imperial efforts. For the 2015 MLA convention, Andrea arranged a related special session, “Victorian Travelers and Cultural Memory,” for which she created a Web site on MLA Commons. But because the topic constituted a work in progress rather than a finished theory she wished to publicize, she decided to use the Commons to facilitate a session format that veered away from the traditional three-paper model toward one more suited to the exploration of ideas, to “getting out of the echo chambers of our own heads.”
“I modeled this session on the format of what has become my favorite Victorian studies conference for providing rich feedback that forwards my thinking: Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies (INCS),” she explains. What separates INCS from many other conferences is that panelists are required to submit complete papers in advance and then encouraged to read others’ submissions before the conference begins. During the actual sessions, most of the time is dedicated to discussion of common points of interest between the papers rather than the reading of the papers themselves. The conference, then, becomes a series of conversations about intersections between topics (and even between panels). “This model has always left me with concrete ideas about how to turn my working papers into an article or chapter,” explains Andrea, stressing that “if scholars are presenting work in progress, then, to my mind, the more time that can be spent on conversation that will help the ideas develop, the better.”
When asked why humanists are generally so attached to the format of the traditional convention session, Andrea surmises that it comes down to a question of willingness to work outside one’s comfort zone. “I think the traditional model is comfortable because it is familiar and because it may feel less risky to read aloud a discrete unit of polished prose than to talk through ideas and face a lot of time to open them up to detailed questions and potential challenges.” And yet, she argues, we favor collaboration, peer review, and editing for our students’ work—why not for our own? “As we privilege the conversational model in classrooms for building knowledge and understanding, so I think that in our own writing, conversation can lead us to thinking harder about our ideological positions or interpretations. Being part of a collaborative intellectual process has the potential to make our ideas stronger because other readers’ perspectives often introduce questions we might not otherwise have considered.”
Andrea’s views synch with the ethos of MLA Commons, where we aim to facilitate the open sharing, working through, and development of ideas in groups and on collective sites, so we were delighted that she chose to host the papers for her session on the platform. Despite some teething problems—some participants finished their papers too late for attendees to read them, she says, while others were less keen to buy into what was an “unfamiliar process”—the panelists were delighted with the results. “They told me afterward that this was one of the most useful sessions for which they’d ever written a paper, because the session was so much more devoted to collaborative questions and discussion of paper intersections. And we had far more audience participation in discussion than in many panels I’ve attended, so I think that in that way, it was a great success.” In fact, since the papers remain on the Commons site, anyone who couldn’t attend (or didn’t know about) the session can participate in the discussion even now. “I would love to see Commons pages used routinely for panels at MLA,” says Andrea. “I would like to see more people building Commons companions to their panels—with session papers or reading lists or links to articles or places to post follow-up questions.” We couldn’t agree more.
Yet while session promotion and information dissemination are a crucial part of the work of the Commons, this work is not limited to the convention. Consider Andrea’s involvement in some of the areas that have dominated our field as a profession: new directions in higher education, for example, or the public value of the humanities. Now more than ever it seems crucial that humanists are getting their opinions on such matters out there, making their voices heard all year round. “The idea of having a Commons site that begins with a panel and grows into something that really deals with important issues in the profession seems so promising,” enthuses Andrea, who in 2015 used the Commons to create an evolving bibliography and reading list for a roundtable discussion called “Working with the Working Class: How Can the Academy Do Better?” And yet, she says, “up to this point, I do not think that the Commons gets sufficient traffic to make it the resource it could be.” We can change that. Andrea invites continued collaboration on the topic of class in the academy and for the 2016 convention has proposed a session that will consider the value(s) of the humanities for working-class publics. Consider this an invitation for Commons members, who by and large have already recognized the immense value of sharing nascent scholarly ideas and ongoing professional concerns, to get involved.