Scholarship and Fellowship Through Irish Eyes
I am a final year Ph.D. student from Queen’s University, Belfast, Ireland, and one of eight graduate student fellows at Vanderbilt’s Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. We are a diverse bunch, with varied interests, ideas and opinions, which makes for lively meetings when we gather on Tuesday afternoons in the Vaughn Home, where the Warren Center is located.
Being Warren fellows affords us the opportunity of interdisciplinary exploration. We represent philosophy, English, German, French, Spanish and history as well as four countries: Mexico, Germany, Ireland/U.K. and the U.S. By reading and critiquing one another’s work, we are gradually becoming more fluent in disciplines not our own.
My own thesis examines theological aesthetics in Northern Irish poetry. The violent conflict known as “The Troubles,” which has dominated political, social and cultural life in Northern Ireland since the late 1960s, has had particular—and peculiar—implications for literary production and criticism. By focusing on the poetry of Northern Ireland’s Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon, my thesis seeks to reimagine art’s relationship to religion and theology in this context.
I applied for the Warren Center Graduate Student Fellows program to spend time in dialogue and debate with other doctoral candidates. In the U.K., doctoral work is entirely research-based. I haven’t taken a class in four years. Instead, I’ve been let loose in libraries. Consequently, I’ve been much more isolated than I imagine I would have been in the U.S.
In the second year of my doctoral studies, I spent a few months doing research in Atlanta at a large archive of Irish poets’ papers at Emory University. It was great to spend time in a university on this side of the sea and to travel south and west, but archival work is a lonely process.
While in Atlanta, I visited friends in Nashville for a weekend. That gave me some sense of the city and I found some of its best little nooks for reading with an Americano in hand. I left Nashville with a feeling of curiosity about the College of Arts and Science at Vanderbilt (as well as a three-legged cat called Mister Joshua Ingalls, but I suspect that’s another story).
The opportunity to spend my final year at the Warren Center seemed too good to be true. I told myself it was unlikely I would be chosen, so the invitation was a very pleasant surprise.
This is the first time someone from Queen’s University has been part of the program, making me the pioneer and guinea pig. The Warren Center hopes to establish a full exchange program with Queen’s University. The connection is actually closer than one might imagine. Nashville and Belfast are sister cities, with Belfast holding a Belfast/Nashville Songwriters Festival every February.
Seen through a wide-angle lens, my semesters of interdisciplinary activity at the Warren Center are part of broader processes of cultural exchange, as Queen’s scholars have visited and lectured over the year.
Mona Frederick directs the Warren Center, and I heard her passion for the vision and values of the center when we first spoke. Despite the poor phone connection, her enthusiasm for the work achieved and the encounters enabled within the Vaughn Home was clear. I felt welcome before I’d even arrived. Mona, together with Polly Case, Katherine Newman and Faculty Director Edward Friedman, Chancellor’s Professor of Spanish and professor of comparative literature, welcomed me warmly and have made my time at the College of Arts and Science an enjoyable experience. The Warren Center also happens to have the best coffee on campus so, in addition to supporting my academic endeavors, the staff has helped keep me in caffeine (do you see a minor theme here?).
Being part of the graduate student fellowship program has provided me with the chance to have my work read by scholars from outside Irish studies and, indeed, from outside English literature. This has been of great benefit for my writing, challenging me to pay close attention to my writing style, as well as to my argument, methodology and structure.
I love the variety of the work represented by my fellow graduate fellows and I have learned so much throughout the course of the year. Whether it’s the politics of 15th-century Mexican folksongs, the musical modes of 18th-century German aesthetics, the history of evangelical political activism in the U.S. or the morbidity of Victorian poetry, I have not had a dull week.
Submitting your work to seven keen and intelligent minds is a vulnerable process, but the risk has been worth taking. Each of us fellows has benefited from sharing our writing and learning from other perspectives; we are becoming betters writers and better critics as a result.
What will I take away after I earn my doctorate and leave Nashville? I’ll be a stronger writer, a better critic, a more complete scholar, a more accomplished teacher. I’ll also leave with memories: of the Warren Center people who made me feel so at home, of the warmth of the university and Nashville communities, and of my companion graduate fellows. Most of all, I look forward to seeing my fellow fellows in print in years to come, and to remembering fondly our Tuesday afternoon debates at the Warren Center’s roundtable.
Gail McConnell is a poet and scholar preparing for her doctoral dissertation at Queen’s University Belfast. She is also the first Queen’s University participant in the Robert Penn Warren Graduate Fellows Program at the College of Arts and Science. In addition to finishing their dissertations, Warren fellows also meet with visiting scholars regarding issues related to academic careers and each delivers a capstone public lecture.
photo credit: John Russell