Advancing U.S.-British Relations
Sharing history and English on both sides of the Atlantic.
Imagine an American studying Shakespeare by exploring where his mother grew up. Picture a British historian researching slavery by examining a former slave cabin. Those perspectives are only a few of the benefits that faculty and students gain through a developing partnership between the College of Arts and Science and the University of Warwick in Coventry, England.
The Vanderbilt-Warwick International Collaboration is a venture between each institution’s English and history departments to further research and develop joint projects. It’s also creating synergy and cultivating what Mark Schoenfield, chair of Vanderbilt’s Department of English, terms “academic citizens of the world” by broadening graduate students’ opportunities and employment potential.
Schoenfield says that the collaboration is building intellectual exchanges between faculty and students in both organizations, and in doing so, creates opportunities for scholars that reach beyond what their home institutions have individually.
The collaborative effort launched four years ago and is still in its formative stages. It focuses on academic exchanges and conferences between faculty at each institution and providing opportunities for graduate students to work with or learn from each other’s faculty. University of Warwick is regarded as one of the United Kingdom’s leading academic institutions; it consistently ranks in the top 10 research universities in that country.
The faculty’s commitment to the program and corresponding areas of scholarly expertise are essential to the collaboration, says James Epstein, acting chair and Distinguished Professor of History. “Warwick has one of the top history departments in Great Britain, with strengths in Latin American and Caribbean history. Warwick has a strong interest in Atlantic history and slavery, which fits with our program.”
Similarly, Warwick’s focus in South Asian history adds depth and breadth to Vanderbilt’s own studies in that area. Other Warwick complementary areas include the history of medicine, religion and world literature.
Currently, the cornerstone of the collaboration is developing conferences on topics relevant to both institutions. Symposia are hosted on an alternating basis in the U.S. and Britain, with faculty and graduate students at both institutions participating in presentations and commentary. Nearly a dozen College of Arts and Science faculty, students and administrators traveled to Warwick for a symposium on estrangement and the natural world last spring.
For Jacqueline Labbe, chair of Warwick’s graduate school and director of its Humanities Centre, the program has great potential. “Warwick and Vanderbilt have a shared vision in the education of graduate students,” she says. “We see collaboration as offering ways in which colleagues can complement and energize each other’s research. The targeted nature of the relationship allows…access to an enlarged nexus of scholarly activities.”
University of Warwick is regarded as one of the United Kingdom’s leading academic institutions.
Amanda Johnson, MA’09, a doctoral candidate in English at Vanderbilt, says the Warwick connection has enhanced her research and broadened her employment options. “Experiencing how different historians think and contributing my point of view to the conversation has been valuable,” says Johnson, who attended a summer 2010 symposium at Warwick.
In addition to the stimulating, interdisciplinary discussions, Johnson valued learning how U.S. and British educational institutions differ. “For instance, the British academy takes a more traditional approach and students are encouraged to know as much as possible about a certain topic,” she says. “In America, we’re more comfortable wandering around accumulating knowledge. We look at topics across different theoretical paradigms and how those can be portable across a century or a discipline.”
“Successful programs like VWIC are based on multiple strands of interest that are woven together,” says Joel Harrington, Vanderbilt’s associate provost for global strategy and professor of history. “Vanderbilt is always looking for ways to enhance the international dimensions of our scholarship and teaching in strategic ways that make the most of our strengths. The catalyst [for these programs]
is always faculty relationships and driven by research and teaching.”
Harrington says discussions are ongoing about expanding collaboration with Warwick into the sciences and other areas where the two institutions dovetail.
One strength for Vanderbilt students is working directly with materials in British libraries and experiencing what they’ve read firsthand. The Coventry Cathedral, for example, stands not far from the Warwick campus. “The sight of the bombed-out shell of the original cathedral, standing next to Basil Spence’s new Cathedral built after the second World War, recalls the devastation suffered by the British people during the war and the depth of their commitment to rebuild,” Epstein observes. “What better way to help students understand the resolute mood of the British people during the immediate postwar years?”
Likewise, for students in Warwick’s School of Comparative American Studies, stateside experience is irreplaceable. “Warwick scholars at Vanderbilt gain more than academic knowledge,” Schoenfield says. “They experience a particular slice of American culture, which adds depth and validity to their scholarship. Nashville figures importantly in American history and literature in ways more visible up close. Students gain an understanding of the forces that shaped the subjects of their research.”
The program also provides advantages to graduates in the world job market. A graduate student’s curriculum vitae that includes international collaboration makes a job candidate more attractive, Schoenfield notes. Jane Wanninger, MA’08, currently a doctoral candidate in English at Vanderbilt, agrees. “It’s important to build intellectual and professional networks, and to access a range of mentors and a base in Britain from which to conduct research,” Wanninger says. “In the time I spent in Warwick, I made valuable connections with other graduate students which gave me a more nuanced sense of the intricacies of transatlantic scholarship.”
Long term, Labbe says, the working partnership’s success will be measured by the passion of faculty and students. “We hope to see regular research workshops and symposia leading to sustained interinstitutional projects and annual graduate student visits and exchanges,” she says. “Within a few years, this should become an embedded aspect of each department.”
photo credit: Neil Brake, University of Warwick Communications