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More than 500 scholars from 200 colleges, universities and research centers and seven countries converged on Chapel Hill March 13-16 to attend the third biennial conference of C19, the prestigious Society of Nineteenth Century Americanists.

The society chose the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for its conference in part because of its thematic tie-in. The conference focused on the theme, “Commons,” a fitting topic for the nation’s first public university.

But the competitive, coveted role of conference host also fell to UNC because of the strength of UNC’s proposal and significant support generated for the conference, says Jane Thrailkill, conference organizer with Eliza Richards, both professors in the Department of English and Comparative Literature (ECL).

Chairs Say Yes Fund helps win conference for UNC

Thrailkill praised the visionary leadership of Beverly Taylor, chair of ECL, whose initial commitment of departmental funds in 2012 despite deep budget cuts was essential in establishing a base of support for UNC’s bid.

Chief among the supporters of the conference, financial and otherwise, was the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, Thrailkill said.

“This conference would simply not have happened without the IAH,” she said. “I told [IAH Director] John McGowan that UNC was being considered as a location for C19 but a key aspect was that the home institution had to contribute a good deal of funding – at least $25,000 – to support it. John said, ‘We must do this for the college, the university, our graduate students and the importance of this conference. I’ll make sure you get it.’”

The IAH contributed $10,500 from its Nelson Schwab Chairs “Say Yes” Fund. The fund, created with a gift from Nelson Schwab III, IAH Advisory Board member and former chair of UNC’s Board of Trustees, provides a minimum of $50,000 the IAH can make available to chairs of departments in the arts, humanities and qualitative social sciences. They can use the funds for activities that enhance departmental excellence or provide targeted support for individual faculty member’s work.

With IAH funding and support and backing from Taylor, organizers were able to attract additional funding from the UNC College of Arts and Sciences and the English Department at Duke University as well as significant in-kind contributions of graduate assistant time from UNC departments, Thrailkill said.

The result, a stellar conference that put UNC front-and-center in the field of 19th-century American literary studies, showcased unique and extensive UNC assets in 19th-century scholarship and birthed a new graduate student off-shoot organization, G19.

Conference showcases UNC campus, culture

Taylor, a scholar of 19th-century British literature, said the conference was exemplary in every aspect.

“Besides attracting a large crowd of active leaders in 19th-century American literature to our campus, Eliza and Jane showcased our library holdings, our most beautiful campus features and the university’s rich history,” Taylor said. “They also worked to make the conference a superb professional – and professionalizing – experience for our graduate students. It was an important event that surely made visitors think Chapel Hill is the center of the universe for 19th-century American scholarship.”

The conference was “perfect,” Thrailkill said.

“It was intellectually stimulating, as everyone predicted, from the participants to the panels. Not only did the papers reflect the theme, Commons, so did the myriad conversations that happened during C19 proper – the exchange of ideas and the shared intellectual property,” she said.

New elements to this C19 conference were six seminars designed to foster conversation about shared topics. Three panels, called “Carolina Commons,” brought guests to three campus sites – Ackland Art Museum, Wilson Special Collections Library, and the IAH and adjacent McCorkle Place – to explore the history of UNC’s common grounds.

Richards led a panel at Wilson Library that opened the archives for guests to discuss the history and importance of liberal arts, viewing what 19th-century UNC students read and showcasing writing from a southern Confederate woman poet. The Ackland panel explored how artists in the United States represented land in the contexts of nationalist expansion, imperialism and colonialism.

One of the most inspiring parts of the conference began at the IAH then moved outside to McCorkle Place on the UNC Quad to discuss the iconic memorial to North Carolina Confederate soldiers alongside Unsung  Founders Memorial, which honors the men and women of color – enslaved and free – who built the university. Session leaders were African, African American, and Diaspora associate professor Reg Hildebrand and senior lecturer Tim McMillan and American Studies associate professor Tim Marr, all IAH Fellows.

The session was intense and inspiring, said graduate student Leslie McAbee.

“I’d like to develop a course based on that lecture,” she said.

Spin-off conference for graduate students spawned

McAbee, a Ph.D. student in English and Comparative Literature, teamed with fellow graduate student Emma Calabrese to organize a separate but complementary graduate student pre-conference, called UNCommon, held at the IAH. They invited all current and many former Ph.D. students from their department as well as religious studies, American studies, history and art history. More than 80 people attended.

“Students got a first-hand tutorial on how to organize an academic conference and a rich exchange with former professors, current students and professors from many related disciplines,” said Thrailkill. “It was amazing – a resounding success – and that energy carried over into C19.”

McAbee agreed.

“I had the chance to meet talented scholars whose work I’d now like to follow,” she said. “In terms of my professional development, the conference invigorated my relationship to my own research. Conference panels introduced me to great scholarship in multiple disciplines in 19th-century American studies, and I got a sense of how my research could contribute to future conversations.”

Participant and conference volunteer Aaron Shackelford, a Ph.D. graduate in English and Comparative Literature, works at Carolina Performing Arts on an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to integrate academics with the performing arts across campus. He served on a graduate student conference panel discussing alternative careers.

“It’s hard to convey how important this conference is for the entire interdisciplinary field. It allowed us to show the world-class research and ideas that are coming out of UNC. It was wonderful to bring colleagues from around the world to see what a special, collaborative environment we have here,” Shackelford said.

Josh Doty, a Ph.D. student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, presented a paper on Moby-Dick at C19 as well as volunteering extensively for both C19 and the graduate student conference.  He applauded the IAH for hosting the graduate student lunch and reception, which was an important step toward the formation of G19, the new organization of graduate students within C19.

“Having C19 at UNC meant that other graduate students and I could attend scholars’ talks and hear about the most cutting-edge work being done in our field,” Doty said. “Presenting a paper at C19 was one of the most rewarding experiences of my fledgling career. I’m happy that it was well received, but I’m even happier to have received rigorous, intellectually engaged feedback on it.”

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