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Florence in Words

The Workshop Weekend at the University of Lincoln, England

Formally, the workshop I attended during the weekend of July 19/20 was part of the Contemporary Women’s Writing Collaborative Skills Development Programme, an innovative, imaginative creation funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of Great Britain, and directed by Dr. Lucie Armitt and Dr. Susan Watkins, two women I met at a conference in Taiwan during the summer of 2012. Apparently, my talk, “Lost and Found—And What Happened Next,” had, in part, inspired them to apply for funding. They asked for permission to use my name and cite my work. The impetus for their energy: along with their interest in contemporary women writers, they knew that graduate students and young faculty were challenged by a difficult and changing job market, for which new skills were needed even for the most diligent and accomplished.

As Lucie wrote to describe the program: “Some sessions have been very practical in focus (e.g. how to construct a successful CV) but others have been based around the first-hand experiences of high-profile figures . . . and provide an invaluable opportunity for…a more interactive conversation.” She said I was welcome to attend both days. The participants were 20 postgraduate researchers, some writing doctorates, some working at temporary teaching jobs, and a few early career researchers. Saturday’s curriculum was, to me, both novel and practical. Dr. Yuwei Lin, of the Creative Arts, Farnham, offered first a talk on “Gendered Innovation in Information, Communication, and Entertainment Technologies,” and then, instruction in “How to Use Digital Mapping in Writing-Related Research.” The first session reminded me of the early days of women’s studies when we focused on sexist language and usage in all spheres of language and movement. The second was an area I’d like to know more about, since I like using maps and had not imagined their sex-bias. As part of the learning process, the group went out to a nearby neighborhood to remap an area, keeping in mind what might be useful to women with baby carriages, for example, or elderly people needing a place to rest.

On Saturday afternoon, a novel training experience: Organized by media professionals at Lincoln University, each participant taped both a radio and a television interview, both of which would be reviewed by the group on Sunday afternoon.

On Saturday evening, the participants, the two directors, and the two invited speakers attended a formal dinner at Wig & Mitre, whose address factually describes its location—12 Steep Hill, in an historic area of Lincoln, near the Cathedral and the Castle. The food was wonderful, and slow to arrive, which allowed me to get a sense of the participants, and to ask my own questions. “You all look very young to me,” I said, “Some of you could pass for teenagers.” They smiled happily, I thought, and when asked “How many of you are under thirty?’ more than the majority raised their hands. Most of the others were in their thirties.

No one had understood that I was 85—I think they thought they were inviting someone who was 65. Perhaps that’s the age that young people imagine when they think of someone who is, well, “old.” I asked other questions: Are they feminists? Have they been activists? What do they know about the past 40 to 50 years? And soon enough, I knew I could be useful even if I simply described what life was like for academic women half a century ago. And so on Sunday morning
I talked about my long, thwarted relationship with Virginia Woolf, my attempt in the 1950s to establish her as my dissertation subject, despite my professor’s negative views. I talked about making decisions later to give up scholarship for the Feminist Press, and what that meant now to my life. In short, I talked about choices. And I came away, as I had back in Taiwan, with mixed feelings, wondering whether anything I said had been useful. I came away seeing myself as something of a “relic,” a “throwback,” a living fossil, though I ignored the word “living.”

Sunday afternoon provided the excitement of radio and TV playbacks and some discussion, while a photographer worked around us. (The photograph of me is one he has asked to post on his web site.) In the final summary session, participants discussed the “wider impact of intellectual work,” beyond a single course of study or teaching. They noted their appreciation of entrepreneurial aspects of the workshop that might make them additionally employable, as in learning how “to market one’s self.” There was also a bit of talk about the “wider impact of intellectual work.”

It’s a month later, and I’m willing to say I don’t know whether I was of use. I am grateful to Susan and Lucy for the invitation and I want to offer special thanks to Rosalyn Casbard of Lincoln University, who arranged my air and train travel with special “care,” which meant that people met me to help me with luggage and provide a wheelchair. And I am very grateful.
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