All the World’s a Page – How to Travel the World with Literature

This exhibition is the result of a year-long series of workshops and virtual meetings around the topic of Transnational Citizenship, which came about as part of the Oxford-Berlin partnership. We brought together fifteen doctoral students or early-career researchers from Oxford, Humboldt University and the Freie Universität, who shared an interest in transnational and comparative aspects of literary studies. Their research covered a vast geographical area and stretched from the early modern period to the present. In the workshops we discussed theoretical texts together in seminar sessions, and everyone gave a paper on their research to the rest of the group, so that we could find common themes and approaches – or indeed debate the pros and cons of different ones. A particularly striking aspect of the workshops was how quickly everyone learnt to present their work in ways that could be understood by non-specialists. To have an exhibition as a final goal challenged everyone to translate one’s academic research, without losing coherence or ambition, into material objects that captured complex questions relating to migration, identity, translation and travel among other things, and yet were accessible to a broad audience. This skill is not something that is taught as part of our traditional doctoral programmes, which are rightly focused on excellence in research, but it is increasingly important for young academics, and also for doctoral students who aim to find jobs outside academia. Crucial in this respect was the input from Victoria McGuinness from TORCH. Victoria led sessions both in the Berlin and Oxford workshops, which included museum visits and the chance to talk to curators. We were also joined by colleagues from across the universities, including Elleke Boehmer, Philip Ross Bullock, Jörg Dünne and Laura Marcus.

Gesa Stedman hosted the kick-off meeting of the network in the Centre for British Studies of the Humboldt University, in October 2018.

‘Seeing the next generation of researchers engage with this topic across periods and individual interests has been highly rewarding, and invigorating for my own research. The topic of transnational citizenship has sparked both conceptual issues and reflections on specific literary works and historical contexts.’ Gesa Stedman

We immediately realized that the major challenge was going to be how to keep the group focused, given that we were based in two different nations and we would need regular conversations in order to develop the project in view of the final exhibition. The students took care of that brilliantly by dividing into working subgroups and holding regular virtual meetings. Sofia Permyakova, a doctoral student at the Centre for British Studies, took charge of coordinating:

‘How does one bring together an early modern scholar focusing on Montagne and a researcher of Ekphrasis in 21st century novels, scholars researching Argentinian life-writing and Russian migrant authors in Paris between the world wars — and all that for a single late night event? As a group, we thought of a very simple concept that seemed to incorporate most of our research interests — the idea of reading as a form of travelling in both real and fictional worlds. This concept also seems to translate very well for different kinds of public, who share a general interest and love for literature. 

Perhaps, even more importantly, the theme of literary travel also fits the current political moment very well, expressing optimism inherent both in reading and international research: that borders exist to be crossed, and that walls and borders are not — and should not be — an obstacle for both research and literary imagination.’ Sofia Permyakova

The exhibition ‘All the World’s a Page’ is part of the Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften 2019 – a regular event in Berlin, in which cultural institutions such as museums and universities open their doors to visitors until the early hours of the morning. The exhibits will be accompanied by a series of talks and other activities. The Oxford-Berlin group will install itself in the grand Senatsaal, with a balcony overlooking Unter den Linden.

Stefano Evangelista 

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