By Andrea Davidson
Andrea Davidson was the Milton Harris Undergraduate Fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute during the 2015-2016 year on Things That Matter. Her project was an investigation of the bird motif in the poetic works of Aemilia Lanyer: “Philomela Matters in Aemilia Lanyer’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611).” She graduated from the University of Toronto with an Honours Bachelor’s degree in English and Renaissance studies. Now Andrea is halfway through her PhD in literary studies at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. Although her Master’s from the University of Oxford was in early modern studies, she has now branched out to research modern youth literature.
My Project at the JHI
A book of poems in English that seems to have had one print run in the same year as the first printing of the King James Bible, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is an interesting tripartite assemblage of: prayerful panegyrics addressed to a circle of noblewomen, a long verse meditation on the passion of Christ, and a country-house poem featuring a mini melodrama of friends who have to depart from each other’s company, supposedly the poet and her patroness.
My project while I was a fellow at the JHI gave me a chance to delve into all of this exploratively. I tried taking a formalist approach, historicizing Lanyer’s religiosity among other contemporary affective devotional practices, and identifying the materialities of objects mentioned in the poems and extant copies of the printed book itself. To wrap up a year of flânerie, I fixated on a bird motif that repeats across all three sections of Salve Deus, held them up against contemporary retellings and translations of the myth of Philomela from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, contrasted those texts about birds with visual representations of Philomela and other bleeding birds that appear more often than you would think on jewels in Elizabethan portraiture, and concluded that Salve Deus is carefully designed to juxtapose Christ’s suffering with the suffering of Procne and Philomela, which results in Philomela’s metamorphosis into a nightingale. It was a privilege to have the time, space, and community to support me doing this kind of research at such an early stage of my career.
My JHI Experience
A desk of my own to drop off and store my books, a cup of coffee and chitchat with friendly colleagues in the morning, before rushing from class to class until Thursday’s seminar lunch—the JHI was a haven for me as an undergraduate commuter student. It was also more than that. The fellows formed a community where we all strove to get to know each other and each other’s research projects so that we could think together. Our Thursday lunches were a chance to rest in the middle of the day while thinking and learning, powered by delicious food. Inspired by topics that came up in these conversations, we made thoughtful outings to the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery and the Woodland Cultural Centre and attended other events on campus together. I remember also visiting special exhibitions at the AGO, Artscape Youngplace, and the Campbell House Museum with my faculty mentor and the other undergraduate fellow whose project he supervised at the JHI; having a faculty mentor in the first place, and thinking through our individual projects, laterally, in the city, on-and-off campus, in dialogue like this, was a wonderful and unique experience during my education.
My Current Project
My doctoral project is called “Writing Talk: Dialogue and construction of age in the early genesis of Aidan Chambers’ Dance Sequence.” Aidan Chambers (1934- ) is an author, critic, educationalist, and sometime editor and publisher of Young Adult literature, and a key figure in the development of YA as a literary form in Britain and internationally from the 1960s to the present. I am researching the process by which Chambers wrote his six most famous and ambitious youth novels, his sophisticated Dance Sequence (1978-2005).
My project has a special urgency because Chambers himself is still alive and writing. He is writing up his own history and poetics of youth literature while I research his past contributions as a literary author to the very same field. I have kept in touch with him—at more-than-arm’s-length these days, and always scrutinizing my scholarly integrity—throughout the process of investigating writing that he did between forty and fifteen years ago. He does not remember or even pretend to remember many of the details of his writing process from back then that I am endeavouring to reconstruct, but he has supplied me with personal papers and records, anecdotes, and a warmly supportive companionship.
Despite Chambers’ importance in the early development of Young Adult literature, children’s literature studies, and the theory of literary education for young people, his novels tend to be considered “difficult,” which means unpopular. They are sometimes considered more literary than most adolescent readers are presumed to be interested in. However, they are very popular in Europe, especially in Dutch, Italian, and Swedish translations. His novel Dance on My Grave (1982) was adapted for film by the French director François Ozon—Été 85 (2020) was shown at TIFF this year.
Chambers may be best known for inventing the gentle “Tell me” approach to literature education, in which teachers guide young readers to think deeply about their reading by inviting conversation with them: “Tell me….” I am investigating if the dialogic “Tell me” approach was as important to Chambers’ creative writing process for the Dance Sequence novels as he has shown it to be in the process of reading such books.
The basis of Chambers’ “Tell me” approach is to invite dialogue between a teacherly adult and a child or adolescent learner reader. The conversation about reading experiences that they have together is what Chambers calls “booktalk.” My project explores if booktalk and the pedagogical attitude toward both reading and intergenerational dialogue that it entails are useful in literary studies, particularly in studies of intergenerational literature such as adult-authored youth and children’s fiction such as Chambers’ Dance Sequence. I’m currently investigating the significance of Chambers’ correspondence from while he was writing the Dance Sequence novels to his process of creating characters, which seems to have been as dialogic as the “Tell me” approach because Chambers often relied on his correspondents’ insights at creative junctures when he had to make decisions about his characters or plot.
The Dance Sequence material is extensive. Because Chambers’ archive is open for research at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the U.K., I have been able to see the notes and drafts and correspondence that were all part of the Dance Sequence novels’ writing process or genesis, so my research takes a text-genetics angle. I am working out a method of age-aware textual genetics. As a side-project, collaborating with Digital Humanities colleagues at the University of Antwerp, I am building a digital platform for reading a selection of Chambers’ literary drafts that could be used both by researchers and in classrooms.
On Humanities Institutes for Higher Education
Humanities institutes of so many kinds have been home-bases for me ever since my fellowship at the JHI—both communities and opportunities. Humanities institutes have built bridges for me between academia and adjacent fields that have enriched my professional development, especially since the scarcity and precarity of academic jobs right now mean scholars have to be flexible and itinerant. All this is to say that I’ve been fortunate enough to find alt-ac jobs at or through humanities institutes. I hope that all academic institutes and centres that engage with the humanities continue to grow in ways that offer opportunities like those that I have benefitted from.
My first experience of a humanities institute was at the JHI. Next, thanks to collaborations between TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) and British heritage organizations, doing my Master’s at Oxford led me to a summer job as a curatorial researcher in the archives of Mount Stuart in Scotland. Likewise, the Middlebury-Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Oxford, which is an academic network centered on a student-exchange program that is administered by Middlebury College, hired me as a library assistant but also welcomed me into a community where I both mentored and was mentored. These jobs carried me through the gap of time between my Master’s and PhD. My next job was in the Collaboratory at the Ryerson University Library in Toronto. I was part of an interdisciplinary team of early-career scholars, all of whom the library hired at about the same time to work together to develop the Collaboratory into a hub that could support interdisciplinary and digital humanities projects, matchmake research partnerships, and sustain a network that includes Ryerson’s graduate students. I left that job to do my PhD before I saw this vision through, being part of that team impressed upon me that humanities and interdisciplinary institutes can be keystones for both project development and community building, and that they are strengthened by including diverse members at all stages of academic studies or career. That last idea certainly comes from what I learned as an undergraduate fellow at the JHI.