Friday, 23 September 2016

North American Association for the Study of Welsh Culture and History Conference: some responses

International Conference on Welsh Studies 2016
Sponsored by The Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University 20th - 22nd July 2016


Matthew Rhys

“It was an enormous thrill to see Wales being represented so bountifully on such an enormous global stage as Harvard University. Beyond thrill comes terror - which is what I felt regarding the interview. But also pride at being a part of this event and to be delivering the Annual Richard Burton Lecture. Thrill, terror, pride: a distillation of the Welsh experience!”

Matthew Rhys with conference organisers Melinda Gray and Daniel Williams

Co-orgainser Melinda Gray, Secretary of NAASWCH

What an amazing week it was: three full days of panels, three or four running at a time, and panelists from Wales and the UK in conversation with researchers from the US and Canada, from history and literature departments, and media studies, linguistics, and the social sciences.  Many individual presentations worked across disciplines.  Also, in my memory, no other NAASWCH conference has had so many different sponsors (thanks to Daniel in that regard).  This funding really made the conference possible, helping a number of graduate students to get here, and also making it possible for us to have a variety of wonderful keynote speakers.  NAASWCH President, Daniel Williams, was an enthusiastic and articulate presence at the front of the Thompson Room, inspiring us all with the words of old friends such as William Dean Howells and others from American culture, and making connections to the Welsh culture we had gathered to discuss.  The feedback from participants over the last weeks of the summer has been overwhelmingly supportive and grateful.  Many are looking forward to NAASWCH’s next conferences, and the fact that we were able to draw 100 participants (which, as Daniel knows, I really didn’t believe could ever happen—he kept telling me to believe it, and I doubted until the last) means that our budget will be in very good shape for the next conference, and will allow us to plan, as the executive committee had hoped, additional NAASWCH -sponsored panels at other conferences, or the smaller one-day conferences in places that might be more difficult to get to. The 100 doesn’t include the number of interested people from Harvard who wandered in and out, interested to hear something of the discussion. I’ll be thinking about this conference for a long while, as, no doubt, will many others who were here.

Welsh Studies on display at the Harvard Bookstore

Huw & Rhiannon Williams, Cardiff University

We were in the very privileged position of being able to attend the NAASWCH annual conference together, with both of us presenting in one of the numerous parallel sessions.  There were a number of aspects of the conference which were immediately striking, and one of those was the sheer volume of papers being presented.  This, combined with some famous plenary speakers, and the fact that we were at such an illustrious institution (which in part added a sense of the surreal to the conference, in feeling that you could be on a film set) meant that there was a real sense of occasion.  This in turn contributed to a feeling of pride that such a conference was focusing on Welsh studies, and gave a sense of what is possible in this regard.  Both of us agreed by the end of the three days that such a showpiece event could really inspire attempts to provide similar occasions on a more regular basis, especially back in Wales, and where it is properly managed and well thought out there can be a genuine platform for the kind of sustained academic debate our nation merits and requires.


In terms of my own research this was an unique event that allowed me to speak to an informed, expert audience, and to put my ideas to the test.  Meeting so many researchers concerned with Wales gave me an opportunity to extend our network of colleagues, and installed a confidence that Wales has a thriving intellectual tradition, which is encouraging in times of national insecurity.  Being able to present, discuss and listen to the variety of papers in NAASWCH has given me confidence in my academic voice, and as an early career researcher, this is all important.  I hope that the feelings of encouragement, camaraderie, and possibility that I experienced at the conference will sustain my confidence in academia for a long time.


For me, the conference was a real eye-opener because of the breadth of discussion and debate, especially as it was the first time I had been at a conference with such a focus on Wales.  It was an unique opportunity to present my research to an informed audience and get valuable feedback on my ideas.  It was also an excellent opportunity to get to know other researchers and make valuable contacts, as well as it being a very enjoyable, social occasion.  I very much enjoyed the variety of presentations, and in particular for me it was valuable to hear figures like Mike Sullivan and Helen Mary Jones discuss their experiences in the political sphere, and it was to the credit of the organizers that one felt there was a bridge between the academic world and other non-academic spheres.  A thoroughly enriching experience.

Rhodri Morgan delivering his keynote address on Wales and the Break-Up of Britain

Colin Thomas, film director

So what would it be today? – “Seduced Ignorant People”, Cynan Llwyd on the Welsh Puritans or “That’s Not Bloody True, I’m as Welsh as Anybody”, Sophie Williams on Welshness and Basqueness? Sometimes deciding on the most interesting talk to listen in on at the conference of the North American Association for the Study of Welsh Culture and History was agonisingly difficult.

Especially as it was held this year at Harvard (July 20-22) and you could also slip out and buy an iced coffee in glorious sunshine on Harvard Square. Or check out the impressive range of Welsh books on display at the Harvard Book Store.

And in the evening you could opt to hear Menna Elfyn reading her wonderful poems, most of them in Welsh, to a jam-packed audience at the historic Grolier Bookshop or argue whether Rhodri Morgan had been over pessimistic in his talk about post Brexit Wales over a beer in the Beat Brasserie.  

The organisers of the conference – Dr Melinda Gray from Harvard and Prof Daniel Williams from Swansea University – provided a feast of intellectual delights. Often the insights at academic conferences come from conversations outside the formal sessions but this time there were revelations inside Harvard’s hallowed halls too.

One in particular will stick in my memory – the ‘Transatlantic Wales’ session included Huw Osbourne on “Ivor Novello, Wales and the Celebrity Batchelor” and Robin Griffiths on “Queer(y)ing Masculinity, Stardom and ‘Welshness’ in the Films of Richard Burton.” The session ended with Mark Rhodes from Kent State University talking about the way in which Wales has memorialised Paul Robeson and the Spanish Civil War, pointing out that many of the War’s memorials in Wales duck the issue of why Welsh International Brigaders went to fight in Spain completely.

My own contribution to the conference compared the situation of Welsh migrants to America in the past with that of migrants to Wales in the present, based on my app The Dragon and the Eagle/Y Ddraig a’r Eryr. I only had a twenty minute slot but I will certainly be making the most of it from now on, casually dropping into dinner party conversations “as I said in my lecture at Harvard….”

Menna Elfyn reading at the Grolier Poetry Bookstore

Clare Davies, PhD student, CREW, Swansea University

I had the great privilege of being part of the recent Swansea University-organized NAASWCH conference, held at Harvard University. Not only was it my first experience of an international conference, it was also my first visit to the US. I have long been interested in American literature and culture, and have often looked to the US for inspiration, so the opportunity was too good to miss. My own research is marked by a comparative approach to literature, exploring the work of writers and intellectuals within a transatlantic framework. I delivered a paper on the relationship between the American-born T S Eliot’s views on culture and those of the Welsh poet David Jones, who was published by Eliot at Faber. To have been able to have explored the importance of T S Eliot’s New England roots at his alma mater was definitely not an everyday experience! The whole experience was fantastic and, for me, incomparable to any other conference.

Delivering my research to such an interested and supportive audience was hugely beneficial to my own intellectual development. As the conference was multidisciplinary, there was a much wider range of scholarly interests than I am used to, and it was really helpful to receive feedback from scholars I do not usually encounter. This wide range of papers also allowed me to learn about a host of different topics. I particularly enjoyed learning about Welsh intellectual history (I write on intellectuals, but from a literary rather than a historical background, so this session was very helpful) and on nineteenth-century Welsh American literature. I also had the opportunity to chair a wonderful session on ‘Transatlantic Wales’, which featured papers on Ivor Novello, Paul Robeson and a striking reading of the films of Richard Burton through the lens of queer theory. I left the conference feeling inspired and invigorated, and eager to pursue some of these new ideas within my own research.

It was a great opportunity to see some of the most exciting research being done within Welsh Studies from students and scholars from across the globe. I am aware of the importance, in this increasingly competitive academic environment, of broadening academic networks which can help to lead to further research and teaching opportunities, collaborative activities and help to highlight further areas for research. I feel that the NAASWCH conference allowed me to make those new connections, and I look forward to pursuing them in the near future.

The NAASWCH conference was also blessed by its unparalleled location which, in the height of a glorious summer, probably could not have been beaten. To take part in conference held at Harvard University, an institution of world-renown, is definitely the highlight of my academic career so far.
On a personal level, this conference offered me a rare chance of visiting a beautiful location and exploring some of the local culture and history. On a practical level, taking part in a large international conference also gave me a sense of independence and self-reliance. Being involved in the conference registration, meeting delegates and helping ‘on the ground’ also helped to boost my confidence in my own abilities. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, taking part in this conference has given me the confidence to pursue the possibility of further research trips, conferences, and even work opportunities, in the US. Having been a part of this conference, I can really recognise the value in collaborative and internationalising initiatives between universities.

Clare Davies and Cath Beard on the registration desk 

Catherine Beard, PhD student, CREW, Swansea University

As a long distance and part time student, I rely on conferences as my main opportunity to share my research, and to network with others in my field. The NAASWCH 2016 conference, being hosted in an unrivalled location, and with an eclectic and wide ranging selection of keynote and invited speakers, created a stimulating atmosphere where all facets of Welsh interests could be explored- from Brexit to Burton- via an interdisciplinary tour of the very best Wales focused research being carried out today. The experience of attending and speaking at NAASWCH 2016 has exponentially increased my confidence, allowed me to receive constructive feedback from the very best minds involved in studying Welsh Writing in English, and forged what  hope to be a lasting link with the fantastic Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard. 

Of particular interest to myself were the panels Transatlantic Wales and Disability and Industrial Society. Robin Griffiths paper ‘Kick[ing] Against the System’: Queer(y)ing Masculinity, Stardom and ‘Welshness’ in the Films of Richard Burton was an aspect of Richard Burton’s career and personality I had not previously considered, and modelled a way of reappraising performative masculinity that has thrown some of my own critical readings into starker relief. The Wellcome Trust funded Disability and Industrial Society project continues to produce incredibly interesting and important work, and to see all three authors present together was a rare treat. The outcome was a panel allowing indepth discussion around representations of disability, which involved several attendees working on similar research themes. 

Matthew Rhys in conversation with Daniel Williams was a pairing that would not have happened anywhere else (outside certain NY welsh sports bars, or so we learned), and an example of the uniqueness of the NAASWCH experience. Rhodri Morgan on Brexit was a speaker I would be hard pushed to hear elsewhere, and certainly not in as majestic a setting as the Thompson Room. On a similar note, the opportunity to hear Marc Shell was incredible. Not many students in the first year of their PhD are lucky enough to have had such an experience, and I am grateful to both Swansea University and the Open University that I am able to say that I both attended and presented a paper at NAASWCH 2016

Meilyr Powell and Sam Blaxland tuck into the substantial packed lunches

Sam Blaxland, PhD student, History, Swansea University

There is always that moment at a conference where I finally come to a conclusion, one way or the other, about whether I am enjoying myself or not. I remember standing in the reception room after the first day of NAASWCH 2016 in Harvard University’s Department of Celtic Languages and Literature, thinking quite decisively that this was a very enjoyable conference indeed. Perhaps the second glass of wine in hand had something to do with that, but in hindsight the sensation was definitely genuine, and not just one artificially spurred on by the grape. It was also a relieving feeling, because no one wants to travel across the Atlantic Ocean for something disappointing.
     It is hard to put a finger on what makes an enjoyable conference, because there are so many aspects to such an event (the people, the papers, the place, the surroundings, the food, and the consequent atmosphere that a combination of these things creates).  Perhaps it is worth rattling through each to try and dissect why I had such a good time.

I have been musing about whether it is too saccharine to claim that a Welsh studies conference is bound to have likeable people attending it. I am sure we are all allowed to show a little bit of this kind of passive patriotism though, and I was very heartened at how friendly a cohort was in attendance for these few days. In many ways, those people working on Welsh studies (and, specifically in my case, Welsh history), do tend to have quite a matey arrangement going on – but I don’t think this stifles disagreement or debate, it just makes the process friendlier. On this occasion, for me, there were faces old and new. One minute I was giving a hug to my old Master’s supervisor who I hadn’t seen properly for years, and seconds later talking to an enthusiastic delegate who I had never met before about the Marxist feminist Beatrix Campbell, who I had mentioned during a paper and who he knew well. There were lots of new contacts to meet, and friendly networking to undertake, and I meet plenty of people with whom I had fruitful and rewarding discussions. The only time I ever chose to sit by myself during a lunch was if I wanted to write some thoughts down. Otherwise, there was no need to be isolated.

In the formal sessions of papers, there was plenty to entertain and interest. I sat, during his keynote address, watching Rhodri Morgan give one of his typically bombastic performances with an open mouth for the entire duration, as he savaged the Labour voters of the Valleys for wanting to leave the EU. It was very revealing and I enjoyed it enormously as a result. There’s no point in giving a blow-by-blow account of everything else I saw over three days, but the papers that stick in my mind were Andrew Edwards’ on how many of London’s painting were moved to North Wales during the Second World War; Russell Deacon’s on political businessmen; and an entire panel on how we think about devolution and how it is portrayed in the media. I ended up making what I feared were some rather harsh remarks in the latter about the sometimes-uninteresting nature of Welsh Assembly politics, but it was a mark of the good natured discussion amongst everyone involved that they could distinguish between a criticism of the subject matter itself, and not their approach to it, or research on it.
    After every panel, emerging back into the American sun served as a reminder that we were far from Wales.

I loved Harvard – as I thought I might – and was pleasantly taken aback by its lack of Oxbridge formality and stiffness - which I experience as a researcher there from time to time. Harvard was relaxed and friendly, although perhaps our visit being out of semester time had something to do with that. I took a few enjoyable opportunities to wander around (as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote ‘not all who wander are lost’), and managed to poke my head in a few bookshops. I stayed in Downtown Boston, and found the experience utterly refreshing (and, again, a relief) after a week previous scurrying around New York, feeling like it was a criminal offence to stop, sit down, and relax. Boston, and its people, had a friendlier and softer edge to them, and I do want to go back very much to walk the parks again and take in the city.
     When I ate out in Cambridge and Boston the food was great, and the conference meals were excellent – I have never had such good quality, or (this being the United States), BIG conference meals before. 
     From dawn until dusk, then, each experience was a pleasant one. The conference was an intellectual and social pleasure, and the organisers deserve credit and thanks for ensuring it went off without a hitch. They also ensured that there was much to get our teeth into – in a metaphorical and (given the size of the lunchtime sandwiches) a very literal sense too.

Keynote: Marc Shell, Harvard University,  'Language Wars'

Adrian Osbourne, PhD student, CREW, Swansea University

Attending the 2016 North American Association for the Study of Welsh Culture and History (NAASWCH) conference at Harvard University was an amazing experience that I am extremely grateful to have enjoyed. To begin with, there is the fact that it was held at one of the most renowned and prestigious academic institutions on the planet and it offered a close-up display of how such universities operate and the ways that they maintain their reputation as world-leaders in research. Also, it is now a source of some pride that I can say I have delivered a conference paper at Harvard University and my deep gratitude goes out to those that organised the event and helped fund the trip. The memory of presenting my research at NAASWCH 2016 will always stay with me due to a variety of reasons, of which a minor but symbolic one was my first time of having to use a microphone, indicating the scale of the facilities. More importantly, it was the audience composed of some of the most scholarly and respected academics specialising in Welsh studies from around the globe that really made it a special occasion. The Question and Answer session at the end of the panel was a particularly challenging and enjoyable event as world-experts in the field provided stimulating and rewarding queries and approaches to my talk which was based around my research into the fifth poetry notebook of Dylan Thomas, acquired by Swansea University at auction for its archives. In addition to the invaluable experience I garnered from presenting at NAASWCH 2016 was the intellectual development I gained from attending the other papers. These ranged from ones given by postgraduate students like myself in the early stages of research to those from established and well-published senior academics and this provided a diverse spread of topics in the area of Welsh culture and history. There were also the fascinating keynote speakers, such as the actor Matthew Rhys and the former First Minister of Wales, Rhodri Morgan, who provided a wide range of material to debate, from the challenge of presenting Welsh culture abroad to the political realities of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. There were also many chances during the days to forge some links of mutual interest with the other academics attending the conference and to promote my research into the notebook and Swansea University’s role in funding it. This chance to create interest in the research being undertaken by the English department at Swanseas University was very rewarding and has greatly helped develop my personal and academic confidence. Overall, I feel very lucky to have been able to take advantage of the opportunities NAASWCH 2016 offered to me at the start of my academic career.

Keynote: Sarah Prescott, 'Archipelagic Elegy'

Photo Gallery (thanks to Ade Osbourne):