The Eighteenth-Century Seminar: A conversation with Lisa Freeman

Reading Time Symposium, June 14, 2014
Reading Time Symposium, June 14, 2014
Lisa Freeman, University of Illinois at Chicago
Lisa Freeman, University of Illinois at Chicago

Lisa Freeman, associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was one of the prime movers behind the formation of the Center for Renaissance Studies’ Eighteenth-Century Seminar, which has now met three times a year for five years. Recently Lisa sat down with us to reflect on this accomplishment.

Q: The Eighteenth-Century Seminar at the Newberry started in 2009. What was the impetus behind it?

A: Chicago has always had such a rich community of scholars in eighteenth-century studies, but we never really had a forum where we could gather regularly to share ideas, work, and interests. For years, I had been wanting to create an interdisciplinary Eighteenth-Century Seminar that was not identified with any one university and the consortium structure, with its reach across Chicago, the Midwest and beyond, seemed ideal for this kind of project.

Q: You have arranged the seminar so that one meeting each year is more of a formal lecture, with some questions at the end. For the other meetings, papers are circulated in advance and the time is spent in serious discussion. What was your reasoning for this mix of formats? And how has it worked out?

A: The mix of forms has worked out quite well, as each fosters a different kind of conversation and exchange. The formal lectures are designed for the presentation of work that is polished but not yet in print and provides a space for a discussion of ideas that have been honed to a certain point of clarity while still leaving room for give and take. The works-in-progress are just that, works in progress, and allow scholars to present projects that are in the earliest stages of conceptualization. These kinds of exchanges are highly valuable for the kinds of interventions that can take place in the direction and content of a project.

Q: You’ve had presenters from a number of disciplines: English, French, theater, history, art history. Can you talk a little about the objectives and advantages of gathering people from different academic traditions who study the same time period?

A: The main professional organization for Eighteenth-Century Studies is the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. It was founded as an interdisciplinary organization and has a strong commitment to fostering work across the field and the disciplines that compose that field. In this age of globalization, it makes less and less sense to cordon off these rich areas of inquiry from one another. New and lively exchanges are now taking place under rubrics such as transatlantic studies, transnational studies, global studies, etc., and that requires us to look at what might be happening across various geographies and cultural forms during the period.

Q: What do you see as some of the main themes, topics, and concerns for those who study the “long eighteenth century” over the next five years?

A: I think that globalization, transnationalism, and studies of imperial expansion in the Age of Enlightenment will continue to play an important role in the field. Another area in which quite a bit of interesting and illuminating work is being done is Science Studies which examines both the theory and practice of the emergent empirical sciences, and the intersection of those theories and practices, with ideas about the production, representation, and narrativization of new knowledge.

Q: To celebrate the first five years of the seminar, you have scheduled a symposium—which will feature nine scholars from across the country—for June 14. The symposium is called “Reading Time.” Tell us a little about it.

A: “Reading Time” is meant as a play on words in any number of respects. It takes up the question of reading as a leisure and educational activity to which time was devoted; it explores how “time” was conceptualized and “read” during the long eighteenth-century; and it examines competing “temporalities” and the ways they were “read” into the culture. Over the course of our symposium day, the presenters will take up aspects of “reading” and “time” in contexts that are local and imperial, public and private, and fictional and scientific. We have organized the presenters under three panel rubrics: “Imperial Time and Its Others,” “Physics, Physiology, Time,” and “Forming Temporality.” The papers will range from discussions of plays, periodicals, and museums to explorations of race, revolution, and piracy. We think we’ve put together a terrific program and expect it will be an exciting day of scholarly exchange and debate.

Q: We’re looking forward to it—thank you!

Posted by Karen Christianson.

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