by Ana Fonseca
For the majority of us English majors on campus, NUCL is such an integral part of our department that it’s hard to remember that this undergraduate conference is not only relatively rare, but also a fairly innovative way for us to engage in our field of study.
As an intern this year, not only have I gotten to help shape the conference, but I’ve also been able to step back and appreciate NUCL for the special opportunity that it offers us as students, thinkers, and human beings especially jazzed about a good work of literature.
NUCL accepts submissions of mainly critical essays, but also personal essays and poetry, from students all over the Northwest, and UP professors and interns join up to choose the most compelling pieces. The day of the conference there are three sessions with different cool panels you can choose from (see the program for more information!) in which those chosen present their work. There’s a common thread among the panels, so if you’re particularly interested in issues of gender, there’s a panel for that; if you’re particularly interested in personal essays, there’s a panel for that; if you’re particularly interested in the queer in the pastoral, there’s even a panel for that!
What I think is most special about this conference is that it’s active; after students present their work the rest of the session is all about discussion. The climate NUCL provides is just right—not quite as formal as a classroom setting, yet not quite as informal as chatting with friends over coffee about what you’re reading. It’s an opportunity for the audience to engage panelists, for panelists to engage the audience and each other, and for academic conversations with peers on what’s fresh, exciting, compelling to us about literature. We can share that giddiness that literature makes us feel, as well as the product of our ideas and hard work, with one another.
Especially at a time when there are so many attacks on the value of our work in the humanities, NUCL is really about celebrating and reveling for a day in the work that we do. NUCL’s keynote speaker this year, Janine Utell, associate professor and chair of the English department at Widener University, says she will speak to this issue in her keynote address. “I’m interested in the question of why literary criticism matters, especially in a time when, in the humanities and English particularly, we talk a lot about ‘crisis’: the ‘crisis in the humanities.’ I want my comments to affirm the good work and passion of every person in that audience; I want to give the audience some ideas for how to respond to the question of why literature matters; and I want to articulate for others and for myself what literary criticism is supposed to do. Ultimately, I think it’s a combination of a desire to play and a desire to understand others that draws us to literature, and good criticism is both a space for those desires to come together, and a guide for how to uncover the potential for those impulses in what we read.”
Dr. Asarnow started NUCL in 2004 because, as he often says in class, “Literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum.” He wanted to give undergraduates a public forum to express and share ideas, and he noticed that there were not many undergraduate conferences on literature around. I actually googled to see how many are out there, and I could only find a handful scattered about the country. Dr. Brassard is co-chairing for the first time and she has been a long-time attendee of NUCL. She recalls that NUCL was one of the reasons she chose to work at UP: “I still remember when I was applying for my position and Dr. Asarnow used NUCL as one of the selling points of having a job here, and how impressed I was. To me it signaled not only that was this a school that cherished teaching over research, and that undergraduate teaching was very much at the forefront of what we do as faculty, but also that we take the work that students do seriously; the fact that we have an entire conference devoted to the thinking, writing, ideas of our students and other students, to me was the most significant aspect.”
Dr. Weiger, who has been co-chairing NUCL for three years, speaks to this focus on undergraduates. “My favorite part is seeing familiar faces back and also seeing the crowd reinvigorated by fresh faces. There’s something really gratifying about seeing the group of participants and seeing familiar faces that are participating year after year, as well as seeing the new crop.”
We interns are really eager for the conference because not only have we gotten to read the submissions (they’re great!), but also we’ve gotten to see NUCL in action, and are excited about what it means to us as students. Jillian Stephens, NUCL intern, says it best when she says, “Personally, what I love about NUCL is that as an English student you feel like one of the only few people on the planet that actually cares about this stuff, you feel like everyone else is so much more centered on, you know, business, or other more concrete fields of study, and it’s nice to know that there are other students that are just like us, that are intellectuals as well. I think it’s just really nice to see other people our age participate.” I’m right there with Jillian, NUCL brings you together with a community of people excited to revel in literature, we hope you make it to the celebration.