Four students stare at scans of more than 600 pages of old diaries—cursive handwriting in French, English and Latin. They've put in countless hours translating these seemingly illegible diaries as cross-marks and splotches collect to cover their own handwritten pages.
The assignment was frustrating. There were a lot of sleepless nights. And they had to put off work from other classes.
But all the struggle proved worth it for the Northern Kentucky University English majors, as it led to this week's presentation at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) in Oklahoma City. Established in 1987, NCUR is a highly competitive interdisciplinary conference that promotes and celebrates student research, welcoming student researchers of all academic backgrounds to share their work with others.
In Fall 2017, Zorada Porter, Charlotte Kalfas, Shannon Foxton and Jozephine Bliss were tasked by Dr. Andrea Gazzaniga, an Associate Professor of English at NKU, to transcribe the diaries of 19th century British poet Michael Field. Don’t let the name fool you. Michael Field was not a man but instead the pseudonym used by Katharine Bradley and her niece Edith Cooper—collaborating poets and lesbian lovers. The diaries are a fascinating look at an era skeptical about collaborating writers and unaccepting of their sexuality. Even within literary circles, the two have been largely unknown until recently.
Dr. Marion Thain, professor and director of digital humanities at New York University, asked Gazzaniga if she was interested in transcribing the 1907 volume of Cooper and Bradley’s diaries—a volume which contains the story of their conversion to Catholicism—as part of her work creating the Michael Field Online Diaries Digital Archive. Gazzaniga searched for students with career aspirations that would benefit from scholarly and archival work to transcribe and annotate the diaries and, eventually, present at NCUR. To apply, students translated a page from the diaries and wrote a short essay about how the project would benefit their professional goals. After choosing the best, Gazzaniga applied for both a project grant and a faculty-student collaborative grant. The project was fully funded, even covering associated travel to the conference.
The NCUR presentation will be split into two sections. Porter and Kalfas will give an oral presentation about the research and explain how the journals can be used to understand life for 19th-century same-sex couples. Foxton and Bliss will present a poster with a side-by-side display of the original manuscript and what the completed transcriptions will look like in the online archive.
At the onset of the project, the students weren’t sure what it would involve. Kalfas says she didn’t know if she would like this type of work, but, once she started transcribing, found herself having fun. The project reinforced this is what she wants to do with her life.
“This is the first time I felt like I’m contributing to the literary discussion,” Kalfas says. “This is something I’m sharing to the large group. I want to study late Victorian literature.”
One of the more complicated parts of transcription was searching for vague references made by Bradley and Cooper, as the poets had a habit of giving friends and other poets nicknames. The undergraduates had to sift through various documents and newspapers from the era to unravel the mystery of who these names actually referred to.
To prepare for the presentation, Bliss says the students first met to discuss plans for the conference and work on a collaborative research paper that could serve as a starting point for the presentations. They also discussed potential questions conference attendees may have about the project and developed clear, detailed answers in advance.
For her part, Porter is taking a few extra steps to prepare. She is reading Thain’s monograph, "Michael Field: Poetry, Aestheticism and the Fin de Siècle,” as well as re-reading their poetry collection to gain a deeper perspective on Bradley and Cooper. Imitating the two poets, Porter’s kept her own diary documenting her preparation for the conference.
Kalfas is also re-reading the original works and says that she and Porter have split the research according to what is most relevant to each of them. Porter, who loves art, will talk about the art references in the work, while Kalfas, a literature buff, will focus on literary aspects.
Porter hopes people will enjoy hearing about the team’s research on Michael Field, who’s even unknown to most English buffs. The hopeful future literature professor wants to open the door for a wider understanding of women in literature and show that there is more to literary studies than reading the works of white males. Working on the project is major work for the students, and presenting at NCUR—which Porter calls her first “big girl” conference—has some of them feeling somewhat anxious.
“To sum up, I’m nervous,” Porter said. “I’m internalizing my panic. Any additional nervousness blends into more nervousness.”
Kalfas, like Porter, is an introvert and shares this fear of presenting in front of people. The two hope that, when one gets nervous, the other will realize and take over. This way, they expect they can get through the presentation.
Impending stage fright aside, NCUR is an opportunity to gain insight into how academic conferences work. And for Kalfas, who plans on attending graduate school to continue her studies, it will be a chance to connect with other students and professors in the field.
“I hope that we can draw more attention to the work of Michael Field,” says Bliss, who, unlike her co-presenters, doesn’t have fears about the conference but is instead focused on showing others the poets’ importance. “These journals are significant to scholars of women’s and gender studies, and they will help give a voice back to the Victorian LGBTQ community, which has often been overlooked in history.” The journals were previously only available in the British Library, an accessibility issue for curious scholars.
Gazzaniga will be in attendance to see her students educate people about Michael Field’s impact on the literary culture of the time. She calls the presentation a “transformational experience,” and is excited to see the poets’ diaries cited in future research.
“The work these students have done actually matters to a lot of people,” Gazzaniga said. “There’s a large community out there that really values this work.”