Community and Connection: Editors in Conversation

As their tenure draws to a close, Katie Arthur and Harriet Thompson reflect on their time working together as editors of the King’s English Blog.

HT: It’s funny looking back on the time when we took over as editors in January 2019; I get that strange simultaneous feeling of it being very recent, but also a quite a while ago. A lot has happened since then! We were both in our first year studying for a PhD in the English Department at King’s and it was an exciting opportunity to be able to curate and commission such a wide range of writing from staff and students. Over two years later, I still have quite a lot of writing to do before I submit my PhD thesis. But having the blog to focus on alongside everything else has been a really nice (and productive) distraction. I didn’t imagine that we’d be spending practically a whole year inside, running the blog from our bedrooms on opposite sides of London. I think the last time we saw each other in person was in January 2020? That is so weird! I do miss the community and energy that comes with working inside the university buildings.

KA: Two years ago! I know what you mean about that odd simultaneous feeling of temporal contraction and dilation – I feel like there must be a word for it somewhere, in some language. Perhaps we should commission a blog on it! The blog has certainly been an anchor, both pre-Covid and now. Working with the department to publish publicly is really exciting, it has definitely helped me engage with the work happening here at King’s in a more thorough and thoughtful way than I might otherwise have given myself time to do. Though it was more fun conducted in the physical presence of the department as you say and it is a shame to have lost the sense of community that so often is linked to space. The blog also serves as a space of connection for the department. You did a wonderful round-up of all the work we had shared around the new year that received a very touching response from the department. Do you think that the functions of the blog have changed as our needs have moved online in the pandemic? It has always been interesting that the blog reaches out to and beyond the department but, perhaps now more than ever, it is also a meeting point of sorts when we cannot do in person.

HT: We’re definitely all looking for community and closeness in new formats and I hope that the blog has helped to provide that in some small way. There’s been such a lot to process and contend with on a global and local scale over the last year. And we’ve seen that writing and reflecting on things as they are happening can be a useful way to cope with uncertainty. I’ve been really proud of some of the work we’ve shared during the pandemic. There have been some important projects launched in the last year, like the Abolitionist Curriculum and Thinking in Crisis Times. Brian Murray’s article about the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol gave a fascinating insight into the late-Victorian idealisation of the 17th-century slave trader. There has been some lovely work by undergraduate students, reflecting on COVID-19 and offering ways of seeking solace in literature during difficult times. We’ve also opened up the blog as a space for creative writing. I do feel that despite everything the last year has offered an opportunity for new kinds of connection through writing. That’s only a small comfort giving how difficult it has been, but it’s important to seek out the little bits of light where we can. 

KA: Absolutely, I think you’ve captured it really well. Being separated the way we have been during the pandemic means we have used new modes of connection and re-evaluated our old ones. The blog has definitely felt particularly responsive over the past year, the examples you’ve mentioned have all stood out to me as ways that we are trying to forge relationships and rebuild as both individuals and a university department. I have found myself struck by the ideas of solitude and street presence in James Mumford’s piece on the Strand while Fran Allfrey and Beth Whalley’s blog on their virtual #MedievalWiki edit-a-thon shows how we change and adapt. We’ve even ventured into podcasts with Plague Literature and vlogs with Ruth Padel’s pandemic poetry! Ruth’s blog reminds me what a strange start to the academic year it was and makes me think how odd it is to be nearly at the end of it now. Thank goodness our wonderful undergraduate students wrote their series of advice blogs for incoming students. I am always impressed by the variety of work that comes out of the department but the sense of passion and companionship has seemed to surface even more for me this year. It makes me wonder how the blog will evolve in the future, in the hands of it’s new editors!

HT: I’m interested in how (or indeed if) editing the blog has shaped your research interests, methods, and future career plans? For me, the experience has revealed the importance of relationships with colleagues and the benefits of engaging with other people’s work, across disciplines and periods. There’s always a danger of becoming entrenched in your own specialism and not encountering much beyond your small area of expertise. We spend so much of our time working independently and attending seminars and conferences that specifically relate to our field that it can be hard to reach outside these silos. I’ve found editing the blog a wonderful antidote to this phenomenon, which can be especially alienating for PhD students. Working with staff and students from all areas of the department has emphasised how community and conversation is essential to research. Before I started my PhD, I worked in communications for a museum and as a teacher in a secondary school. When I think about it now, those experiences were really foundational in shaping my approach to academic research, teaching, and even in my work here on the blog. I really enjoy amplifying the incredibly wide-ranging work that people are doing and through that gaining a deeper understanding of how my own interests fit into a broader research picture. 

KA: Definitely: I think the word ‘impact’ can seem particularly formidable to a subject like English Literature but we see it all the time. The blogs often share ways of reading and thinking about texts that all come to bear on how we understand ourselves in relation to history: I’m thinking specifically about the blogs by our Post Graduate Research peers Lizzie, Pavan, and Jamie on the concept of time in WW1; queer identity in Singapore; and the many insights that arose from the Configurations of Empire conference. The blog has definitely encouraged me to look beyond the confines of my subject area but it has also given me some incredible opportunities to delve deeper into it. Fiona Anderson and my supervisor, Mark Turner, had a cheerily nostalgic discussion on queer studies, cruising, and Queer@King’s. I interviewed King’s own Sebastian Matzner and the founder of ParaPride Daniel Lul on the new artist-in-residence scheme by Queer@King’s. The wonderful Victoria Carroll shared a piece on Jerome Caja for the Queer@King’s collaboration with KCL Chaplaincy. And I even wrote a blog on my trip across the Eastern coast of the US in search of archive materials on the obscenity trials of William S. Burroughs and John Waters. Writing for the blog format is a different challenge to the doctoral thesis. My background is also in Communications and in Policy the goal is to be as accessible and succinct as possible. I try to do this in my academic writing, to varying degrees of success! How have you found it?

HT: I have found at various points that the blog has resonated with my own work in both form and content. My research is concerned with the ways in which technology produces new kinds of subjectivities and ways of thinking in nineteenth-century literature. I look specifically at the electric telegraph, the new kind of labour it produced, and how this was represented in literary fiction. I wonder if our role as editors, facilitators, and communicators for the blog has some parallels with the Victorian conception of telegraph work, and telegraph operators as mediums who channel messages across the ether? Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, but I am intrigued by how our contemporary understanding of different kinds of technological labour still bears the imprint of our nineteenth-century predecessors. I wrote something a while back about telegraph literature and telegraphy’s imaginative association with the spiritualist movement. I was also struck by the resonances between my research and Imogen Free’s work on telephony in the twentieth century, which she wrote about in her blog on the Telepoetics Symposium. Now that we’re logging off from the King’s English blog for the final time, do you have any exciting plans for the future? I’m going to the British Library in person this week, which is one of the most thrilling things to happen in months. That reminds me of Nell Prince’s blog about the joy of reading in a library. Now that we won’t have the blog to productively distract us, I suppose I’m going to have to finally focus on writing my PhD. 

KA: The blogs by Imogen and yourself are so fascinating: I have always enjoyed hearing both of you talk about your work. It will definitely be harder to justify the procrastination without the blog as an excuse. The future still feels more intangible than it did before lockdown, so I think I am leaning into a summer of fewer plans… I do miss the smell of a library though! I know both of us will miss working on the blog and I suppose there is just time to thank all our contributors, readers, and colleagues in the King’s English Department and beyond for their hard work, enthusiasm, and support. I’m so excited to see where our two new editors will take the blog and look forward to sitting on the other side of the Content Management System.

Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.

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