UW-Milwaukee’s Women and Gender Studies program held its third lecture in the Fall Brown Bag Series on Nov. 16 where two very different topics were connected and combined: James Joyce and disability studies.
Sarah O’Connell, an English PhD candidate, presented on her topic “Gerty Makes a Scene: Sexual Selfhood and Disability in James Joyce’s Ulysses.”
The Brown Bag Series was started at UWM in 2011 by Professor and Chair of the Women and Gender Studies Department, Carolyn Eichner. Eichner has organized the series every year except for the year she was on sabbatical.
“The idea behind the Brown Bag is to allow scholars and advanced PhD students to present their current research in a somewhat informal context, providing the scholar/PhD student both a forum to present their work, as well as feedback on that work,” said Eichner.
“It also allows faculty and grad students to know what sort of new and ongoing research is happening on our campus. So it has both an intellectual and a collegial aspect.”
Eichner presented her research on “Feminism, Imperialism, & the ‘Jewish Question’ in 19th-Century France” in Oct. of 2011.
The Brown Bag series is not exclusive to only UWM, but is held at various other universities and in other academic departments. Those series are completely independent of those held by UWM’s Women and Gender Studies Department.
O’Connell was recommended by distinguished English professor, Jane Gallop, to Eichner to take part in the series.
O’Connell’s focus for her PhD is on 20th century British Modernism and Disability studies and through her research there, found the topic for her talk.
“My dissertation is interdisciplinary so it looks at literature to talk about representations of disability which is what the chapter is about but it’s also a way to tie in something really old – 20th century British Modernism – to something really new – disability studies – and sort of disrupt the way these texts get read and also think about new ways that we can see them differently just based on what’s already there,” said O’Connell.
“So you don’t make up something about the character, you just kind of think about it through a different lens and that’s kind of what my work has been.”
Choosing to present on James Joyce’s Ulysses was an extension of prior work that O’Connell had done, as well as a part of a chapter that she is working on for her dissertation.
O’Connell knew that presenting on Joyce to a group that may not have read him was going to be a challenge that she hoped her research and content would clarify.
“Sometimes when you sit with Joyce people it’s like inside baseball. Like they know everything about it and they assume everyone else does. And so you get to these talks and you’re like ‘Wow, I don’t remember that sentence on the thousand page novel that the thing is. So presenting on Joyce and making it clear to people who haven’t read it is hard, and it’s also important because otherwise it’s just this book that like five people are excited about,” said O’Connell.
Those who attend the Brown Bags are typically UWM faculty and graduate students, although the talks are open to all members of the campus community, as well as the larger Milwaukee community.
The attendance at O’Connell’s talk was at around 13 people.
The talks are typically followed by a brief discussion where the presenter can get feedback from those in attendance.
The feedback and environment of the Brown Bags are important to Comparative Literature and Women and Gender Studies Professor Kristin Pitt, who presented earlier this year on “Representing Feminicide: Literary Approaches to Gendered Murders.”
“It’s always useful to get feedback, but also to establish a community of people on campus who are interested in this kind of research,” Pitt said.
For O’Connell, the feedback she received is essential to ensuring that her research makes sense.
“Sometimes when you’re working on a chapter, you think that what you’re doing is really clear and then you share it with people who don’t know what you’re talking about, and they look at you like they don’t know what you’re talking about,” said O’Connell.
“It means you haven’t really thought about how your stuff is going to sound or how it’s going to be perceived.”
Even though most of the Brown Bags are attended by faculty and graduate students, Eichner hopes that undergraduates will see the value in attending the talks.
“I think attending the Brown Bags is an excellent experience for students, because they can be exposed to research and scholarship, and hopefully understand a bit better the work that professors do beyond the classroom,” said Eichner.
O’Connell sees the value of the Brown Bags as being more related to Women and Gender studies, and the importance of the department.
“Because Women and Gender studies benefits all of us. And we as a community, and by ‘we’ I mean a campus community, need to not only be aware of other people’s work but learn to talk about and celebrate those things,” said O’Connell.
“Sometimes Women and Gender studies is like this special cutoff from the rest of the world kind of place when really, Women and Gender studies is about the community and the world so we need to gather as a community and talk about it. Whether we’re women or apart of the department or not. You know it’s not a niche thing.”
The last lecture of the Fall Brown Bags series occurred on Dec. 7. The series will continue with a whole new set of lectures and lecturers during spring semester.