Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe: It’s Out!

I was absolutely delighted to receive my editor copies of Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe (Manchester University Press, 2021) this week! And indeed on the very day- the one day per year!- that I get to teach Margery Kempe! Talk about serendipitous!

It has been wonderful to see copies making their way to contributors in the UK, US, and Europe! (See below, incl. my co-editor’s lovely kitten!)

#TeamMargery across the world!

If you’d like to find out more about the volume, check out the Manchester University Press webpage here and you can also hear Laura and I talking about Margery, her Book, and the volume on the My Favourite Mystic podcast, hosted by AJ Langley. Listen here.

And thanks to MUP, we can currently offer 40% off if you purchase the book via their website with the code: Kempe21.

We are also having a book launch! Laura Kalas and I will be hosting and many of our contributors will be there to introduce their chapters and to raise a glass to the volume and to Margery! The book launch will take place at 5pm on Thursday 16th December via Zoom. You can register via Eventbrite at this link.

We’re so excited to see the book out in the world, four years after we had the initial idea! A huge thanks to my co-editor Laura Kalas, all our fantastic contributors, and the brilliant team at Manchester University Press. And, of course, to Margery herself!

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Advice for Grads on Social Media (and Blogging): English Faculty Talk

Last week I gave a talk in the English Faculty about Academic Blogging and Social Media for graduate students. I gave a similar talk on blogging a couple of years ago and wrote up my advice in this post.

In this post, I’ll give my advice on Social Media and link to other useful online resources. As ever, a huge thank you to everyone on twitter who offered helpful advice and guidance!

Firstly, I’d like to highlight two brilliant resources: Liesbeth Corens’ Twitter for Students post and Paula Curtis’ Best Practice guide. Both are excellent and well worth reading.

I’ll be talking mostly about Twitter here as that’s where I do most of my academic outreach and social media work. I do have an Instagram (@drlauravarnam) and I use that account differently to my Twitter. I think I have a different audience on Instragram, in part because of the lovely folks that I interact with: many of whom are part of the #bookstagram community, reviewing and talking about books. Over there I share what I’m currently reading (for pleasure and for teaching, if I think there are books that readers would enjoy) and I also share photographs of my Daphne du Maurier books and ephemera.

I am also followed by a number of teachers and I tweet about Oxford and my teaching as a way of dispelling myths about the university and studying English here (#englishatoxford). I have run online ‘readalongs‘ on Instagram (including one on Rebecca, for which you can access the resources here on my blog). For those events, I have posted photographs with prompts for readers to discuss a particular novel over the course of a week. My Instagram is also a little more personal in that I share photographs of my hobbies (there’s many a photograph of a crocheted ripple blanket! See below!).

I think the key here is to think about the identity of your audience, whichever social media you are using. (Many of my younger medieval Twitter colleagues have recommended Tiktok as excellent for public engagement. I’m way too old to know what Tiktok really is but do explore alternative modes of getting your work out there on social media!)

A snapshot of my Instagram account

One thing that I didn’t mention when giving my talk was to consider your bio when you’re setting up your account. This is my Twitter bio:

My Twitter bio

Because I tend to use my Twitter for more strictly academic purposes, I have my institutional affiliation in my bio plus a link to the Society that I run, and my web address is my personal website. Because you can’t link websites in the same way on Instagram, my link tends to change depending on what I’m talking about. (In the screenshot above, I have a link to my latest poetry publication, for example, but that will no doubt change soon!) So have your audience in mind when writing your bio and think about the affiliations you want to highlight and how you want to present yourself and your research in snapshot.

Top Tips for Twitter

I started my talk by outlining some of the benefits of Twitter and the ways in which you can participate positively and productively in the conversation (with many thanks to everyone who contributed their thoughts on this!):

  • Use twitter to build networks: remember the ‘social’ in social media. Retweet, promote, and engage in conversation to build your community.
  • Find your people! For me, this starts with hashtags: #medievaltwitter, #TeamMargery, #twitterstorians (grads might want to check out #phdchat, #academicchatter)
  • Twitter is great for finding out about opportunities: conferences, Zoom events, public engagement opportunities, podcasts etc
  • Use Twitter to ask questions and crowdsource! For research, teaching, advice- most tweeps are very generous in offering their experience and ideas. Many of my advice blogposts are crowdsourced!
  • Use Twitter to share your knowledge and link to useful resources (I often do threads when I’ve taught a class with a large online component so that others can see the kinds of material I’ve used)
  • A really positive thing that you can do is to tweet about great books and articles that you’ve read. That can start useful conferences and build networks too.
  • Twitter is a great way to get to know people in your field, especially before conferences! (I was so glad that I had networked online before the big Chaucer conference in my field- it gave me a great ‘in’ for talking to people, especially academics more senior than me: ‘oh hello, I follow you on Twitter, it’s nice to meet you in person’
  • Livetweeting at conferences is a great way to participate- or to follow along if you’re unable to attend. (But do make sure that you check the social media policy for the conference and only tweet the content of a paper if the presenter is happy for audience members to do so. This is a great post by Sjoerd Levelt on Twitter at conferences)
  • I have often used Twitter for personal accountability when I’ve been struggling to focus or complete a difficult task- I’ll tweet my plans for the morning and once I’ve said it publicly, I feel bound to honour my tweet!! My pal Alicia Spencer-Hall and I completed our monographs in the summer of 2016 by tweeting at each other every day in this way!
  • A really great hashtag for working collectively on twitter is #remoteretreat which was set up by the lovely Lucy Hinnie. Remote retreat provides a timetable for a working day- and in between sessions, you tweet your progress and check in with fellow participants. It’s brilliant and very motivating! Find out more on Lucy’s website here. I’ve done many a tricky bit of writing ‘alongside’ remote retreat pals.

Practical Tips for using Twitter

Here are some of the practical tips that I shared (again with thanks to my lovely followers for their suggestions):

  • Scheduling tools such as Tweetdeck of Hootsuite are useful if you’re running a society or event account or if you want to send out some regular tweets at particular times.
  • Make sure you reference sources and images- this is one way in which we as academics can fight against fake news on the internet!
  • Twitter can be overwhelming and distracting, try not to let it take over! It’s okay to ‘lurk’ or to ‘sign out‘ (I often do this when I know I’m procrastinating by scrolling and I need to sign out for a week or so- I just tweet that I’m signing out and I’ll see people later. This is useful if you’re a very ‘online’ person, so that people don’t worry!). You don’t have to reply to everything or take a position on every current issue. A good piece advice that I received from a friend was to treat a social media comment as like a knock at the front door– you are not obliged to open that door to everyone!
  • Do think about the value you’re adding to a conversation and the tweeters whose voices and material you want to amplify and promote. And do be aware of your privilege– you bring that onto Twitter as into the real world.
  • Social media is public: it’s potentially out there for good! So think about what you’re tweeting- would you want your supervisor / your grandmother / your prospective employer to read your tweets?
  • On a related note, be kind and respectful. Particularly of those who have less privilege than you and come from marginalised communities. Don’t punch down.
  • You could consider having a private account and a public account if you want to differentiate between your tweets and your different identities.
  • One of the questions at the talk was about whether I tweet about personal interests and follow non-academic accounts. I do but then I have a privileged position, given my job etc. I don’t mind my followers knowing that I watch Strictly Come Dancing and I think medieval memes are funny! But you could think about curating your profile (to use a buzzword that I don’t particularly like!!) To build an identity online, you might want to coin a hashtag or tweet about particular kinds of things on certain days to demonstrate your expertise (I often tweet from my collection on #DuMaurierMonday on Instagram for example). It’s worth thinking about these questions before you start mindlessly tweeting!!
  • Know how to lock your account and block/report where necessary. Twitter can be a horrid and angry place (as was raised in the questions at my talk) but I try not to engage where it will add fuel to the fire (ie if I’m being mansplained- they are looking for oxygen and will keep replying!!)

I hope the points in this post are useful. If you have any additional advice or thoughts, please comment below or tweet me! Thanks for reading and do check out my other posts of Advice for Grads and ECRs here on my blog.

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Hallowe’en Backlisted episode: Elizabeth Jane Howard

I was thrilled to be invited back to join the Hallowe’en gang at Backlisted for their episode on Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1969 novel Something in Disguise, alongside regular Hallowe’en guest Andrew Male. You can listen to the episode at this link.

In the episode we mined the weird and psychological seam of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s fiction, including the strange stories that she published with Robert Aickman in 1951 (We Are For the Dark). My personal favourite was Howard’s extraordinary novel Falling, published in 1999 and inspired by her own experiences with a conman. It genuinely gave me nightmares!

NB the episode is full of spoilers!!! So please read at least Something in Disguise before you dive in! (And don’t find out anything about that novel before you read it- don’t even read the blurb! You won’t regret it!)

It was a huge pleasure and privilege to contribute to this discussion. Elizabeth Jane Howard is a truly magnificent novelist and I shall be reading, and rereading, her work for years to come!

If you’d like to check out the previous episodes of Backlisted on which I was lucky enough to make an appearance, there’s the Daphne du Maurier episode and the epic Beowulf episode.

Thanks again to Andy, John, Andrew, and Nicky for a fantastic experience!

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Margery Kempe Society- Teaching Blogpost

My partner-in-crime Laura Kalas and I run the Margery Kempe Society and we have finally got our blog up and running over at our website!

We will be hosting some great blogposts over the coming months from early career researchers talking about their research into Margery and her Book. We also wanted to open the conversation about teaching Kempe, however, so I wrote a post exploring how I prepare my students for approaching Margery Kempe by teaching a class on late medieval religious culture. I find that this is useful way of giving students the context for understanding Margery’s devotional practices and beliefs (her pilgrimages, her interaction with religious objects and her parish church, her personal relationship with Christ, her visions of the Virgin Mary, and so on). Find out more by visiting the Margery Kempe Society website and reading the blog here.

This particular way of teaching The Book naturally arises from my own research interests (I’ve published on Margery and devotional objects here, and her relationship with her parish church here). I’ve recently taught Kempe and her Book to new first year students at Oxford, however, and I am planning a blogpost based on that experience later in the year. If you’ve taught Margery’s Book, please do join in on the hashtag #TeachingMargery over on twitter (and tag in @MargerySociety) and let us know your experiences!

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Beowulf Poetry and new ‘Beowulf By All’ community translation project

Hwaet everyone! It’s continued to be a fun summer on the Beowulf front here! In the last couple of weeks two of my Old English inspired poems have been published online. Many thanks to Ink, Sweat & Tears for publishing ‘Queen Wealhtheow: Cup-bearer’ (here), inspired by the Queen of Heorot in Beowulf, and Green Ink Poetry for including one of my modern riddles in their latest collection on the theme of ‘Pyres’ (here).

I am currently working on a poetry book inspired by Beowulf (and if you’d like to find out more, you can hear two of my poems on the dragon in my Great Writers Inspire podcast here and about Grendel’s Mother on the Beowulf episode of Backlisted here). It’s great to see a couple of the poems out in the world in magazines!

Last month, the wonderful community translation project Beowulf By All was published in book form by Arc Humanities Press. I contributed a dozen lines of translation to this project back in 2016 and it’s been fantastic to see the project come to fruition. The book is available in hardback, paperback, and as a free Open Access PDF download (here).

The brilliant thing about the publication itself is that it’s been set out as a workbook so each page opposite the translation is blank for your own work! Over two hundred different translators contributed to the project and the workbook format encourages readers to get involved too. (I was amused to read my own translation from 2016- I must admit that it isn’t especially stylish!!- and funnily enough I had recently translated part of the same passage for my poetry project and when I compared the two, I could definitely see how far I’d come in terms of my own translation skills!!)

I’ve added a specific page to my blog to collect up all my Beowulf work here (or top right!). I can’t wait to teach the poem again to my incoming Univ freshers! I already have lots of new ideas for how we might approach the poem this year!

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‘Great Writers Inspire’ podcast on Beowulf and dragons!

Hwaet!

I was delighted to be invited to contribute a podcast to the Fantasy Literature strand of the Oxford English Faculty’s Great Writers Inspire series.

You can find my podcast, Desiring Dragons: Creative and Critical Responses to the Dragon in ‘Beowulf’ at this link: here.

For my podcast, I decided to talk about how the dragon in the Old English epic Beowulf has inspired creative writers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, beginning with JRR Tolkien’s response to the dragon in his letters, literary criticism, and translation of the poem, and how he created the dragon of his dreams in the depiction of Smaug in The Hobbit. I then discussed the brilliant 2020 feminist translation of the poem by Maria Dahvana Headley (you can also read my review of the translation in History Today). In the podcast I discuss Headley’s decision to make her dragon female in the translation and the impact that this has on the dragon fight scenes. And finally I read two of my own original poems about the dragon (‘His Dragon’ and ‘The Dragon and the Thief’) from my current poetry project inspired by Beowulf.

If you’d like to learn more about Beowulf, please do have a listen to the episode of the podcast Backlisted in which myself, Andrew Male, John Mitchinson, and Andy Miller introduce the poem and explore modern adaptations and translations. The episode concludes with two more of my own original poems. The link to the episode is here.

It’s a pleasure to be a part of the Fantasy Literature research cluster at Oxford and writing this podcast would have been such a dream for my teenage self! I hope it’s as fun to listen to as it was to write!

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Margery Kempe Society: Call for Submissions

The Margery Kempe Society website

Until July 31st, the Margery Kempe Society is open for submissions for blogposts from graduate students / early career researchers and from all teachers of Kempe and her Book!

Co-founded by myself and my partner-in-crime Laura Kalas, the Margery Kempe Society is a fully-inclusive space to support, and to promote, the scholarship, study, and teaching of The Book of Margery Kempe.

Check out our Call for Submissions here (and a huge thank you to Emily Harless who is co-ordinating the blogpost drive!)

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In other Team Margery news, this week Laura and I were interviewed by the brilliant AJ Langley for a forthcoming episode of her podcast My Favourite Mystic. It was great to talk about the origins of our own interests in mysticism and in Margery, and to have the opportunity to talk about our forthcoming volume, Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe.

(On the subject of which: until 18th July, Manchester University have a sale on! Use the code SUMMER50 and you can get 50% off the forthcoming volume- it’s a bargain for £42.50!)

I’ll post here when our podcast episode is released but it will be in November, to coincide with the publication month for Encountering!

We’re very grateful to AJ for having us on the show. If you’d like to check out the previous episodes, including one with Team Margery’s Einat Klafter, check out this link: My Favourite Mystic.

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‘Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe’, forthcoming November 2021!

My partner-in-crime Dr Laura Kalas and I are delighted to announce that our exciting new collection of essays on The Book of Margery Kempe will be published by Manchester University Press in November this year!

You can find the book on the Manchester University Press website at this link.

This is the blurb:

This innovative critical volume brings the study of Margery Kempe into the twenty-first century. Structured around four categories of ‘encounter’ – textual, internal, external and performative – the volume offers a capacious exploration of The Book of Margery Kempe, characterised by multiple complementary and dissonant approaches. It employs a multiplicity of scholarly and critical lenses, including the intertextual history of medieval women’s literary culture, medical humanities, history of science, digital humanities, literary criticism, oral history, the global Middle Ages, archival research and creative re-imagining. Revealing several new discoveries about Margery Kempe and her Book in its global contexts, and offering multiple ways of reading the Book in the modern world, it will be an essential companion for years to come.

The collection features a critical introduction by Laura and myself plus thirteen essays by leading Margery Kempe experts: Diane Watt, Liz Herbert McAvoy and Naoë Kukita Yoshikawa, Josephine A. Koster, Ruth Evans, Johannes Wolf, Katherine Lewis, Susan Maddock, Anthony Bale and Daniela Giosuè, Dorothy Kim, Sarah Salih, Tara Williams, and of course Laura Kalas and Laura Varnam.

We’re so excited to see this project come to fruition and we’re so grateful for all the hard work of the contributors (‘Team Margery’!) and the brilliant editors at Manchester University Press. Look out for Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe in November 2021!

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History Today: My review of Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf translation

I was delighted to be asked to review Maria Dahvana Headley’s new Beowulf translation by History Today magazine! You can read my review here.

If you’d like to find out more about the history of Beowulf and its translations, we discussed the Headley version, alongside translations by Tolkien, Heaney, and Edwin Morgan, plus a range of adaptations and creative rewritings, on the Beowulf episode of Backlisted podcast, which you can find here: Beowulf on Backlisted (hosted by Andy Miller and John Mitchison, with Andrew Male and myself as guests).

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Moving Holy Women in the Middle Ages: GMS2021 Roundtable

This week it’s the fantastic Gender and Medieval Studies conference! The theme for this year’s papers is ‘Gender and Mobility’ and the conference is being held online, organised by the University of Surrey. More info available here.

I’ll be speaking on a roundtable on Wednesday afternoon entitled ‘Moving Holy Women in the Middle Ages’, sponsored by the Margery Kempe Society, alongside Laura Saetveit Miles, Jennifer N Brown, and my Margery Kempe collaborator Laura Kalas.

The abstract for our session is below and I’m sure I’ll be back to blog about the discussion later this week!

Moving Holy Women in the Middle Ages

Sponsored by The Margery Kempe Society

Within the patriarchal teachings and regulations of the medieval Church, religious women fashioned alternative routes of devotion which enabled the pursuit of a spiritual life. The practice of an “imitatio Christi with specifically feminine inflections” produced what Barbara Newman terms “the womanChrist model”, where women could attain “an exalted status in the realm of the spirit”. Women moved the boundaries of religious expression, creating ‘grey zones’ such as the Beguine life; moved geographically, travelling on pilgrimage; and moved hearts and minds through their teachings. Yet, as Sarah McNamer has explored in her work on affective meditation, compassion in the Middle Ages was scripted as feminine: just as holy women were affectively ‘moved’ by their devotions, so their devotions ‘moved’ other Christians, both in the Middle Ages and beyond. This roundtable explores the meanings of moving, and being moved, in the devotional experience and writings of medieval women and in modern responses to their charismatic mobility.

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