Student Spotlight

Student and alumnus Current senior and English major Garrett Peace and alumnus Kasey Haessler went with Dr. Jim Watkins to Oxford, MS in July 2013. They went to both present papers at the graduate level conference: "Southern Writers/Southern Writing Conference", which was held at the University of Mississippi. It is a huge honor for undergraduates to have their essay accepted at graduate conferences, and equally impressive! The English department caught up with Garrett and asked him to tell us about his experience, he had this to say:

What is the "Southern Writers/Southern Writing Conference" all about?

The work presented there consists of a wide variety of different critical interpretations and analyses regarding – as you can probably tell from the name - Southern literature and Southern writers. While it is technically a conference for graduate students, the conference has in recent years started to allow some undergraduate students to come and present as well. I was one of those. I attended this past summer. The other undergraduates that presented consisted of recent Berry graduate Kasey Haessler and a few other students from Mercer.

What was the topic of your paper?

My paper was “Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce: A Study of Subversion in Epiphany.” In short, I connected Joyce’s use of epiphany in his work (especially in Dubliners) and O’Connor’s use of the same. In my paper, I argued that O’Connor was following in the literary footsteps of Joyce by making epiphany an integral part of the structure of her stories, same as Joyce did. If you look at her letters, there is evidence that O’Connor admired Joyce’s writing, especially Dubliners. However, whereas Joyce’s use of epiphany was wholly secular, O’Connor’s use of epiphany showed an attempt to return epiphany to its original nature and usage, that of a religious experience. I was essentially trying to explore the tension between O’Connor’s appropriation of Joyce’s modern, secular technique and the explicitly religious nature of her writing, a tension that I ultimately argued contributed to the power of her stories. I did a small close reading of Joyce’s “Araby” and a more substantial one of O’Connor’s “Revelation” to provide specific examples for my argument.

On a related note, my paper was part of a specific panel at the conference that focused on Flannery O’Connor and her work. The panel was called “Flannery O’Connor: Then and Now.” You can see it on the attached conference schedule.

Was it intimidating presenting in front of people who are in the graduate program? 

Yes! It was very intimidating, particularly as I sat there and listened to the others - who were all graduate students - read their work. However, everyone on the panel graciously expressed interest in my work and gave encouragement (especially after finding out it was my first “real” conference) in the time leading up to the panel, which helped a lot. However, the great amount of support I received from the English department at Berry and specifically Dr. Watkins was especially helpful and confidence-boosting.

Where else did you visit while you were out of town for the conference?

We visited many different places in the few days we were there. I’ll mention just a few here. In addition to attending a few of the social events that were part of the conference, we spent a lot of time in downtown Oxford, including a visit or two to the famous Square Books. We also attended a night of the Oxford Blues Festival, which was being held at the same time as the conference. There was one day, though, that was particularly memorable. One morning – I believe it was our last full day in Oxford - we visited William Faulkner’s grave and his home at Rowan Oak. As someone who counts Faulkner as one of his favorite writers, it was one of the most memorable and impactful things I’ve ever done. Soon after that, once we attended the last sessions of the conference, we drove out to the Mississippi Delta to seek out certain landmarks on the Mississippi Blues Trail, specifically the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale and Po’ Monkey’s, an old juke joint way out in rural Mississippi. Needless to say, it was a unique day, one which I won’t ever forget.

And, of course, all of our travels were guided by Dr. Watkins, whose seemingly endless supply of wit, Faulkner trivia, music knowledge, and overall kindness made the whole trip incredibly entertaining, educational, and all the more memorable.

What was your favorite part?

It’s hard to say. If I had to choose one specific event, the visitation to Faulkner’s grave and Rowan Oak was possibly my favorite thing we did, for reasons outlined above. In general, though, my favorite part of the trip was simply enjoying the company of others, specifically Dr. Watkins and Kasey, who were not only as interested in talking about literature, music, and the like as I was but who were also so knowledgeable about it all and so willing to share their knowledge and experience. That kind of connection is hard to find, and the conference provided a place where it could happen.

Do you think the experience added anything to your academic experience at Berry?

Yes, unquestionably. I learned a great deal about Southern literature and its writers from not only the presentations at the conference but also the conversations I had with others throughout the time we were there. Regarding the former, it was interesting to see the variety of critical approaches in the different presentations and, essentially, what graduate-level criticism looks like, considering the fact that I plan on going to graduate school at some point in the future. In fact, I would say I learned a lot about literature in general, not just “Southern” literature. It was a great experience, in more ways than just academic, and one that was worth the work and time it required. I would advise anyone who’s interested to submit their own work and seek out similar opportunities.