- Am I a Romanticist?My Department Can't Decide
In 2009, I was hired as the late eighteenth-century specialist at my current institution. My parents were disappointed I was not hired by the university nearby, which was seeking a Romanticist. I applied—though, as I reminded my parents, I am not a Romanticist. [End Page 105]
Over a decade later, I still would not be hired by any search explicitly seeking a Romanticist, and it's increasingly unclear why not. I have co-edited a special issue of Romantic Circles Pedagogy, and ever more of my published work focuses on the Romantic period. I have served as dramaturg for an adaptation of Frankenstein, connected to my course focused on the Villa Diodati circle. I have presented my research at the British Association for Romantic Studies. My current project on unpublished manuscript fiction during the age of print includes many works from the Romantic period, including those read by the Shelleys.
Like many, I have been shaped by my institutional context: my first year, the late eighteenth-century course was merged with the Romanticism course to create "The Age of Revolution." In theory, our Romanticist and the eighteenth-centuryists would trade off: one year focused on the late eighteenth-century, the next, on Romanticism. But our "real" Romanticist left not long after, never to be replaced. I taught the course for the next three iterations, each time I felt the absence of a Romanticist colleague more accutely.
Many years later, my department is attempting to convince those in charge that we have a pressing need to hire a Romanticist. It's going to be a hard case to make: we've survived this long without a "real" Romanticist, have no named course on the books, and graduate students with interests in the Romantic period continue to be accepted—an implicit argument that Victorian and eighteenth-century faculty are sufficient.
If we do successfully make the case, I have asked to lead the search. And thus I'm faced with a small existential crisis, which I offer here as a sort of categorical challenge.
Is "being a Romanticist" defined by what you teach?
Which conferences you attend?
What you study?
Where you publish?
In a time when more and more PhD holders pursue work outside the academy or struggle with precarity, it seems absurd to define Romanticism by what you teach (most teach composition) or where you present (travel is expensive). It seems more appropriate to focus on those scholarly conversations in which we are engaged. But what conversations might those be? Must we rely on a list of (overwhelmingly [End Page 106] white, majority male) names—John Keats, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt, and their circles—as this call for essays did? Must "Romanticist" be an epistemological category bound to the "Big Six" poets to remain coherent? (#Bigger6 would beg to differ.) Is no other frame available?
As institutions like mine seek to diversify our faculty and our course offerings in meaningful ways, such a limited definition of Romanticism chokes off its ability to grow—or even survive. That's not the Romanticist my department needs. And it wouldn't be the one I'm looking for.
Emily C. Friedman is an associate professor of English at Auburn University and the Director of 18thConnect.