Power of Literature and Literacy

PROVO, Utah (March 28, 2014)—The 2014 English Symposium at Brigham Young University succeeded in demonstrating the quality work of students and faculty. The symposium, titled, “Mightier than the Sword: The Power of Literature and Literacy,” provided an opportunity for student scholars to share their perspectives beyond their own classroom and show the influence of literature in academia and life.

The schedule of the symposium consisted of multiple panels – individually themed based on the presentation material. One of the panels, “Nonfiction Reading: Department and College Contest,” featured award-winning essays written by BYU students.

Shamae Budd, who won the Carroll Essay Contest, wrote and read an essay concerning the fear and doubt of believing in and praying to God. The two other readers, Darlene Young – the winner of the Mayhew Essay Contest, and Madison Bowman – the Inscape Essay Contest winner, read their essays about their mothers. Madison remarked, “I’m in charge of gathering those storied and remembering them.” Panel moderator Joey Franklin said, “The only way we can remember a story is by writing it down.”

The influence and power of writing was exhibited throughout the symposium. During the mid-day Reading Series, BYU English professor John Talbot shared several poems from his published book of poetry “Rough Translations” and spoke on his experiences as a writer and poet.

Talbot, introduced by graduate instructor Shelli Spotts as “a brilliant poet,” explained that “Rough Translations” begins with a re-imagined history of King Phillip. However, his poems take place in Sudbury, Massachusetts, where Talbot lived. He explained, “We lived there and we loved it,” but ultimately his family was forced to move as wealthier people moved into the community and property taxes increased.

Talbot’s poems reflect on the experience of leaving a place. His themes revolve around leaving home and being displaced and “the permanence of family against transience.”

He showed how poetry has the ability to mix the classics with the modern, to layer history with the present, and to teach the reader or listener with literature. As Talbot said, “I am old and you are young. Take it from me, use the time that you have well.”

As presenters shared their writings throughout the day, the panels varied in their focus and theme. One panel, chaired by English professor Gideon Burton, focused on John Milton’s works. Students presented on topics such as Milton’s use of Babel and religious references and Milton’s works in the light of revolution.

Many other panels focused on literature’s influence and interactions within modern culture. BYU English professor Liz Christianson chaired two panels that related Sherlock Holmes, superheroes and villains to literature and societal influences.

In total, the symposium featured over 100 student presenters, presenting on various themes and aspects within literature. Sirpa Grierson, one of the lead faculty organizers of the symposium, said, “There’s nothing that makes me quite so proud as seeing the achievements of students.”

English student Paul Bills, who presented on “The Romantic Dead: Neo-Romanticism in The Last of Us and The Walking Dead,” said the symposium was a great opportunity for students. “Normally we write papers and we’re done, but this provided us an opportunity to talk to other students about all the work that we’ve done. It was great professional experience.”

The symposium concluded with keynote speaker Susan Howe, a creative writing professor at BYU, speaking on “The Post-Postmodern Moment and You.”

Howe spoke on the complexities and issues with the postmodern movement and the struggles to move beyond into a new generational realm. She explained that many people think that postmodernism is “when I read a text and can’t understand it.” Howe said, “We can’t escape postmodernism because we don’t understand it.”

She explained that as a graduate student of creative writing, she took a poetry class where her professor said, “Contemporary poetry proceeds from the notion that God is dead.” Howe was warned by her professor about writing about anything religious. Howe noted, “I learned to be a divided self – Academic scholar at school; faithful at home.”

She explained many of the tenets and practices of postmodern thinkers and some of the unhealthy affects of postmodernism. Howe mentioned specifically, “the flattening and replacing of long-proven traditional, moral and ethical values, and general disillusionment.” Furthermore, she said that postmodernism excludes “meaning as significant.”

Howe argued, “Literary texts can teach values and contain records. I believe that literary texts should do cultural work.” She read a postmodern poem and explained, “It’s inventive, but we can’t say what it means.”

She further explained that postmodernism uses irony, but such irony “has a negative function,” Howe said. “It is a way to say, ‘I don’t really care about this.’” But, continued Howe, “I want to feel that art is an utterance of good faith from one human being to another.”

Howe encouraged students to take part in the shaping of postmodernism. “Young scholars have the opportunity to look into their culture and claim new modes.”

Howe added, “Learn what matters to you and what will matter to our culture and time. Champion what you value in your work.”

For more information on the 2014 English Symposium, its panels and discussions, visit the symposium website.

—By Stephanie Bahr Bentley BA English ‘14