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BYU English Department Hosts First Virtual English Symposium

With hundreds of participants and attendees, this year’s English Symposium was a massive success despite the challenges of moving to an online format.

BYU English Symposium Illustration

Students, professors, and supporters gathered virtually on Friday, March 5, for the annual English Symposium to listen to student presentations and participate in lively discussion about their research topics. With 23 panels, over 100 student presenters, and about 650 attendees, symposium coordinator Assistant Professor Gideon Burton (English) counted this virtual experience a great success.

The online sessions made it possible for students to invite family members and friends, who otherwise would not have been able to travel to campus, to attend the panels in which the students participated.

But that is not the only big change this year. Rather than having students spend 10-20 minutes reading their papers, each student created a three- or five-minute slide presentation that they recorded before their panel. “It took a lot of pressure off the individual presenters,” said Burton. “They were a lot more relaxed, and could enjoy the moment, listen more, and make connections better.”

This year’s symposium theme was “Outsiders & Insiders,” and as the symposium website explains, “While a pandemic has made us all insiders, society is focusing increasingly on outsiders. Literature and literacy can bridge this gap.”

Burton helped choose the theme along with his co-chair Assistant Professor Amber Jensen (English) and student co-chairs Breanna Staten and Lauren Nelson. Burton said, “This theme seemed to be very appropriate given the nation and BYU’s awareness of matters with respect to gender, orientation, [and] race. We knew that not every research project or paper would relate to that, but many did, and it was really fun to see how well the symposium fit our theme.”

He continued, “It just confirmed to me that literature is a wonderful mediating force for dealing with difficult contemporary issues."

Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye

The keynote speaker this year was Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, who is a senior lecturer of Asian studies at the University of Auckland and a historian for the Church History Department at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In her address, entitled, “The Ground Beneath Our Feet: Alienation and the Roots of Discipleship,” Inouye spoke on her experience as an Asian American and her cancer diagnosis.

Regarding the human experience of alienation, Inouye said, “Regardless of the reason, be it illness or politics or faith transition or people being mean or any number of things, to experience alienation is to experience the world turned inside out. You were an insider, but now you feel like an outsider. You were a carefully cultivated crop, and now you're a weed. You're in a big happy crowd, but now you're alone.”

Inouye encouraged her listeners to educate themselves, saying that, “cultural incompetence sabotages our desires to be careful stewards of the Savior's sheep.” One method that Inouye suggested was through traveling to experience other cultures or participating in cultural exchange within our own communities. She believes that when we move from a space of comfort to one of alienation, it is always painful, but it also helps us expand our perspective and our capacity to be empathetic to other’s experiences.

Symposium panels this year included topics such as African-American literature, gender, religion and literature, identity, literary media, and more. There were also live readings from students who won department-wide writing competitions.

All panels and presentations were recorded and are accessible through the English Symposium’s 2021 Program here.

Many thanks to all the students and faculty members who helped prepare for and successfully execute the English Symposium this year. Burton hopes that future symposiums can learn from the successes of this virtual format and incorporate remote participation in future years.

—Heather Bergeson (English, ’22)