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Creativity takes center stage at conference

October 4, 2007

On a blustery, rainy Saturday afternoon, students gathered in the confines of the University Center and shared creative works with peers, professors and parents at UW-River Falls’ first all-undergraduate academic conference.

Presentations included works of poetry, prose and critical analysis. The conference took place Sept. 29 in the St. Croix room of the University Center. The conference was sponsored by The College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) dean’s office, the Department of English, the Office of the Provost, the Literary Society, the Literary Magazine Review, the Chalmer Davee Library, the women’s studies program, the Department of Journalism and the Film Studies Program. The official title for the conference was Nature, Artifice and the Self: An Undergraduate Conference for Critical and Creative Engagement.

“We wanted to find a venue – that was the big thing,” Michelle Parkinson, a UWRF Assistant Professor of English said. “Some of the faculty had this idea and when we talked to some of the students in the literary society they seemed really excited about it.”

Parkinson played a major role making this conference a reality, but other professors and students within the English department also helped her.

“I am in the honors program and I needed to come up with an idea for an honors thesis,” Tricia Danner, a senior English major said. “I thought that would be a great way to be involved in the program and to use it for an honors thesis.”

As part of her work for the event, Danner made room reservations, organized speakers into different sessions and made the pamphlet for the event.

Presentations by the students throughout the day differed between somber, introspective pieces, humorous, light-hearted pieces and in-depth critical analysis of other author’s works.

“I believe that upon first contact the wilderness will kill me,” Shane Hawley, one of the presenters from UWRF said.

Hawley’s piece was a humorous treatise about how he suffers from a kind of reverse claustrophobia. He would much rather be in the enclosed confines of a city than be subject to the horrors of the wilderness.

“Bears sniff the air for honey, beer and human flesh,” Hawley said.

Some of the other creative works involved analyzing poets like Walt Whitman, commenting on the dichotomy between religion and art, analyzing the effects of war and genocide, and presenting original poetry. 

After the 12 students had finished presenting their works, there was a keynote speaker, Masha Hamilton. Hamilton is an award winning author and journalist; she currently has three novels published and she is working on a fourth. Hamilton worked for a number of years for The Associated Press, spending five years in the Middle East covering the intefadeh, an organized uprising by Palestinian against Israelis, and another five in Moscow where she was a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, according to her Web site. Hamilton also reported for NBC/Mutual Radio during her stay in Moscow.  Her three published novels are, Staircase of a Thousand Steps, The Distance Between Us and The Camel Bookmobile. Hamilton gave a presentation that focused mainly her most recent work, The Camel Bookmobile in the breezeway of the Chalmer Davee Library Sept. 28, and she gave another presentation at the conference on Saturday.

UWRF English Professor Jennifer Brantley was instrumental in securing Hamilton as the keynote speaker.

“When Dr. Parkinson started talking about it I just sent her an e-mail and I said that Masha Hamilton would be perfect for the keynote,” Brantley said.

Brantley and Hamilton had first made contact six years ago when Brantley decided to teach Hamilton’s first novel in some of her classes. They have been corresponding ever since, and Hamilton has visited River Falls three times during that time frame.

As part of the presentations, Hamilton did readings from The Camel Bookmobile, and her fourth work, which has yet to be published. During her short stay at River Falls, Hamilton also answered a number of questions about her professions and her works. Her years as a foreign correspondent for The AP and the L.A. Times were the focus of questions from a number of people.

“I loved it; I felt so lucky to be able to see the Middle East up close and personal,” Hamilton said. “To be in Moscow during the collapse of communism felt like the center of the world.”

For years Hamilton witnessed and reported on the violence and bloodshed in the Middle East and she was reporting out of Russia during the end of the Cold War. Reporting in these two places changed her as a person and her views on humanity.

“It taught me that the idea of us against them is a simplistic idea,” Hamilton said.

“I would meet Israelis that were so much like the Palestinians that I was interviewing, and visa-versa, and I would think that the government created an artificial barrier.”
Hamilton has experienced many different aspects of life in her years as a reporter, but she now works mainly has a fiction novelist.

“I was working in Moscow for five years and I began to dream fictional stories,” Hamilton said. “I realized that I wanted to dive more deeply into stories that interested me as a journalist.”

Writing fiction can sometimes bring an author closer to reality than reporting on the days events can, according to Hamilton.

“Fiction – making it up – offers us the best shot at getting to the truth,” Hamilton said.

After Hamilton finished her keynote speech, professors and students commented about how the day went.

“It was so nice to actually be able to hear other student’s work,” Suzanna Lee, a UWRF senior and one of the day’s presenters, said.

The presentations throughout the day went rather smoothly, but there were some complaints by students and staff at the end of the day.

“It was a failure of the University Center because the staff were not accommodating about directing people or letting us hang up posters,” Lee said. “If they would have just let us put up a damn sign in the entryway it would have helped a lot.”

This sentiment was shared by a number of the other presenters and some UWRF professors. A couple of presenters even showed up late because they couldn’t find the St. Croix room and the staff they talked to were unaware of where it was.

There may have been some advertising and direction problems with the conference, but students still got the chance to present their works to their peers, professors, parents and friends nonetheless.  This was UWRF’s first attempt at a conference of this sort, and plans for the future include inviting more students from surrounding universities and bringing in more keynote speakers.

For more information on the first-annual academic conference and possible future conferences, the UWRF English Department can be contacted. For more information on Hamilton and her works, visit her Web site, www.mashahamilton.com.