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More than he bargained for – academic’s stint at Institute of Modern Languages Research

Visiting academic

The purpose of Eduardo Ho-Fernández’s two months at the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) at the School of Advanced Study was to expand on two Renaissance research projects on intersections in linguistic and literary analysis. But he gained much more than he bargained for, and ‘strongly encourages’ pre-doctoral scholars to look into the many advantages that a visiting scholarship could bring to their academic portfolio.

The first project meant to explore the relationship between Erasmus and Juan de Valdés in relation to the scathing critique that Antonio de Nebrija received from Valdés in his Diálogo de la lengua (c. 1535). The second focuses on the linguistic features observed in the poems of bilingual Portuguese authors (eg, Don Manuel de Portugal, Diogo Bernardes) who wrote in Spanish during the Iberian Union (1580–1640).

In addition to these two projects, my experience at the School of Advanced Study (SAS) far exceeded my highest expectations and I would strongly encourage pre-doctoral stage scholars to look into the many advantages that a visiting scholarship could bring to their overall academic portfolio. Right after my introductory meeting, where I outlined my research agenda to IMLR’s director, Professor Catherine Davies, I received from her a list of academic staff members within the University of London who she thought could potentially benefit me in addressing my research questions.

Because it was summer and my time was limited, I spent the rest of that first week contacting and setting up appointments with the referred faculty members. In the meantime, I visited the rare manuscripts division within Senate House Library and found/reviewed an early translation of Erasmus’ Colloquies. Professor Davies’ suggestions were outstanding, but getting in touch with staff at the Warburg Institute to inquire about documents I had been seeking for months proved to be a point of great inflection in how I approached one of the projects.

Once in touch, Warburg’s current librarian suggested reaching out to the institute’s recently retired head librarian, now professor emerita and honorary fellow, Jill Kraye. What I accomplished at Warburg and my interactions with Professor Kraye were significant and merit additional discussion.

One of the main goals for my visiting scholarship was to find the Latin-to-English translation of the letters documenting the epistolary relationship between Erasmus and Juan de Valdés. Prior to this, I had not been able to find any bibliographical reference or the catalogue number for these letters. However, with Professor Kraye’s assistance, I finally encountered the elusive translated letters from the hundreds of letters that Erasmus wrote in his lifetime – and that was a very special and long-awaited moment for me.

I also reviewed additional writings by Erasmus and of important modern biographers of Renaissance authors. From the former, of note was the English translation of Erasmus’ Ciceronianus, where Nebrija actually receives direct praise by Erasmus for his Latin style. This particular finding geared my research in a completely different direction, and I am currently evaluating its impact on my hypotheses. I cannot imagine connecting as many dots as I did with respect to the Nebrija vs Valdés controversy, and the different perspective I gained on Erasmus, without the specialised resources made available to me at Warburg through this visiting academic programme and Professor Kraye’s challenges to my thinking.

I was also fortunate enough to meet with Professor Emeritus Trevor Dadson, Professor Emeritus Christopher Pountain, and Dr Alex Sampson. I met with Professor Dadson at the stunning British Academy headquarters. We discussed, among other themes, Luso-Hispanic relations in the 15–17th centuries, the possible status of Castilian in Portugal during that time and the work of some historians on the crowns of Spain and Portugal. In addition, we looked at other prolific authors during the Iberian Union (eg, Francisco de Portugal, Conde de Salinas), and Professor Dadson’s idea that Garcilaso’s poetry re-emerged in Spain via the bilingual Portuguese poets that wrote in Spanish and not because of Spaniards valuing Garcilaso’s poems.

Professor Pountain and I met at the Henry Wellcome Gallery. This is another beautiful space (one that I already considered a favorite spot) where we enjoyed a classic afternoon English tea, and engaged in a very technical and lengthy discussion. Topics included: (ir)regular features in the Spanish poems written by bilingual Portuguese poets; linguistic variation in Renaissance Spain; Golden Age metrics and rhyme; the Nebrija vs. Valdés controversy; and the possible status of the contraction nel in Old and Classical Spanish.

A meeting with Dr Sampson in his UCL office, where before discussing my projects and him offering some insightful suggestions and additional bibliographical references, included a stroll through the weekly farmer’s market to buy some tasty sweet goods from local bakers.

Professor Julian Weiss and Dr Elena Carrera, two members of the academic staff that I was unable to meet in person, but that I corresponded with, also offered some helpful and pointed suggestions for further reading. I also connected with Dr Barry Taylor, librarian and curator of early-modern collections for the Iberian region at the British Library. He gave me priceless information relating to the printing of Castilian books in Portugal and articles that I was not familiar with that related to both of my projects. Those will be of great assistance in helping me contextualise my research questions.

There were many events outside the scope of my research agenda at the IMLR, which are worth mentioning. They include meeting with Professor Li Wei at the scenic Caffè Tropea in Russell Square, where we had an excellent conversation (and a great meal!) regarding the British university system and possible sources of post-doctoral work in England, and travelling to Manchester to meet Professor Yaron Matras to discuss issues and methodological problems in the study of language contact. I also attended sessions at the IV Linguistics Student Research Conference at SOAS; worked on my doctoral dissertation on Spanish word order; and drafted a portion of a future journal article.

I also had time to self-reflect and enjoy the city of London, which never ceases to amaze me. I saw two fantastic performances at the Royal Opera House, enjoyed an acrobatics show at the Underbelly Festival, saw some family members and old friends, and even made some new ones. A birthday was celebrated (one of the big ones…), and I reconnected with electronic music, found a talented acupuncturist, bought books that I needed for my research that are not sold in the US (thanks to institute manager Cathy Collins for hunting them down in the mailroom!). Most important and memorable, was the warm reception and genuine interest from practically everyone.

I will fondly remember my time at SAS, and am grateful for the unique opportunity to become part of this remarkable community of scholars. I truly enjoyed this entire experience and would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

From my vantage point, this experience is what you make out of it. Regardless, whether you are considering it for a short-term or a long-term arrangement, I highly recommend anyone to apply for a research program at the SAS-IMLR. It is a great academic home and the process is straightforward. Best of all, you will never regret it.

Eduardo Ho-Fernández, a PhD student at City University of New York, was a visiting scholar at the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) from June to July 2019

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