• Jennifer Abella

A behind-the-scenes peek at the Jane Austen Summer Program

The days are zooming by, and before you know we’ll be in Chapel Hill. While participants are reading “Emma,” organizers are busy tying up loose ends. What exactly goes into planning such an event as the Jane Austen Summer Program? We caught up with UNC professors James Thompson and Inger Brodey to find out:

James Thompson and his book, “Jane Austen and Modernization.”

What inspired you and your colleagues to start the Jane Austen Summer Program? Thompson and Brodey: James read a New Yorker article by the historian Jill Lepore, about the Dickens summer camp, and thought immediately that what the world needs is an Austen summer camp. We both attended the Dickens Universe at Santa Cruz for their 30th summer and were inspired by a conference that is equally welcoming to regular readers of Dickens and to scholars. The presentations and conversations were both smart, accessible and inspiring and so seemed to us a model for the humanities: James thought, If Dickens lovers and Dickens scholars can talk to one another, so can Janeites of all stripes. Inger has also had separate experience running conferences for a mix of academics and non-academics, and loves this kind of format.

How far in advance do you start planning? Thompson and Brodey: We begin roughing out a list of presenters and themes in late summer or the early fall, but really we are working on it all year round. We already know the dates and theme of the 2016 and 2017 JASPs!

How do you choose ideas — and presenters — for discussions/lectures? Brodey: That is dictated by the novel we’re going to focus on — food and travel are more prominent in “Emma” than they are in “Sense and Sensibility.” We draw on Austen scholars whose work we admire and we know can be counted on to give a presentation that is at once clear, accessible and original. Our committee of helpers, including Ruth Verbunt, Gisele Rankin, Virginia-Claire Tharrington, Terri O’Quinn and Ronnie Jackson, are also great at coming up with ideas for panels and special events.

“Every year we have far more ideas than we can fit into the program, but that just means there will be many new approaches and speakers that we can feature in future years.” — Inger Brodey

What’s the hardest part of organizing the program? Thompson: Fitting everything in that we want to offer. We don’t like to have concurrent sessions for which folks have to decide between one topic or another, and so we inevitably have more ideas and more speakers than we can reasonably fit in.

Brodey: The fact that it is a year-long commitment, but I am so grateful that I now have the help of the individuals I named above. It is starting to become more and more of a community event, for which I am exceedingly grateful. And I think the effort that all of us put in will show in the product and the overall experience for the participants. It is true that every year we have far more ideas than we can fit into the program, but that just means there will be many new approaches and speakers that we can feature in future years.

This is the program’s third year: What has surprised you most about it? Thompson: I think that I have been most surprised about how much the fun the meeting is from session to session and hour to hour. Our colleagues and graduate students and registrants have broad smiles on their faces as if all our deep love of Austen is, at least for the moment, satiated. There is a richly satisfying sense of community among those of us who share this passion and get to indulge in it with others.

What are you personally looking forward to the most this year? Brodey and Thompson: We both feel that “Emma” is Austen’s masterpiece, so there is a special pleasure in getting to work with a text so perfect with other Austen lovers. We have our first outing this year, so our “Box Hill” experience will be a highlight. We also have our first pedagogy session for middle and high school teachers. But every year what we both most look forward to are the conversations with so many different sorts of people who share the same passion.

What’s one thing you’ve learned over the years, in terms of planning a large event? Thompson: The earlier you start planning the better, and the more people that you draw in makes a huge difference. Securing funding early helps. But we have always been blessed with the support and goodwill of our colleagues in the Department of English and Comparative Literature — it turns out (no surprise) that everyone who loves books loves Austen.

Brodey: The devil is in the details, as they say.… And those to whom I can delegate are the angels.

“Our colleagues and graduate students and registrants have broad smiles on their faces as if all our deep love of Austen is, at least for the moment, satiated.” — James Thompson

We still have a few years’ worth of Austen material to explore, of course. But any hopes to expand the program to include other authors? Thompson: Well, this might be blasphemous, and I speak only for myself here, but I would like to see and Austen and Charlotte Bronte summer, and I would be happy with an Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell program. We could also pair Austen with Ann Radcliffe. But I also want us to focus on the early works, the juvenilia and her letters.

Brodey: I’m open to that, but I also think that at seven- or eight-year intervals, one can easily find new themes and topics for the major novels.… We will be interested to hear what our participants think in a few years, as we finish our first cycle of the books. We are also trying to find the ideal length for the program. This year, our program is half a day longer than last year’s. The Dickens Universe is a full week, but we aren’t sure that people will be able to spare that much time away from work.

Winner of the North Carolina Humanities Council’s Joel Gradin Award for Excellence in Public Humanities




The Jane Austen Summer Program is a non-profit organization. All donations are tax-deductible.