UH Hilo English professor and her students present their work at Paris conference

Professor of English Kirsten Møllegaard with English majors Evangeline Lemieux and Braden Savage presented their published paper at literature conference in Paris, France.

Collage of students trip to Paris.

By Cheylan Zimmermann.

A University of Hawai‘i at Hilo professor of English and two of her students presented their co-authored paper this summer at a literature conference at Sorbonne Université, Paris.

Professor of English Kirsten Møllegaard, along with English majors Evangeline “Evy” Lemieux (who writes for UH Hilo Stories) and Braden Savage, presented their published work, “Posthumanism and the Search for Meaning in Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus” (The International Journal of Literary Humanities, Sept. 2023) at the 2023 New Directions in the Humanities conference.

Kirsten Møllegaard pictured
Kirsten Møllegaard (Archive photo)

“Participating in the Paris conference was a unique opportunity for English majors Braden and Evangeline to gain career-relevant experience by presenting original literary research with me in a professional academic setting,” says Møllegaard. “Seen from a broader institutional perspective, it demonstrated the caliber of the English program at UH Hilo and consequently benefited our university’s international profile to have two undergraduates co-author, prepare, and deliver high-level scholarly work.”

Lemieux says about the experience, “The presentations were fairly intimate with groups of ten to fifteen people in the audience. It was great to present and hear people’s questions.”

The paper

The co-authors’ work began in fall 2022. The paper centers on The Codex Seraphinianus, an illustrated encyclopedia of an imaginary world that was originally published in 1981. Created by Italian artist, architect, and industrial designer Luigi Serafini between 1976 and 1978, it is approximately 360 pages and written in an imaginary language. Originally published in Italy, it has been released in several countries. It is a book that literally cannot be read, yet that has not stopped scholars and lovers of literature from finding meaning in the work.

Two books, black cover with title Codex Seraphinianus, weird images of a horse and alligators on a bed.
A photo of the covers of the original two-volume publication of Codex Seraphinianus. (Wikipedia)

“Braden owned a copy of Serafini’s massive book and had written an excellent analysis of it for a class he and Evy took with me in fall 2022, ENG 448, Graphic Novels and Comics,” says Møllegaard. “Braden had originally analyzed the book as an asemic text (fusing text and image) and through the critical lens of phenomenology.” Phenomenology in literary theory and criticism regards works of art as mediators between the consciousnesses of the author and the reader.

“Braden’s paper became the starting point for our joint venture of examining Codex Seraphinianus from a posthumanist, deconstructionist perspective within the broader literary contexts of books as art, decoding meaning from indecipherable text, and the process of reading,” Møllegaard explains.

The three divided up their research tasks and met every two weeks or so to compare drafts and discuss their findings.

“It was a productive and highly rewarding process,” says Møllegaard. “Evy and Braden have been active partners in all the stages of the publication process, from initial submission to revision to copy-editing.”

At first, the students had feelings of uncertainty, but Lemieux and Savage took the chance to rise to the challenge.

Cover of Codex Seraphinianus with images of an alligator on a bed.
A later cover of Codex Seraphinianus when the book was published as a single volume. (Wikipedia)

“Using a deconstructionist cultural studies lens, we interrogate how meaning is constructed when we can recognize only the form, and not the content, of an illustrated text,” write the co-authors in the abstract of their paper. “Such is the reader’s experience when perusing Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus. The text of Codex Seraphinianus is all but indecipherable; yet we can tell that it does imply meaning, due to its organization into lists, labels, and other textual organizational features.”

The focus of the paper is on the physical experience of reading the book, while also looking into the posthuman aspects of Serafini’s work. Both Lemieux and Savage say the book, “creates a feeling of child-like wonder in the reader.” In a life-imitates-art experience, Lemieux says while at the Paris conference, she was amazed by the experience of being in a space where she was immersed in different cultures and did not understand the languages. She says attending the international presentations expanded her mind and reflected the UH Hilo group’s own paper, bringing out a “child-like wonder” in her.

“We experienced presentations that were in German, French, and Spanish,” she says. “Talk about fostering a sense of wonder. We did a paper focusing on the sense of wonder, and I went there and felt a massive sense of wonder.”

The conference

Professor Møllegaard explains, “New Directions in the Humanities is a large, international organization whose annual conferences offer opportunities to present and receive feedback on research projects, build networks, and publish in the organization’s peer-reviewed journal collection.”

Lemieux says that at first, she felt nervous about presenting their work at the conference. However, during the actual experience of being there, she was overjoyed by the questions and discussions with the audience. “You get to hear what questions they have, what they think, and receive other academic perspectives,” she says.

Two students stand with powerpoint presentation behind them with title “Posthumanism and the Search for Meaning in Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus.”
At the Sorbonne Université, Paris, France, (from left) UH Hilo English majors Evangeline Lemieux and Braden Savage prepare their presentation for the New Directions in the Humanities conference held June 28-30, 2023. (Courtesy photo)

The conference happens each year in a new city in Europe and is open to those affiliated with an institution. In this space, professors and students, undergrad and graduate, share and present their accepted work. The focus of this conference, titled “Literary Landscapes: Forms of Knowledge in the Humanities,” was English language, literature, and cultural studies from a literature perspective. Scholars from different parts of the world came to Paris to share their perspectives and findings and listen to one another’s presentations.

Both students have previously attended and presented at conferences held at UH Hilo, but this was the first time presenting their work abroad.

Exploring Paris

During their free time on the six-day trip, outside of the presentation, the three were able to explore Paris.

“Paris itself is difficult to describe,” says Savage. “It’s a wonderful, confusing hub of life, art, and culture. The city thrums both with history and innovation.” Their days were filled with morning walks through the streets, surrounded by shops and cafés, visiting markets, touring museums, and trying delicious foods.

Three people in a French cafe.
From left, Professor of English Kirsten Møllegaard with students Braden Savage and Evy Lemieux enjoying a bite to eat in Paris. (Courtesy photo)

After their trip, Lemieux and Savage continue to express their gratitude for this experience, and the impact it has made on them individually. This opportunity allowed them to present in a highly academic and respected environment while sharing their knowledge and hard work.

“This was an excellent professional opportunity, and I am so grateful to Kirsten for offering it to us, and to the Droste Endowment for funding our travels,” says Savage. “This process offered me new insights into both the world in general and the world of academia. Six days in Paris impacted me like years elsewhere have.”

Lemieux shares a similar feeling. “Doing it made other things like this seem possible because they don’t seem possible at times. It seems too big or far away, but when you do it, you find out you’re up to the challenge.” She emphasizes that this trip taught her that students should take up opportunities such as this when offered.

Being able to present their work changed the students’ mindsets as they realized taking these risks allowed them to see their worth throughout their academics.

“The topics that you think are worthy of attention, you are right, you can take it further and make it an academic project and inspire others,” says Lemieux.

Professor Møllegaard concurs. “I really enjoyed working on this paper with Evy and Braden,” she says. “I think I speak on behalf of all three of us when I say that this project has helped us appreciate the minutiae of literary research and the potential for student academic writing to go beyond the classroom.”

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Story by Cheylan Zimmerman, an English major at UH Hilo.