English conference features 2 death row exonerees

UNA will host the eighth Annual English Graduate Conference at the Guillot University Center loft, Feb. 24-25. This year’s theme is “Confinement: From the Prison Blocks to the Margins.”

Leading up to the conference, UNA will feature Alabama death row exoneree Anthony Ray Hinton as the guest kick-off speaker Feb. 23 at 6 p.m. in the GUC Performance Center.

Guest speakers Hinton and Gary Drinkard were both falsely convicted of murder charges and served almost six years and almost 30 years, respectively, on death row before the courts released them.

Hinton will discuss how race, poverty and lack of adequate legal representation led to his imprisonment, while Drinkard will feature some of the poetry he wrote while on death row.

Katie Owens-Murphy, assistant professor of English and faculty adviser for the conference, said she contacted both speakers through Witness to Innocence, an organization that pays exonerees to go across the nation and talk about capital punishment.

“They’re unique because they’re not academics or literary critics, which our guest speakers typically are,” Owens-Murphy said. “I thought that this might be a unique opportunity to draw in the community and to root the conference in current events and real-world issues.”

This is a unique experience, said senior Haley Linam.

“I think having people from death row come in and be willing to give personal stories is a great aspect that (the students) may never have the opportunity to see again,” she said.

The conference will begin at 1 p.m. Feb. 24, with student presentations on varying topics on imprisonment throughout the afternoon. Guest speaker Drinkard will speak at 4 p.m. The second day will feature the remaining student presentations throughout the day and end with the awards ceremony at 4:30 p.m.

Stephanie Adair and Brett Fish, graduate students and co-chairs of the event, reviewed the proposals students submitted for the conference and selected which ones they would feature. Besides organizing the event and building and moderating the panels, they were also the ones who came up with this year’s topic.

“As we were throwing around ideas last spring, we were noticing a recurring theme in some of the courses the English department was offering, and that kind of led to the topic,” Adair said. “We’re looking at different dimensions of (confinement). Not only (are we looking at) the traditional pictures that we get of people behind bars, but also ways that people have been oppressed and confined throughout history and how that’s represented in literature.”

The English Graduate Conference was open to proposals from students from all universities across the U.S., with the general public invited to attend the conference. Each panel will consist of three students whose works relate to the panel’s topic. The conference uses a panel made of UNA English Department faculty members to evaluate the works and pick the winner.

Cheryl Price, assistant professor of English and member of the conference’s committee, said the conference is important and contains many benefits for graduate students.

“It gives them opportunities to present their work and disseminate their research to other scholars as well as make connections to other graduate students from other universities,” she said.

Linam said the conference provides great experiences for English students.

“It prepares the students for careers that they may pursue and, if not, they have public speaking traits that they can gain from this experience,” she said. “It puts them in a real-life situation, and I think that all departments should be able to do that, where they can test their students in the best way possible.”