Knowing how to run an academic conference is a very useful skill, and “the ability to interact with colleagues outside of one’s institution is a priceless gift for a young scholar,” says Roland Betancourt (History of Art), co-host to one of this year's student-run symposia.
“As humanists, we are used to being lone wolves, working on our special topics for years on our own to produce articles and books. But scholarship has to be communicated and critiqued. It has to have its public side, too, to be legitimate, and conferences are often where this happens for us,” another conference coordinator, Christopher Nixon (Italian), observes.
To encourage students to get hands-on experience organizing a symposium while they are still at Yale, the Graduate School established the Dean’s Fund, providing financial assistance to cover some of the attendant expenses, such as printing, rental of audio-visual equipment, catering, and travel costs for invited speakers.
Assistant Dean Edward Barnaby has administered the Dean’s Fund for the past nine years. “In many cases, conferences supported by the Dean’s Fund have become recurring annual meetings around which vibrant consortia have developed," he says. "In addition, the practical experience of planning and budgeting for an effective event will be of value to students who pursue academic and non-academic careers alike.”
In a typical year, roughly a dozen graduate-student-run academic conferences take place on campus. Some of these meetings are one-day events; others extend to two and three days, but each symposium brings together students and faculty from peer institutions across the country and around the world who join their Yale colleagues to explore a scholarly theme. Themes are chosen by the student organizers, who then solicit and select the papers that will be presented by students from Yale and other graduate schools. The organizers choose and invite keynote speakers, raise the necessary funds, handle logistics, and publicize the conference.
Several have already been held this semester: “The Global 1990s: Looking Back on the End of History,” organized by students of Comparative Literature; “On Television,” co-hosted by American Studies and Film Studies; “Literature and Ethics,” organized by students in the French Department; “Giambattista Vico: Education, Law, and Politics,” by students in the Italian Department; and the Yale Graduate Music Symposium, which had “a broad array of papers in many facets of music scholarship, including musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory,” according to James Park (Music), one of the organizers.
“A good conference is a satisfying end in itself, as it is a celebration of the relevance and emotional appeal of really studying a particular subject,” Chris says. “Everybody gets to be nerdy about it together. From a scholarly perspective, I have a much more solid network of people now across the country who I know are interested in the same rather specialized subject as I am.”
“The Global 1990s” conference focused on the decade when a century and millennium were ending and the Cold War was about to transition into the war on terror.
“It was the time we came of age politically and intellectually,” says Joshua Sperling (Comparative Literature). “The topic was of special interest to us graduate students because it's when we first became aware of the world. In preparing the conference, as we explored the literature and culture of what was, in retrospect, an exceptionally contradictory and transitional period, we found it to be endlessly interesting.”
In the initial stages of planning, Josh and his team – consisting of Daniel Fairfax (Comparative Literature and Film Studies), Annie Pfeifer (Comparative Literature), and Ariel Bardi (Comparative Literature) – were motivated by curiosity to know what other colleagues at Yale and elsewhere thought about the topic. Then came the logistics phase: locating rooms, designing a poster, lining up speakers, and obtaining the rights to show a film. In the process, “what became valuable for us as organizers is that we bonded, we shared a common mission and had a chance to do collaborative work," Josh explains. "We likened it to raising a baby. And the day of the conference, the baby just gets up and walks and starts to talk on its own.”
Friday of the conference drew a large crowd of faculty and students. And then came the winter's only blizzard. On Saturday, the roads were blocked, and with the exception of John MacKay, professor and chair of Film Studies and of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Katie Trumpener, the Emily Sanford Professor of Comparative Literature and English, the only participants to gather in the Whitney Humanities Center were students.
Josh describes the scene: “We could see snow falling through the windows. No one was outside. We were in an old, wood-paneled, cozy room sharing our papers, engaged in conversation. We weren't performing to be evaluated by professors; there were no job talks or interviews. There was no hierarchy. This was for us and by us. It was a pure exchange of ideas.”
“Is television still television when audiences are watching it online and on phones and tablets, and recording it digitally to watch whenever they want?” That is one of many questions the organizers of "On Television" wanted to ask about contemporary trends in television studies and the historical currents that “inform our understandings of television's present and future,” says Diana Lemberg (History), who worked closely with Claudia Calhoun (American Studies and Film Studies) and Drew Hannon (American Studies) to create the first-ever conference at Yale devoted to television studies. Other team members were Annie Berke (American Studies and Film Studies), Josh Glick (American Studies and Film Studies), Andrea Quintero (American Studies), and Andrew Seal (American Studies).
“Organizing a conference really is a group effort. It helps to have people with all sorts of strengths and experiences to lend their talents to the organizing committee in order to pull it off smoothly,” says Diana. Each person “contributed something necessary to the success of the conference, whether it was organizational savvy, negotiating experience, writing skills, technological know-how, event-planning experience, or personal and professional contacts.”
“We publicized the call for papers through email blasts to television listservs and to humanities and social science graduate departments both at Yale and outside of Yale,” Diana says. “All told, the call was circulated to over 100 graduate departments and programs, ranging from media studies, American studies, and history to anthropology and sociology. Narrowing down our submissions was one of the hardest things about organizing the conference, because we received so many great ones – there was a lot of spirited discussion at the meeting when the organizing committee read through the submission abstracts.”
In addition to the submissions by professors and graduate students, organizers put together an opening panel of leading scholars in the field: John Caldwell (UCLA), Anna McCarthy (NYU), and Candace Moore (University of Michigan). They also scheduled a panel of industry professionals: Jay Katsir, writer for “The Colbert Report,” and Patric Verrone, writer for “Futurama” and former president of the Writer's Guild, West. Emily Nussbaum, New Yorker television critic, served as moderator. At the close of the conference, both the scholars and the professionals joined together for a lively round table.
The conference devoted to Giambattista Vico, an 18th-century Neapolitan philosopher of history and language, was coordinated by Chris Nixon, who is writing a dissertation on Vico. Yale has been a center of Vico studies in the English-speaking world “since the 1940s, when two Yale professors, Max Fisch and Thomas Bergin, published the seminal translation of Vico’s masterpiece, The New Science, an edition which has remained the standard ever since,” Chris says. “Vico studies are split up in a very inconvenient way across various disciplines, so it is difficult for scholars with an interest in him to communicate across the disciplinary boundaries.” The conference featured interdisciplinary communication on a high level, with an opening address by Yale alumnus Massimo Lollini (PhD 1992), professor of Italian at the University of Oregon; a closing lecture by Domenico Pietropaolo, the principal of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto; and in between, three panels of student presentations.
The experience of organizing the event was useful, but not always easy, says Chris. “I really had to go out of my comfort zone as a young nobody, asking strangers all over the university for money, but everybody who bothered to respond to my overtures was very polite. I worked closely with our department secretary, Ann Delauro, who had the knowledge, expertise, and networking to make everything come together. I learned a lot about the technical ins and outs of university logistics through her. She is the one who knew to which lists we should send our call for papers and which organizations might be interested in funding.”
More stressful than locating funding was “scheduling so many people to get together at the same time in the same place. You have to nag people who are your superiors about deadlines. Once one person agrees to a time, it won’t work for somebody else, and then you have to go back to the first professor and change things: it can be a lot of stress. When it comes together though, it’s all worth it, and you feel very proud. Having had this experience, I do not think I would shy away from being involved in things like administrative committees in the future,” he says.
Right after Spring Break, a symposium titled “Crime and Its Fictions in Africa,” organized in Comparative Literature, brought visiting scholars and graduate students to campus. At the end of March, students in the German Department are scheduled to host “Postscript/After Text,” and Medieval Studies students will host “Audience in the Middle Ages.” In April, Religious Studies students are organizing “Trials of Desire,” Film Studies will hold “Auteurs in the 21st Century,” and History of Art will host “Byzantium/Modernism: Art, Cultural Heritage, and the Avant-Gardes.”
Eric Weiskott (English) and Joseph Stadolnik (English) are co-organizers of “Audience in the Middle Ages,” the twenty-ninth annual New England Medieval Studies Consortium Graduate Student Conference, set for March 31. This conference rotates among several schools.
“We were looking for a topic that was general enough to accommodate papers from across the disciplines of medieval studies – history, literature, history of art, etc.,” Joe says. “The conference has a longstanding tradition of disciplinary diversity, and we wanted to keep that up. Eric proposed the concept of 'audience' in the Middle Ages, and it worked in attracting submissions from students from a variety of fields. Whether it's a courtier's literary work, a merchant's will, or a church sculpture, we all study things very often catered to a specific audience, and understanding that audience is crucial to understanding the thing itself.”
Elaine Treharne, professor of English at Florida State University and author of Living Through Conquest: The Politics of Early English, 1020-1220, among other publications, will deliver the plenary lecture.
One of the most rewarding aspects of planning the conference for Eric and Joe was grouping the papers into panels. “Imagining the connections between papers, often on very different subjects, convinced us that we had lucked into planning a cohesive, if eclectic, conference – as well as a fruitful one – around our theme,” Joe says.
Eric adds, “I expect that seeing a panel come together on the day of the conference will be a fantastic feeling. I think Joe and I have learned that putting on a conference of any size is a group effort. We are indebted to our colleagues, our professors, our sponsors, and the registrars of English and Medieval Studies for making the whole thing possible.”
Both acknowledge the help of Andrew Kraebel (English), who worked on the consortium conference the last time it was held at Yale in 2009. “He provided us with a great deal of guidance on just about everything, walking us through the planning of that conference before we began thinking about this one in September,” Joe says. “We also knew that we could rely on the graduate medievalists here to submit papers and help out by moderating and attending panels. Knowing that the Dean’s Fund for student-run symposia could be counted on made our quest for funding a little easier.”
In late April, History of Art students Roland Betancourt and Maria Taroutina are co-hosting “Byzantium/Modernism: Art, Cultural Heritage, and the Avant-Gardes.” By mid-March, 260 attendees – mostly from North America and Europe, but also from Asia and Africa – had already registered.
“What does modern art have to gain from Byzantium? How can Byzantine philosophy enrich our understanding of the modern and contemporary image?” the organizers ask.
This conference has historical, theoretical, and critical underpinnings in both the Byzantine Empire and the modern era. During the 1,000 year-period (4th–15th centuries) when the Byzantine Empire was a powerful force in Europe, a thriving community of theologians and philosophers debated “the nature and meaning of the image, upon which the Empire and the Church grounded their physical and metaphysical rule,” the website explains. Beginning in the late-19th century and continuing into the 20th, artists, critics, and scholars have used “the Byzantine as a manner of articulating the development of modernity.”
The topic emerged in the course of long conversations between Roland and Maria. “Maria is a modernist working with Byzantine materials, and I'm a Byzantinist working on modern materials,” says Roland. “We each bring different aspects to bear on the project, and that has allowed it to grow in harmonious and varied directions.”
Maria is pretty sure that “this will be the first time that the Byzantium/Modernism theme will be the subject of a large inter-disciplinary conference. From my understanding, this subject has never been explored in a collective forum, which I think is one of the reasons that it has generated so much interest and drawn such a large audience.”
The opening keynote speaker is Marie-Josée Mondzain, director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and author of Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary. The closing address will be given by Robert S. Nelson, Yale's Robert Lehman Professor of the History of Art and author of Hagia Sophia, 1850-1950: Holy Wisdom, Modern Monument.
Putting together a three-day interdisciplinary, international meeting is not easy, and this is exactly what many symposia sponsored by the Dean’s Fund involve. Roland admits that he and co-organizer Maria Taroutina had to work hard on funding and logistics in order to bring distinguished visiting speakers and ensure a positive experience for all who will attend.
“These challenges, while distinct from the intellectual framework of the conference, offer their own rewards,” Roland acknowledges. “We have been able to foster relationships with our speakers, both in person and long distance, that have led to what I believe is a great deal of mutual respect and admiration,” which will enable them to “have sincere and invested conversations at the conference and foster what will certainly be life-long connections with scholars and peers.”
“I believe this conference is a perfect example of what a thriving intellectual life Yale has and also shows the support provided by faculty and staff to help graduate students produce such projects,” Roland says.