Graduate Symposium Insights from the Organizers

Written by
Sharifa Lookman, Mathilde Sauquet, and John White
Dec. 15, 2022

Coming Together Again, at Last, for Graduate Symposium “How did they teach? How did they learn? Knowledge Transmission from Late Antiquity to the Early Modern”

From the earliest stages of conference planning, the question of format—whether the event would be in person, entirely on Zoom, or hybrid—was at the forefront of our minds. Although we had come to appreciate the wide access and flexible format offered by an online venue—and even as we feared a potential third winter of virus recrudescence causing campus closures and travel restrictions—the three of us were equally committed to the idea of students and faculty engaging with each other in the same room.

Students seated at long restaurant table

Fast forward to Friday, December 2nd at the downtown restaurant Elements, where conference participants came to share a meal together the night before the event—spirits were high and wide smiles greeted us as we sat down to eat: “It’s so weird being here in person!”, “This is the first conference I’ve attended since 2019!”, “I forgot what this was like!” Everyone was excited and instantly reminded of the joy and verve made possible by the social, interpersonal interactions which used to represent such an essential part of our academic lives.

Dr. Janna Israel, who joined the Princeton University Art Museum as the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Academic Engagement amidst the pandemic and who served as one of three faculty respondents, expressed how much she valued this opportunity to get to know graduate students and hear about their ongoing research—something which the ongoing health crisis and the simultaneous museum closure have not made easy.

Panel in mid discussion

The conference was also a celebration of the inter-institutional exchanges that make the tri-state region such an attractive destination for graduate students and faculty alike. The themes of knowledge transmission and education in the premodern period attracted contributions from speakers at six different institutions in the area, hailing from eight different disciplinary backgrounds, who might not have been aware of each other’s work otherwise. Faiza Masood, a Ph.D. student in Princeton’s Religion department was thrilled to see the many connections that could be made between her paper on censorship in medieval Arabic literature and the paper which was delivered just before her by Daniel Berardino, from the Medieval Studies MA program at Fordham University, on legal argumentation in Byzantine canon law. Jennifer Ruth Hoyden, a Ph.D. student in the Art & Art Education program at Teachers College, Columbia, welcomed this chance to hear from colleagues from other disciplines: “It was really a stellar experience and interesting for me from so many different angles.”

Something which we had not expected, nor especially planned for, was for such a diverse and dynamic audience to come together on such a rainy and cold Saturday. Berardino, like many of the other speakers, was impressed: “the conference was very well-attended and the audience engaged productively with my paper and all the other presentations.” Our own Princeton community was well represented, from faculty members to graduate student colleagues in many different departments. Professor Marina Brownlee, from the Comparative Literature department, commented on the quality of the student contributions she heard: “The organization was flawless, and the papers were of such a high caliber.” Over coffee, after the second-morning panel, another faculty member could hardly suppress his excitement, “I think this might be the best graduate conference I’ve attended in the last 10 years!” Princeton alumni also made a most welcomed appearance, including recent Medieval Studies certificate alum J.J. López Haddad ’22 as well as Charles Rippin ’61, who frequently attends campus events and has maintained close ties to campus for the last five decades. Mr. Rippin attentively listened to every paper from the back of the auditorium and took advantage of the post-conference reception to ask the student speakers all his burning questions. A truly inter-generational sight to see!

Students explaining their posters at conference

Another highlight of the day, according to many conference attendees, was the undergraduate poster session which took place over lunch. All three undergraduate students presented robust and creative research projects which piqued the interest of the many people who attended the session. Art History concentrator Lucia Heminway shared how useful this experience had been for her as she prepared for her Junior Paper colloquium presentation the following week. Professors Beatrice Kitzinger and Helmut Reimitz independently expressed their enthusiasm at the possibility of replicating this poster session model at future events.

We sincerely thank the diverse academic communities who came out to make the event such a success. Our own keynote speaker, Professor Paula Findlen from Stanford University, found it “a very intellectually stimulating day. I so enjoyed the community of students and faculty you put together.” We are so pleased that the conference was an inviting venue for graduate students from different stages to share their work in progress and exchange ideas. It was particularly special for us to learn that in this conference two of our graduate speakers presented their work in person for the very first time. “As my first conference ever, it was a huge pleasure,” Yaacov Bronstein, from Rutgers’s English department, told us before he headed home on Saturday evening. We hope it is only the first of many!