President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Posing Models: Graduate Student Conferences
March 27, 2002
Each Friday I spend time in the Lewis Thomas Laboratory working in the lab with seniors completing their senior theses, graduate students working on their Ph.D.s and postdoctoral fellows who are conducting research. One of my graduate advisees, Scott Steele, is hard at work on his dissertation research, but at the same time he is organizing a conference with Rebecca Katz, a fellow graduate student in the Woodrow Wilson School.
The topic of this conference, which is planned for next fall, is bioterrorism—preventing it, dealing with its consequences, communicating effectively about it, crafting regulations to deter it. Although the topic has interested Scott since college, it is unrelated to his dissertation, and as his advisor, I might be expected to discourage him from taking on any assignment that distracts him from his primary objective at Princeton—completing his Ph.D. On the contrary, I am delighted that he is taking the lead on this event. The opportunity to plan a major conference with keynote addresses by internationally renowned experts from our faculty, the media, and the world of public affairs will teach him lessons not available in the classroom or the laboratory.
In general, the sharing of research findings is central to the work of any scientist and critical to the professional development of all of our graduate students. The bioterrorism conference will test Scott’s growing interest in the interdisciplinary field of science policy, an exciting career option he is considering.
Such student-planned events that take advantage of similar interests across disciplines help account for the vibrancy of the graduate student community on campus. This past fall I attended a conference called “Puerto Ricans: Second-Class Citizens in ‘Our’ Democracy?” which included among its participants Jesse Jackson, Sonia Sotomayor ’76, U.S. Court of Appeals judge, and Marcia Rivera, a distinguished Puerto Rican sociologist. The graduate student organizers came from the departments of Spanish and Portuguese, sociology, history and the Woodrow Wilson School, as well as from the nearby Princeton Theological Seminary.
Last year’s Centennial of the Graduate School provided new impetus for student-led conferences, and thanks to the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the School has been able to continue to fund such initiatives, one of which took place several weeks ago in early March. Named “Posing Models: The Question of Beauty and Its Status in the History of Art,” the conference was organized by three students who entered the Department of Art and Archaeology the same year and who all focus on the modern period: Michelle Foa, Suzanne Hudson, and Julia Robinson.
Their objective was to select a topic that had wide-ranging appeal and to reach out to students concentrating on different centuries and fields in Art and Archaeology as well as to students in different disciplines. The Mellon Foundation grant allowed them to cast the net widely in the call for papers, and the conference included students from the University of Pittsburgh, Berkeley and Harvard. It also allowed them to invite the artist, Louise Lawler, as a keynote speaker.
All three students are completing their General Examinations this year, and the pressure to prepare for these examinations as well as for course work and precepting is significant. When asked why they took on the extra work, they point to the delight of exploring a topic of their own interest and to more practical professional benefits such as gaining practice delivering papers, testing the validity of their hypotheses and networking.
Organizing their own conference de-mystified the process of what is a central component of their future professional lives. They also point to the experience as being fundamentally and enormously empowering. THEY got to select papers from among the very talented submissions of their peers. THEY got to decide on the intellectual thrust of the conference, arranging the sequence of topics to make their own points. THEY invited the keynote speaker and spent time with this “star” in their field of interest. (It has been my experience that students are always able to attract the best speakers!) THEY also did all the work, but it seems the benefits clearly outweigh the cost. This is, after all, the second annual graduate student conference in the department.
To play on the title of the Art and Archaeology conference, these graduate student-run events are all about “posing models.” It’s their chance to present luminaries in their field of concentration—their models—as well as to present the work in progress of other graduate students—the models in training. During her presentation, Louise Lawler made an understated but powerful comment about the beauty of a work of art, saying “The work works.” For graduate students preparing these conferences, who devote substantial time and effort to make the conferences a success, it is also true that the work works.