By Christopher Carlsmith
“Who knew there were so many people studying the Renaissance?!”
“I learned a ton about how an academic conference works.”
“It was amazing to see how these scholars criticized each other, and how knowledgeable they were.”
“The conference was informative, entertaining, and humbling—at times I thought I might drown in a sea of (occasionally pretentious) intelligence.”
“Next time I’ll be more prepared.”
These comments represent some of my students’ reactions to attending the RSA Annual Meeting in Boston in spring 2016. Thirty undergraduate students were enrolled in my survey course on Renaissance-Reformation (HIST.2310) at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The students were required to conduct research on conference topics prior to the meeting, to attend the meeting in person, and to write up their findings afterward. Judging from classroom discussion, response papers, and classroom evaluations, the students were pleasantly surprised at how much they learned and how much they enjoyed it.
Bringing undergraduates to the RSA offers a number of benefits. The RSA Annual Meeting represents an unusual opportunity to expose my students to cutting-edge scholarship in Renaissance studies. The conference also offers a means to humanize the scholars that we had been reading in class and to make the topics more “real.” The students learned a lot about how an academic conference is structured, and how scholarship is created and disseminated. In addition, the students gained an appreciation for the continual tension in academia between supporting one’s colleagues and students and challenging their results. Lastly, my students became aware of the myriad and diverse topics that fall under the rubric of Renaissance studies—it’s not just Michelangelo and Machiavelli, but instead a vast range of topics, methodologies, locations, and sources.
In order to take full advantage of the 2,700 scholars gathered at the RSA meeting, my students were tasked with six assignments over a period of two months. Four of the six assignments were completed prior to the conference. Each week they engaged in a different type of writing (expository, reflective, email, bibliographic, etc.) designed to help them engage with different facets of the annual meeting. Some minimal research was required each week, either by browsing on the web or by investigating relevant databases (JStor, WorldCat) to learn more about specific topics. Each week the students would do a lightning-fast presentation (thirty seconds max) about what they had learned; thus after a month the class was familiar with more than two dozen topics to be presented at the RSA. Three or four students were unable to attend the RSA due to athletic or work-related obligations; fortunately, the Medieval Academy of America was meeting in Cambridge a month earlier, and Harvard University hosts a regular series of workshops, lectures, and small conferences that students could attend instead. The RSA graciously allowed my students to attend a panel or two without formally registering; they also extended this privilege to other Boston-area institutions that agreed to sponsor the conference. Students were not permitted to attend any receptions or the book fair.
Assignment one was to thoroughly explore the RSA website, especially the portions devoted to the Annual Meeting. I asked them to identify the mission and current activities of the RSA, as well as to browse through the online conference program, registration information, and FAQs. The students wrote a first-person journal entry of about two pages summarizing what they had learned about the RSA and its Annual Meeting and compiled a list of questions that remained unanswered. The dominant theme in student responses was how awestruck they were by the immensity and diversity of the conference program.
Assignment two asked the students to identify a panel (or two) that captured their attention and that they planned to attend in person. I taught the students how to browse by day, time, session type, or keyword; I also suggested topics or presenters closely related to our coursework. Students then submitted a one-page summary of the panel(s) and explained their rationale(s). One unexpected challenge here for students was to produce an accurate precis of the panel without plagiarizing the abstracts; often scholars use highly specialized language to describe their paper, and the students did not have the vocabulary or context to describe it in other terms. A few students chose more than one panel, which allowed me to advise them about how to choose one closest to their own interests.
Assignment three required the students to explore their panel in more depth by summarizing the abstract of each paper, the identity of each speaker, and the purpose of the panel. Students were also required to formulate three to five questions about the panel and the paper abstracts. Sometimes these questions were banal and predictable, but at other times they were thoughtful and provocative. These questions served both to guide additional research in subsequent assignments and as a basis for the students to approach the author of the abstract via email or in person. Formulating these questions also encouraged critical thinking skills.
Assignment four was the most substantive in terms of paper length and required research. Students selected a single paper on the panel and conducted research into the identity and career of the author: e.g., What is his/her expertise? Is this a new project or has this scholar previously published articles and/or given talks on this topic? Where does the scholar teach, and what courses does he/she routinely offer? I taught students how to analyze a scholarly CV and to look for narrative overviews on faculty webpages as well as on academia.edu. My students also had to research the topic of the abstract: for example, what were the key issues being explored? Was this a new area of research or an old chestnut? What type(s) of primary sources were being used? Who are the other scholars that have written on this topic? All of this information was to be distilled in a three-page report. Students easily identified their respective scholars, but they struggled with how to identify relevant research by other scholars and what the primary sources might be. Often, of course, abstracts don’t provide such information—they are necessarily brief. I spent a lot of time helping the students to decode the abstracts and to point out books or journals that might provide additional information.
Assignment five was a formal letter from the student to the scholar presenting at the RSA, expressing interest in the topic, identifying themselves and the purpose(s) of the letter, and asking several substantive questions about the topic. Students were given a template, and all letters were reviewed by me prior to being sent. Many of the students asked for a copy of the paper in advance, or for the opportunity to meet at the annual meeting. My students were shocked to find out that not a single professor to whom they wrote had a copy of the paper prepared one month before the conference; they assumed that professors always do their work well in advance! The only presenters to have the paper completed ahead of time were (perhaps predictably) graduate students. Many scholars sent courteous responses to my students, suggesting other works that might be relevant, or offering to meet at the beginning or end of the panel.
Assignment six was to attend the panel session, meet the speaker, and listen carefully to the presentation. About 75 percent of my students did introduce themselves to the speaker, and some chatted informally with others in the audience. In some cases my students were a full generation younger than all others in the room, and that proved to be both awkward and amusing in different measures. The students were stunned that so many of the papers were read stiffly and in a monotone; they had expected more of a discussion format. They were equally surprised by the pointed questions raised by audience members, often challenging the interpretation of the speakers—and even more surprised when other audience members would join the fray! The students found that, despite having studied the Renaissance for three months and having done research on the specific topic of the panel, they were woefully underprepared to engage in, or even follow, the discussion. Happily, many students reported that the scholars in the room welcomed them to the RSA and were eager to answer questions.
The final assignment asked the students to write a three-page reflective paper about what they had learned, what surprised them, and what they would do differently next time. All students claimed that they would prepare much more carefully next time in order to engage in the discussion more fully. More specifically, many of my students declared their intent to learn more about the primary source (textual, visual, or musical) that was to be analyzed by the speaker so that they would not feel so lost. Many students commented upon the lack of interaction between speaker and audience during the formal presentation of the paper. The students were also struck by the sophisticated vocabulary (“triptych”, “historiographical”, “post-structuralist”) commonly employed by speakers and audience members alike. Many students found it difficult to follow references to the works of other famous scholars (Baron, Greenblatt, Kristeller), to famous historical figures (Melanchthon, Ficino, Cervantes), or to works of literature or art (The Tempest, Pantheon, Montaigne’s Essays) that they did not know. To some extent, of course, this is to be expected, particularly at a conference where scholars attend to speak to/with other scholars. Probably undergraduates should feel bewildered, and even overwhelmed, in such a situation. On the other hand, part of our job as scholars is to communicate our findings clearly to a broader audience; my students’ responses suggested that we might need to improve on that score.
In evaluating this series of RSA-related assignments, my students expressed pleasure at having been introduced to the world of academic conferences. They emphasized the value of learning about other aspects of the Renaissance beyond what we had learned in class and the challenge of following a high-level discussion. They were frustrated with some elements of the conference experience, such as not knowing anyone else and not being able to follow many of the references in the papers, but these difficulties are to be expected for any first-time conference attendee. In sum, it was a worthwhile pedagogical experience to link the RSA Annual Meeting to my own class. Such an experience would be difficult to replicate every year, of course, and there are significant logistical issues involved. Nevertheless, the students learned a great deal about Renaissance studies and those scholars who work in this field.
Christopher Carlsmith teaches in the History Department at University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is currently a member of the RSA Executive Board.