Conference on gender teaches students new skills

by Eric Smith

As the academic year draws to a close, many McGill professors are finalizing their presentations for academic conferences around the world. But last week at McGill it was graduate students from the University's Russian and Slavic and German Studies departments who organized "Body/Gender/Identity: An interdisciplinary Graduate Student Conference."

According to Russian and Slavic Studies graduate student and organizing committee member Krystyna Steiger, student-run academic conferences "are unusual though not unprecedented. It's a relatively new thing. Previously, conferences were reserved for professional academics."

Professor Serafima Roll, also from Russian and Slavic Studies, encouraged interested graduate students to take on the mechanics, both academic and administrative, of organizing a conference. "Students have to be active," she said, "and not passive recipients of culture."

Silke Falkner, a graduate student in German Studies, was one of the conference's co-ordinators. She said all the work involved in putting the two-day event together paid off.

"It was a fairly small conference," she said, "but we had very enthusiastic people. We learned so much from one another." Falkner added that bringing people together from a wide range of departments at all four Montreal universities allowed students to meet others who were studying similar questions from different perspectives. And those contacts will be maintained, according to Falkner. "The participants intend to keep in touch with each other, to continue the conversations they started at the conference."

Panels addressed questions of body and gender identity from anthropological, philosophical and literary criticism perspectives. Université de Montréal English Studies professor Robert K. Martin delivered the keynote address: "The Politics of Identity: Re-reading Walt Whitman."

According to Roll, "the level of the papers was very high. They were well-researched papers with fresh findings. They were better than at some international conferences where professors come and rehash old ideas."

Falkner is planning to use her experience organizing the conference as well as the evaluations she received from participants to document the event. She said she hopes other students will take on the challenges of organizing an academic conference and invited them to get in touch with her at the German Studies department if they need advice on the logistics.

One of the difficulties organizers had was learning how to go about getting funding.

"We found out about funding quite late," according to Falkner. The Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, the Post-Graduate Students' Society and the McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women all provided the conference with funding. And the Faculty of Arts donated the paper needed for programs and publicity.

But the complexities of organizing a first conference didn't show when the event got under way. In fact, said Steiger, "people came up to me to say how professionally organized the conference was."