Ideas, even from the most brilliant minds, rarely thrive in a vacuum.

Graduate students in the physical and biological sciences work together in labs. But once humanists and social scientists have finished their coursework, “How do we keep them in the University community, where they’re presenting their work to each other?” asks Elaine Hadley, professor in English Language and Literature and immediate past chair of the Council on Advanced Studies (CAS).

UChicago addressed that problem in 1982 with the creation of the CAS graduate workshops: opportunities to present papers, hear and critique new ideas, and enjoy a little camaraderie. Most presenters are students, but faculty and postdocs also present, along with guest speakers. The council listed 65 workshops during the 2017–18 academic year, ranging alphabetically from African Studies to Wittgenstein, geographically from Art and Politics of East Asia to Latin America and the Caribbean, and chronologically from Ancient Societies to 20th and 21st Century. Each workshop meets four or five times per quarter, and each meeting draws from five people to 40 or more.

Tableau visited three workshops this spring.

Rhetoric and Poetics
On a Thursday in May, Caitlin Miller, a first-year graduate student in Classics, presents her paper “Aspects of Mediterraneanism in the Caribbean.”

Miller’s work is in the field of classical reception: the study of the reinterpretation of ancient literature, especially Greek and Roman, in more recent settings. In this particular paper, she looks at Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros and J. A. Froude’s The English in the West Indies: Or, The Bow of Ulysses. Omeros transposes Homer’s Odyssey to the Caribbean, and Froude’s book likens Great Britain’s colonization of the Caribbean to the exploits depicted in the Iliad.

Froude, an Englishman who wrote in the late nineteenth century, thinks of the Caribbean in purely imperialistic terms as an expansion of British geography. Walcott, on the other hand, was a St. Lucia native who wrote Omeros in 1990—during the advent of movements in Caribbean poetry to orient away from Europe. Froude writes from the perspective of the colonizer, Walcott from the colonized, and Miller explores the tension between them.

Workshop leader David Williams says that like most workshops, the Rhetoric and Poetics group puts out an open call for student presenters. These presenters are often preparing a dissertation chapter; it’s unusual for first-year graduate students to present, but Miller really wanted to.

Williams, a fourth-year graduate student, has been attending the Rhetoric and Poetics workshops since arriving at UChicago. Like most graduate students, he also attends other workshops—some regularly, others when the topic strikes him.

Most of the Classics graduate students attend either Rhetoric and Poetics or Ancient Societies, although they aren’t mandatory. “Part of being in grad school,” Williams says, “is learning how to engage in an academic community.”

Medieval Studies
Today’s presenter is Felix Szabo, a history graduate student who also has presented in the late antiquity workshop. For this session, “Personal Piety in the Seals of Middle Byzantine Eunuchs,” a lot of the group’s feedback focuses on practical matters: ways to sort and analyze a catalogue of document seals owned by eunuchs.

“This my first time working with such abundant source material,” Szabo says. “Before I worked with seals, I could count my eunuch sources on one hand.”

Medieval Studies, like any workshop focused on a time period, is an interdisciplinary endeavor.
“Medieval people didn’t organize their world according to modern disciplines,” says Melissa Horn, the workshop’s co-leader along with History graduate student Alexandra Peters.

Horn, a third-year graduate student in Art History who studies manuscripts from late medieval France, notes that archaeologists, religious historians, and literary scholars all have valuable insights for her work.

She was particularly struck by an April 26 presentation by guest speaker Carole Rawcliffe, a professor emerita of medieval history at the University of East Anglia and an expert on medicine and leprosy. In addition to Humanities and Social Sciences, the lecture drew students and faculty from the Law School and Pritzker School of Medicine.

“I’ve often heard ideas being discussed, even if I didn’t feel like I had anything to contribute,” Horn says, “and even if I only understood 50 percent, something would spark in my brain.”

Like most workshops, the group has a social function that goes beyond chatting over bagels and coffee after each session. The medievalists have potlucks at the beginning and end of each year, which, Horn says, “makes for a more productive intellectual community. I feel like the other medievalists at the University are my second department.”

Literature and Philosophy
Literature and Philosophy is closely identified with the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought. Because that group is by its nature interdisciplinary, the workshop draws attendees from a wide range of fields and can never accommodate all the students who want to present, says workshop leader Nicholas Bellinson, a fourth-year graduate student in the committee.

To select presenters, Bellinson says, leaders use three criteria: Will the topic appeal to regular workshop participants? Does it build on previous topics to create an interesting conversation? Or, conversely, could it draw people “whose interests might not be represented in other workshops or other fora in the University”?

Bellinson enjoys the conversation the workshops foster among a wide range of scholars, as well as the closer, more peer-like relationship to the faculty who attend.

“In a seminar class you have at most two professors and a lot of students,” he says. “But sometimes you come to one of these and there are five professors and five students.”

Today’s lecture, held in a seminar room under the gaze of a bust of Nef, is by Ethan Blass, a PhD candidate in Germanic Studies, on “Romance as a Way of Seeing in Goethe and Hitchcock.”

Blass conceives of romance as a way of reading, “not just an object, but a subjective element.” But pinning down that element proves tricky. The discussion quickly leaves Alfred Hitchcock behind and proceeds through Don Quixote, Elias Canetti, Dante, Goethe’s notion of the Urpflanze, and Star Wars. Although conversation gets heated, no one raises their voice or gets angry.

“We’ve had much more contentious discussions than that,” Bellinson says. “And we don’t mind. As long as people are civil, it’s all right if they disagree.”


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