On Thursday of this week, many of the English folk—students and faculty—were here, at the second annual English Department Symposium. A traditional symposium, a la the Greeks [see above, with thanks to Michael Lahanas for the picture], would have been filled with philosophy, conviviality, discussion, and drinking. Given current American laws, we were far more interested in the first three. Oh, and having women involved. And more clothing. And no lyres.
Originally, our Symposium came about because the faculty had felicitous, but rare, discussions in hallways and at lunch about exciting things we were doing in our respective courses. Why, we wondered, wasn’t there a venue to make public the great work that our students did? Thusly, the Symposium was born.
On Thursday, an intrepid school newspaper reporter asked a few of us “what do you think the Symposium does for the students, and what does it do for the faculty?” An excellent question. When we began, we had only the vaguest intuition that this would be a good thing; that we’d get something out of it and so would the students, we were sure. But what? That remained to be seen. As I watched the performances, readings, and presentations this year, however, I was blown away by both the quality of the work and the interactions among the students. Something important happens at the Symposium, I think, and it’s only now that it’s starting to register.
I’ve had at least three students comment to me about their individual experiences this year (and I’ll give them their privacy here, unless they want to be named!). One student mentioned how nervous she was prior to reading her work, and how proud she was of herself when she had done it. Another saw the Symposium as a place to have a “reunion” of one of the best classes she’s taken at the college. Finally, another student described how the event is a “support group for English majors” that addresses the ways in which they often feel like fakers until they see others engaged in the same actions. And, of course, there were really cool t-shirts.
All of these analyses speak to the ways in which a public event can stage important individual and communal developments for the students who participate. With a few slight tweaks, I’d say the same is true on the faculty end as well; we get to witness the breadth of our involvement with a large community of readers/writers/thinkers; many of us participate, either reading, running a panel, or performing, which puts us into the same situations as the students—we’re nervous and excited, too. So where’s the tweak? I think it’s this: we get to see students that we had early on and may never have in another class. In forums like the Symposium, we get to see the ways in which students have progressed in their ideas and who they’ve grown into over time.
It occurs to me, off hand, that the Symposium might be the Platonic ideal (hee!) of a conference. All exchange and conviviality and community, with none of the showboating and judgment. (There may have been evidence of these factors at our Symposium, but I didn’t witness it. So I’m sticking to the Platonic ideal theory.)
So, onward and upward for the Symposium! Our challenge for next year: how do we get students involved early on, so that the sessions best support their interests?