Presenting research at academic symposiums and conferences is an integral part of art-historical scholarship. Events like these allow art historians to receive critical feedback from their peers, practice their public speaking skills, and network with their professional community. American University offers MA students two annual on-site opportunities to present their art-historical research: the Robyn Rafferty Mathias Student Research Conference, which takes place every Spring semester; and the American University/George Washington University Symposium, which takes place each fall. Graduate students also have the opportunity to apply to symposiums and conferences outside the college, and allow AU students to connect with other graduate students and scholars across the country. Students selected to present their work outside the university can apply for funding from the College of Arts and Sciences to support their travel.
We interviewed two current MA students, Alaina Hendrickson and Hoyon Mephokee, about their experiences presenting research this semester. Alaina spoke at the Middle Atlantic Symposium, held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Hoyon was going to speak at the 37th Annual Art History Graduate Student Symposium at Florida State University in Tallahassee before it was cancelled due to the SARS-COVID-19 pandemic.
Alaina was chosen by the AU art history faculty to present at the Middle Atlantic Symposium after presenting at both the Robyn Rafferty Mathias Student Research Conference and the American University/George Washington University Symposium in 2019. “I actually didn’t express interest ahead of time, although I was definitely excited about the possibility,” said Alaina. “The professors look for students with presentation experience and interesting research projects to represent the program.” Every two years, the AU art history faculty chooses a student to represent the college at the symposium. This is an exciting opportunity for AU students, as AU is one of the few participating schools who select MA students to present (many of the other universities are represented by Ph.D. candidates). Alaina delivered “A Pajong-Bearer in Dutch Batavia: Colonialist Hierarchies in a Painting by Aelbert Cuyp”–a condensed version of her MA thesis research.
Hoyon submitted a proposal to the graduate student conference at FSU last year stating that he “…learned about the conference in an email sent by the faculty,” but that “there were a couple of opportunities to present my work that [he] was interested in.” The art history faculty frequently share research, internship, and job opportunities with MA and undergrad students alike, but many of them are organized around specific themes or research topics. Hoyon stated, “I decided to apply for this one [Florida State] because it did not have any sort of theme that I had to adhere to.” Contemporary art history is an incredibly diverse field, which allows conferences and symposiums to designate specific methodologies and topics as significant to the current state of the field. For example, American University’s hosts its own bi-annual research conference, the Feminist Art History Conference, which specializes in feminist approaches in the visual arts. Students interested in presenting research should keep these themes in mind while applying, and make sure to submit proposals that speak directly to the chosen theme.
Hoyon’s application process was simple, but time consuming. “I had to submit my abstract, which took some revisions to get right but wasn’t a difficult process because I had been writing and thinking about my thesis for a while now. Some places will require you to submit a CV as well. After I got accepted, I had to confirm my attendance and submit a speaker bio, photo, and another (shorter) abstract for the symposium program.” Hoyon’s talk, “J.B. Carpeaux’s Fontaine de l’Observatoire: A Monument to the Politics and Patronage of the Second Empire and Third Republic,” was adapted from his soon-to-be submitted MA thesis on Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s Fontaine de l’Observatoire, a public monument in Paris that depicts four allegorical continents holding up a celestial sphere. “My thesis consists of three chapters: one on the historical context, another on the commission and site of the monument, and a third chapter on the racial iconography of the work,” says Hoyon. “In my talk, I was going to focus on the racial iconography and discuss the implications of the monument for our understanding of the Second French Empire and Third Republic.”
Although the conference was cancelled, Hoyon still found the experience invaluable. “Speaking opportunities like this are important, even if you don’t do them—the experience of applying to them, turning your research into a talk, and creating slides is valuable for any burgeoning scholar,” says Hoyon. “While the symposium and publication were cancelled this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the experiences leading up to the symposium were nonetheless valuable.”
Hoyon encourages graduate students to apply for these opportunities. “My advice is to go for it, but to be smart about it, especially for second-year students who already have a lot on their plate. I had to be smart about my timeline because I had to make sure I had enough time to continue working on my thesis and be able to commit time and energy to turning my thesis into a 20-minute talk, or roughly 10 pages. The weekend of the symposium was going to be the weekend that we had to submit our theses to the university for a format check, and a week after a major revision deadline.”
Alaina echoes the benefits of participating in conferences and symposiums. “I definitely recommend participating in outside symposiums. I have made significant professional connections with other graduate students and faculty, which is only a bonus to the invaluable opportunities to immerse myself in the latest art historical scholarship. If you can’t be a speaker, you can always participate by attending.”
Thank you to Alaina and Hoyon for their testimonies, and congratulations on your upcoming graduation!