By Matthew Fuller
As many students ventured home, to the coast, or up to Portland for AWP for spring break, the School of Writing, Literature, and Film (SWLF) sent eight MA students to Europe to participate in the School’s inaugural run at the 17thannual Transatlantic Students Symposium. Founding symposium member and School of Public Policy professor Dr. Philipp Kneis reached out to invite SWLF to participate. “They contacted us sometime in the fall and basically said they had this program running that had done well for 16 years now,” SWLF Director Dr. Peter Betjemann said. “I really admire them for saying to us what they said, which was, that as they paid attention to the conversations that they were hearing at the symposium over the years they felt like it sort of pushed in our disciplinary direction more than theirs. It’s not common that you get called up by another academic unit that says ‘look, we have this amazing program—fully formed—like here’s a whole bunch of infrastructure for the program that’s already in place. Here are relationships that are already in place. It kind of sounds like they’re talking about your stuff more than our stuff, so do you want it?”
Every year the symposium takes place in a different location with a different theme. Alternating between the United States and Europe, previous themes have been “Challenges to Transatlanticism,” “The Politics and Culture of Resilience,” and “Transatlantic (Mis)Understandings of European Integration.” This year’s symposium, “The Future of Democratic Culture in Europe and the United States,” included four days of meetings and cultural immersion in Vienna, followed by four days in Berlin, including the symposium conference held at Humboldt University.
Disciplinarily, the move to include SWLF students in the conference seemed natural, though logistics and finances still needed to be ironed out. A grant from the Max Kade Institute helped defray some costs, but only covered six students and there were seven applicants. That’s when MA Director Dr. Raymond Malewitz approached SWLF faculty about trying to secure more support. “The faculty were great about donating some of their professional development funds to send a seventh,” Malewitz said. More interested students and financial support emerged through various initiatives and the trip was on.
The experience proved rich for those in attendance. Azadeh Ghanizadeh, a second-year MA who recently defended her thesis, “Islam, Feminism, and Third-Worldism: Women’s Freedom In Muslim Spaces,” and will be pursuing a PhD at Syracuse University in the fall, called the symposium “one of the most challenging and enriching research experiences I’ve had as a scholar of literary and cultural studies.” She also shared how the experience “provided [her] with tremendous insight into how professional political spaces serve the ruling world-system and are not exactly a space that enables unbiased critical inquiry,” noting the survey course taken in preparation and the “largely canonical and center/right leaning” texts included. In attending, she “hoped to bring [her] experiences as a Muslim woman of color and immigrant/refugee to this symposium to question the principles that guide societies from a feminist and Third-Worldist perspective.”
First-year MA Benjamin Platt took away, among other things, a deeper appreciation for collaboration in academic engagement. “I am extremely glad that I took the opportunity, as I think the ways it forced me to practice engaging in interdisciplinarity that I often hold up as incredibly valuable in the field of political science, which I often neglect at my own peril (and at the peril of my projects, which I hope can have actual stakes and impacts).” He described being thrown into a new environment with new people as “jarring,” but that he and others enjoyed the challenge and rose to the occasion. “It worked, partially because, as is usually the case with this metaphor of teaching, we were thrown into the deep end of a pool, not an ocean, and we were thrown in together, as a group of thirty students from Corvallis, Berlin, and Warsaw, which makes for a pretty crowded pool with plenty of people to turn to when needed.”
For Betjemann, following SWLF graduate students on this journey to present their research and engage with others in a professional setting called up memories from his early days in academia. “I remember so vividly my first experience presenting in a conference-like setting, which was in my grad program and we had a kind of internal conference,” he said. “It wasn’t as cool as this. We didn’t travel and engage in dialogue with other students from other universities—it was just students in our program—but it was so nerve wracking. I was so nervous. I was possibly more nervous for that presentation than I’ve been for any presentation since.”
Malewitz, who was able to attend the symposium, was awestruck by what he witnessed firsthand. “I normally don’t get to see the transition from the Introduction to Graduate Studies mini thesis to the MA Symposium presentations in year-two and then, finally, the actual thesis presentations,” he said. “I normally don’t get to see anything in between. So, it’s a shock to me every time—it shouldn’t be anymore—but, it’s a shock to me to see how much growth takes place in a very short amount of time between that mini thesis presentation and then the final thesis. This was my opportunity to see that transition. I was so blown away by the quality. It was a stressful environment to be presenting outside of your comfort zone, with a group of people in a different country, and I think everyone did really well with the presentations. I couldn’t have been happier with the quality of the work that each student put in.”
Next year, the Transatlantic Student Symposium will return stateside. The Pacific Northwest is a frontrunner, with suggestions of Corvallis, Seattle, and Vancouver as possible locales. Second-year SWLF MAs will collaborate with student organizers from Humboldt University and the University of Warsaw to plan cultural immersion activities and events leading up to the symposium.