Symposium Reflections

When I was checking LinkedIn the other day I noticed that my former supervisor from the Archives and Special Collections at Lake Forest College had recently posted something. We’ve kept in touch since I graduated, so I decided to check it out.

It turned to be a post about the College’s annual Student Symposium, a campus-wide event it holds every spring to celebrate undergraduate research. Classes are canceled for the day as the campus is transformed into a one-day academic conference site, with PowerPoints, posters, performances, and more happening throughout the various academic buildings. This year it will be happening on Tuesday, April 11.

As I reposted the announcement on my LinkedIn page, I reflected on my own experiences with the Symposium, both as an attendee and as a presenter. More specifically, I found myself reminiscing about my first time presenting.

The year was 2006, and I was nearing the end of my sophomore year. The topic of my presentation was a paper I’d written for my class on Northern Renaissance Art in the fall. I’d spent that semester researching and writing about a group of paintings by Hans Memling (c. 1430-1494) known as Christ Surrounded by Singing and Music-making Angels, or the Nájera panels. They formed the top section of a now-lost altarpiece, and have long gathered scholarly attention for their detailed renderings of period musical instruments. I argued that the musician angels were less an accurate representation of musical practices of the time than a visualization of divine power as rendered through such metaphysical concepts as the Music of the Spheres. Or something to that effect. Anyway, the professor, and my undergraduate advisor, had nominated me to present, and it was the first time I’d be sharing my research beyond an in-class presentation or science fair.

Hans Memling, Christ Surrounded by Singing and Music-making Angels, c. 1483-1494, oil on panel, 165 cm × 672 cm (64.9 in × 264.5 in). Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. The complete altarpiece would have been enormous.

When I think back to that day, I can’t help but marvel at how much things have changed since then. I can’t prove it, but I suspect I was one of the last LFC students to use a slide carousel in a public presentation. I remember going to the art department’s library a week or so before the Symposium to pick out my slides. I’d carefully hold them by their corners and lift them up to the light to discern the miniature images contained within. When I was presenting, the audience could hear the distinctive click of the carousel as the next image appeared. I don’t miss slides, PowerPoint and other digital platforms allow more variety in presenting your argument, but in hindsight, there was a sensuous quality to them, one driven especially by sight, sound, and touch, that I’m glad I was able to experience.

My research interests and methods have also changed. These days my work is rooted in American Studies, but as an undergraduate at Lake Forest, I was most interested in medieval and northern Renaissance art. My methods have also changed significantly. For this paper, I relied entirely on secondary sources, and I’ve never seen the Nájera panels in person. In fact, aside from the semester I spent in Europe, I didn’t see any of the works I wrote about in person, at least not while I was writing about them. Not that there’s anything wrong with secondary sources or writing about works from afar. A key part of scholarly work, after all, is engaging the research of other scholars. Yet after spending so much time in archives, and so many years working with objects in museums, it feels strange to me now to encounter a project I did that features neither.

But perhaps the biggest change is the event’s significance to my life. In terms of my burgeoning academic career, that first Symposium was thrilling. I was scheduled to present near the end of the day, and in the morning and afternoon leading up to my talk, I listened to my friends share their work. Initially I felt nervous when it was finally my turn to talk, but once I got started, I could feel the energy course through me as I shared what I’d learned about the piece. I remember getting so excited that when I came to the last slide, I tossed the clicker onto the podium with such vigor that it bounced up against the microphone, its echo reverberating throughout the space. Celebrating with my friends afterwards, I felt I had gotten a delicious preview of my life to come, one as a scholar dedicated to researching and presenting late medieval art.

In some ways, that vision has come to pass. My interests have shifted greatly, but I’ve more or less worked in the art field since college. I’ve managed to find ways to research and write about art for a living, and I’ve given many talks and presentations, with my audiences ranging from senior scholars to kindergartners. I even did another turn as a presenter at the Student Symposium in 2008, when I was a senior and graduation was looming near.

But as I reflect on that Symposium, I also think about how much I’ve changed. The truth is, as marvelous as that day was, I hadn’t thought about it in years, not until I saw that post on LinkedIn. When I presented, I envisioned myself becoming a professor, mostly because I couldn’t imagine another way of working my love of art history into a career. In hindsight, those aspirations were largely a reflection of my own naivete, and I’ve long since traded those dreams for goals that better fit my temperament.

More significantly, that day reminds me of how much my own priorities have shifted. When I was an undergraduate, I lived to work. I spent the vast majority of my waking hours in the library doing research, and spent countless hours writing and rewriting papers (a compulsion not helped by a perfectionist streak). Those long working hours paid off in the form of awards, honors, and placement in the graduate program at Williams College. Sometimes I think I’ve never worked harder or with more enthusiasm than when I was a student at Lake Forest. Yet that version of me was ultimately unsustainable, and if I had to choose between dedicating myself to an all-consuming scholarly passion or a life that prioritizes relationships and wellness, I’ll take the latter.

Sorry Memling, your paintings are wonderful, but I’ll choose this man and the life I share with him every time.

Thinking back on that day, what also strikes me is how little it actually matters in my life now. Given that we live in a world of climate change, pandemics, political polarization, and all the other crises afflicting us today, a presentation about late medieval musical instruments as expressions of divine power doesn’t have much immediacy or urgency. But even beyond the cynicism that is life today, I think it also attests to the fleeting nature of accomplishment itself. The high I got from that achievement was temporary, and the only way to recapture it was to keep repeating it. And yet there is no guarantee of that success’s longevity. If I’ve learned anything from perusing the archives of the museums I’ve studied, and the volumes of reports, correspondence, and musings I’ve read from long-dead museum workers, it’s that there’s no promise anyone will remember the work you did. And even if your work is rediscovered in the future, there’s no guarantee that anyone will ever grasp you the person.

This isn’t to say that I’m not proud of my achievements. I am, and I will continue to work in ways that I find meaningful. Yet those awards and recognitions have never comforted me when I was feeling down, kept me company when I was feeling lonely, or gave me love. It’s a cliche, but as I get older, I realize that the relationships I have with my husband, my family, my friends, and of course the kitties, are what matter. At twenty, I prioritized work, but now, closer to forty than twenty, it’s still important, but it doesn’t define my whole life either.

But life is to be appreciated at every stage, whether you’re a young go-getter or someone looking reflectively toward middle age and beyond. And for all the students participating in this year’s Symposium, I wish you the best. May it bring you feelings of pride now, and pause for reflection later.

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