School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

‘Context and Meaning XII: Making and Breaking Identity’: Art History Graduate Conference bridges disciplinary gaps

By Christine Elie

February 2013


The Graduate Visual Culture Association of Queen’s University held their annual conference on February 1 and 2, 2013. The twelfth annual Context and Meaning conference, entitled Making and Breaking Identity, was held at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre on campus and hosted participants from across the continent. Bringing together both historical and contemporary topics, the conference embodied the importance of student-based conferences at the graduate level.

At the helm of the conference were organizers Melissa LaPorte, Kit MacManus, Annie Cotignola and Susanne McColeman. It was the first time organizing the conference for all four of these Art History graduate students and the smooth and professional environment is a testament to their hard work and dedication. “Seeing it run smooth is a big confidence booster, when you do it yourself, it makes you feel like you’re part of the academic and professional research world,” says organizer Kit MacManus. Having attended the conference in previous years, Susanne McColeman decided to get involved because she recognized the significance of graduate level conferences: “I attended the conference as a presenter a few years ago and I saw the importance of having a supportive environment to present my work, a place where I felt I could take risks with ideas.”

The conference saw 22 graduate student presenters from Universities across Canada and the United States come together to share their work. Selected by a blind panel from a pool of approximately 50 applicants, the 22 presenters were then placed in thematic panels.

The panel topics spanned the disciplines touching on everything from Conservation to Religious Identity. The wide breadth of the presentations brought together academics from a plethora of disciplines; they were connected through the conference theme of Making and Breaking Identity, which set out to explore the construction and deconstruction of identity through visual culture.

The themes malleable focus invited many topics that could all be bound together by the common thread of identity. This helped create the interdisciplinary environment of the conference. “Mel came up with the idea,” explained Kit, “and we had a huge response from other disciplines. To have participants from different disciplines such as film studies, philosophy, and Egyptology adds to the scope of the conference. It really takes you out of your niche.”

Kit believes that “It is important for grad students to have the opportunity to speak outside of seminars. It helps give them confidence.” Student run conferences allow participants to foray into the professional academic world. While panellists have the opportunity to presents their work in a structured and formal environment, they also have the chance to hear what others are working on, and gain feedback on their own work.

As an academic space between seminars and formal conferences, one of the many benefits to graduate level conferences, according to Susanne, is the “experience of meeting other scholars. Every school had its own distinct culture, and it’s important to make these connections.” Context and Meaning is also a great way for undergraduate students or those thinking of entering grad school to get a snapshot of the graduate program. Showcasing the work of many of the students, it also gives them the opportunity to get a feel for the academic environment of the school.

In lieu of a Keynote speaker, the organizers opted for a workshop entitled “Establishing your Academic Identity,” led by Dr. Allison Morehead and Dr. Karen Lloyd. “In my previous conference experience,” Susanne said, “I have gotten a lot out of roundtable discussions and workshops, especially on career oriented topics.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the conference is undeniably part of its allure. Susanne believes, “Art history is so interdisciplinary that it feels as though all of these disciplines intersect with it naturally. It’s great to have an exchange of ideas across different disciplines and see how others approach art and visual culture.”