Faculty students attend KIAS Undergraduate conference in Alberta

13 October 2011

Three students from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences recently presented talks at the Kule Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS) Undergraduate Student Conference in Alberta, Canada.

Simon Factor and Jessie Marie Snodgrass attended the conference with a sponsorship from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, while Cale Hubble applied directly to the conference. Founding Director of KIAS, Jerry A. Varsava, applauded our three students as "wonderful ambassadors for (our) institution".

The KIAS Undergraduate Student conference, titled "Tomorrow's Ideas, Now", aims to bring together students working in the humanities, social sciences and fine arts in a collaborative environment to submit essays, give poster presentations, and discuss current social issues with their peers.

The 2012 iteration of the conference will take place at the University of Alberta in mid-August 2012 and a Call-for-Papers to be issued in January 2012.

Here is a snapshot of our student's conference experience:

SIMON FACTOR, Majoring in Sociology

As the conference kicked off on Wednesday night with a short meet-and-greet session, it was not difficult to sense both the ambivalence and excitement circulating throughout the room. Each seemed to be felt in equal measure. The excitement emanated from the prospect of presenting our own research and ideas to a forum of interested and engaged students, who, it was hoped, would then be equally keen to kick back for some fun, chatting and drinking at the end of the day.

Jerry Vasava, the charismatic director of the Kule Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS) at which the conference was held, immediately tried to channel this palpable excitement into action, while quashing the ambivalence. As the conference was the first to be held at the university, with the hope of annual conferences in the future, he asked us to make him a promise - just enjoy ourselves. As it turned out, we didn't need much encouragement.

Thursday morning would be our first test to live up our promise. After a sugar-loaded breakfast, the first three panels got underway - each articulated to one of the three KIAS research topics; environmental stewardship, place, belonging and otherness and media and culture. Jessie, one the three University of Sydney students in attendance, was up first in the second category, while Cale (the other Sydney student) and myself made ourselves comfortable in the audience of the media panel. The standout in this group of presenters, for me, was Kat from the University of Waterloo, Canada. She presented her current research on the lack of, and potential for, an online space for individuals with disabilities, asking the question whether social networking technologies can enable a space of inclusion for youth with disabilities.

Two more sessions would be held in the day. The first I attended attempted to engage with a range of overwhelming problems facing the world today - from the very optimistic potentiality of unifying the countries across Africa to the possibility of aligning business with measures for environmental sustainability. The third presentation of the panel then unleashed a scathing critique of a pseudo-Marxist group in the United States. While the presenter, Danielle, from Columbia College Chicago, was initially sympathetic towards the group and their aim of creating a better society, upon closer inspection of their practical activities it became clear that their they were not only deeply imbricated with a sexist and racist disposition, but the organisation had also commodified their own critique through self promotion and marketing.

As this stimulating day began to come to an end, everyone was equally excited to head to the pub for a drink and relaxation. While some ended up at the fringe festival, held in Edmonton at the time, others seemed content with socialising well into the early hours of the next day.

Cale opened the day with a nuanced and well-researched presentation on recent violence against Sydney's Indian population, seeking to understand what motivated several recent attacks against the Hindu temple, Sri Mandir in Auburn. Next was an extraordinary and emotional keynote speech by Kei Narita from Tohoku University, Japan. He spoke of his experience of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan earlier this year. As both a resident and volunteer, he provided a unique insight into the events: the widespread and terrible destruction of homes and communities; the multiple inconveniences relating to electricity, gas and water; the looming nuclear crisis; the paranoia and overbuying of food and petrol; and the reconstruction projects which will continue well into the future. It was an extremely insightful and personal presentation on the unfolding activities following the catastrophic disaster.

Before my own presentation got underway, there was another standout paper by Charly Wreggitt from the University of Manitoba, Canada. Relaying her immense knowledge of the sex workers industry in Canada, she presented an engaged and convincing account of the need to rethink the stigma often attached to sexual entertainment.

My own paper, in the final panel of the conference, then sought to interrogate the strange alliance between neoliberal capitalism and evangelical Christianity in the reshaping of post-Katrina New Orleans.

The conference then reluctantly began to come to a close. Reflecting on the conference, it was surprising to everyone that the experience had been so positive. A multiplicity of friendships had been formed and this had helped to establish a remarkably positive environment in which everyone presented their papers. In the end we definitely kept out promise to enjoy ourselves - it was difficult not to.

JESSIE SNODGRASS, Majoring in Spanish and Latin American Studies and International Comparative Literature Studies

Before the commencement of the official KIAS conference, there was a welcoming reception for students. It was really informal and fun. While enjoying the amazing buffet on offer, and bonding with the other conference attendees, I realized the room was full of really lovely people, genuinely excited about their topic and interested in other people's presentations.

The first day of the conference started off with a keynote talk about playing as a vehicle for learning, especially through video games.

My panel was next. It was pretty relaxed. There were three presenters, followed by audience questions and discussions. My presentation topic looked at My Place by Australian Aboriginal author Sally Morgan and The House on Mango Street by Chicana (Mexican American) author Sandra Cisneros within a post-colonial framework. It illustrated how the publishing and wide reception of their work has given them each more of a voice within society, helped them work towards overcoming marginalisation and opened up literary space for others.

A girl from Germany was presenting on a similar topic to me, and she suggested a useful term, 'double marginalisation', which I hadn't heard of before. Another question then clarified my application of the term 'sub-altern' to describe Aboriginals. It was really useful to have this clarification to heighten my own understanding of my topic.

The next few days were a whirlwind of really interesting talks (some standouts for me were one on the relation between micro-financing projects and reduced rates of domestic violence in Bangladesh, and they speaker, a Japanese guy studying in the UK had actually spent time in Bangladesh to conduct his research!), a talk about the rights of sex workers in Canada, and one about linguistic relativity, that is that language affects the way we think.

The Edmonton fringe festival was serendipitously on at the same time. I got to catch a few good shows, one that was written and directed by one of the KIAS conference presenters.

The conference ended with a reception, complete with pop-string quartet, astro turf and a beautiful sandstone reception venue. This was an opportunity for us to socialize with academics from the University of Alberta, as well meet the founders of the Institute.

I was slightly dubious before heading to Alberta as to what the KIAS conference would be like, but it was such a great experience. I've never felt that sort of camaraderie among students before! Everyone was really interested in each other's passions. Great nights out were had, and we're all still keeping in contact.

Contact: Kate Mayor

Phone: 02 9351 2208

Email: 591838151e0c2e135c2a294a360e2c37347f2d2e464f040f