We knew that this year’s Conference of the Contemporary was going to be different—challenging, even. We wouldn’t, for example, be able to celebrate the end of the conference by gathering together in The Wardroom, chatting about the day while gorging on cheese and bread. We wouldn’t be able to hug each other, shake hands, or give our congratulations in quite the same way. That is, the 2021 conference was planned, coordinated and held completely online.
On Sunday, February 21, 2021, eleven students from King’s, some scattered across Canada, filed into a virtual meeting to celebrate their passions and research from the Contemporary Studies Program (CSP). With special acknowledgement to the President of the Contemporary Studies Society (CSS), Isabel Teramura, the CSS constructed four panels, each featuring a set of papers united by a common, overarching idea. Topics ranged from “Identities and Optics” to “the Modern Gaze,” all the way to “Love and Becoming” and finally, to “Alliance and Allyship.” United in this way, audiences and moderators got a chance to ask questions and highlight complex intersections of the panelists’ arguments.
Part of what makes the conference so special is that it is completely student-centred: students select the (initially anonymized) papers, moderate panels, work with panelists one-on-one, ask questions, and everything in between. Because it is made by students and for students, we think of it as a chance to show off papers that pose new (or hard) questions, critique power structures or dominant modes of thought, experiment with form and visuals, and (re)consider the contemporary world in fresh and bold ways.
The conference is, at its core, about celebrating the act of learning (and unlearning) and the never-ending process of becoming. It’s a chance to admire papers like “Maggie Nelson’s Series of Becomings in The Argonauts,” written and presented by Hope Moon, a third-year student at King’s and Dalhousie. Moon’s analysis wonderfully tapped into what it means to be “good enough,” to love and to move together, forever forward.
But the conference is also about the ways in which we can learn through critique. Levi Clarkson, a fifth-year student at King’s, presented their paper “Under the Guise of a Neutral and Rational Institution: Why University Administrators Get Offended When Students Call Them What They Are.” Clarkson’s paper posed a critique of power dynamics in student-administrator decision-making spaces, a welcome and necessary analysis of institutional identities and epistemic systems.
Learning from my classmates about everything from Mickey Mouse as a hero of modernity (Robbie Dryer), to the exploration of queerness in commodified online networks (Aideen Reynolds), to resistance and feminist coalition-building (Katie Clarke), was an absolute privilege. And, I think, the initial concerns of having the conference entirely online were rendered insignificant; the sentiments of the conference remained, and we were able to spend a few hours together in some truly strange times, closing some of the distance through a shared—yet varied—adoration (and criticism) of the contemporary moment.