By Eva Mroczek
Before I entered graduate school, I imagined the life of a scholar to be cerebral and solitary and expected to spend days locked in a library pouring over manuscripts. But being a Ph.D. candidate in Centre for the Study of Religion and the Centre for Jewish Studies has taught me that academic life is far more dynamic and social than that. Being part of a scholarly community requires skills far beyond what we learn in class, skills that many of us had the opportunity to hone, under the guidance of Hindy Najman, during the intense flurry of activity at CJS in the last few months.
CJS students are not only intellectually challenged in our field by attending the many events sponsored by CSR and CJS, but we are also actively involved in the behind-the-scenes work of making such scholarly conversations possible in the first place. The Dead Sea Scrolls conference in November gave a group of us the chance to learn what goes into organizing an international gathering of scholars, a project that began a full two years before the event itself and involved careful planning, superhuman attention to detail, and collaboration between several U of T departments, the ROM, and two universities. Chad Stauber of CJS and NMC, Nicole Hilton of CJS and CSR, and I were called upon to help the conference organizers (Hindy Najman, CJS Director, Sarianna Metso of NMC and CSR, and Eileen Schuller of McMaster U.) put together 3 days featuring scholars from N. America, Europe and Israel.
What we learned was that conferences do not run themselves: every minute of every event is carefully orchestrated, from checking that the technology works to making sure that participants can find their way around. When something goes right, it is only because all the details were put in place months earlier, and a well-oiled machine of leaders and volunteers has made it so. While having a chance to interact with the visitors was certainly exciting, the collegiality among student volunteers from U of T (including CSR, NMC, CJS and TST) and McMaster was also a highlight.
Being heavily involved in the conference required all of us to develop multi-track minds: we were thinking through arguments while craning our necks to make sure Prof. So-and-So knew where to find the coffee. Compli-cated schedules competed with charts of Qumran scribal variants for space in our minds. The experience prepared us for the multi-tasking that is required of academics, who must not only do research, write and teach, but also to take on administrative roles. Being part of organizing the conference made me realize that these tasks are crucial to making scholarship a vibrant enterprise, and as such can be invigorating. This spirit of collegiality reached its peak during the graduate student session on the final day, with presentations by both U of T and McMaster students who, although separated by only a short stretch of highway, rarely have a chance to meet. The surprise of the afternoon was that instead of the handful of people we expected to see, nearly all the visiting scholars came to the session and gave attentive feedback. On the last afternoon of a long and intense conference, such support from specialists in the field was truly impressive.
The conversations begun at the conference are continuing in a volume to be published by Brill later this year, with essays by 11 conference participants. And the role of CSR/CJS students has not ended either: Nicole Hilton and I have been working as editorial assistants on the volume, which has given us a chance to develop yet another set of skills. There is satisfaction in seeing an academic project through from the very beginning stages of planning a conference, to coordinating the event, to checking the proofs of the volume, letting the ongoing scholarly conver-sation we are facilitating shape and enrich our own work.
Eva Mroczek is a 4th-year doctoral candidate in CSR and Jewish Studies. Her dissertation discusses a Psalms collection from the Dead Sea Scrolls as it illuminates concepts of textual development, compilation and reception in Jewish antiquity.