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Behind the Podium: A Graduate Student’s Experience in Presenting a Conference Paper

February 23, 2015

One of the perks of being an Architectural History graduate student at the Savannah College of Art and Design is having opportunities to step out of the classroom and get some real world professional experience. Recently, I had the privilege of presenting a paper at the Ninth Savannah Symposium: The Architecture of Trade.

Glen Umberger (far left) hosts the Graduate Student Roundtable at the 9th Savannah Symposium

Glen Umberger (far left) hosts the Graduate Student Roundtable at the 9th Savannah Symposium

Presenting a paper at an academic conference may sound intimidating and it can be. But it can be very rewarding, too. For me, it was a chance to push myself a bit farther outside my comfort zone.

The process is fairly simple. Most conferences require you to first submit a 300 word abstract on your paper. I chose to frame my paper around a few ideas that I wanted to use for my master’s thesis so writing a short abstract was fairly straightforward. Along with the challenge of writing only 300 words (my first draft was over 750) I was given the following advice: keep it simple, make sure it is interesting and don’t forget to include a clever title.

Once my paper was accepted, the real work began. At the symposium, you only have twenty minutes and you only get one chance to make a good first impression. So, my paper went through numerous drafts (I lost count how many) and I spent a lot of time selecting my PowerPoint slides (more advice here: make sure they are “visually stunning.”)

Of course, you are writing a paper that will be read out loud to an audience, which is a bit different than writing a paper for a professor who will be reading it in the comfort of his office. So, I had to think about my unique speech patterns, making sure to limit architectural jargon and avoid getting tongue-tied over superfluous words.

But, the most important step in the process was rehearsal. I rehearsed my paper in front of a mirror to see how my facial expressions affected what I was saying. I rehearsed with friends, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude and I rehearsed in front of some of our department faculty, whose critique was enormously valuable to get my paper into its final form: fourteen-pages, 3208 words, and almost exactly 20 minutes complete with a polished, professional PowerPoint presentation.

By the time of my session at the symposium, I was well prepared. The night before, I read my paper one last time before going to sleep and then didn’t look at it again until I was standing at the podium, in front of professional colleagues and friends who wanted me to succeed.

I should mention that no matter how much preparation you do, always expect the unexpected, or just remember the Boy Scout’s motto, “be prepared!” Try to think of everything that could possibly go wrong and try to anticipate a solution ahead of time.

At the end of the day, the success of my paper gave me good feedback for my thesis and confidence I can take to the next conference.

(Editor’s Note: Glen Umberger is currently an M.F.A. student in the Architectural History program at SCAD.)

9th Savannah Symposium Recap

February 21, 2015

72360-program-cover_smThe 9th Savannah Symposium: The Architecture of Trade, February 5-7, 2015, successfully fulfilled the high expectations we have for this series.  In addition to the two esteemed keynote speakers — Nasser Rabbat, Director of the Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Joyce Appleby, Professor Emerita of History at the University of California, Los Angeles — 45 speakers participated, representing eight countries (Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Germany, Israel, South Africa, United Kingdom and United States).  The symposium offers junior scholars a chance to hone their skills and share insights from the cutting edge of scholarship.  Among the presenters were 15 graduate students (10 pursuing their Ph.D. and 5 their Master’s degree).  One of the goals of the series is to bring together academics and practitioners from different disciplines and it was thrilling to welcome diverse historians (architectural historians, art historians, social historians, economic historians) and architects, preservationists and planners.  We were especially thrilled to see 67 SCAD students register as attendees, representing several different academic majors.

New Career Survey Data posted

February 16, 2015

Our Survey of Architectural History Career Opportunities that exist outside academia has been updated, presenting data from January 2014 through December 2014.  See the “Careers” tab above.  The data was based on 129 full-time position announcements, which is up from 119 announcements posted for the previous survey period (7/13-6/14), continuing a steady upward trend since 2011.  The Southeast continues to offer more positions than any other region in the country, which has been the case for over a decade.

9th Savannah Symposium on the SCAD Blog

February 3, 2015

Read about the forthcoming 9th Savannah Symposium: The Architecture of Trade being presented by our architectural history department — at “Thread”: The official SCAD Blog.

Career Survey data updated.

January 11, 2015

Our Survey of Architectural History Career Opportunities that exist outside academia has been updated, presenting data from July 2013 through June 2014.  Of note, more opportunities opened within the Southeast (32.7%) than any other region in the country, which has been the case for over a decade.  Among the five majors categories of employment, Preservation Planning and Administration (46.2%) and Historical Research and Evaluation  (32.8%) — two areas more directly related to the focus of our program — represented over three-quarters of the 119 full-time job listings.

A long overdue return to the blog…

November 7, 2014

After about six months of inactivity, the architectural history department blog is stirring back to life.  The quiet period, ironically, has resulted from the flurry of activity that has kept me from staying on top of our in-house web presence.  Over the past six months, our department has seen the implementation of overhauled degree programs, launched this fall; the selection of our very own Olivier Maene (B.F.A. 2014) as the 2014 graduating class Salutatorian; several student and alumni achievements, including the securing of impressive new positions; and a spate of faculty publications, including the principal culprit for my silence — my role as the lead author of an exciting new book on Savannah’s architecture — Buildings of Savannah — as the inaugural city-focused volume within the Society of Architectural Historians’ Buildings of the United States series.

In the coming days and weeks, updates to our faculty, student and alumni achievements will be posted, along with the past year’s data for the Career Survey.

Please stay tuned!

The Eternal City No More

April 29, 2014

THE ETERNAL CITY NO MORE

It was early June yet it snowed during the night, leaving a dusting of white on the mountains that ringed the city of Lhasa long after it had melted away from the terraced rooftops and gilded copper canopies of the temples and monasteries within the city. After two weeks of traveling on buses and trucks, and crossing passes over 17,000 feet, I had arrived in the capital of Tibet during the Saga Dawa Düchen, the 15th day of the 4th month of the Buddhist lunar calendar, when the Buddha’s birth and his enlightenment are celebrated. This is a time of celebration, and for days Tibetans from all around the countryside came to fill the ancient city. Sellers lined the main streets with makeshift stalls displaying goods from the isolated villages within the steep mountainous valleys of the Tibetan plateau. Beggars arrived in great numbers, with the well founded belief that the city dwellers would be more generous during the festival season. Pilgrims likewise flocked to the urban center, filling the open plaza outside the entrance to the Jokhang Temple, prostrating themselves while they chanted and prayed.

The Jokhang Temple is the most sacred temple in all of Tibet and the conceptual center of the city of Lhasa. First built in the 7th century, it has been added to and enlarged over its thousand year history. On this day, pilgrims by the hundreds crowded its innermost courtyard, visiting the surrounding chapels and placing offerings at the many gilded statues, while the low-pitched, monotone drone of chanting, saffron-robed monks filled the air. Then they would walk the Nangkor, the innermost kora or sacred path that circumambulated the most ancient precinct within the temple, turning the multitude of oversized brass prayer wheels that lined the outer wall of the route, keeping them in constant motion as they continued their clockwise circumambulation within the temple.

Beyond the temple, the Barkhor thronged with people from every class of society, forming the second sacred circuit which encircled the ancient core of the city. This path is about a kilometer in length and lined with the whitewashed stone facades of traditional Tibetan buildings which tapered as they rose to two and three stories, increasing their sense of height and monumentality. Shops occupied the ground level, and the addition of wooden stalls selling every kind of good further narrowed the streetscape. Wooden poles bearing strings of brightly colored red, yellow, green, blue and white prayer flags guided pilgrims and myself along this route.   Likewise heaps of stones, placed one by one as an act of devotion by countless passing pilgrims, marked the route. These were always passed on the left, following a clockwise rotation so important in Buddhist rituals. Open fires also burned along the way, to which pilgrims continually added juniper branches to fuel the smoldering embers.

Likewise the Linkhor, the outermost kora which formed a seven kilometer circuit around the medieval city, was flush with people from all walks of life. I was just one of the thousands who leisurely made their way along this course throughout the day; many spinning hand-held prayer wheels as they slowly progressed, while others stopping to socialize in the parks and open spaces along the way. The Linkhor enclosed the Barkhor, the Chokpori hill (considered the 4th most sacred mountain in Tibet), and the immense Portala Palace which visually dominated over the ancient city. On occasion I would encounter a pilgrim crawling this entire route on their hands and knees, as a form of religious devotion. They would fold their hands above their heads, bow and then prostrate themselves along the roadway, often placing some sacred object or conch shell at their fingertips to mark the point at which they would place their feet for the next prostration. In this way they covered the entire sacred circuit one body length at a time.

Portala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

Portala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

A small diversion along the Linkhor brought me to the Potala palace, which sat on a rocky outcrop some 300 meters above the valley floor, making it visible from any point within the city. Although a palaces was erected at this site by Songtsan Gampo, the monk who introduced Buddhism to Tibet and founded the first Tibetan Empire in the 7th century, construction on the present structure began in 1645 under the great 5th Dalai Lama. The massive palace consists of two interlinked structures, built up to 13 stories and all together containing over a thousand rooms. The White Palace, designated by its whitewashed walls, consisted of the living quarters and offices of the Dalai Lama and served as the seat of the Tibetan government until 1959, when the present Dalai Lama fled the invading forces of the Chinese army after the Tibetan revolt. Nestled within this structure is the Red Palace, whose crimson walls and gilded roofs contain a monastery and a collection of religious halls, chapels and shrines to Tibetan Buddhism.   A formidable ramp which switched back and forth up the steep hillside led to the main entrance court of the Palace. A large embroidered banner hung over the entrance hall, and I followed the crush of pilgrims as they progressed through the hallways and courtyards of the Palace which were lined with painted images of deities and ancient lamas in vivid pigments of crimson, yellow and green, all subdued by age. The pilgrims brought offerings of melted yak butter which they added to the rows of burning oil lamps which illuminated the many gilded images of past lamas and bodhisattvas with a dim flickering glow. Often they would touch the ends of the colorful silk robes that draped these figures, which were soiled and discolored by the touch of thousands of hands. I walked from one darkened hall to the next, their ceilings blackened by the soot from the multitude of yak butter lamps. One chapel displayed a collection of ancient weapons, with bows and arrows, swords and armor hanging haphazardly from the rafters.

Remarkably, I was allowed to wander unrestricted, essentially lost, throughout the labyrinthine maze of halls and gallerieswithin the palace, until I mistakenly left through a minor exit at the back side of the building, which then prevented me from reentering. Unfortunately, I never saw the burial chorten (the Tibetan form of a stupa) containing the remains of the renowned 5th Dalai Lama, which rose to 49 feet and was sheathed with more than 110,000 teals of solid gold and some 20,000 pearls and precious stones.[1] This was just one of the eight funerary chortens within the palace which hold the remains of the fifth through the thirteenth Dali Lamas (excluding the sixth), and which were all elaborately decorated in gold, precious stones and gems and placed under the gilded peaked roofs of the palace; their eves adorned with mythical creatures and ridgeline surmounted by sacred vases shaped like pagodas. But at that time were no docents to direct me nor was there a guidebook that I could have followed to find these places on my own. Yet my time spent wandering through Lhasa and this extraordinary palace was such a sublime and inspiring experience, that it became a defining event in my life. It was after this incident that I became determined to study architecture as a way to understand culture and history.

But this vision of Lhasa was the city I experienced a generation ago, when China was just beginning to industrialize and Tibet had just opened to Western tourists. Today, foreigners traveling to Tibet are strictly controlled and it is only possible to visit Lhasa after attaining an Alien’s Travel Permit and enrolling in an officially organized tour. There are now high speed trains that can make the 4000 km journey from Beijing to Lhasa in less than two days. The train even supplies extra oxygen for its passengers to prevent altitude sickness as it travels across the high passes, and its windows are covered with a protective film to protect passengers from ultraviolet radiation. Currently the Potala palace is a museum, which provides one hour tours to a limited number of paying ticket holders each day. The Linkhor has been largely destroyed by recent construction, resulting from a government policy of modernization as a means of cultural assimilation. The Barkhor is likewise threatened, with recent plans to develop a shopping mall and parking garage within this area.[2] A similar effort at “modernization” is likewise occurring in the western province of Xinjiang, where forced demolitions and urban renewal within the historic district of the ancient silk route city of Kashgar, similarly serves as a method of political control and cultural assimilation (or some may say obliteration) of the ethnic Uyghur minority population within this part of China.[3] I suspect that even the hotel I stayed in at Lhasa; a traditional Tibetan courtyard structure with a three-storied drop toilet, is now long gone, most likely replaced by some modern tourist accommodation.[4]

So the Lhasa I once knew and which left such a lasting impression, may exist only in my mind, and as my experience of Lhasa fades to a distant memory, so too will the historic city it seems. And although the loss of the historic fabric of such a special and ancient place may seem like a tragedy to some; I try not to consider it that way. Every Buddhist knows that existence is a state constant flux and change, and that resistance to this universal law is just another aspect of maya, the illusion that binds us to the material world and the cause of suffering. Preservationists desire to cling to the material reality of the world and preserve the physical substance of buildings of the past in order to access some essential truth about the human experience, may be simply a false attempt to defy the rules of Dharma, the natural law of the Universe. In that sense, maybe the modernization of Lhasa and the loss of this ancient city is just a lesson we need to learn, to lead us to a more enlightened view of the world around us. But for me, I still cling to that memory of what once was; a memory of such a special place during such a particular time which I had been fortunate enough to have experienced. But like all experiences in life; they occur only once, never to be experienced again.

Thomas Gensheimer
Department of Architectural History
Savannah College of Art and Design

 

[1] Although most sources agree with the size of this chorten, I found little agreement on amount of gold and precious stones used to decorate this burial stupa. But the general consensus is a very large quantity, consisting of thousands of kilograms of gold and at least eighteen thousand precious stones.

[2] (see Yeshe Choesang, “China destroys the ancient Buddhist symbols of Lhasa City in Tibet,” The Tibet Post International, May 9, 2013, http://www.thetibetpost.com/en/news/tibet/3382-china-destroys-the-ancient-buddhist-symbols-daof-lhasa-city-in-tibet)

[3] (see Uyghur Human Rights Project, “Living on the Margins: The Chinese State’s Demolition of Uyghur Communities” April 2, 2012,http://uhrp.org/press-release/new-report-uhrp-living-margins-chinese-state’s-demolition-uyghur-communities.html and Nick Holdstock, “Razing Kashgar, LRB blog, May 25, 2012, http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2012/05/25/nick-holdstock/razing-kashgar/)

[4] Trip Advisor lists 249 modern looking hotels in Lhasa today. It seems there is even a Super 8 Motel in Lhasa which you can book through Expedia.

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