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Cal Poly Welcomes First 18th-Century Conference to Campus

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This winter quarter, Cal Poly hosted the Western Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (WSECS) Conference, gathering scholars from around the world to speak and discuss issues of gender, race and empire in the 18th century.

Considered one of the most prestigious events of its kind, WSECS models the kind of interdisciplinary and collaborative study for which Cal Poly is known, combining diverse disciplines — history, English literature, anthropology and geography — to push the boundaries of research and understanding of both the past and the modern day.

This year, WSECS centered on the theme “Race, Gender and Empire in the Long Eighteenth-Century,” with talks ranging from literature to politics to agriculture. Led by Professors Regulus Allen (English) and Kathleen Murphy (History), the conference planning and execution was a shared effort by university faculty, staff and graduate students.

“Organizing a conference can go very smoothly if you are as fortunate as we were to have a lot of people willing to help,” Allen said. “To look out in the audience and see my former teacher and my current students — it was one of the most special moments of my professional life.”

Graduate students enrolled in Allen’s English 512 class, which shared the conference’s name, helped build the conference program and organize panels, collaborating with more than seven CLA departments to orchestrate the event. Additionally, 15 students presented their own papers — a rare opportunity at most academic conferences.

According to Allen, one of the conference’s goals was to offer Cal Poly students access to high-level academic discourse and the unique opportunity to present their own research at an academic conference. “WSECS has a strong tradition of involving graduate students,” she said.

Students presented on a range of topics, from literature and politics to race and gender in the 18th-century. The opportunity gave graduate students a chance to offer new perspectives and put ideas into practice.

“By participating in WSECS, I was able to experience the culture of academia and receive valuable feedback on my research,” said Marin Smith (M.A., English, 2015). “Speaking about my ideas to a room full of scholars was one of the most difficult experiences of my graduate career. Since WSECS, I have been able to attend other conferences with more confidence.”

Bringing WSECS to Cal Poly not only provided students with a glimpse into their possible futures in academia, but an experience in interdisciplinary collaboration — and a successful one. The conference helped put Cal Poly and its students on the map.

“I have heard nothing but rave reviews of the conference,” Allen said. “The delegates thought San Luis Obispo was beautiful, Cal Poly was impressive, our faculty and graduate students were talented, and the papers insightful.”

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