The table with the newest menu? Reflections on the Twentieth Joint Postgraduate Religion and Theology Conference

David Tollerton

I should confess to a certain nostalgia associated with this conference. Nine years ago, a little apprehensively and with (apparently) slightly rushed delivery, I gave my first academic paper at the Joint Postgraduate Conference, held on that occasion at the leafy campus of Bath Spa University.

So it was with great pleasure that on Friday I travelled up a rainy M5 to the ‘Twentieth Joint Postgraduate Religion and Theology Conference’ at the University of Bristol. These days it’s a sizable affair, with over forty papers spread over two days. And although there’s the expected bias towards contributors from institutions in the South West it’s noticeable that the event’s reach has spread, with presenters coming from London, Cambridge, Glasgow, even Rotterdam and Genoa.

Wagstaff Welton John

PhD students Bethany Wagstaff, Rebekah Welton, and Helen John each delivered papers at this year’s conference.

The range of topics is equally varied. Coming back on Friday evening there’s now a film I need to watch, a couple of books I need to track down, and a host of ideas in my mind that weren’t there before. My hope is that the postgraduates in attendance appreciated this context. The notion that we should only listen to papers directly connected to our own little sub-discipline is one that’s usually baffled me. Your eyes can be opened to new areas of research and familiar areas can be cast in new terms. If nothing else, engaging with this scope of material can help combat a sort of academic ‘Crufts effect’ (i.e. being unaware that you’re engaged in an activity that the casual outside observer might easily view as absurd).

The highlight of the day was chairing three excellent papers by PhD students working at Exeter. Bethany Wagstaff spoke on clothing and materiality in the Eden narrative, Helen John considered the role of Western vs. N. Namibian worldviews in interpreting Markan miracle stories, and Rebekah Welton explored the complexities of meat, sacrifice and secularism in Deuteronomy. Each (impeccably timed!) paper elicited rich conversation and although, yes, it sounds a little gushing to say so, I felt honestly proud to be representing an institution associated with such innovative and well-expressed research. I was sad to miss Stephen Goundrey-Smith’s paper on nanotechnology and theology (held parallel to the papers above), but having since read the text I can see how it lays the foundations for ongoing work richly-laden with ideas concerning Christianity and the human condition.

Reflecting on the day as a whole, I was reminded that with postgraduate researchers there’s often a raw and palpable authenticity of intellectual enthusiasm, an attribute that can (and does) occasionally go stale in other situations. It was a pleasure to sit in the pub afterwards with individuals passionate about their subject areas and determined to convey the significance of their rapidly evolving ideas.

It’s tempting to view postgraduate events as the ‘children’s table’ of academia, and perhaps on some level this holds a partial measure of truth – certainly one purpose of the Joint Postgraduate Conference is to give people practice at delivering papers. But established academics should be wary of pigeon-holing such occasions in this way. We might instead challenge ourselves with a counter-narrative: that actually it’s the table with the newest menu.