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Renaissance Society of America and Fordham to Present Symposium on History of Plagues and Pandemics


When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early March, the Renaissance Society of America began rethinking what to do for its annual symposium.

“With the pandemic, the possibility of a physical conference collapsed, and so we decided that we would look for something more timely, something that would be useful, both intellectually but also pedagogically,” said W. David Myers, Ph.D., professor of history at Fordham and a member of the Board of Directors of the  Renaissance Society, which relocated to the Rose Hill campus last year.

As historians, they did what they are trained to do: They brought the past into the present.

The new symposium, titled “Plagues, Pandemics, and Outbreaks of Disease in History” will take place virtually on Friday, Nov. 13, beginning at 10 a.m. The symposium is free but participants need to register in advance.

Myers said the goal of the symposium is to show how history helps us see the current moment, as well as how the current moment can help us understand the past.

“What can we bring to the study of the modern pandemic, from our historical experience, but just as much, what can we bring to the study of past plagues?” he said. “ How will this experience–as human beings in this sad world at the moment–alter or affect the way we study?”

The morning session will feature a round table on the intellectual and scholarly significance of the present moment in historical terms. The participants–Hannah Marcus, Ph.D. (Harvard), Colin Rose, Ph.D. (Brock University, Ontario), and Lisa Sousa, Ph.D. (Occidental College)–are experts in the global consequences of plagues from the Black Death in Europe to smallpox in the conquest of the Americas.

Central to the planning of the symposium, Myers said, has been Christina Bruno, associate director of the Center for Medieval Studies and a Fordham Ph.D. in medieval history who has also published in Renaissance Quarterly.

Myers said the event, which is co-sponsored by the society as well as Fordham’s Center for Medieval Studies and the Departments of Art History and Music, Classics, and History, will also allow graduate students at Fordham to present and discuss their work in front of an international audience.

Rachel Podd, a Ph.D. student in history; Camila Marcone, an M.A. student in medieval studies; Mark Host, an M.A. student in medieval studies; and Katherina Fostana, the visual resources curator in art history will participate in the session called “Developing Pedagogy: Roundtable and Discussion.”

Some of these students will talk about how they’ve taught materials on the plague and other historic pandemics to their classrooms in the New York City area. A few of their examples will be presented at the symposium, including how Podd gave a lecture for high school students in the spring on the Black Death plague and Marcone put together a project on the plague for a high school in New Jersey.

“We’re showing that our students really are reaching out to the community and recognizing that education at the university and college level is only the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

“[Our scholars] are trying to incorporate a whole world of study, from archeology to medical study to our history, in order to help students today understand the historical experience and place themselves in history somehow,” Myers said. The partnership between Fordham and the Renaissance Society of America helps bring together scholars from across the world and helps to elevate the work of Fordham graduate students, he said.

“[Renaissance Society of America] gets to tap a population of scholars and the population of students and workers who are vibrant and energetic and interesting,” Myers said. “It brings an internationally important and significant organization in the humanities into the world of Fordham and allows us to tap that experience.”


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