This past weekend, the sixth annual Braniff Conference in the Liberal Arts (BCLA) featured a wide range of scholars throughout North America speaking on this year’s topic, “The World Is Bare Now: Nature and Human Flourishing.” Unlike many other graduate programs, the Braniff Graduate Student Associate (BGSA) initiates the conference through an interdisciplinary lens for each annual topic.
This year’s conference featured President Thomas Hibbs, Dr. Jason Baxter of Wyoming Catholic College as the keynote speaker, and readings from nine local poets, in addition to panels with faculty from the University of Dallas and 10 other universities.
Graduate student Alex Taylor, president of the BGSA, said, “The BCLA is designed for graduate students and professors who are scholars in the liberal and fine arts to enter into a serious conversation, free of jargon but full of reference to the riches of the Western liberal arts tradition and Christian intellectual heritage.”
This conference was unusual due to Hibbs’ participation as the plenary speaker, presenting “Laudato Si and the Ecological Poetics of Brother Antoninus, Dominican Beat Poet.”
“It has not been customary to have the UD president as the plenary speaker,” Taylor said. “We at UD are exceptionally blessed to have in Dr. Hibbs a diligent scholar and lover of learning as well as a capable administrator, and the conference committee decided to ask him to speak due to overlap in his ongoing research and the conference theme.”
Dr. Hibbs discussed the healthy view of nature as helping man glimpse God, neither making man androcentric or biocentric, but rather focused on the Divine. The poetry of Brother Antoninius recognizes that Earth is our common home, and yet he effectively portrays the restlessness that man feels on earth for Heaven.
Fr. Thomas Esposito was visibly delighted to introduce this year’s keynote speaker, as he was roommates with Baxter and shared many strange adventures with him throughout their undergraduate years at UD. They first met in Madonna Hall when Baxter confronted the neighboring Esposito about his “obnoxiously loud” music.
“Jason provided me with a helpful example of what Aristotle called ‘the sensitive soul,'” Esposito quipped. Although the two had a rocky start over Esposito’s controversial James Taylor CD, they soon bonded over a shared search for truth and would become friends during their whole college experience and beyond.
“I have not found anyone who possesses such an innate and infectious love of learning, a deeper and broader intellect, or a greater desire to seek God and to invite others to join him in the pursuit,” Esposito said.
Baxter certainly had a lot to live up to with Esposito’s glowing introduction, but he nevertheless enthralled his audience with his talk, “The Nine Billion Names of God: The Humanities and Science from Plato to Hubble.” He traced the development of man’s relationship with nature and divinity through a vast number of thinkers, particularly moving from medieval thought to the modern world.
Graduate student James DeMasi suggested the conference topic and keynote speaker, and the BGSA Senate accepted his proposal.
DeMasi had been inspired by a conversation with Baxter about iconity in the postmodern world.
“The idea was that science and technology, in some way, had taken the power to point to the transcendent out of the cosmos — at least in our imagination,” he explained.
DeMasi spearheaded much of the planning for the event, but the conference duties were spread out among many UD graduate student volunteers.
“This conference is only possible because we have so many graduate students willing to give up their free time and energy — and, often, money — to the service of a great event,” DeMasi said.
Taylor explained that the BCLA is unusual as an interdisciplinary approach, because other graduate student organizations would usually only focus on single departments and disciplines for their conferences.
“The originality of the Braniff Conference’s interdisciplinary nature derives from the distinctiveness of the Braniff Graduate School, especially the Institute of Philosophic Studies, which is the only PhD granting institution in the world in which students of different disciplines share an interdisciplinary set of core courses,” Taylor said.
In addition to the Provost’s Office and the Braniff Dean’s Office, the English, Politics, and Philosophy departments were especially involved this year in the conference, according to Taylor.
“The University as a whole … contributes to making this conference a reality because our faculty and administration understand the need for intellectual rigor and vibrant community among our graduate students and faculty, and the BCLA serves both aims,” Taylor said. “Just as Dean [Joshua] Parens said on Friday night that the BGSA is the best graduate student association, I myself would say that the BCLA is the best graduate student run conference.”
Isabella Childs collaborated with Gwendolyn Loop on this piece.