As Candler School of Theology welcomed twelve distinguished theology scholars from around the world to its centennial academic conference, “Prophetic Voices,” Candler students were preparing for a conference of their own. On March 27, one week after “Prophetic Voices” came to a close, ten students gave their own academic presentations as part of the inaugural Sophia Forum.

Jeania Ree MooreSophia is the Greek word for ‘wisdom,’” says third-year MDiv student Jeania Ree Moore, who had the idea for the forum. A graduate of Yale University, Moore was inspired by an annual tradition in Yale’s residential colleges where seniors present a research paper to their peers, with time for a Q&A session following the presentation. “That sort of academic presentation was transformative for me,” she says. “I realized in my second year at Candler that we didn’t have a space for that. And I knew I had friends who were doing really interesting papers and projects. I wanted to create more space for building scholastic community among Candler students, and opportunities to grow as scholars.”

Moore presented a proposal for the Sophia Forum to the Candler Coordinating Council (C3), which is the school’s student government body. When C3 agreed to fund the event, Moore and first-year MDiv student Matthew Erdel formed a planning team.

Matthew Erdel “Over and over again during the planning process, we heard from various members of the community that this was meeting a need at Candler and helping to contribute to its already strong intellectual life,” Erdel says. “I really appreciated the support we had from faculty, staff, and other students. Students, especially, seemed to be interested in having a way for personal academic projects to be presented publicly.”

The forum, which ran from 8:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., featured ten students presenting on a variety of original topics, including the ecclesiology of James Cone and Karl Barth, theatrical realities of gender performance, the central conferences of The United Methodist Church, and injustice in America and the devaluation of black lives.

Zane McGee, a second-year MTS student, presented his paper on “Luke’s Messiah Complex: Parallelism in the Farewell Addresses of Jesus and Paul in Luke-Acts.” He was drawn to the forum because he knew it would challenge him to do more than simply write a paper to turn in. The dialogue that took place before, during, and after his presentation appealed as a fresh way to learn. 

Zane McGee“An important part of the learning process is being in an environment that allows you to explore your ideas in collaboration with others,” McGee says. “We have an idea of the ideal student being one who sits alone in a study carrel pouring over books, but in truth, I’ve found that talking through my ideas with others allows me to hear new perspectives on my work and forces me to sharpen my presentation ideas. The Sophia Forum was a great way to practice this ‘collaboration’ in a more formal and academic environment, and to hear thoughtful feedback from my peers and faculty members.”

And how did it go? Two thumbs up, says McGee – as both a presenter and a learner. “The audience was engaged and attentive, and the follow-up questions helped me see new areas to explore or where more support was needed to strengthen my idea. It was a great opportunity to gain experience and confidence before presenting at other academic conferences.”

Not only that, but engaging with his fellow students’ presentations opened up new academic possibilities for McGee. “I now have additional resources I can engage when researching, and people with whom I can discuss new areas of interest. That is an invaluable resource to have while developing and exploring new ideas.”

With such a strong showing at the first Sophia Forum, planning committee member Erdel sees many opportunities for growth, within the forum and beyond. “Several professors seem interested in exploring how we might best feature student work moving forward,” he says. Some options discussed include a rotating presentation series throughout the academic year, and setting up an online publication for the best student papers.

“I look forward to seeing how the Sophia Forum can continue to grow and become a regular part of Candler’s community life,” says Erdel. “We hope it will be a fixture for years to come.”