What will Ray Van Dam, a professor of history at U-M for twenty-eight years, miss most when he retires? Talking with graduate students, he says.
Ray has always said talking with students is the most rewarding part of teaching. This is why, when rumors of his retirement started circulating, a few former graduate students and I decided to organize a weekend dedicated to talking with former students and hearing their work.
“RayFest,” as I named the event, was a two-day history conference held this past October on a theme that spoke to Ray’s prolific scholarly career: “Cities, Saints, and Memory in Late Antiquity.” But it was more than an academic conference. It was a chance for Ray to reconnect with students who worked with him during his U-M career.
Twelve students returned from as far away as Portland and Tulsa to present papers, and many more returned just to visit. This is to say nothing of the countless emails sent to Ray by students who couldn’t make it.
Instead of a traditional keynote speech, a few current and former students, myself included, presented Ray with his own “Saint’s Life”—a mini-biography consisting of anecdotes that celebrate and highlight the character of the subject. We read aloud a few of the funnier stories, like the one where he split a turkey sub from Subway with a prospective student on recruitment weekend. On the second day of the conference, Ray treated us all to a presentation on his own mentors, complete with photos from the 1970s.
Papers presented ranged in discipline from archaeology to history to Patristics, and in field from Roman to Byzantine to medieval, showcasing the diversity of interests among Ray’s many students. Each paper generated lively discussion among not only the visitors, but the many U-M faculty and students who attended from the departments of History, Classics, and Near Eastern Studies, as well as the Interdepartmental Program in Greek and Roman History and the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, where Ray has been most active.
“I was so proud and happy to see so many former students and to listen to all the wonderful presentations,” Ray said of the event afterward. “The presentations at this conference brought back many happy memories of earlier conversations about seminar papers, prelims, and dissertations.”
Ray officially retires this spring, but that will not mark the end of his talking to students. (He still has to talk to me, at least, for another year as I complete my dissertation.) Thanks to RayFest, Ray can retire knowing how much all the students he’s mentored over the years value their conversations, not only looking back fondly on those they had as students but looking forward to intellectual exchanges to come.
Tiggy McLaughlin is a PhD candidate in the Interdepartmental Program in Greek and Roman History.