New sensation: Grad student symposium hosts international experts on five senses

‘Making Sense’ draws scholars from diverse array of disciplines March 12-13

Making Sense

Tradition has long held there are five human senses: hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch. Although the idea of what constitutes a “sense” has expanded in recent years to include such perceptions as temperature, balance and pressure, a “sense” remains defined by the brain processing and registering a vast array of data points as “soft” or “loud” or “asparagus.”

An upcoming symposium at Rice organized by three English graduate students will explore research around all five traditional senses in a deliberately nontraditional format.

Making Sense: A Humanities Symposium” will take place online March 12-13 and boast not one but five keynote speakers — one for each human sense. Thanks to its online format, the symposium also features its own vast array of input from scholars spread across disciplines and continents.

Making Sense - A Humanities Symposium Poster
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“Usually when graduate students host symposiums at Rice, most responses are from other Rice graduate students, but for ‘Making Sense’ we got a lot of responses from people who otherwise wouldn't have been able to travel to Houston or wouldn't have had the funds,” said Bren Ram, who organized the conference with fellow English grad students Nina Cook and Sophia Martinez-Abbud using a grant from Rice’s Humanities Research Center (HRC) and funding from the Department of English.

“Our symposium is totally free — there was no registration fee, no travel, no cost associated with it — so anyone from anywhere could apply, and now we have people from all over the world,” Ram said. Scholars from India to Romania are speaking at the symposium, which also includes six breakout panel sessions and two happy hours.

As English grad students, Ram, Cook and Martinez-Abbud are all accustomed to working across departments at Rice — something encouraged by the university but also inherent to their own research, which spans such subjects as history, art and literature. While working together in a writing workshop last fall, they also realized they shared an overlapping interest in sensation.

And when the trio saw that the HRC was offering funding for a symposium, a lightbulb went off: Cook realized there were five doctoral programs in the humanities at Rice, five human senses and enough room in the HRC’s grant budget for five keynote speakers. Why not invite scholars from across a range of humanist fields — not just English — to talk about their own research into sensation?

“We have ties to other departments at Rice, and we know they all have interesting things to say about sensation,” Ram said. “It’s not just a literary phenomenon.”

Their call for papers was met with resounding interest, and the speakers — including Gordon Hughes, associate professor of art history at Rice, who will deliver a keynote address on sight — were selected from this broad range of submissions. They’ll delve into such topics as how our senses have been affected by COVID-19, what religions sound like (think calls to prayer or gospel choirs), how food can create culture and intimacy, or the ways in which we make value judgments based on how something (or someone) smells.

Planning the symposium has been rewarding, Ram said, because of the way in which it’s brought them into contact with such a wide variety of academics they may have never otherwise met — indeed, an entire network of scholars will “meet” next week as a result of their effort.

But that wasn’t the only reason Cook, Martinez-Abbud and Ram were excited to host a symposium this year. Rice’s graduate student community is famously close-knit, and the lack of in-person interaction due to coronavirus restrictions was beginning to wear on them. With the fall writing workshop coming to a close, the trio saw the HRC’s grant as a great way to keep working together.

Nina Cook, Bren Ram and Sophia Martinez-Abbud, graduate students in the Department of English, organized "Making Sense: A Humanities Symposium."
Nina Cook, Bren Ram and Sophia Martinez-Abbud, graduate students in the Department of English, organized "Making Sense: A Humanities Symposium."

“We were in such a slump from the pandemic that we really wanted to plan something we could get excited about — a future event to look forward to,” Ram said. Their weekly planning sessions have now come to fruition in the “Making Sense” symposium, with far-reaching benefits for all.

“Voluntarily taking on a large amount of labor right now during the pandemic was of course something really daunting, but I think it's totally, totally worth it,” Ram said.

“Making Sense: A Humanities Symposium” takes place March 12-13. For more information, visit