From Dracula’s castle to Zoom: Early modern philosophy conference finds new ‘remote’ community during pandemic

Wednesday, Sep 16, 2020

By Nancy Groll, Department of Philosophy

For the past 18 years, the Princeton-Bucharest Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy (PBS) — a vibrant collaboration between Princeton University and the University of Bucharest — has taken place in a remote Romanian village, nestled in the beautiful mountains of Transylvania. Each summer, 30-35 students and scholars of this relatively small academic discipline would descend on rural Bran, the home of Bran Castle, better-known as Dracula’s home in the Bram Stoker novel “Dracula.”

Attendees enjoyed lectures and presentations, formal and informal discussions, and après-session social evenings — which often included storytelling and singing — that sometimes lasted well into the night. The seminar’s reputation for academic rigor and cordiality attracted the interest of  Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, which was planning to host the event in summer 2020. Then the pandemic hit.

As all of Italy went into lockdown, “we weren’t quite sure what to do,” said Daniel Garber, the A. Watson J. Armour III University Professor of Philosophy and co-founder of the conference with

Dana Jalobeanu and Vlad Alexandrescu of the University of Bucharest. “The seminar had become an institution and annual highlight for what had traditionally been a somewhat marginalized academic community.” 

When the Venice seminar was canceled on April 28, Garber and Jalobeanu acted quickly to capture in a virtual format the intimacy and deep scholarship participants had come to expect. To avoid the dreaded “Zoom fatigue” of a three-day conference, they decided on a format of weekly two-hour seminars to run for eight weeks over the summer. They sent out an announcement along with a call for papers. “We were overwhelmed by the positive response,” Garber said.

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