Faculty, Grad, and Alumni Research: Reflections on the American Studies Association Annual Meeting

Fall is conference time, and this year we asked our faculty, grad students, and alumni to share a few words on their experience at the annual meeting of the ASA. We asked folks to reflect on any portion of the event–their panel, other panels they found inspiring, the presidential address–and today we feature some of these reflections on the conference back in November in Washington, D.C. For those of you unable to attend and who didn’t follow the chatter on Twitter, here’s a taste of what ASA had to offer this year. Some of the reflections address the ASA National Council’s endorsement of an academic boycott of Israel. The views expressed here are those of individuals; they do not reflect those of the department as a whole.

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The American Studies Association annual meeting took place this year in Washington, D.C.

Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa

I confess to typically staying within a certain comfort zone at conferences, going to panels and talks on topics related to my work. This year’s ASA conference (a first for me) began in much the usual way, though once I got my feet wet I ended up attending three sessions on topics I knew absolutely nothing about! The first session I attended, “Photographing War, Picturing Dissent: Visualizing the Vietnam Conflict,” chaired by Robert Hariman, was sponsored by the Visual Culture Caucus. Andi Gustavson, Franny Nudelman, Sara Blair, and Liam Kennedy presented work that interrogated the aesthetics of dissent, describing some of the ways that photographers contributed to the critique of the Vietnam war and, in the process, further developed photography as a documentary and artistic medium. Andi Gustavon’s talk, the first of the morning’s panel, focused on snapshots soldiers took in Vietnam and circulated to family, friends, and each other. She suggested that soldiers used these snapshots of their every day lives in the war zone to mediate emotional responses to the war.

These snapshots and the poignant images that punctuated the other presentations drew me back to my childhood. The images of young men going off to war, and of those returning aged and oftentimes physically and psychically wounded called me to reflect on what it must have meant to a child to see a war unfolding in black and white on a living room television every evening. I don’t think I registered any particular war. Nor would I have have understood the concept of war. The visual and aural nearness of guns and helicopters likely served as part of the visual and aural backdrop to every evening, arriving just before dinner and at the end of a day of playing and attending elementary school.

While I did not know it at the time, my brother’s “number” was called in 1967. It was not long ago that I learned from my mom the details of his “call to report.” Not long before the war lottery drew his number, my brother had what was then major surgery for torn knee cartilage. Sustained playing college basketball on scholarship, the injuries prevented him from being enlisted. It’s strange—I recall vividly visiting my brother in the hospital, making a trip to a restaurant with him on crutches, and being repelled by the odor of the yellow substance the hospital used to clean his leg. But I can’t fully remember the war images and associated words and sounds emanating from the television. Little did I know that, while the images and sounds may have registered as the usual backdrop to my childhood evenings, families across the nation watched the news nervously, waiting the longest wait for a child to return home.

Elizabeth Engelhardt

My ASA moment this year happened at a Saturday morning food studies session. Two of the presenters had workshopped their pieces at our Food Studies Writers Salon earlier in the fall, so it was fascinating to see how Lindsey Swindell of Sam Houston State and Jennifer Jensen Wallach of the University of North Texas had modified and deepened their thinking. It was also intellectually provocative to see their work in conversation with the other panelists. The conversation ranged from Mexico to Alabama to the Blackfoot Tribal Lands and from 1870s’ progressivism to the past month’s media coverage of the Obamas. More than that, though, I attended the session with my friend Psyche Williams-Forson, and we ended up passing notes, hatching an idea for an anthology project inspired by the moment.

Caryl Kocurek

American Studies is a sprawling discipline, and that is something that is often on display at the annual meeting of the ASA. What is, perhaps, less obvious from outside the field is how the same meeting that showcases the diversity of interests within the field shows how these diverse interests intersect in meaningful, productive ways. For me, the best part of ASA is not necessarily presenting my own work or even seeing others’ work presented — although both are valuable — but instead the host of opportunities for meeting peers at caucus and committee meetings and events and less formal receptions and social gatherings. For the past two years, I’ve participated as a member of the Digital Humanities Caucus, and this year, I’ve also signed on as a member of the ASA Women’s Committee. Conferences are vital as opportunities for connection, and in a large organization like the ASA, finding smaller groups within the whole can be an important means of forging meaningful ties. My work with the Digital Humanities caucus has yielded opportunities for collaboration that I would not have had otherwise. While I am sure working with the Women’s Committee could yield the same, I am also excited to give back to the organization through service and facilitate opportunities for other women in the organization. I’m always excited to go to ASA, even at moments when I feel my research is straying afield from the discipline, because I can rely on the meeting as a kind of homecoming and an important reminder that I am, always, an American Studies scholar at heart.

Julia Mickenberg

The recent ASA meeting was stimulating but very emotional one for me, mainly because of the Israel boycott resolution being debated throughout much of the conference. I spent a great deal of the time discussing the pros and cons of an academic boycott with various colleagues who embraced a range of different positions, from strongly opposed, to strongly in favor. Many people were simply concerned that the American Studies Association was devoting its energies to this issue more than many other worthy issues (global warming, nuclear proliferation, etc.), or wondered if a scholarly organization should be in the business of making political statements. Many were concerned about the capacity of the boycott resolution to create enduring rifts in the organization.

I had intended to attend a forum on the boycott Friday night but several social events—that is, the chance to see old friends, colleagues, and former students who I would not otherwise see—prevented me from going. However, at dinner that night I wound up hearing about that meeting from two professors at other institutions who strongly support the boycott but had concerns about the level of discourse at the meeting. At dinner the next night another friend expressed fear that the ASA was tending toward overemphasizing “social justice” oriented work to the point that there was no longer space for scholars who are more oriented toward academics than politics—“Isn’t there still room in our organization for the folks who just want to study Emerson and Hawthorne?” he asked, not because he’s a political reactionary, but because he would like our organization to welcome everyone interested in American culture. He said that for the majority of awards announced at the awards ceremony (which I did not attend), people were commended on how their work would further social justice (which we both agreed is important), but hardly anyone was commended simply for the outstanding quality of their scholarship.

All of this was swirling in my head after the open forum on the boycott on Saturday night, and I wound up feeling compelled to write a statement to the ASA Council, especially given the fact that I had at the last minute added a slip of paper to the box containing names of people who wished to speak at the forum, and my name was not called. Below, verbatim, is the letter that I sent to the ASA Council; I like to think that maybe it had something to do with the statement in the final resolution condemning anti-Semitism.

I went to tonight’s meeting about the boycott resolution to listen, not to speak, but toward the end of the discussion, when I realized that not a single person had expressed what I was thinking, I felt compelled to put my name into the mix. My name was not called, so I would like to express views that I think are actually shared by a significant proportion of the membership.

I have long been critical of Israeli state policies, but when I heard that a resolution was being put before the ASA to institute an academic boycott of Israel, it just felt wrong to me. Felt, as in a literal feeling that was emotional, and even physical. But it also felt wrong intellectually–why would you boycott universities in the name of academic freedom? The discussion tonight answered many, if not all, of my intellectual concerns. But my emotional concerns are just as real, and I think they are shared by many people.

I had not gone to any of the discussions prior to tonight, and there are many people I know who also didn’t go to the discussions, because of the emotional nature of the topic. That said, I think the resolution needs to contain language that addresses precisely why it is that this is an emotional issue for so many people. At a conversation over dinner last night, with people who were at last night’s discussion, and who strongly support the boycott, I heard that at Friday night’s discussion of these issues someone brought up the fact that many Jews have an affective relationship to Israel. Apparently the woman who brought this up, even as she criticized the occupation, was essentially shut down by someone in the audience.* This is wrong. I also saw a comment on the web version of the petition in favor of the boycott, which essentially said something like: “I support the boycott. The Holocaust was 65 years ago, and Jews need to stop getting special privileges.” We need to recognize the significance of a comment like this being associated with the resolution.

The resolution makes no mention of the fact that the state of Israel was founded because people have hated and oppressed Jews for thousands of years. This hatred culminated in an effort to destroy the Jewish race, and this was why an international coalition ultimately backed the formation of the state of Israel. As we all know, the Holocaust has since been used to rationalize the violence and human rights abuses perpetrated by the Israeli state. While I don’t think the Holocaust can justify Israeli human rights abuses, it is also wrong to fail to acknowledge the history of oppression, hatred, and violence against Jews that led to the state of Israel, especially in a resolution that aims to speak for human rights.

I’m still fairly ambivalent about the resolution, though leaning toward being convinced of the moral rationale behind it. That said, I would urge the council to be very, very careful about how the resolution is worded if they do decide to vote on it tomorrow. I have spoken to many people who I respect who are opposed to the resolution; and I have spoken to others who are concerned about getting behind something that would appear to support anti-semitic sentiment. Yes, Israel is run by Jews, and it is perpetrating injustices. As most people know, there are many Jews, in and out of Israel, who are critical of that leadership. I have been critical of it. Many of those vocally opposing the boycott have been critical of Israel’s leadership.  But at the same time, many Jews hear Israel being criticized and feel hatred of Jews. Or they fear a renewal of the anti-semitism that has historically manifested in many parts of the world, including the United States. Indeed, it has had a long history in American universities, which for many years had official quotas against Jews. The reason this issue is so emotional is both because of the history that created Israel in the first place, and because it can be difficult to disentangle the criticism of Israel from plain old anti-semitism, which is alive and well.

I appreciated the open forum tonight, and, honestly, I appreciated the chance to hear views that challenged me and brought me to recognize the value of this effort. But if you don’t decide to ask for a vote on this issue from the entire membership (which would, indeed, be the most democratic process), I would at least urge you to include wording that acknowledges the history that created the state of Israel and explicitly condemns anti-semitism. There were people in the audience tonight who argued that this resolution represents an opportunity for the American Studies Association to do something of historic importance. That may be the case. But we need to think very, very carefully about exactly how we do that.

Robert Oxford

Entering the Washington Hilton through ‘President’s Walk,’ just feet away where John Hinkley shot Ronald Reagan, it is a few winding turns to reach the International Ballroom (East) where past ASA president Matt Jacobson patiently and attentively listened to almost two hours of membership response as part of an Open Discussion: The Israeli Occupation of Palestine. More than seven hundred were packed into the standing-room only event. Literature on the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions resolution before the ASA National Council was piled on top of every seat in the house. Graduate students, tenured and adjunct faculty, and independent scholars were chosen at random from a collection of volunteered names to speak. The crowd’s response was objectively overwhelming in favor of immediate endorsement of the proposal that has waited in committee limbo since 2006 when it was first presented in response to Israel’s unilateral attack on Lebanon:

“It is resolved that the American Studies Association (ASA) endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.  It is also resolved that the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.”

During the debate, to me, the only convincing orators were those who cited the anti-imperial, transnational scholarship of the Association as reason for a collective statement against occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. A few speakers were wary of the boycott: their major complaint was that the resolution was insubstantial and pure political posturing. Most speakers acknowledged the already-present academic restrictions and consequences of speaking against the state of Israel: the chilling effect against critical inquiry and activism within the academy hung over the open discussion. Others, however, were unafraid of the slander, threats and abuse that comes with such dissent. Yet there were insightful criticisms about the effect of such a resolution and the issue of enforcement. Overall, the discussion was lively but respectful, pensive but critical, and thoroughly reassuring that a broad constituency passionately spoke with both the future for Palestinians, and our profession, in mind.

Elissa Underwood

During the Annual Meeting of the ASA, several scholars, activists, and students participated in a Town Hall Meeting on Palestine and an Open Discussion on Palestine to discuss and debate a resolution proposed by the Academic and Community Activism Caucus recommending that the ASA boycott Israeli academic institutions.  Several of us from the department — both graduate students and faculty — attended the town hall and other events as well. Rather than write my own reflection, I thought it would be more informative and productive to include the thoughtful and eloquent pieces that several ASA members have already written about the academic boycott resolution. Check out links here and here as well as responses from Ali Abunimah here and one by Steven Salaita here. These articles should give students and faculty who did not attend ASA a sense of the energy in the room those nights and the significance and relevance of the work that some of our own community members, like Jenny Kelly, are doing.  A FAQ on the academic and cultural boycott of Israel can be accessed here. The ASA National Council has voted unanimously to endorse the academic boycott of Israel, and you can read more on the ASA resolution here and here. The resolution will now be put to a vote by ASA members, who have until 11:59 pm EST December 15 to cast their vote.