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