Monday, November 22, 2010

Friday at the ASA conference

I'm now blogging about the conference from back in New York, rather than blogging from the conference....but I was just too busy while in San Antonio to keep up!

Friday included two major highlights. The first was a morning panel specifically about the special issue of American Quarterly titled Nation and Migration: Past and Future...which just happens to be the central book we're using in the "Approaches to American Studies" course this year (For readers not in the program here at Fordham, that's the junior seminar on methodology for American Studies majors at Fordham). That's why I absolutely had to attend this panel, even though it conflicted with a panel discussion on "Critical Keywords for Early American Studies" that included as a speaker our own Senior Seminar co-instructor, Professor Ed Cahill.

The discussion was explicitly about how this special issue could be useful in the classroom and beyond (as opposed to simply being something that scholars in the field cite). On the panel were three people involved in editing the journal (Curtis Marez, who was the editor when it came out; Bruce Burgett and Grace Hong, who were on the editorial board) and three people who wrote essays in the journal (Elaine Peña, whose essay on a Guadalupan shrine outside Chicago provoked some lively discussion in the class a few weeks ago; Sarika Chandra, whose essay about Julia Alvarez we'll be reading right after Thanksgiving, and Sasha Costanza-Chock, whose essay on immigrant rights activists' use of the net we are not reading in the course). The first thing I got out of the panel was that I should have assigned Costanza-Chock's essay, because he made it sound amazing. It's hard to reconstruct the details of the discussion because it was so wide-ranging, but I will say that it was great to spend some concentrated time talking about teaching, and I got some great ideas for future assignments in this and other classes--and I think others in the room very much liked my description of what we do in the "Approaches" class. I hope it doesn't make you too nervous, juniors, to know that there are professors from a dozen or more universities around the country who may be checking out what you're writing in the Keywords Collaboratories....

The other highlight was the Presidential address by this year's ASA President, Ruth Wilson Gilmore. (I talked about her work briefly in my previous post). There's nobody out there who better combines meticulous scholarship with passionate activism, and who can better put them together into an inspiring, even theatrical lecture. (One reason: she started out studying you American Studies and Theater double major have someone out there to inspire you!). She managed to include in her talk some really compelling autobiographical narrative about growing up in New Haven, in the shadow of Yale, where her father had been a pioneering union and antiracist activist and she ended up attending as a student on a scholarship for children of employees; some amazing and disturbing statistics about the current economic and social situation in the U.S. (see Kaylyn Toale's recent post for an excellent source for such statistics); some practical advice about how to use our position in academia as a platform for activism (for instance, since the ASA organizes conferences that bring thousands of scholars to a hotel, it can use that clout to pressure hotels to treat their workers better); and some straightforward inspiration (it may seem an unlikely image, but there was a packed hall of perhaps 1000 academics whom she got to stand up and recite the last line of a poem that was her conclusion: "People like me will rise up)."

Two of many takeaways from this day. One is a pair of statistics that illuminate how extreme inequality has gotten in the U.S. in the past couple of decades.
  • The top 20% of Americans own 84% of everything there is to own (cash, consumer goods, real estate...everything)...while the bottom 40% currently have negative net worth. Think about that.
And here's one for you students:
  • Gross student debt in the U.S. just surpassed all consumer debt. In other words, students now owe more for their educations than everyone in the country puts together owes on their credit cards and related debt instruments. Think about that, too.
The other takeaway was more fun, and more personal. Gilmore's autobiographical narrative was all about growing up in New Haven, and I grew up there, too. Her reference points sounded familiar, and I remembered some of the events she mentioned, though I was a bit young to experience many of them directly. Later that evening, at the hotel bar, I ran into her and mentioned that I'd grown up in New Haven, too, and she asked me what street I'd lived on. "Oh, it's a tiny one-block street you've never heard of," I said, "Pelham Lane." She smiled; it turns out she grew up just about two blocks away from where I did, and that we'd gone to the same elementary school (though we hadn't overlapped there). Sometimes the world seems very small......

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