Friday, November 19, 2010

Thursday at the ASA conference

The most interesting panel I attended yesterday was a plenary session on the conference theme, “Crisis, Chains, and Change.” As with any panel on such a broad theme, the papers were very different from one another, but the three I heard were all fascinating and illuminating.

In the first, Vijay Prashad (who has spoken at Fordham twice in the past few years, and may be known to Fordham American Studies students as the author of the Keywords essay on “Orientalism”) gave a witty and learned lecture that managed to tell a history of American capitalism—and various forms of resistance to it—over the course of more than a century. That he could do so in less than twenty minutes, and make his audience laugh multiple times, is a testament to what a great speaker Prashad is.

Then Christopher Newfield (also known to Fordham American Studies students as the author of the Keywords essay on “Corporation”) spoke. Newfield has been the great writer over the past several years on the history and present predicament of the American public university system, which was once the envy of the world and is now being de-funded and, basically, privatized. (None of the most prestigious state universities now get the majority of their funding from public sources). His blog, “Remaking the University,” is a must-read for anyone who cares about education in the United States, especially the ongoing evisceration of the University of California, which was once the best system in the country and is now losing its prestigious faculty by the dozen. Newfield’s talk showed—with more charts and graphs than one usually sees at an American Studies conference—how all the ideas we have about the way universities are funded are myths. The one that struck home for me was his demonstration that, contrary to our usual understanding that the sciences and engineering bring in grant money that subsidizes the humanities and social sciences—in fact, if you take into account the immense indirect costs of supporting the sciences, the low salaries of faculty in those latter areas, and the large numbers of tuition-paying students we teach, we are subsidizing the sciences.

The third speaker was Klee Benally, a Dine' (Navajo) artist and activist, who told amazing and disturbing stories about, for instance, how a ski resort is trying to expand in a way that would descrate a mountaintop that is at least as sacred to his people (and several other Indian nations) as any cathedral, synagogue, or mosque would be to adherents to other religions, and would cause enormous environmental damage by pumping thousands of gallons of water every day many miles up to a mountaintop for snowmaking. (As he said, "a ski resort in a desert doesn't make a lot of sense, does it?). He also made very vivid how the ongoing militarization of the US/Mexico border—something we’ve touched upon in this year’s “Approaches to American Studies” class—is affecting the indigenous groups who have lived for centuries on both sides of the border that was artificially drawn right through their land. By his account, these peoples are now living under virtual military occupation, and the U.S. government is doing things like building the new border “wall” right through their cemeteries and sacred spaces. The immigration debate tends to ignore the existence of indigenous peoples, as if there were only “Mexicans” and “Americans;” even the activists who came to Arizona to protest SB 1070 tended, Benally said, to ignore the input of Indians who had been working against the militarization of the border for years.

This was just one panel (and I had to leave before the fourth speaker spoke). It’s amazing the variety of things one can learn about at an interdisciplinary conference like this one.

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