Sunday, November 28, 2010
Monday, November 22, 2010
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 theater...so 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.
- 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.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Friday, November 19, 2010
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.
(Rubber Rooms: where New York City's teachers go when they “misbehave.” A sort of “paid detention.”)
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of watching the performance of a play written by one of our fellow American Studies majors, Ariadne Blayde. A double major in playwriting, Blayde was inspired to write her play “The Rubber Room” after reading an intriguing New Yorker article which exposed the inner-workings of New York City’s “Temporary Re-Assignment Centers” for public school teachers.
(Satirical cartoon on New York Rubber Rooms)
"Rubber Rooms", which were thankfully shut down in September, were places where “At a cost of more than $30 million a year, teachers and 90 other school employees sit for weeks, months or even years in the centers - reading newspapers, playing games or napping - while waiting for their cases to wind through the disciplinary system.” The scene described is the product of an unsatisfying compromise between the Teachers Union and the Department of Education. The Teachers Union wants to protect teachers and their jobs, while the Department of Education has an obligation to protect school children and keep accused teachers out of the classroom. Violations worthy for accusation range anywhere from “incompetence to sexual misconduct.” The absurd (yet real) situation possessed what Blayde calls great “dramatic potential” for a play.
“The Rubber Room”, which premiered in the White Box Theatre at Fordham Lincoln Center, is a witty and insightful play that delves into the personal stories of five teachers held inside a New York City "rubber room." Ariadne wanted to attribute a human aspect to the "rubber room" debates, and thus focused on the perspective of the teachers who suffer the consequences, she explains, “Some are innocent and some deserve to be there, it’s about people and their stories.” As each teacher’s story unfolds, one can see that that there is no easy solution to this predicament, if there is even a solution at all.
The New York City public school system is the largest school system in the nation and thus inevitably prone to complexities and complications. Eight-year leader of this system, Joel Klein was quoted in the New Yorker as saying “You can never appreciate how irrational the system is until you’ve lived with it” But Klien won’t have to “appreciate” the system any more, seeing as of about a week ago Mayor Bloomberg appointed magazine mogul Cathie Black to replace him.
(Sensationalized cover of The Daily News, reporting Black's appointment)
But many are questioning “Huh?” to Bloomberg’s decision, as some point out that Black has no technical credentials for the job, let alone shown any outward desire to work in education. However, the choice should come as no surprise, since Klein himself also had a seemingly ‘unsuited’ resume for a job in education (he was the assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice and chairman at Bertelsmann, a massive media corporation.) Bloomberg’s reasoning for appointing business honchos is that their management savvy is just what’s needed in the school system. Which in that case, Black seems a good fit: while spearheading Hearst (publishers of magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Good Housekeeping), ad pages increased 12%, a percentage that “outpaced” the currently stagnant magazine industry. Whether Black can equally salvage New York City public schools is yet to be seen.
So what needs to change? Blayde says “We need a better way of evaluating students and teachers, not all students are the same. More importantly, we need to protect children’s welfare.”
Hopefully, with the dismantling of "rubber rooms" and a new chancellor in place, we can see some more of Blayde’s advice being put into action.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Right now there's not much to say, since I got here late last night and haven't even had breakfast yet! But to give you a sense of what some of the panels will be about: Each year the conference has a theme. This year's is "Crisis, Chains, and Change: American Studies for the 21st Century." Something like half the panels at the conference deal explicitly with something related to the theme; the others are on any topic relevant to the study of American culture. The theme is determined by the conference planning committee, and is usually related to the work of the year's ASA President, who this year is New York's own Ruth Wilson Gilmore (she's recently moved from USC to CUNY), author of the award-winning book Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (which I taught in Fordham's "Major Developments in American Culture" class a few years ago). She'll be giving a plenary lecture on the topic of the conference theme tomorrow night.
So, here is the conference call for papers, which describes this year's theme in some detail (I'm especially fond of the first sentence of the first full paragraph):
The theme for the 2010 ASA Annual Meeting, to be held in San Antonio, Texas, is "Crisis, Chains, and Change: American Studies for the 21st Century."
Ever since 20 January 2009, the US has had one African American man serving a term in the White House and more than a million serving terms in the Big House. US prisons and jails hold more than two million prisoners, mostly of color, virtually all modestly educated women and men in the prime of their lives. In the midst of multiple global crises - war, finance capital, economies, climate change, hunger - it has come to this. What is it that this is? Change, surely. But what changed?
During the next few years the planet-wide struggle over remedy for crisis, and the attendant reconfiguration of social orders, will doubtless become deeper and broader in a range of sites and scales. In the midst of crisis what can American Studies do - as an association of scholars, and as both an intellectual and annual meeting-place for questions and methods that cut across disciplines, institutions, places, and material and conceptual boundaries? We know how to find things out. What do we know now?
While traditionally historians claim change as their specialty, in fact we all study change all the time. Specialists in narrative, culture, production, reproduction, ecology, political economy, and geopolitics encounter in their objects of analysis change, including what does not change.
The program invites participants to conceive of their work as the analysis of commodity and other chains in their fullest complexity - consumables, durables, FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) products, armaments, ideologies, aesthetic forms, narrative structure, analytical methods, life-ways, labor, people, migrations, rights, scale, space, garbage, carbons, deities, rules, group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death, justice. A chain is a process no less than a restraint, and every process is full of events - some repetitive and dreary, others exciting, all dynamic - which create along the way people, places, and things.
The program, thus, invites continued consideration of topics central to American Studies - indigeneity, gender, race, sexuality, laws and status, dispossession, documentation, wage and custom, boom and bust, primitive accumulation, love for and loathing of risk, and stretching or shrinking: states, glaciers, empires, horizons. We will be interested in projects that engage broadly with the ways ordinary people create power-- understood as the capacity to compel or help others do things they would not do on their own. Some examples are: alternative household formations, resistance to rent and mortgage evictions, workplace activism, communities that challenge polluting industries, informal economies, economic delinking, sitting in, sitting down, tossing shoes, sabotage, quilombos, queering politics, buying in, walking out, redefining sexuality and sovereignty, underground armies, implacable pacifism, territorial imperatives, total war.
The goal is to identify in our various projects, among other things, specific dialectics of homogenization and differentiation, persuasion and action, space and place, structure and agency, metaphor and materiality, expression and explanation, crisis and whole ways of life. Why? So that we might ask how our understandings of "there" or "then" inform the distinct yet densely interconnected geographies of the present.
Scholars of all specialties, methods, places, and periods are urged to submit paper and panel proposals. Taking our cue from the ground, the meetings will be an opportunity to hear from a variety of trans-border activists working around immigration, the wall, femicides, maquiladoras, and other aspects of the US-Mexico border?s political ecology.
We anticipate special focus on convergences and divergences in the Americas, in Islam in the Americas and beyond, and in the Atlantic or Pacific worlds, and hope as well to highlight comparative methods. Meeting plenary sessions will be designed for discussion and debate on the socio-spatial, cultural, political, educational, and economic dimensions of crisis, chains, and change in the spasmodic context of neo-liberalism's death-throes. What comes next is anybody's guess, but we should be working on life after the "n" word now not later.