Putting on a successful program - as we did! - is a collaborative effort, and I and the other program committee co-chairs, Brenda Dixon-Gottschild and Neil Foley, want to begin by thanking the committee members who worked together to create an exciting and useful program for ASA members: Ebele Amali, John Caughey, Nan Enstad, Betsy Erkkila, Nora Faires, Guenter Lenz, Mae M. Ngai, Deborah Schmalholz, Shirley Wajda, and S. Craig Watkins. ASA President Michael Frisch, committed to interlinking the academy and the community, provided the vision that led us to our theme “American Studies in the World/The World in American Studies” and buoyed us all with his energy and optimism. We are indebted to John Stephens and the ASA office staff, especially Larry McReynolds, convention coordinator, who offered us both the wisdom of tradition and the support for innovation, as well as countless unseen hours of hard work to make the convention run smoothly. (You come to understand and appreciate the efficiency of the American Studies Association Executive Director and staff in the process of working on the annual meeting.)
Special thanks this year go to the co-chairs of the Local Arrangments Committee, Linda Borish, Nora Faires, and Sheila Lloyd, who, along with Michael Frisch, put time, imagination, and patience into organizing the Pre-Convention Collaboratives, which allowed ASA members to meet with members of community groups and organizations.
In our call for papers, we expressed our hope that the conference would draw on the range of disciplines and interdisciplines that traditionally constitute American Studies, as well as opening room for areas new or under-represented at ASA, like music, Native American Studies, and early American studies; that it would cross the boundaries between the academy and the “real” world of social and economic challenge; that it would place American Studies in a global perspective. Looking at the x sessions that constitute the formal program, it is clear that we succeeded in shaping a program that achieved these goals, as well as reflecting the range of interests and methods in our still-evolving field. What is even more satisfying is the fact that most individual sessions mingled different methods and approaches, so that interdisciplinary conversations and juxtapositions were constantly taking place. One typical session featured presenters from departments of communications, international politics, English and journalism, and film studies; another drew from art history, cultural studies, and theater studies; a third from ethnic studies, anthropology, and religion. Some of the sessions on ethnic studies focussed on one ethnic group, but featured presenters from different disciplines and backgrounds, like “Chicana/o and Latina/o Spiritualities: Negotiating Multiple Identities, Faiths and Practices,” whose presenters came from departments of comparative ethnic studies, women’s studies, religious studies, and American and Chicano studies. Other sessions on race and ethnicity were doing comparative work, like the “Reading Diasporas” sessions that juxtaposed the African Diaspora in the United States and Brazil, or the two sessions on “Performing Ethnicity.”
It’s this mix of different voices and approaches on the same panel that makes the ASA annual meeting so invigorating and freeing: it’s a space where people can take the risk of doing new work, finding support from the people they encounter to develop different methods and explore new kinds of sources. Session reports from ASA chairs stressed the high levels of dialogue that took place, finding an congenial atmosphere for interchanging ideas that at times extended beyond the session (not, admittedly, into the nearby cocktail lounge, the absence of which several of you mentioned.) These comments on the chairs’ response forms are typical: “Several members of the audience got in touch with me after the session in order to establish further exchanges of information.” “The strong feeling of collaborative inquiry in this session was both invigorating and refreshing.” “The commentator delivered a really supportive and brilliant comment that helped all three panelists take their work deeper.”
We had wanted to create a conference in which such exchanges could take place among academics and non-academics, and we are particularly glad that ASA members who organized session proposals did such extensive outreach, bringing us panels that intermingled scholars and college teachers with non-profit directors, print and media journalists, public historians, film-makers, social activists, secondary school teachers, labor organizers, government workers, community organizers, poets, and performers.
We introduced some innovations in format to facilitate this kind of democratic cross-fertilization: “talk” sessions, in which the presenter speaks rather than reads a paper (although the written paper has been sent ahead of time to the chair and commentator); an exhibit format; an on-line format. The feedback on these changes, which can allow for more interaction between presenter and audience, was extremely positive, and we hope that future program committees build on this base. (Many of you felt that in a future conference you might plunge and try a “talk” presentation, and so it’s likely that this alternative format -- quite easy to arrange -- could become more common.)
President Michael Frisch, along with the Local Arrangements Committee, provided the leadership and energy for another innovation that we hope future program committees will build on -- Pre-Convention Collaboratives, which provided the opportunity for ASA members to meet with community activists, journalists, museum professionals, historic preservation specialists, civil rights leaders and local artists in small, focussed workshops. These collaboratives stressed the importance of Detroit, making the city more than a setting -- in fact, an active participant in our conference. They also gave ASA members a concrete way to dissolve the barrier between classroom and community and embrace the local, and those who attended found the workshops valuable. Some fine-tuning needs to be done here -- many of you said it was difficult to arrive in time for a pre-convention slot, and another program committee might want to simply interweave these workshops with regular sessions, and perhaps to offer fewer workshops than we did for this initial venture. But certainly these collaboratives helped to make the connection between our conference and the city of Detroit more meaningful, as did the several regular program sessions on Detroit history, culture, politics, and activism and the “community commons” accompanying the reception at the Diego Rivera court of the Detroit Museum of Art.
Last year’s Program Committee had made a commitment to integrating performance with the conference, featuring five performers over the three main conference days. We took a different approach this year, deciding to devote three performance time slots and a major part of our modest budget to one performer, Jawole Willa Joe Zollar, choreographer and dancer and founder of the performance ensemble Urban Bush Women, dedicated to interconnecting performance and social change. This decision had the advantage of bringing us a gifted artist-in-residence who was present at the conference over a three-day period; a possible disadvantage for future program committees was the fact that booking a performer of this stature requires committing money that is then unavailable for other uses, such as offering travel assistance for non-academics who are participating in the conference. We believe that the artist-in-residence idea is still worth exploring, however, particularly if the ways in which the artist will connect to the membership can become more substantial. Perhaps linking a resident artist or performer with an already established structure - such as the “Focus on Teaching Day” - would ensure that enough people would benefit from the residency to make the financial commitment an acceptable cost. Certainly many of our members appreciate the presence of performers and artists at the conference who provide an alternative to academic sessions and allow us to think about the connections between the arts and social change.
The feedback that program committee co-chairs and members heard from the more than 1,500 ASA members attending the Detroit conference was overwhelmingly positive, and we find that very gratifying. Yes, there were a few grumbles. Some sessions were under-attended, particularly those at unattractive meeting times like Thursday noon and Sunday morning. We know it is dispiriting to have prepared a paper and then find only three people in the audience, one of whom discovers, as soon as you begin to talk, that he’s in the wrong session and walks out. But the only way we can continue to offer X sessions and so have a healthy acceptance rate for proposals is to use Thursday and Sunday for sessions. Some chairs’ responses pointed out problems with what we can call “conference etiquette” - people disrupting sessions by their comings and goings (hard to control this one), panelists and commentators and chairs dropping out at the last minute, at times without giving a reason, without informing anyone, and without finding replacements. “This is not acceptable behavior,” wrote one session chair in his report. “Perhaps such transgressors should not be allowed to be on the program for a year.” I find myself agreeing, momentarily transformed into ASA’s Miss Manners, and forward the problem to next year’s committee.
And, yes, there was our under-construction hotel (or “bunker”), toward which some of you turned a critical eye. Taking a larger and more interdisciplinary perspective, we can see the - unusual? - environment of the Renaissance Center as a decided positive. The lack of food and drink sent resourceful ASA members out into the restaurants and bars of Detroit, creating a meaningful relationship with the city, as we had intended all along. And the maze-like hotel setting served to spark the metaphor-making creativity of conference goers (“fort,” “moonscape,” “something out of Blade Runner”) and allowed lost and wandering ASA-ers to interact with local people when they asked for directions.
I attended my first American Studies meeting in Boston, over 25 years ago. The 2000 annual meeting was, in some ways, very different, reflecting the exciting new directions in scholarship and teaching we have seen over the last two decades - I’m thinking in particular of the new work in ethnic and race studies, the “crossing borders” perspectives that place the United States in a global context and view America as an entity always in the process of construction, and the impact that cultural studies, women’s studies, African-American studies, queer studies, and performance studies have had on the profession. But the essence of the meeting was the same as that of the long-ago Boston meeting, which drew me to ASA: throughout the conference one could see the importance our association has traditionally placed on egalitarian practices, on respectful and supportive interchange, on innovation, on social and economic responsibility, and on welcoming junior scholars into the profession. Our organization and the annual meeting provide a strong home base from which to continue our challenging interdisciplinary and intellectual journeys.