Over the last four days, hundreds of American studies scholars descended on the Washington Hilton to convene the annual conference of the American Studies Association. And for the first time, I was among them. I have been part of the field of American studies for nine years now, but this year was the first year I had an opportunity to attend. It is difficult to have a paper accepted, and my research is still in its infancy, so I did not submit a presentation, but I did sign up to speak at the Students’ Committee Lightning Talks. I was ready to network and learn the trends of the discipline.
First, the experiences I had with the Students’ Committee were awesome. There was a very productive roundtable about teaching, a spirited discussion about student labor, and an eclectic set of lightning talks. I received some excellent feedback on my own dissertation plans, as well as an offer of collaboration on future research from a colleague from Yale. I also won five books through Students’ Committee give-aways, so I obviously enjoyed that.
As the weekend continued, the energy of the conference began to center on a proposed boycott of Israeli universities by the ASA. Perhaps this would have escaped my radar, but a few of my professors were deeply involved in opposing the boycott. Therefore, we were keeping an eye on the new information about the discussion. A few of us even attended the town hall meeting to hear some of our professors speak and to hear others speak on the issue. Never before had I been in a room where the energy was so tense. My personal feelings stem from my own curiosity about how much good a boycott would do. Yes, it would punish Israeli institutions (and therefore those associated with them), which is the goal for some; but would it actually help Palestinians? It flies in the face of academic freedom and would not effect any real change on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Most of their complaints seemed to be with the State Department or with their home institutions anyway. I’d rather see more concrete action being taken to help mediate between Israelis and Palestinians.
The boycott, along with the subjects of many of the panels, made me wonder what conference I had attended. I felt I could talk shop with my professors and other students, but the panels seemed to be outside my understanding of American studies. Perhaps, even at 27, I’m old-fashioned in my perception of the discipline. Why do we have to be anti-American to be critical of American culture and history? It was all very confusing.
On the practical side of things, we had a lovely trip overall. We all bought way too many books, and we struggled getting them home. We all overpacked (story of our lives), and one of my friends / colleagues and I got to experience the Newseum. What an incredible place! Our visit was far more emotional than I expected. I was especially touched at the Berlin Wall (my own family was separated by the Iron Curtain), the 9/11 exhibit (including the antenna from the North Tower), and the JFK assassination exhibit. I would go back again in a heartbeat, this time equipped with more downtime and more tissues.
Finally, my interest in Presidents was piqued when a book seller informed me that our hotel was the site of the assassination attempt on President Reagan (also the basis for the attempt on President Bartlett’s life on The West Wing). My roommates and I studied the newsreel footage and managed to find what we think was the spot.
Who knows if I’ll ever attend the ASA again? I would have to see both where my research goes and where the association goes.