We’ve posted here before about the wonderful opportunities provided to Fordham graduate students and faculty by the Futures of American Studies Institute at Dartmouth. PhD Candidate Christine Kelly sent us these reflections of her time at the institute– her training as a cultural historian gives her a unique perspective on the value of these interdisciplinary gatherings.
On the evening of my arrival at The Futures of American Studies Institute, located within the stately beauty of Dartmouth College and the thick forestry of northern New Hampshire, program director Don Pease welcomed all participants to what he dubbed “a kind of heterotopia.” He was referring to a place where academic collaboration could occur in a spirit of enthusiasm, mutuality, and respect in a place filled with equal intellectual partners. From that moment onward, I knew I had come to the right place.
My week at the Futures program consisted of three plenary sessions daily in addition to an afternoon seminar, making for what were easily ten to twelve hour days. However, the early mornings and late nights amounted to an exposure to incredibly rich content, so much so that I could hardly believe it when the week had seemed to abruptly come to a close. The plenary sessions generally consisted of three speakers on an array of topics of import in American Studies circles at the moment. An interdisciplinary, theoretical, and activist field that incorporates a wide range of preoccupations within the study of American culture, there was no shortage of diversity within the subject matter of the talks. Speakers delivered passionate addresses on the role of critical inquiry in the Black Lives Matter movement and proffered new approaches to developing a fuller politics of black radicalism. They speculated on the appeal of Ayn Rand’s theory of objectivism in pockets of American cultural and political conservativism. They encouraged academics to talk to each other in ways that made a difference to the quality of their scholarship and their contribution to society rather than leave unquestioned the “canonical constellations” known to every discipline, as one speaker framed them, in addition to participating blindly in a “critical feedback loop” that helps scholars to incrementally improve upon their work but shies away from introducing and affirming game-changing ideas. Other talks were more disciplinarily rooted, involving conversations that spoke a language of narrow expertise which belied the principles of some of the stronger presentations. Even so, taken together, the plenaries were substantive, stimulating, and unforgettable.
Beyond the plenary sessions, I also feel privileged to have participated in a seminar led by Eric Lott, a cultural historian and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at CUNY Graduate Center. A group of roughly twelve Futures participants, we each presented papers summarizing active research projects in hopes of exchanging ideas with our peers to gain new insights into our work. I gave a brief talk on the role of feminism in the print culture of America’s mid-twentieth century folk music revival, and was overwhelmed by the support I received from members of the seminar along with the richness of their comments on my work. Over the course of just a few days a deep cordiality developed within our group that has since become one of my fondest memories of the program.
After a week at the Futures program, I can genuinely say that the experience was, for so many of us it seemed, indeed heterotopic. Perhaps some summer in my own future I will have occasion to return. In the meantime, I’m glad to have had the opportunity at all.