Eastern American Studies Association: Learning by Example

Last month, we attended the Eastern American Studies Association conference in Philadelphia titled “The Body of America, the Health of America: Taking the Pulse of American Culture.” We attended panels by graduate and undergraduate students who had completed research in the field of American Studies. They spanned many topics within the broader theme of health in America, including how photography effected the national understanding of poverty in the sixties, the practice and concept of passing in literature, the struggle of being a black country singer in the seventies, and the representation of women’s sexuality in the media since the fifties. Personally, it was exciting to see where I could potentially present my own research in the future.

President Lyndon B. Johnson posing with Tom Fletcher, an American living in poverty; part of Johnson’s campaign for the “war on poverty,” 1964

While these presentations were interesting, I was most captivated and intrigued by the plenary session at the end of the first day. Throughout the day, multiple panels occurred at once, so participants could choose what they wanted to listen to. However, this plenary was the only event between the last panel session and dinner. The topic listed on the pamphlet said “Beyond the Resolution: The Future of American Studies (Roundtable).” I thought they would talk about how changes in academia, technology and the field of American Studies itself were affecting how we research, study and teach American Studies. However, I found myself listening to four panelists (Professor Miles Orvell, Professor Sharon Musher, Dr. Asaf Romirowsky, and Professor Robert Snyder) tell us why the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions is wrong.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines roundtable as “an assembly for discussion, especially at a conference.” It seems to me that multiple perspectives would be presented at this roundtable so as to facilitate a discussion that explores all sides of the issue. However, the four panelists who spoke all gave the same argument: the American Studies Association should not boycott Israel. Regardless of their reasons why or their proposed next steps, they all agreed that it is not the place of the ASA to call a boycott and take a political stance in matters that do not concern the ASA directly.

This is all well and good, and these scholars are certainly allowed to have and to express their opinion. The point of this piece is not to agree or disagree with this boycott or anything having to do with the Israel Palestine conflict. I am concerned, however, with the fact that the Eastern American Studies Association forced me to do the exact opposite of what they teach me in classes: read one perspective without exploring different opinions, rationales, or narratives. Debates are fundamental and necessary in an active and creative academic setting. But this was no debate. The people in charge of the conference used the conference as a platform to express their solitary opinion. This abuse of opportunity is shown through the lack of differing opinions presented by panel members, and the lack of options to attend other panels. Furthermore, what does this resolution have to do with the theme of the conference, the health of America?

I am calling into question the way the Eastern American Studies Association represents themselves through the way they organized and presented a one-sided debate. After doing some research on my own after the conference, I found that 252 universities reject the ASA’s boycott. Clearly, many American Studies departments who are members of the ASA disagree with the boycott. However, there are general members, other departments and executive board members who agree with the boycott. Why were they not invited to represent their side of the argument? I found myself feeling as though we were sitting at the high school lunch table talking about our friends behind their backs. The Eastern American Studies Association wasted an opportunity to show young American Studies scholars such as myself and my classmates that internal debate within the field occurs and is healthy. However, by excluding an entire half of the conversation, this lesson was not learned.

Overall, I am grateful that I received this enlightening experience. I hope to present my future work at next year’s conference. However, the conference further solidified the lesson we learn in our classes everyday: do not accept the facts you are given as absolute truth. In order to be an active learner and a responsible citizen, you must understand the possible biases that are working for and against arguments and create your own opinions. Curiosity and inquisition are necessary in growing as fulfilled American Studies students and as responsible American citizens.

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