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“Why I Am So Fond of It”: Or, An Ode to Intersectionality

Students at the department of English share their impressions of the 2018 GAAS meeting on American Counter/Publics.

Jasmine Wang, Thuy Duyen Dao, Nikoleta Ioannido, Svea Krutisch, Sababa Monjour, Carina Thomys

Making new experiences can be truly frightening. Though we are all aware how much we can benefit from expanding our horizons and thinking outside the proverbial box, mustering up the courage to take that one, possibly life-changing, step is enough to make anyone shake in their boots. I guess this holds true for all of us students who were invited by Prof. Dr. Carmen Birkle to partake in this year’s annual GAAS meeting on American Counter/Publics. As “rookie scholars,” the idea of being in a room filled with senior scholars, driven doctoral candidates (and, generally speaking, people with lists of academic achievements that read longer than Donald Trump’s presidency feels) can be quite intimidating. However, once that initial fear is tamed and harnessed, there are few experiences students and aspiring scholars can have that are as rewarding and satisfying as attending a well-organized, relevant, and diverse conference such as this one. As one of my fellow students put it: “It sounds frightening to be challenged in front of the public but that is exactly where the beauty and meaning lie in academic communication. Every topic, idea, and concept are debatable and in such debates, perceptions are deepened and further issues emerge, which continuously fuel human knowledge and social progress.”

Upon perusing my classmates’ responses, I could not help but notice two striking similarities in our perception of and reaction to participating in this specific academic event. First, all responses were rather emotionally written, proving to me that I am not a lone wolf among my peers in feeling excited and passionate about “my” field of study (yes, claiming it as my own and feeling protective about it is part of said passion). Second, it proved to me yet again what makes this discipline so truly exceptional for us all—that is, its intersectionality.

Intersectionality is the one concurring and recurring term in all of our student responses. This is but a reiteration of one of my strongest convictions concerning American Studies: our divergence is our strongest unifying feature. Bringing together a plethora of scholars is not a given; or, as one of us phrased it, “I was very astounded to see that many of the scholars did not come from American Studies originally, but many actually hold degrees in other humanities; this clearly emphasizes the interdisciplinary nature of American Studies, which is an important aspect of why I am so fond of it.” In a phrase as beautiful as it is philosophical, another fellow student described it so very aptly: “splashes of thoughts are generated by academic exchanges.” The notion of thoughts splashing over like windswept waves from one mind into another really struck a chord with me. Both elements are powerful in themselves, but it is their convergence and interaction that create “splashes of thought” powerful enough to spill into other minds.

Our respective interests in American Studies are as diverse as we are. One student was most fascinated with approaches of intersectional feminism that was prominently featured in a workshop concerning “The Ableist Public and Crip Counterpublics.” She took from the workshop an understanding of how the “intersection of femininity and disability” can help identify and dismantle “the stereotypes towards the disabled female characters who are almost always misrepresented and often labeled as ‘others’ in American Horror Story: Coven.” She called the discussion of 'white feminism' failing to understand the double-bind minority representation “thought-provoking,” clearly appealing to her love for popular culture as well as her fierce engagement with feminism.

Ableism and Disability Studies were of particular interest to another student who is currently working on her thesis concerning the social stigma and labeling of certain illnesses. In her own words, she “was not aware that there was an actual established field of disability studies” before this conference. Participation provided her with “many new ideas about future research projects and helped [her] shape the ones [she works] on at the moment,” yet again demonstrating how important it is for young scholars to engage with and benefit from academic exchange and thought-provoking debates.

Yet another student, personally and academically interested in the relationship between Vietnam and the United States, applied Alexander Dunst’s talk on “Teaching Digital American Studies” to intercultural exchange and learning processes. She sees it as an opportunity to build active reading skills that will ultimately be “inextricably intertwine with personally rewarding proficiencies.” Her understanding of social media’s “pivotal role” in contemporary culture was satisfied by this talk. Just like the other students, she was “genuinely impressed” with the immense potential inherent to the versatility of American Studies: they are “beyond all dispute enlightenments to help the young generation[s]” across countries, cultures, and nations learn from the past, apply it to the present, and help shape the future.

The diversity of scholars at this conference was impressive. Be it Catherine Squires advocating “radical self-care,” delving into Black feminist activism; be it Michael Warner elaborating on “fake publics” and the commodification of attention; be it Todd Gitlin and the political sociology of the Trump administration—every keynote, every workshop clearly reflected on the speakers’ desire to engage with rather than turning a blind eye towards social, cultural, and political grievances. And, yet again, their divergence was their strongest unifying feature: though they focused on different periods, people, and institutions, they shared a call to action, a plea for open-mindedness, tolerance, and willingness to active social participation.

Borrowing a phrase from one of my classmates, “the conclusion here is simple”—though obviously a statement such as this is as complex as its simplicity suggests. The emotional, professional, and academic value of attending this conference at an early point of our scholarly careers as well as personal paths will be a memory that will grow with us, incite new approaches to our favored subjects in academia, and urge us to think outside that proverbial box that so often tethers us to the ground instead of lifting us up where we belong.

For me, attending this conference proved to me once again the sheer infinite potential of someone striving to make a difference. The brilliant keynote talks, workshops, and panels opened my mind to so many new ideas; however it was ultimately my fellow students’ commitment to their chosen fields of interest, their understanding that “in American Studies the sky is the limit”: It is their dedication to seeking knowledge and sharing it with others that functions as a constant source of inspiration to me. Having the opportunity to connect with them as well as other, more senior, scholars solely through our shared love of knowledge is a memory I know I will cherish and learn from throughout the years to come.

Kontakt: Carina Thomys (MA North American Studies)