Last summer, I was one of 25 scholars chosen to participate in a summer institute on the great author and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston. The National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute entitled Hurston on the Horizon: Past, Present, and Future was directed by Ayesha Hardison and Maryemma Graham and is affiliated with the University of Kansas Project on the History of Black Writing. KU, by the way, is where Hurston biographer Robert Emery Hemenway’s archives are housed as he was a chancellor there, and we got to access those archives along with other exciting material. We were also fortunate to have at our Zoom-ing fingertips access to some of the greatest Hurston scholars as institute faculty and guest speakers, including the aforementioned directors, Kevin Quashie, Deborah McDowell, Glenda Carpio, Carla Kaplan, Giselle Anatol, and more.
My interest in participating in the Institute comes from being a big fan of Hurston’s novels, but also having the chance to devote time to reading everything else she has written. I remain especially interested in the way she writes about navigating institutional spaces as a woman of color, and what’s behind that characteristic grit that we often read about in her essays such as “How It Feels to be Colored Me.” I was able to share some of her writings as well as video and audio from our institute and some great Library of Congress materials from Hurston’s ethnographic work with my students this past semester for my Women Writers course, and hope to be able to do so again this upcoming semester in my American Literature course. (You can find more about my teaching here.)
Last month, as part of the institute, I also moderated the third of three follow-up webinars. The first was with the great Hurston biographer Valerie Boyd, and the second was with novelist Tayari Jones. You can find my live-tweet coverage of the Boyd discussion here. I moderated the third talk, with philosopher Lindsay Stewart. Our talk on her book, The Politics of Black Joy: Zora Neale Hurston and Neo-Abolitionism, is below. Information on all three webinars can be found here: https://hurston.ku.edu/news/webinars
There’s more to come with Hurston! Among other things, I will be participating in a mini-conference with other fellow NEH institute scholars later this month. My presentation, “Hurston on the Limits of Knowledge and Representation,” will discuss some of her essays, including a few recently published for the first time this month. We hope to be able to do an in-person reunion and meetup sometime next year at ZoraFest.
You can find out more about the institute here: https://hurston.ku.edu/
Below is a portion of a talk I’ll be giving next month at MELUS on using archival material on the history of Native American schools, include Carlisle. In the rest of the talk, I discuss other secondary texts by Indigenous authors that use archival material as a primary source.
I gave an earlier version of this talk at the Digital Native American and Indigenous Studies workshop and received really helpful feedback which also contributed to the below post.
My initial attempts to incorporate archival work in the classroom involved reading various selections from the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center (hereby referred to as CISDRC). Carlisle’s founder, General Richard Henry Pratt, became famous for the school’s mission, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” The saying signifies a change in Pratt’s approach from militaristic decimation to scholastic incorporation through erasures of Indigenous languages, cultures, and traditions. In a speech given in 1892, Pratt surmises, “Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit.” In other words, Pratt suggests, isolate the Native American child from his family and tribe, impose upon him the language, religion, and customs of dominant white culture, and he will then become capable of contributing to society, thus solving the looming question of what to do with “our” dwindling indigenous population.
Begun by Dickinson College in 2013. the CISDRC had only been around for two years in digitized form when I offered to pilot a lesson incorporating the student records into my curriculum. I introduced students to the archive and to Carlisle itself through supplementary firsthand accounts of Carlisle from authors such as Zitkala-Ša (Yankton Dakota) and Berenice Levchuk (Navaho) and a documentary film entitled Warrior Women about Lakota community organizer Madonna Thunder Hawk. Students also had assigned class readings of certain student files and publications of the time period put together by Carlisle teachers and students, such as The Indian Helper and The Red Man. Eventually, I instruct students to research the archive on their own by first finding one student and at least one element of personal connection—a shared instrument that both my student and the Carlisle student played, or someone who is from the same state or part of the country, for example.
Discussing her own experience with a digitized archive, Megan A. Norcia highlights how “technology enables students to find new meanings in old texts; offers a model of scholarly intervention in ongoing critical discussions; engages students of different learning styles by reinvigorating the writing and research process; and causes them ultimately to question how history is represented, framed, and processed in the present moment.” To say that all of this advancement occurs as a result of the medium is not a stretch. As much as the students and I discussed the contents of the archives, we also discussed the unstable nature of the archive and of archival research in general. They learn to see that the “official” record of history found in textbooks, government documents, and documentaries has been carefully edited, and is incapable of highlighting all perspectives, nuances, and experiences.
Buried within the archive’s minutiae, such as demographic information on a student information card that would make the CISDRC student records similar to other schools at the time, are often revealing alumni follow-up surveys indicating where the student has gone since leaving Carlisle. For example, over ten years after the school began enforcing Pratt’s mission in 1879, Shoshone tribe member Phillip E. Lavatta became a student there at age 17. Whether he chose to attend voluntarily or not is unknown; however, it is likely that, once he got there, he received the same treatment as other Carlisle students. As seen in John N. Choate’s photographs of fellow student Tom Torlino taken at his admittance in 1882 and then again three years later, Lavatta’s hair would have been similarly cut short, his more “culturally marked” clothing replaced with the standard Carlisle-recommended garb, which usually was Western civilian clothing or an Army green uniform. As another unwilling participant of a compulsory program to eradicate native cultures, he would have been forced to abandon his native language for English, answer only to his English name, and be placed with a white family rather than being allowed to go home.
Answering the questions on his former student survey, Lavatta took the opportunity to hold forth on his lack of rights as a Native American. Responding to the open-ended prompt of “Tell me anything else of interest connected with your life,” Lavatta mimics dominant rhetoric about Native American inferiority at that time, writing:
We have been having, and will continue to have trouble with gov’t officials regarding our “rights.” We are children and should not be taught to strike back in self-defense. We should be made to understand that whenever a mistake is made in Washington that it was the work of some “clerk.” …and still the cry in the Indian office is that the returned Carlisle student is a “kicker” – that is the name I have for now.
Lavatta’s reference to a “kicker” connotes in this instance neither a position on the famous Carlisle Indian School football team nor a member of the Kickapoo Nation, but rather appears to refer to the assumption of Carlisle students as rebels or protesters. Despite this reputation, Lavatta’s impassioned statement is quite unusual to see in the student records retained in the CISDRC given the straightforward nature of much of the information contained there. Lavatta ends the above diatribe in a jarring contrast typical of many of the student files when he concludes, “Could write more but will close, with best wishes for the school, yourself, and others under your charge. Respectfully yours, Phillip E. Lavatta, Pocatello, Idaho.”
The switch in tone could mean many things, whether it’s a mere recognition of the formality of letter-writing, or protection from the dangers that come with being a kicker or even with criticizing the school that may have treated one so harshly, and so on. It may also reflect the nature of the potentially conflicting experiences that Lavatta experienced there, a tension that was often difficult to pinpoint in the archive records themselves. Students found such expressions of personality and even protest to be the most exciting discoveries in the archive, however potentially suppressed, bowdlerized, and edited.
Overall, my students and I benefited greatly from what Susan Wells famously identifies as the “three gifts of archival work”: namely, a resistance to closure, a loosening of resentment (by productively facing the anxieties of our discipline), and finally, a reconstruction of the disciplines of rhetoric, composition, and—to Wells’ characterization I add—ethnic American literature, in order to “rethink our political and institutional situation, [and] to find ways of teaching that are neither narrowly belletristic [or solely aesthetic] nor baldly vocational.” Discussing her own experience with a digitized archive, Megan A. Norcia highlights how “technology enables students to find new meanings in old texts; offers a model of scholarly intervention in ongoing critical discussions; engages students of different learning styles by reinvigorating the writing and research process; and causes them ultimately to question how history is represented, framed, and processed in the present moment.”
To say that all of this advancement occurs as a result of the medium is not a stretch. As much as the students and I discussed the contents of the archives, we also discussed the unstable nature of the archive and of archival research in general. They learn to see that the “official” record of history found in textbooks, government documents, and documentaries has been carefully edited, and is incapable of highlighting all perspectives, nuances, and experiences.
Congratulations on getting your paper accepted to a conference! If you’re working from a revision of a previously written course paper, here’s some advice on how to adapt it to a conference presentation.
(If you are looking for advice on conference proposals, I highly recommend the format suggested here by Dr. Karen Kelsky. I promise that I pretty much use a version of this format for almost every single conference presentation proposal I submit, and it has done me very well. In fact, to prove it, you can scan some of my conference presentation titles here, and I’m happy to send you my own examples that use this format – just ask!)
How most of your conferences will work in literary studies:
The typical format of most literary studies conferences is that you read – dynamically and with good cheer – from a paper.
Every conference is a little different in terms of the scope, level of formality, etc., but you usually read this paper as part of a panel, often of 3-4 presenters each with their own related conference presentation.
Panels are typically concurrent, meaning that other people in other nearby rooms may be presenting at the same time as you, and your audience will thus likely be there because they are interested in your work and those of your fellow presenters!
Typically you will get somewhere around 10-20 minutes to present your work, with time allotted at the end of the panel for questions and discussion. A panel chair is usually present for introductions and keeping time.
Some presenters will pass out handouts or other information related to their presentation, though this is optional.
Bigger conferences will have a discussant or someone set to respond to the panel presentations as a whole and to ask additional questions.
First: What NOT to do:
Do not assume everyone has read your primary text. At the same time, spend no more than few sentences summarizing. Get to your argument quickly and start proving it. Show your work.
Do not just pick an 8-10 page chunk of a paper and read it. If you are adapting a shorter talk from a longer paper, you can refer to it during Q&A (“In my longer project, I actually address your question…”) and/or – if necessary – in your brief introduction (“This presentation is part of a longer article that I am working on. I’d appreciate any feedback you can offer.”)
Do not say “quote unquote” to set off your quotes. That can get annoying. Use inflection, pausing, and good writing to make the line between your words and everyone else’s words clear.
Do not go over your time! Estimate about 2 minutes of reading per double-spaced 12-pt Times New Roman page. Check with the panel chair/moderator to see how long you have, and then practice. You don’t want to be the jerk who takes away from everyone else’s time because you spoke too long! 🙂
Now, things to do!
Keep your sentences short and simple. Unlike regular papers, complex and complicated sentences will not do. People are listening to you read, which takes concentration. Make it as easy for them as possible.
Speaking of which, give cue words & signposts. Say, “In this paper, I will argue that…” etc. Remind your audience occasionally of what you are arguing and why it is important. Because this is oral, you will want to signpost these reminders more than you do in your written essay.
Choose the strongest points. Especially when adapting a longer paper, you will want to pick the best parts. If you have a short amount of time, focus on only one text.
If necessary, adapt your revision to the conference theme or the panel theme. I hope that you did this when you proposed your presentation in the first place, but audiences can tell if you are trying to shoehorn an unrelated topic into a panel. It may only take a tiny bit of extra work to adapt your paper to the panel/conference theme, and you’ll find many happy accidents that will further connect presentations together if you do so.
Especially if you are not presenting an extemporaneous speech or PowerPoint, etc., it is important to keep your audience engaged. Do not just read mechanically, without looking at the audience. Make eye contact, read their body language, adapt if they look bored. Stay excited about what you are reading. It’s okay to interrupt yourself to further explain something if it seems necessary. Have fun!
Have a clear introduction and a strong and memorable conclusion. End with a “thank you.” Smile.
Conferences are for networking! If possible, arrange ahead of time for your fellow presenters and/or the panel chair to celebrate afterward with coffee or dinner. Attend other panels and ask questions during Q&A, and/or in a follow-up e-mail. Thank the presenter after the talk for answering and exchange info. Talk to people from other schools. Who knows? You may make a new friend, meet a future colleague, or discover a new opportunity. 🙂
I’ve been fortunate enough that many of my personal and scholarly interests coincide. Examples of where this has served me well are my multiple publicpresentations and conference presentations on Afrofuturism. Not to mention a monthly nerd-out session on Afrofuturism with the lovely folks at the Kheprw Institute.
As Ytasha Womack describes it, Afrofuturism proposes ways of looking at the future “through a black cultural lens”—of imagining black people as part of that future, whether they are flying rocket ships, wearing space suits, engaging with technology, communicating with alien beings, or simply living and thriving in a time beyond today. I thought I’d share some of my favorites that fall under the increasingly widening rubric of Afrofuturism.
First: some explainers!
A couple of my own introduction to Afrofuturism are below, but neither are as exciting as these primers from Dust and This American Life:
Dust. There are many great videos explaining the roots of Afrofuturism, but here’s one of my favorites. The Dust series stands out because of its combination of cool animation and its focus on music.
This American Life. One of my favorite podcast episodes ever. This episode of This American Life starts with (white) host Ira Glass graciously handing off his show to producer, journalist, and resident Afrofuturism aficionado Neil Drumming. The entire episode (transcript here) is worth a listen, but here are the acts broken down:
Act 1, Metropolis Now (12 min): Neil talks to a Detroit mayoral candidate who is running on an Afrofuturist platform. Part of what intrigues me about this is it illustrates how the use of the term Afrofuturism has become quite diffuse and nebulous in certain contexts, but can nevertheless have community applications.
Act 2, Past Imperfect (12 min): This next one is extra brilliant in my opinion: Azie Dungey (also a writer for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) recounts her time playing a slave for tourists on George Washington’s estate
Act 3, The Black Sea (6 min): An original song about <it’s a surprise> by the hip hop group clppng., and featuring Hamilton performer Daveed Diggs
And here are couple of contributions from me:
Indiana Humanities TILT mixer. I was fortunate enough to present an introduction to Afrofuturism at a cocktail party-style event organized by Indiana Humanities. Here’s that presentation, dusted off several years later for my literature students:
Joshua Mays: This self-trained artist and muralist based in Oakland, CA, creates beautiful and fantastical work that many think as fundamentally representative of Afrofuturism (despite his own misgivings about the title). He talks about his artistic journey in this interview and video.
Paul Lewin: Born in Jamaica, Lewin’s work often features his country’s national bird, as seen here and in one of my favorite monograph covers ever, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas‘s The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. Lewin’s work often fuses Caribbean and African myths and storytelling traditions. He speaks here in an interview with Afropunk.
Lina Iris Viktor is a conceptual artist, painter, and performance artist who often uses an ancient technique of gilding her works with 24-carat gold. Born to Liberian parents in London, Viktor has exhibited her work all over the world and divides her time between London and New York.
More about her gilding work at a 2019 exhibit in London is here.
Afrofuturism and Literature
N.K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season: No Afrofuturism booklist (especially one of mine!) would be complete without N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Its breath-taking debut, The Fifth Season, is a masterpiece of worldbuilding. Jemisin made history by winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel three years in a row for each of the books of this trilogy. (Jemisin’s acceptance speech for the third Hugo is one of my favorites. Click for the video and transcript.)
Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: I’ve already raved about Dr. Okorafor‘s Binti in a previous post, but after having reread it again for a recent course, I can confirm that all of the books in the series are eminently readable and enjoyable.
Maurice Broaddus – Pimp my Airship: This captivating adventure, which Broaddus started pretty much on a dare, may be the first to combine Afrofuturism with steampunk. A bonus: Reading it inspired me to learn more about the history of Indianapolis and to listen to some great music. (Each chapter title is also a song title.)
Trivia time! It’s worth pointing out that Edward A. Johnson (born in slavery in NC and the first African-American member of the New York state legislature) wrote a utopian novel featuring African Americans and dirigible airships in 1904.
Octavia Butler – Parable of the Sower:
“All that you touch You Change.
All that you Change Changes you.
The only lasting truth Is Change.”
The first of what would have been Butler’s Earthseed trilogy, Parable of the Sower spawned a religion and a philosophy. It is also an absorbing, unique, and deftly written dystopian novel.
Horror writer Tananarive Due and minister Monica Coleman host a series of virtual conversations discussing Butler as both a seer and a balm. (Due also also teaches Afrofuturism and horror at UCLA.) I share some highlights of the opening discussion here.
Bonus, since I mention the This American Life Afrofuturism podcast above. For more on my favorite podcasts and how I use them in the classroom, see the below thread:
Lately I’ve been having many conversations—both inside my online classrooms and on social media—about graphic novels. They’re often my go-to reading for fun and/or distraction, and my list of favorite books at any given moment usually has a number of graphic novels featured on it. Here are a few graphic novels that speak to me:
Rereading this refugee story while sheltering in place was oddly comforting to me. This is a beautiful graphic memoir about the author and her family’s escape in the 1970s after the fall of South Vietnam and their attempts to remake their lives in another country. It’s also about to connect with family when you are separated by distances that seem hard to bridge. The phrase “personal and public history” comes from the poet Natasha Trethewey and is a good way to think about how memoir can indeed represent an individual story while reflecting a broader history.
More in this category:
The March trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell: This trilogy has won all the awards, and all were well-deserved.
The classic to end all classics. I often say that Spiegelman’s struggles to get people to take the medium seriously are why we have so many graphic novels today. Once you read and reread this one, the book about the book, MetaMaus, is also worth a look.
More in this category:
Palestine by Joe Sacco (introduction by Edward Said): I would call this one graphic journalism, even more so than Spiegelman’s Maus. However, if one is expecting objectivity, then you may be disappointed as Sacco prominently foregrounds his fallibility, moments where his imagination fails, and also highlights how his very presence affects those he interviews and the kinds of stories they tell.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: This beautifully written memoir was eventually made into an award-winning Broadway show.
One! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry: The author’s quirky style in both her art and her writing of her autobiofictionalography are unmistakably unique.
Watchmen by Alan Moore. Along with Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, Moore revolutionized our ideas of what comics could do.
Something about this one always reminds me of going to the beach as a child. This was the first graphic novel to make the short list for the Caldecott Medal in 2014, which unfortunately opened it up to wider criticism when it became the most challenged book of 2016, for reasons that aren’t really quite clear to me.
More in this category:
El Deafo by Cece Bell: Find an excerpt of this semi-autobiographical story of the author (as bunny) at this link.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang: This one, and March above, could have easily been placed in the Classics category. Its three storylines and artistic styles make it a fun read. Here are some sample pages.
Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson: I enjoy watching the 16-year-old Kamala Khan attempt to balance being a Muslim teenager while also being a superhero.
I’m a big fan of art nouveau-inspired work, so Sana Takeda’s art in the award-winning series Monstress is worth the ticket on its own, but the intricate worldbuilding and storytelling of this high-fantasy saga is epic. I have yet to read the latest issue but at this point I may just (happily) start again from the beginning. Also, did I mention there are cats?!
The Arrival by Shaun Tan: This is my only graphic novel entry on the list without (actual) words, and even though some of the artwork is available to view online, nothing compares to just getting lost in this story in print form.
Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Faith Hicks, et. al.: This is Girl Scouts meets Adventure Time meets X-Files. (Stevenson, by the way, has also done work on Adventure Time, in addition to her wonderful graphic novel Nimona). I haven’t read the entire series, but what I’ve read so far is great.
On my to-read list of graphic novels:
My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris (I’m currently reading this one – borrowed from my public library’s Hoopla account) and the art, story, and presentation so far are really striking. I wish I had it in print instead.)
Hello postcolonial literature students (and maybe fellow postcolonial literature fans),
If you want some for-fun novels that also count as intellectual work (says the person who taught a course on Beyoncé), here are some literature recommendations that connect (some more loosely than others) to the issues, theories, and histories we’ve been discussing this semester in Postcolonial Literature. I’ll add to this list as I come up with more ideas.
Oyinkan Braithwaite – My Sister, the Serial Killer Braithwaite’s thriller is pure pulp in the most wonderful way possible. I listened to this on audiobook for free using my public library’s Libby app last summer, and the reader for it was really good as well (and can give you a good sense of the pronunciation of names and places – I think the actor’s name is Adepero Oduye). Super enjoyable if you like this kind of story.
Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood & Bone This YA fantasy has all of the elements that you’d expect of the genre (star-crossed romances and friendships, family drama, ALL THE FEELINGS, etc.) but set in a time and place that interacts with Yoruba culture, West African myths, and more.
It’s the first in a series called the Legacy of Orïsha, of which there are currently two at the moment. Negotiations are in progress for a movie version.
Nnedi Okorafor – Binti I know this is a cheat because this was already on your syllabus anyway, but this space drama about the title character – the first of her Himba tribe to attend one of the finest universities in the galaxy – is just great, and at 90ish pages, it’s also a quick read. It’s the first in a wonderful trilogy, but I think the ending of the Binti #1 is satisfying enough that you can opt to continue or not depending on your interests. (We’ll discuss this one online in connection with a short film later this semester.)
Okorafor has a number of other books that you may enjoy, including her Akata Witch series and a quirky and politically-timely comic called LaGuardia.
Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children Remember how I was complaining that we just don’t have time in the semester to read this gorgeous and important book? Well, guess what…? You can still read the book for fun!
Seriously, this one is a classic and you’ll learn from the first few pages whether or not you will enjoy spending time with the verbose and witty narrator, Saleem. If you are a Rushdie fan, I also highly recommend his novel, Shame (on Pakistan, with a breathtakingly memorable female protagonist), and his children’s adventure, Haroun and the Sea of Stories.