3.1 Into the Melée: Presenting and Organizing at the ACLA
Presenting papers at conferences is one concrete way that PhD students like me can extend their writing beyond the course paper into the melée of ideas outside the classroom. Last spring, I participated in the 2012 American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) conference in Rhode Island. My experience presenting a paper in the context of a seminar that I co-organized stretched me both professionally and academically at a crucial point in my academic career.
During my final semester of coursework at Duquesne University, I took a graduate seminar on literature and exile. Subsequent to that experience, my colleague Ian Butcher and I decided to co-organize a seminar called “Forms of Exile” for the then upcoming ACLA annual meeting. We posted a call for papers on the University of Pennsylvania list and received over 30 abstracts.
Meeting one afternoon at a local coffee shop, we set out to make our selections and construct the seminar. While pleased with the number and quality of abstracts, we discovered that not everyone followed directions. We asked for fiction and received also papers on drama and nonfiction. After much debate, Ian and I narrowed our list down to the 12 most relevant and highest-quality submissions. We made sure to accept abstracts not only from our own institution but from schools across the country. We then organized them to fit within the ACLA’s unique conference format. Instead of panels of three or four presenters each that meet once, the ACLA structures its conference around seminars that meet for either two or three consecutive days and include multiple presentations each day. We also spent a substantial amount of time grouping abstracts thematically so that the seminar would be both creative and cohesive. We hoped presentations would speak to one another in specific ways even across vastly different texts. For example, day one featured presenters focusing on narrative discourse and the complexities of exilic experience within the work of such diverse authors as Liana Badr, Nuruddin Farah, and Vladimir Nabokov. By the time we completed our list of acceptances we left the coffee house full of anticipation, able to envision a seminar that addressed exile from the vantage point of multiple cultures and perspectives but with a common focus on form and exile in fiction.
Once the acceptance and rejection notices went out, I was surprised by the amount of administrative work organizing the seminar required. Besides fielding questions from participants, we also had to structure the seminar. A cancellation by one of our writers, a mistake made regarding the cut-off time for abstract submission, and the fact that audiovisual equipment was only available on one day meant that we had to do some juggling. Working with a partner has its benefits. Ian and I took turns responding to our seminar presenters and to Andy, the coordinator on the ACLA’s end. We also needed to keep in mind that having to sit through four 20 minute presentations in a row is difficult no matter who you are, so we limited our writers to 15 minutes apiece and built a five minute break into the middle of each day’s session. In the end it all worked out, but committing to this kind of task did mean devoting quite a bit of time during an already busy semester.
While this all made my own schedule tighter, a couple key parts of the process had a surprisingly positive impact on my writing. Ian’s energy and commitment to organizing the seminar motivated me to approach the administrative tasks and my own presentation with maximum effort. Likewise, as we sent out acceptances, I realized that rather than presenting my paper to a roomful of complete strangers, as so often happens at conferences, my audience would be one I had helped to choose. And they were looking to their co-organizers to provide a quality experience. This meant that we needed to practice good time management and sensitivity to one another’s ideas, and to guide the conversation well so that each person’s paper received attention during the question and answer sessions. One participant responded to the acceptance of her abstract by addressing her email to “Drs. Luckenbill and Butcher.” While we didn’t take advantage of this opportunity to masquerade as professors, this case of mistaken identity reminded me that to our participants we were not simply students. Here was a challenge, a higher level of expectation to live up to.
Parallel to this sense of expectation and responsibility was the knowledge that in my own presentation I would be testing a potential dissertation idea in front of a live audience. Sharing this idea with a room full of colleagues was vital to me for two primary reasons. First, I was in the midst of my exam year, missing the frequent academic discussions afforded by coursework and trying hard to take advantage of any opportunity I had to receive feedback. Second, the ideas to which I felt most drawn had the potential to create some controversy. I planned to investigate the role of religion, specifically Christianity, in texts written by ethnic minority authors in America. As both a Caucasian and a Christian, I was and still am aware of the potential to misstep or offend when addressing intersections of religion, culture, and power (or powerlessness). I had tested out this favorite topic of mine in course papers, but I had only once presented my argument before a conference audience. While it helped to sharpen my research and sensitivity toward other perspectives, that experience was a relatively safe one. While the paper I presented contained controversial ideas, (with a spirit of peacemaking, I wrote about allusions to Christianity in the work of a Native American poet who is openly critical of that faith tradition), I delivered it to an audience with Christian sensibilities at an event put on by the conference on Christianity and Literature. The feedback and encouragement I received was invaluable. But the ACLA offered me a chance to present related ideas to an audience that I suspected would not be quite so sympathetic. I needed this chance to see just how prepared I was to both defend and adapt my position.
Because the idea of our seminar grew out of a course that developed my familiarity with and interest in global literature, I chose to write my paper for the ACLA about Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I set out to argue that even though the novel is certainly a critique of the destructive oppression brought by Christians to Nigeria during colonial takeover, Achebe does not condemn the Christian faith. Rather, he explores the complex and sometimes even productive relationship between Christianity and the cultural values practiced by the Igbo people. Not knowing how my audience would respond, and suspecting that they would offer challenge rather than affirmation, I went into the ACLA experience feeling quite nervous.
I was scheduled to present on the third day of our seminar. The intensive three-day format did make it hard to sit in on many talks other than those belonging to our own group. Each seminar requires its participants to attend all of its sessions, and I heard more than one presenter lament that they would miss hearing other fascinating topics offered during our time slot. Nevertheless, both Ian and I were delighted by how the multi-day format allowed ideas to percolate and connections to surface. One noticeable thread was the foregrounding of religion by some of the presenters. For example, a fellow participant centered his argument on the place of Judaism in his text of choice. And so when it was my turn to deliver a paper on the third and final day, I spoke into a context that had been constructed over the previous days. In fact, I made some revisions to my paper during the conference because of the conversations that had already happened in our seminar.
The actual experience of presenting felt in some ways lackluster. I fielded only one question. Much of the interaction during the final day’s Q & A was directed toward summing up and drawing connections to papers given on previous days. While glad for the conversation that did occur, because I was testing a dissertation idea I had hoped for more. That one question, though, was significant. It came from the presenter who had spoken about Judaism. He challenged my ideas by raising a question that was quite hard to answer in light of Christianity’s too-frequent association with oppression. I had anticipated this kind of query, and so my professors and classmates had helped me press into it beforehand, but this specific interaction afforded me a chance to navigate a sensitive topic on the spur of the moment and outside of the comfort of my University. It also served as a wake-up call. I often feel frustrated that it’s difficult to think beyond Christianity’s implication in unequal power dynamics, but that tension is simply going to be part of the conversation. Though only one person offered a challenge, knowing that I was presenting before an audience with a diverse set of religious and cultural perspectives helped me clarify my position and deepen my understanding of the context surrounding intersections of religion and culture in fiction. I left the ACLA with a heightened awareness of my own capacity for and need for intellectual preparedness and sensitivity.
Now, as I write this, the deadline for my dissertation proposal is only months away. I must confess that in terms of idea selection I’m still not settled. But the topic that had its genesis in the context of the course on literature and exile and that was clarified and refined at the 2012 ACLA meeting is a front runner. My interest in the study of Christianity in texts where disparate cultures meet has deepened. I also find myself increasingly drawn into the critical conversation surrounding the viability of religion as a lens through which to investigate literature. While I can’t give the ACLA full credit for these developments, my experiences, both administrative and scholarly, at the 2012 annual meeting played a strong role in sharpening my scholarly work and strengthening my intellectual confidence.
Rachel Luckenbill is an English doctoral candidate and teaching fellow at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. She is writing her dissertation on gender, culture, and Christianity in contemporary American fiction by women. Her interests also include postcolonialism and religion in literature. She received her MA in English from Villanova University in Philadelphia, PA (2005) and taught English at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, PA (2005-2009).