At the 62nd annual BAAS conference, gender equality and diversity was at the forefront of discussion, writes BAAS organisers Lydia Plath and Gavan Lennon. This year’s BAAS prioritised ecological sustainability through a dedicated conference mobile app and showed a commitment to inclusivity by discouraging men-only panels.
When people made their way to the registration desk for BAAS 2017 at Canterbury Christ Church University it was, for the first time, with the aid of a dedicated conference app. In an effort to commit to ecological sustainability, delegates were encouraged to decide, from a digital list of the over 250 papers, spread across 55 panels, which they wanted to attend. While this year’s conference had unique time-constraints compared to previous conferences we did our best to accommodate as many lively and stimulating talks as possible between the afternoons of Thursday 6th and Saturday 8th April 2017.
Good weather accompanied the first set of panels and was kind enough to stick around for the duration of the conference. At the end of the first day, Professor Brian Ward (Northumbria University) delivered the conference’s first of three plenary lectures while also presiding over his first BAAS conference as Chair of the Executive Committee. Brian’s lecture analysed three very different operas that take the US South as their topic in order to ascertain what it is that makes a musical work “sound southern.” In Frederick Delius’ Koanga (1897), Donald Davidson’s Singin’ Billy (1952), and The Drive-By Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera (2001) the South, according to Ward, is constructed through a complex intermingling of musical style, authorial background, and listeners’ pre-existing ideas of the region. Sponsored by the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library, Ward’s talk capped off a stimulating first day of papers. Following the lecture, delegates made their way to Augustine House for a wine reception hosted by EBAAS 2018, next year’s joint conference of the British and European Associations for American Studies, that will be jointly hosted by King’s College, London, University College, London, and the British Library.
In the second of the conference’s plenary lectures (sponsored by Journal of American Studies) Professor Marjorie Spruill (University of South Carolina) urged delegates to reconsider the women’s movement of the 1970s and the controversial equal rights amendment. Spruill argues that the feminist activism of figures like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug was one of two women’s movements in conflict during the period and that scholarly complexity is lost if we ignore or marginalize the conservative movement led by Phyllis Schlafly. As suggested by the lecture’s title, shared with Spruill’s latest monograph Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics (Bloomsbury, 2017), Spruill offered a new way of exploring a critical moment in the history of the nation that continues to resonate today.
In the final keynote lecture Professor Trudier Harris (University of Alabama) offered new ways of understanding an endlessly complex theme in American culture with a lecture titled “Home in African American Literature: Difficult to Define, Impossible to Claim.” Interrogating the sometimes simplistic need to “return” to Africa in African American fiction and memoir – a sometimes pathological desire that Harris terms “African Fever” – the lecture charted new ways of reading for the notion of home in black literature from the “Freedom Narratives” of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs to contemporary black writing. Sponsored by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Canterbury Christ Church, Harris’ talk encouraged the assembled scholars to think differently about texts and ideas we thought we understood.
Following Harris’ plenary everyone returned to Augustine House for a well-earned glass or two of wine at a reception overlooking the beautiful city of Canterbury. The reception was followed by a gala banquet in Augustine Hall, which gave diners the opportunity to celebrate the hard work of the many winners of prestigious awards for outstanding work in the discipline from school-level onwards. Chief among them was Professor Philip Davies, Director of the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library, who was rightfully celebrated for his contribution to the field and the Association when he was awarded the BAAS Fellowship.
If the delegates were feeling fatigued as the conference drew on it certainly did not show during a final morning of excellent papers and lively discussion. The conference concluded on Saturday afternoon with a Women’s Network roundtable and discussion on the need for gender equality and diversity in the organization and the profession. The network event marked the organisation’s renewed emphasis in recent years on the need for equality and diversity in American Studies in Britain. It was the same emphasis that textured the organisers’ decision to avoid men-only panels and it is encouraging indeed to know that the same practice will continue in EBAAS 2018 and at future BAAS conferences.
Lydia Plath, Senior Teaching Fellow and Director of Student Experience at the University of Warwick
Gavan Lennon, Lecturer in the School of Humanities at Canterbury Christ Church University
BAAS2017 thanks the US Embassy London Small Grants Programme for its generous support for the conference this year. The US Embassy supported postgraduate attendance at the conference through a reduction in the delegate fee, and also contributed to the cost of the printed programme and the app.