Borders and Boundaries – Reflections on the BAAS PG Conference 2016

On Saturday morning, after wincing at a pre-6am alarm, I travelled up to Leeds for the 2016 British Association for American Studies Postgraduate Conference, ‘Negotiating the Borders and Boundaries of Americanism’.

It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and stimulating conferences I’ve been to in the last few years. The whole event was very well run; programming a single-day conference so that it feels full of material but not rushed or overwhelming is a fine art, and the schedule at PGBAAS16 was just right. (Branded tote bags containing Kit-Kats and bottles of water was the icing on the cake.)

The panels and papers themselves were a great mix – nicely interdisciplinary, and consistently well-delivered and on-theme. Hannah Murray’s opening keynote explored the fluidity and boundaries of racial identity, moving from 19th century narratives to Rachel Dolezal, via Lois Lane. Papers from Nawal Zbidi, Joe Upton and Zohra Mehellou, reflecting on Arab-, Chinese- and African-American fiction and identities, complemented each other very well and prompted some interesting discussion.

I gave a paper on If He Hollers Let Him Go and Killer of Sheep, ‘Lines Burned into Minds: Negotiating and Transgressing the Borders of South Los Angeles’. And it was a pleasure sharing a panel again with Michael Docherty, whose paper on Raymond Chandler was a real highlight. His use of frontier imagery as a lens through which to read Marlowe’s function, and the spaces of LA more generally, feels like an approach with a lot of potential.

The day ended with a round-table workshop ‘Interrogating the Nature of Being an Americanist in Britain’. In a wide-ranging discussion, Professor Brian Ward, Dr. Katharina Donn, Dr. Peter Knight and Dr. Mercedes Aguirre shared their thoughts and experiences regarding American Studies as a discipline in the UK. It was a great way to end the day, and I found it particularly stimulating.

As I write up my thesis, and consider what might come next, I’m reflecting more and more on my own academic identity. Somewhat absurdly, it’s only recently that I’ve begun to consider what I’m doing in my research to be ‘American Studies’. When I was planning my initial PhD proposal, and working on my application, the disciplinary boundaries I had in mind were between ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Literature’, the two fields that my BA and MA covered. The decision I felt I had to make was whether my planned work – focusing on fiction and cinema of the city, but with strong conceptual and theoretical elements, would be better suited to a Philosophy department (of the interdisciplinary, aesthetically oriented type I’d studied within at Warwick) or a Literary Studies department and supervisor with a specialism in ‘The City’ (such as UCL English, where I ended up). The fact that my research proposal focused on a specific US city was, with hindsight, less of a factor in my decision than it perhaps should have been.

I think one of the reasons I enjoyed PGBAAS16 so much was that it is the first conference where I’ve felt such a strong sense of community between attendees, and of potential belonging; that can only be helpful as I prepare to cross the fluid and unstable border between doctoral candidate and whatever comes next.

The conference dinner of all-you-can-eat pizza definitely helped too.

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Author: Alex Pavey

I'm a UCL English Literature PhD, researching Los Angeles literature and cinema across the twentieth century - particularly, although not exclusively, narratives of crime and detection.

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