Conference Review: Australia and New Zealand American Studies Association Conference, The University of Auckland, 14-16 July 2019

By Kate Rivington

Last month in rainy but beautiful Auckland, a group of American studies scholars gathered at the University of Auckland for the biennial Australia and New Zealand American Studies Association Conference. Present in Auckland were scholars at various stages of their careers, from postgraduate students to emeritus professors, and from various places around the world. As well as scholars from New Zealand and Australia, we were joined by academics from universities in countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Canada, and Denmark. This year the theme of the conference was “Community, Conflict, and “The Meaning of America,” with a focus on the legacy of Perry Miller’s work in the drastically changing face of America in the age of Trump.

The conference began on Sunday with a number of parallel postgraduate and teaching workshop sessions. The postgraduates in attendance were lucky enough to hear from Professor Mike McDonnell (University of Sydney), Professor Carrie Tirado Bramen (University at Buffalo), and Professor Janet M. Davis (University of Texas at Austin) in an absolutely fantastic panel on writing and publishing. Professor Bramen encouraged us to remember what is at stake in our argument, and to remember that ultimately we are accountable for details in our published work. Professor McDonnell reminded us that writing is a changing process, and discussed overcoming writers block. Professor Davis gave us insight into her writing process; instead of aiming for a certain amount of words each day, she writes for a certain amount of time each day. All three panellists implored us to get into the habit of reading our own prose aloud, as awkward as that may make us feel! When it comes to publishing, they suggested we have a look at the books that we enjoy, and see which presses are publishing those works. Which press do we think our work would fit well with?

The first parallel sessions began on Sunday afternoon, one of the first titled “Ports and Courts: Race, Gender, and Social Control.” In this panel we heard from a group of highly-impressive Australian postgraduate students – Toby Nash (University of Melbourne) on colonial docks as “negotiated, contested spaces”; Peter Hooker (University of Newcastle) on how war (in particular for his presentation, the Quasi War), was “critical to the continuing development of American identity during the American Revolutionary period”; and Hollie Pich (University of Sydney) on the relationship between African American families and the Juvenile Court as a “complex system of negotiation.”

After an incredible welcome from the conference organising team, which included the performance of a traditional greeting Toro Mai to Ringa by postgrads and faculty members from the University of Auckland, we settled in for the first keynote address given by Professor Bramen entitled “American Niceness: Then & Now.” Professor Bramen spoke of the national fantasy of American experience that was based on banal attributes such as friendliness as opposed to military or economic prowess, as well as how Native American hospitality exposed them to settler colonial violence.

We were treated to a number of fantastic keynote addresses throughout the conference, on topics as wide-ranging as Captain America (Professor Neal Curtin – University of Auckland), Abraham Lincoln (Professor Peter S. Field – University of Canterbury), and the history of animal welfare (Professor Davis – UT at Austin), as well as an excellent roundtable on Marilyn Lake’s new work Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchanged Shaped American Reform, with comment from Professor Lake (University of Melbourne), Associate Professor Clare Corbould (Deakin University), Associate Professor Katherine Ellinghaus (La Trobe University), Dr. Paul Taillon (University of Auckland), and Emeritus Professor Ian Tyrrell (University of New South Wales).

 During his keynote address on Monday morning Professor McDonnell engaged with the question of what to do with American Revolutionary memoirs that don’t fit neatly into the larger stories of the creation of a native, noting that the “triumphant and exceptionalist narrative is so tied into the origin story of the United States.” in her keynote address given later that day, professor Kathleen M. Brown (University of Pennsylvania) introduced the Penn Slavery project to the audience – a program run by a number of her students at the University of Pennsylvania to reckon with the past relationship of the institution to slavery. Professor Brown discussed how, for African Americans, bodily metaphors were much more than just metaphors, and how black bodies were a site of medical debate in the nineteenth century.

As well as getting to hear excellent keynote addresses, the conference parallel sessions also addressed a fascinating range of topics. Postgraduate student Liz Miller (Macquarie University) spoke on the contested memory of the Bear River Massacre on a perfectly-fitting panel on “The American West: Myth, Memory & Identity” alongside Nicole Perry (University of Auckland) and Alisha Graefe (Boise State University), the former of whom discussed the popularity of Buffalo Bill and the “Wild West” in Germany, and the latter of whom discussed how the state of Idaho is grappling with the Aryan Nations being based in its city of Hayden. In other panels, Professor Valerie Babb (Emory University) spoke on early Black print culture, and discussed how African Americans were often forced to use a dual voice to appeal to a dual audience – writing to the world they live in but trying to keep their original voice. Timothy Verhoeven (Monash University) advocated the necessity of a general history on the practice of petitioning in antebellum American, suggesting that petitions are a “remarkable archive of social activism.”

As always, the ANZASA atmosphere was one of warmth, support, and collegiality. Speaking to my fellow postgraduate students during and after the conference, we felt incredibly inspired by the keynotes and panels that we had seen, the conversations that we had. We were particularly grateful for this positivity in what can often be a tough environment for postgrads and Early Career Researchers. A huge note of thanks to the conference convenors Jennifer Frost and Paul Taillon, both from the University of Auckland, for a wonderfully organised and intellectually-stimulating three days.