New Research

Conference Review: BAAS Postgraduate Conference, December 2019

By Matthew Thorne

It was the month of December and London was calling for the British Association for American Studies Postgraduate Conference. The event was held on hallowed ground for academics and sight-seers alike; the British Library, hosted within the Eccles Centre for American Studies. Try as one might, it is difficult to imagine a better venue for a conference on American Studies in the UK. The library is a bastion of American artefacts, with the biggest collection of Americana outside of the United States. Conference goers came in droves, in varying stages of their scholarly careers, to attend or give papers at the event. The UK, represented by Nottingham, Sussex, Kent, Leeds, Cambridge, Oxford and Hull, was joined by our friends and colleagues from France, Holland, Germany, Italy, Ireland, and further afield from America also. This year the theme of the conference was “Communicating the United States,” which sought to understand how the United States has been communicated through different mediums and across borders. Those presenting took to this charge with professional gusto and, as we shall see, presented papers on a range of topics such as twitter, JFK, film, memoir, colonialism and comic books, to name but a few.

The conference, held over a two-day period, began on Friday lunch time with panel sessions. The sessions were divided into three parallel speaking panels, with (for the most part) three speakers per panel. Invariably there is a little dissonance when selecting which ones to join. This year with a robust line up, deciding became the first challenge; many a scholar was head down busily deciphering the best path to tread for the afternoon. The opening session attended was Representing Race from the Inside Out. Scholars were treated to papers on Sir William Johnson’s Image of Indigenous North America, by Heather Hutton (University of Hull) an in-depth review of Johnson’s dealings with Indigenous North Americans, his assimilation and appropriation of their culture, and an understanding of his ultimate gambit of land acquisition. Following this was Sarah Smeed (University of Kent) The Role of Travel Literature in Shaping the Ancestry of Native Americans in the Eighteenth Century, with a keen focus on the body, where skin pigment was thought to be augmented through paints and foods, and the Otherness of darker bodies becoming apparent in the literature of the period. Before the welcome tea and coffee break, we heard from Francesca Humi (London School of Economics). Her paper, The Filipino Americanized, was an illumination on the colonialization of the Philippines by the United States. The paper was an education on America’s expansionist policies, racist practices in colonisation and an indictment on a period of history which is underrepresented in the history books.

Next was a welcome break, providing refreshments and the opportunity to chat with our colleagues before a rousing session on publishing by Sinead Moynihan, co-editor for the Journal of American Studies and Pat Gordon-Smith, commissioning editor for UCL Press. Both provided nuanced and practical insights into the nature of publishing and how best for the scholar to present their work. Pat Gordon-Smith also noted the great work being done by UCL Press in supporting the publication of scholarly work by affordable means, as well as the wide readership such work is receiving. Their knowledge was invaluable for both fledgling scholar and seasoned scholar alike.

The post-lunch parallel session was Narrating Protest, Identity and the Self. Here I presented my paper on Contemporary Black Memoir and the Prison Industrial Complex. I explored the work Cuz, by scholar Danielle Allen and her use of memoir as a form to discuss the Prison Industrial Complex. I discussed contemporary works in the Critical Prison Studies field and how Allen’s memoir is indelibly linked to this field and wider arguments of the nature of structural racism within the War on Drugs and the Prison Industrial Complex. Fancesco Bacci (Freie Universität Berlin) contemplated Activism between Media, Fiction and Memoir by looking at the television show Dear White People, the novel The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and the memoir by Ferguson activist-come-celebrity and podcast host, On the Other Side of Freedom. Lastly in the post-lunch, pre-pub session was Mike Cowburn (Freie Universität Berlin), on Communication in Congressional Primaries. What followed was a thoroughly informative session on the differences in party approaches in congressional primaries.

The first day concluded and many retired to the local watering hole, arranged by the organising team for continued discussions and evaluations, primed with beer and wine. For all those who are ever unsure whether to attend the post conference bash, you should, at least for a while, meet your peers and discuss their papers or their prospects. Always fun, always informative.

The second day started without the cognitive dissonance of the first, Anna Marta Marini (Franklin Institute-UAH) discussed Representations of Borderland Latinos in Contemporary US Superhero Mainstream Comics, the titles being discussed were Blue Beatle and the Ghost Rider, both Latin X generational stories. Performing a conference faux pas, this reviewer skipped into the room for conspiracy theorists to hear Maria Wigel (University of Cologne) discuss The Assassination of John F Kennedy, Conspiracy Theories and the Popular Culture after 9/11, closely followed by the charismatic Fraser McCallum (Liverpool John Moores University) with Shooting Kennedy, an analysis of the JFK assassination through the medium of film, beginning with the Zapruder film, the 8mm first hand recording of the assassination to contemporary interpretations of the historic event such as The Irishman.

The following session looked at Technology and America. Sarah Griffiths (University of Bath) presented Remembering 9/11 Through Facebook, an interpretation of an American memorial which posts updates through social media. Maren Anne Schafer (Heidelberg Centre for American Studies) gave a view on the Visual vs Rhetorical Representations of “The American People” on Twitter, which analysed President Trump’s representations of himself on twitter in comparison to that of Bernie Sanders. Lastly in this session was Kathryn Balance (University of Hull) giving a paper on Racialized Surveillance which presented a fascinating look at how historical means of surveying slaves are still used in twentieth century America.

The U.S Studies Online Keynote address was given by Lucy Mounfield (University of Nottingham) on New Media, [Mis]-Communication and [Mis]- Translation: Whose America Is It Anyway? Intriguing, smart and fitfully funny, Lucy started with a tattoo of a woman with a camera, on the forearm of a stranger. Lucy used this to expound on representations within representations of American society, through the life and work of photographer Vivian Maier to modern representations, not of her work, but of the myth of her: a legend interpreted in contemporary means. Lucy gave an abbreviated version of this keynote the previous year at a BAAS conference in Newcastle; the paper, good then, benefitted from the additional time and space to explore her themes in a keynote.

The atmosphere, as is typical of the BAAS crowd, was one of sharing and intelligence. All are passionate, not only about their own specialism but about American Studies. Rarely did I have a break from fresh ideas or good opinions on how to improve, or something to read or follow up from. As ever we leave wills ignited, intellects stimulated and impassioned. A special thanks should be given to Tim Galsworthy (University of Sussex) and Lauren Eglen (University of Nottingham) – organisers of a fantastic event.


Matthew Thorne is a graduate student at The University of Hull.