In mid-April, I attended a workshop sponsored by the American Alliance for Liberal Arts College (AALAC). The workshop was held at The Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Amherst College. Entitled “The Illiberal Art of Performance,” it was coordinated by Kate Bredeson (Reed College), Chris Grobe (Amherst College), Amy Holzapfel (Williams College), and Shayoni Mitra (Barnard College). Performance Studies scholars Daphne Brooks (Yale University) and Shannon Jackson (UC Berkeley) were the keynote speakers. Participants hailed from SLACs on the East Coast, West Coast, and everywhere in between. The event opened with “Longing Lasts Longer,” a live performance by Penny Arcade organized by Khary Polk (Amherst).
Before the workshop, the organizers explained that:
“It is our premise…that liberal discourse has its limits, and that these limits are perceived by many as having something to do with “performance.” We also believe, though, that liberalism itself is created and sustained through acts of performance. During this workshop, we want to think about how illiberality and liberalism are performed in various contexts, from political institutions to liberal arts colleges.”
In all, the workshop struck an excellent balance between issues of teaching, research, professionalization, and the role of the liberal arts college in public discourse. Significant research questions that evolved from our conversations included: What are the modalities of critique that animate current scholarship? What happens to radical critiques of liberalism in illiberal times? What is the scholar’s relationship to populism? How does one navigate institutional contexts in which the humanities are increasingly devalued in favor of divisions that emphasize skills that are seemingly divorced from critiques of liberalism? How do you make your research legible and valuable in such contexts? What strategies can you use to build research communities in your institution?
One of the topics that undergirded our discussions was the role of college campuses as loci for debates around illiberalism. To whit, our first session was led by Vivian Huang (Williams College) and Alex Pittman (Barnard College), who asked us to break into small groups to consider the term “oversensitive” — a charge frequently launched at college students and professors by conservative critics – as an acute sensitivity to that which is not quite over. What might it mean to conceptualize oversensitivity as a method? Can charges of oversensitivity be understood to have positive value? What hasn’t The University gotten over? What is not yet over? What is not yet past? These provocations also led to conversations about the affective relationships between fields and a consideration of how curricula are taught.
It was an incredible privilege to be able to participate in these discussions and work alongside academics of varying ranks from a broad swath of institutions. It was one of the best events I have attended as an early career faculty member. And yet, my participation in this event comes at a time of significant professional change for me. I will be leaving Grinnell College for a large research institution next year. It’s an exciting and challenging move. But I hope to bring many of the skills I’ve learned at Grinnell College and events like this AALAC workshop to bear on my work next year and beyond.