Thursday, July 10, 2014
July 10, 2014: ALA Follow Ups: Alfred Bendixen
[In late May, I had the chance to make a quick trip to Washington, DC, to attend a portion of the American Literature Association’s annual conference. I wasn’t able to stay as long as I would have liked, but did have a chance to attend some very interesting panels while I was there. So this week I’ll highlight a few of them, as well as a couple other contexts for the conference. If you were there, I’d love to hear your takeaways for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
A tribute to the man who made ALA, and the vital and enduring reason why he did.
At the ALA’s opening night reception, a number of the organization’s original members paid tribute to Alfred Bendixen, the ALA founder and outgoing Executive Director thanks to whose efforts and work this 25th annual ALA conference (like the 24 that came before it) existed at all. Dr. Bendixen’s career as a scholar and teacher of American literature has been significant and impressive in its own right (and is ongoing), but, as many of the reception speakers put it, it’s through his ALA service that he has truly and profoundly changed the discipline and profession, an achievement few scholars can ever claim. I’ve had the chance to meet and speak with Dr. Bendixen at a couple prior ALA conferences, and can also attest to his collegiality and hospitality, even in the midst of what I’m sure are the busiest and most hectic days of his year. The next ALA Executive Director couldn’t ask for a better model.
As part of the reception speeches, I learned a lot more than I had previously known about the 1989 founding of the ALA. Apparently the organization had begun as a part of the Modern Language Association (MLA), but Bendixen and others felt that the MLA’s size and focus did not tend to allow for more in-depth examinations of particular works and authors, nor that the MLA’s more formal conference and atmosphere facilitated the kinds of communal, collegial conversations that these scholars hoped to find and take part in. I’ve attended most of the last decade’s worth of ALA conferences, beginning with the 2005 conference in Boston, and can definitely attest that both features—a consistent focus on specific authors and works, and a communal and collegial tone and atmosphere—remain hallmarks of the ALA; a tribute both to how much these features are valued by those of us in the profession and, I’m sure, to how much Dr. Bendixen has continued to advocate for them.
Given my own absolute commitment to not specializing, to not focusing on particular authors or time periods (or any specific category within American literature and studies), it might seem hypocritical for me to praise this aspect of the ALA. But for one thing, my work is simply driven by my own interests and goals, and of course is far from the only option or path within this profession—and I’ve heard consistently wonderful work being shared at ALA conferences. And for another, if there’s one constant across all the ALA societies and categories, papers and panels, I’ve encountered, it’s been close and extended attention to the texts in front of us, out of which all broader connections and arguments develop. I hope it goes without saying that there’s no part of what we do as scholars, what we teach to our students, what we bring to all conversations, than such attention and analysis. And we all do it more consistently and better than to Alfred Bendixen and the organization he founded.
Last follow up tomorrow,
BenPS. Were you at ALA? If so, what stood out to you?