Tuesday, March 7, 2017
March 7, 2017: AmericanStudies Events: Exclusion and Inclusion at the Monadnock Inn
[Over the last few months, I’ve had the chance to take part in a number of interesting AmericanStudies conversations, each hosted by a unique and significant organization or space. So this week I wanted to follow up those events with some further thoughts and reflections, leading up to a weekend post looking ahead to the NeMLA Convention later this month!]
On how an inspiring communal conversation helped me kick-start my next book.
Thanks to a connection from Gail Hoar, one of the curriculum and events coordinators for the Adult Learning in the Fitchburg Area (ALFA) program (and a very talented artist and craftsperson), I had the chance last week to speak to a group of friends and lifelong learners who meet monthly in New Hampshire (this time around at the beautiful Monadnock Inn in Jaffrey). All the things I’ve said about what make the ALFA classes and students so inspiring apply to this group too, but with perhaps even more force, since this is an entirely voluntary gathering, a group of individuals who are determined to carve out space and time in their full and busy lives for collective conversations about historical and cultural and social topics, for lifelong learning in the most genuine and communal senses. I learned as much from chatting with them prior to my talk, and certainly from the questions and conversation after my talk, as I could possibly have brought to them; as I hope my posts on book talks have always made clear, those kinds of events are consistently rejuvenative for me, but again this community and thus this book talk were especially noteworthy in that regard.
And this was a book talk, but not in the same way I’ve usually meant that phrase: following up on a newly published book of mine to share its arguments and stories with audiences. In this case, I’m at precisely the opposite stage of the process, at the very beginning of formulating an idea for what I hope will be my next book project: Exclusion & Inclusion: A Foundational American Duality. Indeed, my talk with the New Hampshire group was the first time I’ve presented on this idea and this project in a focused and extended way; the “exclusion and inclusion” frame certainly follows on threads that have been part of both my books and my online writing for years, but nonetheless I had not had an opportunity to articulate and begin to engage with it as a central argument in its own right prior to last week’s talk. And of course presenting an idea in a talk requires steps and skills that are quite distinct from any form of writing about that idea: creating a structure that can move an audience through different elements and examples of the central idea; figuring out how to frame and define the argument with both sufficient nuance and yet sufficient clarity; thinking about the balance of overarching arguments and specific details, of (we might say) histories and stories; leaving room for response and further conversation while still communicating my own take and perspective.
Hopefully I was able to pull all of that off in this talk, although of course that’s not really for me to say. What I can say is that by the end of the evening I was entirely sure that this would indeed be my next book project (something I was still debating in this very space in mid-January). For one thing, this frame will allow me to write about some of my very favorite American figures and moments: Quock Walker using the Revolution’s ideas and ideals to argue for both his own freedom and the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts; William Apess defining King Philip as a Revolutionary American leader; interned Japanese Americans volunteering to serve in World War II; and many more. But for another, even more crucial thing, the responses of these deeply informed audience members echoed and extended my sense of just how salient this exclusion and inclusion duality is in our current moment, indeed just how fully it can help us understand the worst and best of what’s happening in 2017 America. To be honest, I can’t imagine a project that could wed the historical and the contemporary sides to my public scholarly goals and passions more fully, and, thanks in no small measure to this wonderful group and inspiring evening, I can’t wait to get started!
Next reflection tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this conversation? Conversations or events you’d share?