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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

April 6, 2021: NeMLA Recaps: Grace Sanders Johnson’s Talk

[A couple weeks back, NeMLA held our 52nd annual—and first entirely virtual—convention. So this week I’ll highlight a handful of the convention’s stand-out remote events, leading up to some broader reflections on virtual conferences.]

On one specific and one universal inspiration I took from a wonderful Special Event.

For this year’s American Literature & Transnational Studies Area Special Event, I partnered with the British and Global Anglophone Studies Area (and its current Director Thomas Lynn), the Diversity Caucus (and its current President Jennifer Mdurvwa) and the Women’s & Gender Studies Caucus (and its current President Tracee Howell). We were excited to feature as our speaker University of Pennsylvania Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Grace Sanders Johnson, and Professor Sanders Johnson did not disappoint: her talk “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle: Multi-modal and Eco-literacy Approaches to Transnational Feminist Research” was one of the most compelling I’ve ever heard at NeMLA (and that’s a competitive list!). She focused in particular on a Spring 2020 course that she team-taught at Penn with two colleagues, “Modalities of Black Freedom and Escape: Ships,” a class that used the topics of ships, boating, and water to engage with a wide and deep range of issues, histories, stories, texts, communities, and identities.

I can’t possibly do justice in this brief post to the layers of Sanders Johnson’s talk and topics, so I wanted to focus here instead on two layers to the manifold inspirations I took away from her talk (which is a key goal of any such Special Event, I’d say). One layer of inspiration was very specific, and was about teaching and pedagogy. I’m not gonna pretend that I’m planning (or able) to incorporate many of the unique and striking aspects of Sanders Johnson’s course, which included all of the students (and professors) using sewing machines to create pieces of a collective sail (a process that continued even after the class went virtual halfway through that chaotic Spring 2020 semester) and all of the students (and professors) acquiring Pennsylvania boating licenses, among other distinctive elements. Instead, the pedagogical inspiration I’m highlighting here is for an overall goal, one that I believe all us professors share but that I have to admit has felt largely absent over the last year: of creating a true classroom community, one in which all the students have clear stakes (not in terms of things like grades, but rather in terms of class meaning and effects for all of us). As I move forward, creating that kind of classroom community is going to have to take new strategies than what I’ve been used to, and Sanders Johnson offered some excellent inspiration for pursuing them.

That pedagogical and practical inspiration would have been plenty to make this Special Event deeply meaningful, but I also want to highlight a more universal inspiration I took away from Sanders Johnson’s talk. As the “eco-literacy” in her title suggests, Sanders Johnson presented both her talk and her class as direct engagements with and interventions in unfolding 21st century histories of climate change and crisis, and of their effects on our communities, near and far. In one of my 2020 year in review blog posts, I highlighted depression and inspiration as an interconnected pair of emotions that I feel almost constantly at the moment, for lots of reasons but most especially around the issue of climate change and its numerous, unfolding crises. Not gonna lie, depression is often the far stronger side of that coin when I think about these issues—but precisely for that reason, I focus as much as I can on ways of and reasons for finding inspiration, for at the very least engaging with what I and we can do. Sanders Johnson made a potent and convincing case for how our teaching, our work, our conversations, and our communities can and must recognize and engage with the stakes of our moment, and how doing so itself constitutes a form of activism—not the only one nor ultimately sufficient by itself, but part of the equation, and an inspiring part at that.

Next recap tomorrow,


PS. If you took part in NeMLA 2021, reflections you’d share?

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