November 15, 2019
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Recently, I attended the Imagining America conference in Albuquerque, NM. While this was my first time at Imagining America, I definitely plan to return. I strongly support the collaborative focus behind this conference. I also really enjoyed the various programs that I attended and so they are worth mentioning as well.
Imagining America promotes academic scholarship in public life. Dedicated to invigorating a community-centered approach, Imagining America invites those in higher education into the public sphere whether through art, dialogue, or community events. Not only do they promote civic-minded education and engagement, they also model it. Imagining America offers a mentorship program in which they encourage civic-minded engagement through the arts and higher education. The conference itself moves around the country, highlighting different cities each year. Furthermore, each conference travels to different venues around the city, which honors and respects the local community.
During this conference, I attended several programs and presentations, and I will highlight a few of them to give an understanding of the diversity of the offerings. First, the “Poetry of (Be)longing: A Workshop to Animate the Space Between What Has Been Lost and Found” was presented by Micknai Arefaine and Jamila Osman, who briefly discussed poetics of belonging. They invited the audience to do a little bit of writing about the meaning of home, and also the meaning of self and identity. Nearly everyone spoke about their ideas of home. We also read aloud stanzas of “You Are Who I Love” by Aracelis Girmay, a powerful poem which reflects upon identity. This writing workshop developed an incredible sense of community in less than two hours.
Next, I saw Kayhan Irani’s presentation of “There Is a Portal.” The one hour monologue explains a piece of her personal history. In turn, she asked the audience to also share small bits of information about loss, identity, or separation, etc. She created a safe space for sharing that did not demand very much of the audience, and no participation was necessary. This ensured that the audience connected with each idea, but did not have to take an emotional risk. The element of participation formed a strong connection with various experiences in her story, such as community, identity, family, loss, and relationships. Irani’s presentation was powerful and redemptive. Furthermore, after the performance, we had a dialogue about ways to create a safe space for the audience to participate.
Finally, I attended The Wandering House / La casita ambulante. In this project, the designers (from Carleton College) transformed a small ice-fishing house into a private home which they moved around the city of Northfield into various neighborhoods. The house doubled as a recording studio in which people could reflect upon ideas of home and belonging. The creators offered prompts, such as “I know I’m home when…” or “What would make Northfield more welcoming?” Participants did not have to respond to a prompt, however. They could also speak freely. At this point in the project, they have recorded a lot of data in the form of stories and songs. While there is no final project as of yet, we listened to some of the voices and engaged in a wonderful conversation of home and belonging as well. Now they will begin to curate it into a more sophisticated presentation. The program’s goal is to explore notions of “home and belonging, one voice at a time.”
I found the collaborative element of this conference extremely attractive. These presenters submitted some type of work in medias res. In each case, the presenters focused on story or data collections that beg for more conversation. Presenters explained their process, materials and research, and then invited others to comment on it. They asked questions such as: What research might be missing? What more can be said? Can this program be used in another way in the community? What communities might embrace this program? How can it be extended into other formats or for other audiences? Is there a text or research piece that might add to the narrative? Is there a better format for delivery, discussion, collaboration or invitation? While suggestions were offered, it was with the understanding that the creator is solely responsible for the content.
This conference encouraged audience participation and community programs, which I found very refreshing. Furthermore, in an age of expanding literature and identities, our work is subject to an openness not possible before. Rather than being an expert, this type of collaboration embraces the idea that we can always learn from our peers, that we can always improve our work, and that dialogue is an essential piece of progress. I believe that the many benefits of workshop-style learning fosters a new sort of dialogue and, personally, I wish to see more of it in academia.
Not only do I recommend each of the various programs that I attended, but I would encourage other scholars to look into the offerings from future Imagining America conferences. I look forward to attending again in 2020.
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