Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Imagining America:  Artists and Scholars in Public Life

2013 National Conference, “A Call to Action”

A group of nine University of Iowa faculty members, graduate students, and staff attended the Imagining America conference in Syracuse, New York from October 4-6, 2013, "A Call to Action."

Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life is a consortium of universities and organizations dedicated to advancing the public and civic purposes of humanities, arts, and design. It was started in 1999, and the University of Iowa has been a member for 11 years. We have had numerous faculty members present at the conference over the years, and we have also been honored to have several graduate students chosen for the highly selective Publicly Active Graduate Education  (P.A.G.E.) program, which is concurrent with the conference. One of the former Fellows, Jennifer Shook (English, CLAS) was named one of nine co-directors of that program this year. Teresa Mangum, Director of the Obermann Center, is on the organization's National Advisory Board. 

In addition to traditional panels and keynotes, the IA conference included working seminars, interactive Q&A sessions with dynamic artists and scholars, and site visits to locations in Syracuse where publicly engaged projects were underway.

Attendees and Affiliations

  • Jessica Anthony, Assistant Adjunct Faculty, Dance (CLAS); former Graduate Institute Fellow
  • Zoe Bennett, MFA candidate, Dance (CLAS)
  • Carolyn Colvin, Associate Professor, Teaching, & Learning (College of Education)
  • Charles Connerly, Director, Regional & Urban Planning (Graduate College)
  • Heather Draxl, Ph.D. candidate, Language, Literacy, & Culture (College of Education)
  • Jennifer Kayle, Associate Professor, Dance (CLAS)
  • Jennifer Shook, Ph.D. candidate (English); former Graduate Institute Fellow; former PAGE fellow; PAGE Co-Director
  • Teresa Mangum, Director, Obermann Center for Advanced Studies; Associate Professor, Gender, Women’s, & Sexuality Studies (CLAS); Imagining America National Advisory Board
  • Charles Swanson, Director, Hancher Auditorium

Reflections from UI Participants

Several members of the University of Iowa’s contingent offered their reflections on the conference:

Teresa MangumAfter attending a lively meeting of the National Advisory Board of Imagining America, I plunged into a round of meetings and conference sessions. One of the highlights was the opening session, a conversation between Syracuse University's Chancellor, Nancy Cantor, and Chief Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan, Onondaga Council of Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Chief Lyons talked about the difference between being an "expert" whose education, paradoxically, can close one off to new ideas and being a person who listens with humility, always imagining there is more to learn. Anne Valk of Brown University and I co-direct an Imagining America working group for directors of academic centers with a strong humanities focus. For the conference, we co-organized a session with Esther Mackintosh, President of the Federated Humanities Councils of the United States. The session brought together pairs of academic center directors and state humanities council directors who have developed creative collaborative projects that meet the mission of both academic and public humanities—from public panels to story circles with local planning boards to find common ground in communities to an exciting public scholars fellowship program for graduate students at seven New York colleges and universities. The session was so informative that we hope to share our ideas in a collaboratively written article/photo-essay/video.  The likely home for such a multi-media piece?  The brilliantly experimental Public: A Journal of Imagining America, which premiered at the conference! The editors welcome submissions from artists, scholars, and designers at member institutions, including the University of Iowa, thanks to the generous support of the UI Office of the Provost.

"Dreaming about projects we can do at the UI."

Charles SwansonI spoke on a panel with Anne Basting from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The presentation was about intergenerational programs. My focus was on “Broken Chord.”  Anne totally inspired me when she shared her vision for the new project she is working on – “Islands of Milwaukee.” This is a very unusual project that will make a huge difference in the lives of an elderly population that is rarely touched by the outside world. Hearing things like this gives you a desire to keep dreaming about projects that we can do at the University of Iowa. Totally inspirational! 

It was also a pleasure to hang out with colleagues from the University of Iowa.The spirit at this gathering helps you feel good about the work we do and also helps you look forward to future collaborations on our campus.

Jennifer Shook I'm incredibly grateful for the University of Iowa’s membership in Imagining America. The connections that I have made with artists and scholars and other graduate students has already had a profound impact on my studies and no doubt will continue to nourish me professionally and personally.  

On this trip, I met one of the original cast members from 49, an "American Indian Renaissance" play that I'll be examined on in my comps. I spent most of the conference with the PAGE (Publicly Active Graduate Engagement) group, of which I'm now one of *NINE* co-directors. IA is putting into action their philosophy of collaborative leadership.  It is challenging, but really exciting to see the potential of such a network, and to transform student experiences into applicable knowledge for the future of higher ed. IA also very kindly offered to pay the way for any grad students to attend the Life After symposium in Iowa City on Friday.

"How to create opportunities for voices to be heard."

Jessica Anthony: This was my first time attending Imagining America, though I have been aware of and admiring it for a few years now. The conference did not disappoint. From the beginning the hierarchy of "expert" was dismantled through the use of story, questions, imaginings, and song.  Yes, song. Everyday there was an invitation to sing together, not because we would all call ourselves singers but because we each have a voice and when that voice joins with others, it makes a mighty and moving chorus. That is a theme I experienced again and again at the conference:  how to create opportunities for voices to be heard, how to empower the voices to sing, how to gather the voices together in song. I was fortunate to perform and co-facilitate a session, “The Musculature of Imagination,” with Jennifer Kayle, Lynette Overby (Faculty Director of Undergraduate Research and Service Learning, University of Delaware), and Zoe Bennett. The session began with the performance of the dance duet, “Wrestling with Actualities,” that served as the frame and catalyst for discussion about hope as "an educated capacity" and considering the role of the body in our work. 

Jennifer Kayle: I'm so grateful to have "discovered" Imagining America and to become a part of this important rallying force for arts and education in service to democratic ideals. I presented a dance/theatre performance that was an opening frame for group discussion, and later, movement-based participation. Together, we examined themes related to hope as an "educated capacity" (Giroux), and discussed ways that "The Musculature of Imagination," is built both individually and collectively. 

While attending sessions presented by fellow Iowa attendees (Chuck Connerly and Carolyn Colvin), I was filled with pride. It was inspiring to see the long list of sophisticated projects already being undertaken in our University, and the partnerships being formed with many of our communities.  Another highlight was attending a session on the subject of "Food Justice."  As I prepare to propose a project on the subject of water, and water justice, this session provided many useful points of entry, and ways to frame, expand, and approach my own creative research as a form of "public arts."  

All images by Lee Wexler/