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The Real World: Mellon School 2018

The last formal activities have ended from the 2018 Mellon School for Theatre and Performance Research.  I haven’t blogged in this space for quite a bit, but I did post to the school’s blog a few days ago, and also had the time to conduct a blogged interview with WVU Press Editor Derek Krissoff.

Quick overview: the School was a two-week series of seminars, writing workshops, and public lectures from luminaries in the field. The theme of the school was “Public Humanities.”  Accordingly, I had a lot of ways in to this academy. The writing workshop, run by the inimitable Andrew Sofer, gave me a chance to dust off a scholarly project that has been simmering for years.  Beyond that, the discussions throughout gave me a thousand ideas for programming and activities for the WVU Humanities Center.  Many of those came from the seminar I participated in, run by Martin Puchner, whose esteem in the field seems outstripped only by his erudition.  Those sessions gave me loads of productive material to begin earnest planning for my Fall graduate course in Public Humanities.

While readers can stay tuned for developments in each of those projects, I’m taking a few moments to reflect (publicly) on the experience itself, qua experience.

  • We do not often enough have opportunities for sustained intellectual exchange across sub-fields. While I love conferences for the focus and intensity of an individual panel and working group, they often are too brief to get very deep, and we tend more and more to sort into tinier and tinier coteries.  And while the academic department  as a unit should provide such  model as this, well…familiarity and paperwork alike breed contempt.
  • I was thrilled at the diversity of participants—international participants from (in some way or other) South Korea, China, Russia, India, Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria, Germany, England, France, and Colombia. And folks around the US from a range of critical fields, ethnic backgrounds, institutional contexts, and geographical regions.  I learned about a wide range of scholarly projects.  More to the point, I learned how these worldviews shape those projects.  That was exciting new territory for me  And if the future of our field is represented by these younger scholars, our field is in good shape indeed.
  • Having spent the previous six summers curating and stage-managing experiences like this one, but for younger students via the WV Governor’s Honors Academy and Governor’s School for Math and Science, I should not have been surprised at the intensity and richness of the emotional landscape of this experience. I even went so far as to imagine I might be immune to that richness. But sure enough, I experienced it just this way, with all the warmth and light one hopes for in a tiny utopian gathering of like-minded folks.

A final story from #MellonSchool2018: During our glorious, generous, final gathering, we shared our impressions and gratitudes about the week.  Not long into this collective love fest, one of participants recalled the moment he found he had been accepted into the school.  Of course, he googled us all, cowed by the things he had found.  “I was so intimidated when I learned about Ryan, I thought, how am I coming here?”  laughter burbled up from the group—he had been a robust participant, and I certainly didn’t bear my claws.  This became a running joke through the rest of the session, how frightening I was.  It’s funy because it’s not true, but it’s funny because it’s true.  I think I’ve shown myself this week to be very not scary, but my new friend’s reaction, it turns out wasn’t an uncommon experience.  Most participants were graduate students or early career faculty—the target audience.  The presence of a fully-promoted professor as a participant (who was a classmate, and not faculty) seemed to set a high bar that initiated some impostor syndrome.

While to my mind #ScaryRyan might be the silliest of all possible hashtags, I am coming to understand that for some, it was a little too real.  Perhaps it goes without saying that my own anxieties were very present in the run-up to the program.  I was worried that being a senior scholar with little publishing or writing or even grad teaching in the past six years meant I’m an old dog with outdated tricks.  These brilliant, beautiful young minds were just as prone to rip me to shreds as to learn from my experiences.   But learning that I felt intimidating to international scholars, women, and people of color made me realize something important. Even by following the standard pathway of academia—an institution built to support ableist, middle-class, straight white male norms—I implicitly do some small (or not-so-small) violence on those who experience difference simply when I show up on the guest list.

In these weeks, I tried to ask questions about how to more gently and generously navigate these spaces of contact, to listen to the answers I was gifted and to hear the honest advocacy from which others spoke and asked their own questions.  I also tried in some ways to advocate for certain kinds of attention to the vulnerable places that my own presence represented in this conversation—for Appalachian publics, for theatre in rural places, for environmental justice—even though that has not been my work, per se.

I sensed a spirit of generosity, gratitude, and joy in this afternoon’s gathering.  I suspect that whatever trepidations people had the person I might have turned out to be, that I did not remain in any particular way intimidating; nonetheless it was a learning experience to recognize that for some, merely the path I have navigated thus far might pose a risk for them.  At that’s important to know—that the power of those with privilege is not just a shield against violence or discrimination, it’s a sharpened dagger with which we move through the world, and we need to be careful where we’re pointing that thing. And as often as possible, put both the shield and dagger down, and be vulnerable to the world.

***

Of course I miss Ann and the kids palpably, and I’m ready to go home.  But I already miss the presence of the friendships and frientorships I’ve formed this week.  No doubt they will be present in my scholarly life well into the future, whatever shape that may take. I’m grateful in great and small ways for every interaction I’ve been privileged to have.

I moved into the dorms with a bunch of adults two weeks ago.  It was a scene right out of The Real World. Moving out tonight felt, well, a bit unreal.  There was a kind of regression to young adulthood in these two weeks, and I tried as hard as I could to be as open to this experience and the people I’ve met as I was in those first years of college all those years ago.  And it was extraordinary.

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