September 30, 2015KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsWriting

Imagining America

This weekend–starting tomorrow–I’ll be attending my first Imagining America conference. When I left Iowa City and my position as the director of the Iowa Youth Writing Project, I felt confident that new leadership and a new skill set would greatly benefit the organization, but I felt sad on a personal leveI, since I was leaving the Iowa City and University of Iowa communities connected through shared missions of social justice. When I brought this bittersweet feeling up with Rachel Williams–artist, activist, and Chair of Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa–in Prairie Lights Bookstore toward the end of my last semester in Iowa, she said, “Don’t worry. We’ll see each other through Imagining America.” At that point, I hadn’t heard of the entity called Imagining America, so her words sounded like mysterious, utopian pearls of wisdom. A year and a half later, I’m getting ready to lead a seminar with Rachel and others from Iowa at the Imagining America conference, which happens to be in my new home city of Baltimore this year. Rachel was right.

“Imagining America” is not just Rachel’s dream-vision; it’s a consortium that really does connect artists and scholars through a shared social justice mission, keeping us in touch and allowing us to question, dream, and organize together. “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.” This year’s conference is called “America Will Be! The Art and Power of ‘Weaving Our We'”–it’s the consortium’s 15th Annual National Conference. The conference call says:

The members of Imagining America advance a vision of the world in which publicly engaged artists, designers, scholars, and culture workers play critical roles in enacting the promise and ideals of a democratic society. Together, we explore the power of shared identity — of understanding who we are and what we stand for, and therefore, what we are called to do.

The purpose of this conference is to facilitate bold, creative and effective work that enables people to build and sustain the relationships that will link our stories, fulfill the democratic purposes of higher education, and address our collective challenges.

Rachel and I will join Catherine A.F. MacGillivray, Languages & Literatures and Director and Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies at the University of Northern Iowa, and Patrick Dolan, Lecturer at the University of Iowa, for the Saturday morning Imagining America session “When Words Are Not Enough: Narrative, Reflection and Imagery as Practice and Pedagogy”:

Sometimes writing is not enough. Employing words cannot always tease apart the tensions we encounter, help us reflect on our position when we are engaged in difficult situations, make sense of our praxis when it requires a great deal of emotional work, interrogate our privilege and our motivations. In this workshop we will share ways using more than words to incorporate these experiences into our professional practice as academics and community practitioners, as well as into our personal and professional identities. In this session our team will share a series of writing exercises for practitioners that get at the heart of reflecting on the experience of community work in difficult settings such as juvenile detention facilities, prisons, hospice, shelters, and other community settings where people are processing difficult experiences. This session is designed to help engaged scholars use alternative forms of writing outside of those that are traditionally seen as scholarly an academic to tease apart the tensions they encounter, reflect on their position within these settings, their motivations, and process how these experiences have shaped them and their practices. These exercises incorporate poetry, deep reading, imagery, comics, flash fiction, journaling, and epistolaries.

We’ll talk narrative medicine, psychoanalysis, poetry, and more. I’m focusing on the intentional poetic turn and poetic indecision as not just aesthetic “moves,” but tools for complicating one’s own thinking about practice, scholarship, and engagement–a way to move beyond the safety of our own supposed knowledge.


“That is not what I meant at all; 
               That is not it, at all.” (T. S. Eliot)
I look forward to not knowing what I meant, at all, in the company of brilliant co-conspirators, and if you’re an artist or scholar who cares about civic engagement or public scholarship, I hope to “imagine America” with you soon too.
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be! …   (Langston Hughes)