At Home With American Studies: An Interview with ASA President Robert Warrior

By Sarah MesleNovember 18, 2016

At Home With American Studies: An Interview with ASA President Robert Warrior
THIS WEEK, the American Studies Association convenes its annual convention in Denver. LARB Editor Sarah Mesle spoke with current ASA president, Robert Warrior, about the relation between Native American Studies and American Studies, the role of place in scholarship, and the changing nature of academic home life.

This interview was conducted on October 31, 2016, before the results of the election were known. Warrior’s interest in “home,” erasure, witnessing, and institutionality are all the more urgent now. The following has been edited for clarity and length.


SARAH MESLE: The ASA’s conference theme this year is “Home/Not Home: Centering American Studies Where We Are.” Can you tell me about what that theme meant to you and what you’re hoping it will galvanize for American Studies right now?

ROBERT WARRIOR: There’s a basic idea in Native American Studies, Maori Studies, First Nations Studies in Canada, Aboriginal Studies in Australia — wherever you go — that you should ask yourself the question: Where are you, and what is the indigenous history of this place where you find yourself? Who thinks of the place where you are as home? This question is the hallmark of Native/Indigenous Studies, and people are often drawn to the demands of that question. For a meeting like ours in Denver, we wanted to ask that question: whose homelands are we in? This is not just a really big, beautiful, gleaming city; it’s also a place where there’s a history and an indigenous history.

From the beginning, I thought, “This is what I feel like I bring as somebody who has spent a lifetime working in Indigenous Studies.” This is my reform message, the thing I wanted to bring to members of the American Studies Association: the idea of home as a category; that we try to analyze where we are.

When I think about American Studies, key words that come to mind are “place,” “space,” and obviously “nation.” Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between those terms and “home”?

The term “home” brings a couple of specific things to mind. One is intimacy; there’s an intimacy that’s different than cultural citizenship. I think you can talk about cultural citizenship for a long time, or cultural literacy, or even place, but “home” really brings what it is that you’re doing into contact with who you are as a person. There’s an existential side to the term that may or may not be present in some of the other ways that people think about domesticity, environment. So the term itself — and I said this in something I wrote a long time ago — is a technical category, it’s a category that does work. It doesn’t just evoke a feeling. And second, when we consider the indigenous histories and experiences of a particular place, we’re confronted with the fact that someone’s home used to be here, where we are, and it’s not here now. And you can ask yourself then the question, “What happened? And where are these people now?”

So the term always implies exile or erasure, in some sense.

The program co-chair, Sharon Holland, uses and loves the term "palimpsest,” and writing the theme statement was the first time I really got it. I knew what it was, but I started thinking about the idea of erasure — it’s not just that you start writing on an old surface, but you really do erase what used to be there.

The ethic of considering whose home you are now occupying — when you’re in your faculty office or your house next to campus, or in a lecture hall — also often leads you to make contact with people who are the people who used to be here. It’s important within Native Studies to make contact with the people who have persisted from that history, and to establish some sort of relationship with them. I know all of these stories of people who started in archeology and figured out that the archeology they were doing related to a people who were still living, 25 miles down the road. And they got to know them, and what I think is so amazing is how often that turns into these beautiful partnerships with people, where those people need something. They need an archeologist who can help them with their paperwork they’re doing to try to get state recognition, federal recognition. Filing a land claim. And all of a sudden the scholar’s pulled into the contemporary lives of these people who have persisted against all odds. You find out, “Whose home am I in?” And then you’re invited into it. Or you figure out that the story is so obscured by history that maybe it’s very difficult to find who the contemporary people are. Maybe those people only exist in remnants somewhere and you can’t really find them yet. But that’s also a very powerful thing. It changes the way that you think about the place where you are, at its best.

And sometimes it gives you an opportunity to really put your scholarship into a kind of action maybe you never thought you would before.

Another thing that strikes me about the capaciousness of home as a category is that it makes a space for another facet of American Studies, which is Queer or Sexuality Studies. Your perspective on “home” as a Native Studies scholar asks us to consider the deep history of a place, but I’m interested in how that trajectory of investigation intersects with Queer or Sexuality Studies, which might ask us how home spaces can “closet,” or pull in, or elide human experiences in the present.

Two years ago, the president of the ASA was Lisa Duggan, who works in Sexuality Studies, and I’m curious how you think about your theme connecting with hers; about how Indigenous and Sexuality studies work together, and also about the different kinds of erasure they describe.

It was actually a conversation with Lisa Duggan when I really thought about how to do this. Lisa was talking about the experiences of exclusion, but also the violation of the intimate space of a family that oftentimes occurs — still, but certainly it used to happen much more commonly. My brother, for instance, was out in high school in the 1970s in Wichita, Kansas, and the price that my brother paid, that people paid for asserting their right to home at that moment, is astoundingly ugly and awful, and it really makes “not-home” a crucial, important part of the equation.

For a while I thought — “well, okay, the ‘home’ part is from Native Studies, the ‘not-home’ part is from American Studies.” And it’s kind of true, but it’s also not true. The sense of “not-home” is very powerful in Native Studies. I think people end up having a sense of “I should be at home by birthright. Denver is my homeland. But I’m not here. I’m erased; my history is erased.”

But I think what’s really important to me and what keeps me coming back to the American Studies Association and appreciating it, having a tremendous respect for so many people in it who do amazing work, is that it really has a different edge to it than the other side of the equation, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association that I helped found. Early on I really thought, as someone in Indigenous Studies, “We just don’t have a place to do our work. We don’t have a scholarly association. We just need our own.”

You had no home.

Right. We had no home. But it was like an intellectual homelessness that some of us experienced in Native Studies, and the ASA was then better than other places, but also deeply unsatisfying. And Jeannie O’Brien’s and my response was to build the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, which started really in 2007 and now has about a thousand, 11 hundred members. We have our own journal. So I really had to think all through that. It’s like, “Okay, do I walk away from American Studies and say, ‘thanks for the temporary stopping place’?”

But I really said to myself that what the ASA brings to the table is so unique and powerful that I want to be there. And I think it’s in large part because the Association has created this space where people who are usually on the margin are in the middle of what’s happening.

That’s one thing that I was interested in in the theme. The second part of the title is “Centering American Studies Where We Are,” whereas I think of American Studies as being interested in decentering — interested in margins and borders, peripheries and edges. Is your use of the word “centering” a kind of reclaiming?

It is a reclaiming. We’re able to talk about the human experience of living in the world, and I think that that’s clearly most of what we can expect from scholars in American Studies and other areas of scholarship in the humanities, the human part of that being really crucial.

But, that said, I do think that there’s a post-humanist aspect to the equation that comes up through the centering, because what we’re centering — I can’t say that I broke all this down piece by piece when I wrote the title, but as I thought about it, it made sense —

You can tell I’m a Lit person! “Let’s close-read.”

You should! But the idea of “centering where we are,” is one of the big challenges that comes out of Native Studies. At the most philosophical of levels, I think typically the best way to get at the experience of all the different groups that make up the ASA, the constituencies, the real central concerns that energize and animate discussions at the ASA, all of those experiences have tremendous power. And I think another step that needs to be taken is to contextualize those experiences in what it means for those experiences to be happening where they’re happening. How does the experience, for instance, of violence wrapped up in homophobia — how does that relate to other histories and experiences that have in fact been erased from where that’s happening?

So then, the missing piece, which is still difficult to me to articulate, is to say there’s a relationship that needs to be much more than it is, and that’s the relationship with the place itself. I want to get away from a kind of ecological, environmental agenda that says, “Hey, let’s talk about the earth and its needs.” I want to get more to the kind of relatedness to place.

The really obvious example right now is what’s happening on the Missouri River with the people at Standing Rock. It’s a really different way of trying to bring about change, which is people standing up for the water, standing up for the river, standing up for the places, and bringing to their actions a relationship to those places.

Can you say more about why you want to frame it in a “not ecological or environmental way”?

Historically, I think that that comes in part from differences in Native agendas toward the environment and a kind of popular, mainstream, Sierra Club/Audubon Society agenda. That difference has to do with a priority in a sense: there’s a prior aspect to that indigenous relationship to a place that I want to privilege without romanticizing.

And part of that is because I see it in action in my own community — the Osage Community in north central Oklahoma, on a reservation. We’re not especially tree-hugging in the way that we go about our daily lives. (I’m speaking collectively as if that’s easy to do for the Osages, which it’s not of course.) But the things that really get people energized, turned on to working politically, are regaining our own lands. We just bought, I want to say, 17,000 acres of land that Ted Turner had owned: he had pulled up the fences so he could run a big buffalo herd. He was doing it for his own purposes. But in the last couple of years he got tired of doing this, and our tribal government stepped in and was able to get Ted Turner convinced that we should be the people to buy that plot, and we did. And the sense that collectively you could feel in the Osage response to suddenly having this enormous parcel, “enormous” relative to what we typically have, this pretty decent-sized chunk of what we had lost control of, what had been essentially dispossessed, was pretty powerful.

And now what we do with that land — it’s really a different kind of agenda, I guess. There’s a tension in the Osage response: people are excited about now having that land, being able to eventually have our own buffalo herd, for instance, on it — but also people are very oriented toward the bottom line, of saying, “If we want to hold this land, now we actually need to figure out ways to make enough money from it that we can hold onto it, that it makes sense.” So I guess I don’t want to set up a false dichotomy between that environmentalist agenda and an indigenous agenda. I think they can really come together, but I want to put a focus on saying that typically by finding that indigenous history, you’re also uncovering a way of thinking about and being on a particular parcel of land that is often radically different.

How does that connect to this conference?

For this conference, I want to think about the case of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people; Denver is really their stomping grounds. It’s also, I have to say, part of the historical Osage domain, which is part of why I was very excited to be elected president the year we got to go to Denver. But the C-and-A people — Cheyenne and Arapaho people — this is theirs. And they have, actually, the history of what happened to them with the events at Sand Creek, and what led up to it and what happened after it.

The Sand Creek massacre is one of those events in American history that is just so absolutely impossible to really understand. It can only be comprehended in small and partial ways. It’s part of the senselessness of the indigenous history of dispossession.

But what you can see in coming to grips with, let’s say, the history of the massacre at Sand Creek, is connections to the founding of Colorado as a state. It’s connections also to John Evans, the guy that founded Northwestern, and founded Evansville in Chicago. All of this is wrapped up together, right? It’s this really twisted, awful history. John Chivington, the militia leader who led the militia in the massacre at Sand Creek, was a Methodist pastor. There’s nothing about it that just makes you feel anything but awful, in my experience of it.

But I think one of the things that you see in that history of Cheyenne and Arapaho dispossession is that as a people, they move, they go to Oklahoma, the Northern Cheyennes are up north — but their Earth renewal ceremonies are still going on. Knowing that that Earth renewal ceremony is going on, that people through that ceremony are living out a way of connecting to this place, is an important way of thinking about how it is that we change the way that we relate to the place where we are.

Ceremonies can be uncomfortable to talk about — not everyone has access to them, or wants access to them. But I think of Alice Walker’s really famous essay about her mother’s garden, and how her mother, after working all day, would come home. And Alice Walker says, “Everywhere we ever lived, my mother had a garden.” And she had this beautiful garden, and she could grow —


Yeah, exactly!

That book of essays is an ur-text for me. I feel like everyone should be required to read it.

We agree totally on that; it’s absolutely beautiful. And I’ve heard people use the “mother’s garden” essay as a metaphor for something, and I say, “It’s not really a metaphor at all.” Her mother’s garden is not a metaphor. It’s an actual thing. Her mother, bone tired at the end of the day, goes out and gardens. Why does she do that? It’s because she’s actually creating something beautiful, something real. And it’s not a beautiful metaphor; it’s a beautiful garden. These beautiful flowers are growing in it because of the process of getting her hands into the soil of the place where she lives. And it roots her in that spot, and it does something for her, obviously, that nothing else, including sleep, can do.

And it’s an amazing lesson to learn and it’s an amazing thing to do, to say, “You know what? I’m going to just go out and dig.” And I love that material. I think that most of the scholarship that I really love and respect in the Association comes from people who really want to be materialist in their point of view, and I love that. That’s what I try to do. And I think that that sense of materialism that comes out of that kind of relating to where we are is really crucial. That’s coming through as well, in some of the best scholarship that I see. I think of Glen Coulthard’s work, Red Skins, White Masks, where he pushes on this agenda too, in a category he calls “grounded normativity.”

I think oftentimes for so many of us in American Studies, organizing, thinking collectively, keeps us within the space where we’re challenging other people to join us, to be in solidarity, and through learning new things — we create new perspectives, create new connections, find new intersections.

I think that part of getting there is actually counterintuitive for those of us who have a very strong critique of liberalism, which has a kind of “let’s get to know each other, let’s join hands,” and that sense of “by getting together and sharing our stories with each other, we’re making the world better person by person” — I think a lot of people in the ASA reject that kind of liberalism, because collective action, organizing, requires a lot more mobilization of much bigger groups of people. And I agree with so much of that. But at times engaging my relationship with the place that I live, where I am, actually almost requires at times that liberal “how do we get to know each other?”

I guess to follow up immediately on this idea of liberalism and “standing up”: we are talking on October 31. By the time this interview runs, various things will have happened. One is that something will have changed in the Standing Rock situation. I don’t know what, but it will have to move forward; today what’s happening is that on social media, people are “checking in” at Standing Rock. Will that have an effect? Another thing that will happen, of course, is the election. And another thing that will happen is that we’ll know who won the World Series, and whether it was the Cubs or the “Indians” — a “home team” with a horribly racist mascot. So we’re at an interesting moment in regards to question about activism and communities of activism; to ceremonies; to engagements in “American” activism, and relationships to home.

And as I bring this up, let me say that it feels like such fortuitous timing to talk to you, with your particular expertise and experiences, for instance regarding the debates about the “Chief Illiniwek” at the University of Illinois, at this particular moment; to ask how you imagine American Studies engaging with all these phenomenon that are happening right now.

The smartest people in Indigenous Studies say that what brings us together across the globe is that we engage in a critique of indigeneity as a category, as a word or tool that people in the indigenous world are using. That in fact, what we do is not cheerleading, it’s a form of critique. And I think that there’s something similar for American Studies. I think that American Studies at its best is a critique of America in the world. That may not work for everybody and everything that I love in the scholarship that people do in American Studies — but I do think that if somebody can’t bring to bear a critique on some aspect of America in the world, I don’t think they’re doing their job.

In terms of Standing Rock: You’re exactly right; things are going to happen at Standing Rock. There will be a good result or an ugly result. I think that so many of us fear that that ugly result is what we’re looking at more and more, and at least a negative result that says, “This pipeline’s going to go ahead and go across,” and it’s going to happen, and it’s going to be like Rachel Corrie standing in front of a bulldozer. It’s going to be the guy standing up in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square. You can do that for a little bit, but eventually the tank’s going to just go ahead.

But the powerful witness of those moments, the willingness of people to stand up and stand up for what they’re standing up for, is in the end also powerful. That judging something as having been a success or a failure — which I think is a lot of what people are trying to do right now with Standing Rock, understandably — is important. But whatever happens with this pipeline, the witness that the people at Standing Rock and those camps have made on behalf of that river, on behalf of the lands around it, of all of the living things there, has made a really powerful impact on so many people that I think it’s a consequential action.

And one of the things I guess I would say with this, and one of the things that I find to be really powerful is the idea that the river is a person, that the water has a personhood. The place and the animals have personhood as well, and the ASA statement about Standing Rock — in drafting that and writing that, I specifically talked about the non-human persons. And I think our statement’s the only one that says things that way.

To connect this to the conference, I was interested in the sample panels that the website currently lists: it mentions panels on “vital topics” including “transphobic bathroom laws, Colorado’s ADX Florence Supermax prison, the legacies of Sand Creek Massacre, and more.” This seems to follow up exactly on what you’re saying, about how it’s very important to think about the river as a non-human person, because what all these “vital topics” have in common is that they hinge on the experience of people who, in different ways, have been not considered human.

You know, I think that it’s different in the ASA than it is in Indigenous Studies. I can go into an Indigenous Studies meeting and feel pretty comfortable in saying that we should think about a mountain as a person, a river, a fish, and that this is where the form of life that we have as humans actually relates very strongly to these other forms. And this is where I always get uncomfortable, because I don’t want to sound guru-like, or that I’m making some sort of claim that people need to go out and hug a tree or go to an ashram and get into some sort of different new space with their relationship to nature, or that they need to go live on a pond in Massachusetts and stay out there for 18 months and write a book about it. That’s not really what I want to do at all.

I just want to really think in different ways about what being a person means. And I think you’re exactly right. Your question fast-forwards to maybe the really critical point, which is that we can see this denial of personhood happening all around us, to other human people that we live with in the world. And that the active agenda of dehumanization, attacking the integrity of other people, of violating their sense of their own personhood, to me it’s demonstrating the extent to which psychic violence along with other forms of violence has become just such an active force in the world we live in.

To go back to Glen Coulthard, Red Skins, White Masks talks about the Marxist category of primitive accumulation, and the process of primitive accumulation being how people go from not being capitalists to being capitalists, and that it’s an incredibly harrowing and often violent process for people to have the economy transform around them. We see that taking place in many of these experiences, too.

What’s so critical to me about what the ASA represents is the lesson from Edward Said, who was one of my teachers. The critic, in Said’s formulation, always finds the minority perspective, and tries to align herself or himself with that. Seeking out what that minority perspective is — it’s not a matter of finding the people of color who in the minority, it’s a matter of finding “what is that place within a particular location where people are existing in a state of exclusion, on the margins?” and finding that, and then really identifying with that perspective, participating in the life there that people build who have that perspective.

I feel like I would be remiss if, when talking to you about these kinds of scholarly obligations, to not think about, right now, the question of institutional or university “home.” You, of course, have been so close to such dramatic upheaval around these topics, particularly the Salaita case in Illinois and the question of — that drama, I don’t know what the right word for it is —

“Debacle” is what I called it.

Every word that comes to mind seems to diminish the different scales of that question. I guess what I would say is, you’re talking about the scholarly obligations to place — and you are also at a particularly unique position by virtue of your experience to think about the obligations that universities do or could or should have to scholars. And, because now you’re the president of the American Studies Association, you are situated to think about another way that we could maybe be made to be at home as scholars, in these kind of cross-university affiliations. I don’t want to make you rehearse the details of the Salaita debacle once again, but it does seem relevant right now to think about those issues in the light of what you’re saying about home and recognition and place.

We might also think about questions of home in light of the various kind of corporate attacks that are taking place on universities. Perhaps it’s useful to think about how scholars, now, are going through a kind of primitive accumulation; a being forced into capitalism.

That’s very important! When I was writing the Presidential Address I will give at ASA, I didn’t think I would directly talk about what happened at Illinois, even though I want to talk in a very substantive way about the exact point you bring up, the question of the status of our relationship to these institutions. It is, for me and I think for people in the Association, a really serious and important question we have to ask about whether or not these places really are sufficient homes for us, and can we think about them in that way? And surprise, surprise, my answer to that question is “maybe, but I’m going to be a lot more careful.” We’re on the defensive in so many places. I mean, I moved here to the University of Kansas where we’re now having to confront campus carry, so we have to think about the weaponization of pedagogy. It’s really terrible.

But the kind of home that’s available, if we’re talking about making intellectual homes within institutions, we have to do so with our eyes wide open. I think my eyes were wide open at Illinois; I think everybody who was part of building American Indian Studies at Illinois did so with a pretty firm knowledge that the kind of risk-taking that we were engaged in was real, and that the forces arrayed against us were also real and powerful. But I would approach that kind of challenge really differently in 2016 than I did in 2008, and what happened to Steven sends a real strong message.

It strikes me that what you had been saying earlier about Standing Rock — that the kind of witnessing taking place has its own force regardless of what transpires in terms of the legislation — is a powerful parallel to the kind of witnessing that happened around the Salaita case. It transformed the way that scholars think about institutional home, not just for you and Steven but for all of us.

And I think that goes back to something that you brought up earlier — which is that cultural appropriation plays a big role in this. It has to do with the ongoing problems that the University of Illinois has with its former mascot. I mean, this is supposed to be gone and done, but it still impacts the day-to-day life there. There’s an amazing video that somebody took this weekend: an African-American student posted it live on Facebook, of the homecoming parade, where somebody in a replica of the Chief outfit was marching in the parade. This student, who happened upon the parade and started filming it, made the connection between the Chief and Standing Rock. The student is a Black Lives Matter activist who is new to Champaign-Urbana, and saw this all happening and just started recording it. It was a really brave witnessing in the face of powerful structures.

There was a tweet, right as the first stories were coming out about Steven Salaita’s appointment, where somebody linked him and the Chief in this very violent way. But Steven and I, before the chancellor ever got involved, had already talked about how all of the kind of work that he wanted to do about displacement, dispossession, comparative indigeneity, would bring us into this realm, this nexus, this intersection with the Chief, and being a Palestinian American. It was there. It showed up immediately.

I want to come back to the question of institutional “home.” As a follow-up to the question about belonging, a more specific question is how institutions function for scholars off the tenure track, whether as adjuncts, teaching faculty, or various so-called “AltAc” positions. It can be very difficult logistically to navigate infrastructures, like conferences and professional organizations, that don’t yet imagine scholars as existing in other roles.

This is both a matter of material resources — funding for conference registration, travel, etc. — and social perspective, in that scholarly organizations seem still not set up to acknowledge, in basic ways, the experience of people who are scholars but are not tied to the tenure track as an attainable, or even desirable, goal.

Yeah, it’s an enormously important question. I’m really happy that right now the presidents — Dave Roediger, me, Kandice Chuh — all three of us really agree that this is something that we need to change within the ASA, and that we need to give serious consideration to non-tenure track faculty members, scholars who are outside of what has been the typical career path for people in ASA. We think that next year’s meeting in Chicago will provide a really great opportunity, that there’ll be a lot of local people. Denver wasn’t necessarily exactly where we thought that we could make this happen, but we’re starting with an event that may be small but hopefully will produce a conversation that will help guide us as we try to respond to the actual, real, lived conditions. We’re asking, “What can we do?”

And we realize already — it just shows up for us continually in the kinds of exclusions that seemed to make sense and were more natural 15–20 years ago when people started making them. We have a Baxter travel fund; only graduate students can access that. So we can’t provide support to other people. For a long time, we haven’t had a sensibility at all that adjunctification, casualization, however you think about all of this, wasn’t actually a reality for American Studies as a field. And that’s just flat-out wrong now.

Many ways that scholars can make themselves more secure off the tenure track — by moving in to program jobs, for example — can actually make them more invisible to professional organizations. I know several people who have had to choose between stability and a kind of scholarly recognizability.

Here’s part of the way that I want to think about this: what I learned when the non-tenure track faculty union at Illinois was struggling to get their first contract. They had succeeded at unionizing, but the university just dragged their heels and just would not move on the contract. Eventually they did get it. But what it required for me as a faculty member, a tenured faculty member, as a manager, as a director, was to really listen to what people were saying.

The reality that was being articulated by people within the union was not a watered-down version of my life as a tenured faculty member. It was its own reality, and I really needed to get an idea of what it was. This links back to what I was saying earlier, about our responsibility to listen to minority perspectives. We needed to actually be in conversation with and part of the group of people who were supporting what was going on, and listening and really trying to just understand why people were asking for the things that they were asking for. If you want to be in solidarity with something, you really need to do that. I think that this is part of what, ironically, tenured faculty everywhere have trouble doing: thinking about themselves as workers. People like Dave Roediger are really good at that. Ruth Wilson Gilmore is just amazing at reminding us constantly. The challenge now is that American Studies has always been good at signing on, but I don’t think we’ve been good at all in having that commitment to things like the Coalition for the Academic Workforce translate into us seeing and knowing what’s going on with our profession around the world. And so, we’ve got to get better at that.

I think that one of the things about our website has been that it doesn’t really function —

— At all! —

— At all, right? Yeah. We do now have a functional one! But it needs to function in specific ways. And one of those is just to communicate with each other. The issue that you bring up, one thing I think is, we need to just really focus on: How do we understand what’s happening to us as people who work in the academy?

The available places to do a certain kind of intellectual work have shrunk, and keep shrinking. And one of the places where you can do that work, as it always has been, is the academy, but academic institutions are also more limiting now than they were before, and we have to constantly be aware of what those limits are.

And I think that’s another reason why listening to people who have a different kind of relationship to the institution is really important: people who have had to navigate positions off the tenure track have much more reflective experiences of the university. You had to do more work just to figure all that out. You know more about the institution, and we ought to be listening to that. We ought to be thinking about it and figuring out how it is that we can be in conversation. Some of that requires resources. If we want to bring more people in who can tell us what that’s like, we’re going to have to figure out how to do some of the funding the institutions won’t.

The other thing that I hope people understand more and more is that regardless of what happens within a particular institution, I think that people do need to stop thinking of the institution as a home, as an academic home, an intellectual home. The institution is a workplace. I do think that we can and we should find ways to build academic and intellectual homes within those institutions. I think that those homes need to be much more informal. The more formal they are, the more at risk they are, and so it requires a kind of careful consideration of what it is you’re doing and why, and you have to be willing to walk away from it, because it’s liable to attack and dismantle. But the relationships that you can build with other people within the academy are incredibly important and powerful.


Sarah Mesle is the Senior Humanities Editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.


With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of You can follow her on Twitter.


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