Lives Outside the Lines: Gender and Genre in the Americas, International Auto/Biography Association’s Chapter of the Americas Conference, York University, Toronto, 15-17 May 2017
The International Auto/Biography Association’s Chapter of the Americas 2017 conference, ‘Lives Outside the Lines: Gender and Genre in the Americas,’ was held at York University in Toronto, Canada, and supported by the Centre for Feminist Research at York University, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. This support helped to continue the initiative of transnational collaboration and inclusion born at this Chapter’s founding summit, ‘Auto/Biography across the Americas: Reading beyond Geographic and Cultural Divides’.
This summer’s biennial meeting of the IABA Chapter of the Americas, convened by Ricia Anne Chansky (University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez) and Eva Karpinski (York University), brought lives and work into the lines while honoring the life and work of Canadian critic Marlene Kadar (York University). Present and engaged in the conference’s work herself, Kadar impressively ensured she met each and every person participating in the event.
Each of the plenary panels were made up of colleagues and former students of Marlene Kadar, the first session including Kadar herself reading selections from her work with a prepared interview by Sidonie Smith (University of Michigan). Kadar and Smith discussed a number of the field’s major questions, such as working with and from ‘fragments’ in archives, the perpetual incompleteness of histories and of scholarship, the self in one’s own writing, what scholars—particularly women—needed then and need now, and the safety collaborative writing provided the many women scholars who shaped the emergent field of life writing.
The following plenary panel, ‘Marlene Kadar and Life Writing,’ featured Julie Rak (University of Alberta), Julia A. Galbus (University of Southern Indiana in Evansville), and Linda Warley (University of Waterloo) discussing the impact of Kadar’s work on both life writing studies and their own scholarship. Warley, in particular, spoke to her positive collaborative experiences and what worked in these relationships. These discussions emphasised how some of the most influential work in the field was informed by collaborative and co-operative scholarly endeavor, speaking to feminist ethics in practice.
Mark Celinscak (University of Nebraska, Omaha), in his presentation during the last plenary panel, fittingly referred back to the comments Kadar had made on the first day while telling us his story of putting her advice into practice, focusing on whether uncatalogued archival collections might just be “the skeleton for the story that exists out there but can never in its totality be told.” He spoke not only as one of Kadar’s final graduate students, but also as a researcher, incorporating his experience of tracking down an archival fragment establishing Canada’s connection to the Holocaust. Each of the four plenary panels emphasised the extensive impact of Kadar’s work in the field of life writing studies. T The display of her life-long work questioned the ways in which senior scholars in the field foster and encourage junior scholars to seek out necessary but difficult lines of inquiry, including collaborating with one another. Furthermore, the conference asked junior scholars to speak up, encouraging participation and engagement.
One aspect of this was in the arranging of one-to-one meetings between participating graduate students and senior scholars, providing an opportunity for the exchange of ideas and advice from persons they might not otherwise encounter. As one of the participating junior scholars, this was a particularly valuable element of the event. I found that my mentor, May Friedman (Ryerson University), genuinely wanted to help me be successful in my professional and personal endeavors, often a rare combination in academia. As the established scholars had information on the graduate students they were meeting—including a C.V. and abstract of a current project—they could offer detailed and relevant advice. It is my hope that not only the IABA continue this event at their future conferences, but that other associations adopt similar events.
For a conference of this scale—international and multi-lingual—having the time and space dedicated to one-on-one advice was exceptionally meaningful and useful. This pre-conference event fit perfectly with the title, and the implicit theme of ‘collaboration’, as it offered junior scholars a chance to speak and participate in a comfortable environment, positioning traditionally confrontational—and masculinist—academic exchange as outmoded.
The IABA’s official network, Life Writing Graduate Student and New Scholar Network (SNS) worked with the conference organisers, both with the one-on-one event and a roundtable on ‘collaboration’. This roundtable brought together six presenters in a ‘lightning round’ format, each limited to five minutes, and initiated some interesting conversation regarding the role of power dynamics in collaborative relationships. The question and answer session was largely focused on whether erasure of hierarchical power structures is possible now, possible only in specific scenarios, or ever possible. While the conference did not provide an obvious answer, it did suggest that various iterations of collaboration might be key.
Abstracts for most of the presentations were available online just prior and during the conference itself, many also translated into Portuguese and Spanish, emphasising again the importance of inclusion and openness. Furthermore, this conference held an affiliated art exhibition, “Outside the Lines,” at the Eleanor Winters Art Gallery, with additional poster presentations and digital presentations related to the conference.
This conference began the long process of thinking through the practicalities of collaborating with life writing scholars outside of Canada and the U.S., while by no means a perfect or complete answer to issues of language. It’s clear that future iterations of this conference, and perhaps the larger IABA-World conferences, will build upon these efforts and better develop public and non-academic outreach. Indeed, the underutilized social media tags from “Lives Outside the Lines” suggest that the digital future of the field of life writing studies rests at the devices of junior scholars, or at least regular users of these life writing interfaces. Collaboration with lives outside of academia will begin with conversations held in digital publics. Perhaps the junior scholar outreach done this year will encourage this generation of scholars to develop a fuller response.