For several reasons, I prefer small academic conferences over large ones. Still, it is good to go to a major annual conference once in a while, which was the case this past weekend at the Association for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC). “Major,” however, may be inaccurate. At about 300 attendants each year, the ACTC pales in comparison to the thousands who trek annually to the MLA (language & literature), AHA (history), AAR (religion), AAA (anthropology), ASA (American studies), AAS (Asian studies), AAAS (Asian American studies), ICMS (Medieval studies), AWP (writers and writing programs), and other alphabet-soup biggies in the humanities and social sciences. The AWP, for instance, typically has 2000 presenters and 12,000 attendees. (It is not a typo: twelve and three zeros.) The ACTC is decidedly small potatoes in number and scale. On the other hand, the relative smallness – let’s call it “medium-sized”- probably contributed nicely to my enjoyment of the event in Atlanta.
As indicated by “Courses” in its name, the ACTC is distinguished for an emphasis on teaching. There are of course many panels about teaching at the biggies. Proportionately speaking, however, I don’t think any could match the teaching-relevant papers at the ACTC. The format is also different. Most presenters submit their papers individually, which are then sorted out and organized into panels according to topics and abstracts. To foster conversation, each paper is no longer than five pages and there are no discussants so there will be plenty of time for interaction among presenters and audience. The audience-friendly format also induces people to stay put at a panel for the duration rather than heading to another one after hearing a particular paper. It is all the more remarkable because some of this year’s panels were scheduled for two and a half hours. At two such panels that I attended, only two out of about thirty-five people left in the middle for another one.
Atlanta 2016 was my second time at the ACTC. My first attendance was LA 2014, which was sponsored by my home institution. Unfortunately, it took place during a very busy time in my first year at Pepperdine and I could come for only a short time. This year, however, I went to all five plenary sessions and six breakout ones. Below are some of my observations about and reactions to them. (Click here for the schedule in PDF.)
- The most refreshing aspect was the absence of current politics and, conversely, the deep engagement of conversations on a particular core text on teaching or scholarship. More attentive listeners may correct me here, but I believe Donald Trump’s name came up only once during the plenary sessions – and not at all at the panels that I attended. Not that current events bear no relation to the life of the mind, but the focus was squarely on analyzing and discussing books and ideas and teaching them. “I am not so devoid of all talents as to occupy myself with politics,” said a character in Anatole France’s novel The Red Lily. Given the easy temptation to talk about the current electoral primaries, it was remarkable and, again, refreshing to see many sustained discussions that were unoccupied by politics for a change.
- Impressive too was the wide range in topics, themes, and of course books. Here are the texts that were discussed during the breakout sessions that I attended. (I might have forgotten one or more.)
The Therigatha – ancient Indian and oldest collection of women’s writing
The Books of Samuel
The Book of Job
The Gospel of Matthew
Sophocles, Oedipus Rex
Aristotle, Nicomachian Ethics
Livy, History of Rome
Kant, Grounding for a Metaphysics of Morals and Critique of Judgment
Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway and “Street Hauntings”
Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Gilkey, Shantung Compound
- It was a feast for book lovers and/or generalists like myself. I found myself speak quite a bit and learn a lot. At a panel on the theme of “community tradition under pressure,” Heather Ohanseson (Azusa Pacific) spoke about the friendship of David and Jonathan and referenced the Nicomachian Ethics as well as Achilles and Patroclus. “Duh, of course,” I said, “Why didn’t I think of that?” The Books of Samuel may be added to the reading list for Great Books I when I teach it again. At the same panel, Richard Rawls (Georgia Gwinett) analyzed Langdon Gilkey’s critique of the Enlightenment and liberal Protestantism in Shantung Compound. I read the book some twenty years ago – it was more like browsing than reading – and remembered that it is a very well-told story but little else. Rawls’ paper prompted me to put the book in the reading list for this summer. (Funny, but I looked for the hard copy when home and found it on the bookshelves right next to my bed.) By a coincidence, my class finished a discussion on Luther’s “On the Freedom of a Christian” just before I left for Atlanta. Well, Gilkey’s repudiation of the Enlightenment led to a sort of return to the Reformation emphasis on human frailty and fallibility. Is Shantung Compound an apt text for the theological portion of Great Books IV? I shall see after a careful re-reading this summer.
- The panel showcasing Samford University faculty on teaching sex and gender in the core curriculum was both helpful and eye-opening. Having thought that Aphra Behn’s novella may be a nice option for Great Books, I was persuaded by Steven Epley‘s presentation on teaching it to take a look at it again this summer. Keya Kraft shared a few very interesting experiences about teaching Virgil’s portrayal of women in the Aeneid, plus competing discourses on masculinity. Thanks to Lisa Battaglia, I have a new title, the Therigatha, to bring back to my Pepperdine colleagues who teach Asian Great Books.
- Toni Morrison’s Beloved was the topic of quite a few papers, including two on teaching it at a panel that I attended on Saturday. (The third paper was about slave narratives.) It was the most attended of the six panels that I went to, and was evenly divided between senior and junior faculty. It was also the liveliest conversation about students and teaching that I experienced at this conference. Thanks to Linda Chavers (Temple), Reshmi Hebbar (Oglethorpe), and Bob Steen (Oglethorpe) for starting this conversation and other participants for hitting on many large and specific points.
- My own panel featured papers on teaching Aeschylus’s trilogy with an eye towards contemporary issues like ISIS and feminism (Lynette Sandley, Samford); Ovid and rape in college (Humberto Ballesteros, Columbia); and Mary Shelley’s classic in regard to Internet-raised students (Bernd Estabrook, Illinois College). Although this discussion was the most diffuse of all panels that I attended, there were many interesting and elongated points made by Prof. Estabrook and others. I’m confident that some will come back to me at one time or another in the future.
- Of course, not all papers were geared towards teaching. Two of the papers from the “community tradition” focus on strictly scholarly arguments. In one, Greg Camp (Fresno Pacific University) points out a fascinating sequence of parables in the Gospel of Matthew on eschatology. The last panel that I attended was an all-Nicomachean Ethics ragout: scholarship without references to teaching, strictly speaking. Another focused on Kant and/or Jane Austen: quite a pair, one could say. Since I’m teaching Kant and Austen this fall, I’m sure that certain points will pop up when I reread them this summer. Yep, it’s about teaching even when it isn’t about teaching.
- Similarly, the plenary sessions offered plenty of thought. Miguel Tamen (University of Lisbon & University of Chicago) wove at least three different strands of thought in the opening session. I’m not sure I quite understood his argument – the translation part was somewhat short – but I plan to re-read Montaigne’s essays on cannibalism and customs and, as commented by a conference-goer, on friendship. The next morning, Peter Pesic (St. John’s College) gave a very different presentation on music and physics – and, I should add, a model Powerpoint for using Powerpoint. Without understanding half of it, I was fascinated all the same because of the structure of his argument. There was also a funny anecdote about Newton and operas, and funny anecdotes are always nice supplements to class discussion in my Great Books classes.
- Different in tone and emphasis were the next two plenary talks by Ann Hartle (Emory) and Peter Augustine Lawler (Berry College). Both talks began in solid scholarship – Hartle on Michael Oakshott and her beloved Montaigne; Lawler on his beloved Tocqueville. But starting near the middle, both tone and content turned rather defensive on “threats” to the liberal arts: political correctness, safe space, rising administrative cost, rising number of adjuncts, athletics over academics, etc. (It was Lawler who mentioned Trump’s name while praising Bernie Sanders at one point. Portion of the talk can be read here.) Although Lawler’s talk was funny at a couple of spots, it was needlessly polemical at others. I plan to read the books on Montaigne and Tocqueville from these distinguished scholars. But I could do without the more “culturally warring” portions of these talks. (Linda Chavers, by the way, asked Lawler a very good question and pressed him to explain his answer.) Mercifully the last plenary talk from Richard Kamber (College of New Jersey) stayed free of politics and polemics. Though a bit long, it mixed well the personal and the scholarly – cowboy hat, Aristotle’s Poetics, and the Godfather trilogy, among other goodies – in Kamber’s last plenary talk as ACTC president.
- For my enthusiasm about papers on teaching, my own presentation, ironically, wasn’t about teaching at all but a book project I’ve conceived since last fall. I read a bit from my paper, but for the most part I took advantage of the occasion to introduce my idea for a comparative exercise about the endings of the Trojan War and the Vietnam War. I plan to research and produce a manuscript in the next six or seven years and, hopefully, land a publisher and get it out by the 50th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon in April 2025. CJ Armstrong (Concordia-Irvine) recommended a look at Euripides’ Trojan Women, prompting another “Duh!” reaction on my part. Bernd Estabrook posed an excellent point about the perceived nobility of the Trojans and an equally fine question about South Vietnam. On the way out, another participant, whose name I can’t remember, suggested a very good point about PTSD. After the formal session was over, Deborah De Chiara-Quenzer (BC) offered several wonderful pointers on the Trojans, including one about Priam and Helen. I could not ask for a better start to this ambitious project, and wish to thank them and others at this panel for their feedback.
- There were only so many panels that one could attend, and like others I had to miss some papers that I’d love to hear. Hence it was very nice to talk to Chris Constas (BC) outside his panel about his presentation on the vice of curiosity as pertained to Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno. I’d found this episode fascinating but also puzzling, and it was very helpful to talk with Chris about it. An accidental fire alarm on Saturday morning took all of us out of the hotel for a few minutes. But it gave me a chance to hear from Andy Hageman (Luther College) about his promotion of the play R.U.R. by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek (1890-1938) as a core text. Andy convinced me to add it to my growing summer reading list.
In short, one could say that the ACTC is a teacher’s and a reader’s conference. It has been around for over twenty years, and hopefully will continue for at least just as long. Interestingly, this conference was the first one for me that took place neither in a downtown nor a university campus, but at a suburban-like business district of a major city. The registration was steep at $400, but it included six meals. The food was quite good; it was also the first time that I saw cannoli served at an academic conference. Also refreshing is the fact that I didn’t see anyone take a photo, selfie, or group selfie, at least not in the confines of the conference. I didn’t take any photos either, hence no visuals in this post except for the title of my presentation on top. Will see if this book project will be boom or bust, but at least it has a cool title for the time being. 🙂
I should add that it was great catching up with my fellow Notre Dame grad Emma Cohen de Lara (University of Amsterdam), a tireless promoter of core texts in Europe and now a board member of ACTC. As an early-career faculty (if older than most), I also found it encouraging to see a number of junior faculty and graduate students giving papers and participating in the discussions. A strong organization needs both old and new blood. Fairly new myself, I hope that the ACTC will encourage the infusion of younger academics, including minorities, into its core (no pun intended); and that younger academics will continue to participate and keep these conversations alive and lively in the years and decades ahead.
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