ASEEES Convention 2014, San Antonio, TX
On November 20 – 23, 2014, I attended the 46th annual conference ASEEES in San Antonio, TX. ASEEES stands for the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. It is the largest conference in our field and attending it is always a privilege but also a test of one’s professionalism as well as physical and intellectual endurance. The overwhelming number of leading specialists in the field of Slavic Studies annually gather at the conference and present simultaneously, so it’s difficult to choose among many interesting panels and also attend so many of them one after the other. Moreover, “Slavic Studies” encompass researchers and practitioners from all possible disciplines – linguists, teachers of all Slavic languages, historians, art historians, literary scholars, scholars of social and political sciences, philosophers, editors, writers, and more. The conference itself embodies the interdisciplinary approach to humanities, which has become increasingly prominent in various university departments including the ones that teach of foreign languages. The recent expansion of so called “content courses” in the target language in our own department of Slavic Languages and Literatures confirms this trend.
For me personally, it was particularly interesting and useful to go to the panels that thematically intersect with the content courses I teach – or plan teaching – to advanced students of Russian. For example, the panel “Russia in 1917: Recentering the Revolution” echoed the course that I taught this past semester, “The Language of the Russian Revolution.” The presenters were Daniel T. Orlovsky from Southern Methodist University, James Ryan from U College Cork in Ireland, and Christopher Read from University of Warwick in the UK. The speakers discussed the main topic of my class – the split of power between the Provisional Governments and the Soviet(s). The presenters added fascinating nuance to the familiar picture by refocusing their attention away from the Petrograd and Moscow to local Soviets in the Russian periphery including numerous committees of soldiers on the front and peasantry in the provinces thus advancing a more theoretical question of the relationship between the center and periphery.
Since I’m planning to offer a new content course on Nabokov next fall – also the subject of my dissertation here at Yale – I presented my paper on Nabokov on one panel, and attended two other related talks. My panel was an interdisciplinary one. It combined literary research with the study of aesthetic philosophy. The panel was called “Confrontations with Aesthetic Philosophy in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nabokov. Tatyana Gershkovich from Harvard presented the paper “No Clear Mirror: Tolstoy’s Kantian Aesthetics”; Sarah Ruth Lorenz from Tulane University gave the paper “Dostoevsky’s anti-Kantian Aesthetics: Beauty and the Real World in the ‘Diary of a Writer’ and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’”; and I spoke on “Mathematics and Aesthetics in Nabokov’s ‘Invitation to a Beheading’ and Elsewhere.” And this is when the interdisciplinary approach suddenly revealed its problematic side.
Usually the hybrid, that is to say, interdisciplinary, papers are stronger in one field, addressed professionally, and weaker in the cross field, often dealt with a degree of amateurism. However, since usually the main addressees of the paper belong to the same professional field, the forays into the other one are given the benefit of the doubt – unless, of course, there happens to be someone in the audience or on the panel who has a professional training in that other area of knowledge and is also willing to speak up. Our panel was lucky to have a professional philosopher in the audience who, after a brilliant and lively speech of our discussant, Jonathan Graig Stone from Franklin & Marshall College, took the floor and confronted the philosophical premise of one of the papers with vigor and expertise. This was unexpectedly instructive and helpful, even if a bit unnerving. Indirectly, the panel confirmed my longstanding conviction that content language courses should not compromise and oversimplify their “content” in favor of “language” but have to be equally specialized and in both fields. Attending conferences of such scale and breadth as ASEEES helps verify one’s own expertise in several adjacent fields against the rest of the profession.