I miss the conversations.
With so much suffering surrounding us, including brutal news piling up every day from New York City especially, it feels selfish to admit feeling the loss of our yearly gathering of Shakespeareans. But I do feel it, mostly for the unexpected joys of ancillary conversations happened-upon, which are always the best things about SAA.
One year — maybe in the mid-aughts? — I happened to chat with Ewan Fernie in a hallway about the then-new Shakespeare Now! series. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to think that conversation at that moment — that random collision of two people from different continents, with all of our viral and human contact-traces also interacting (can you imagine?) changed my career and my life. I might well have written about oceans in any case, but the particular form of At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean was enabled by the SAA-matrix and its connection-making swirl.
No such chance meetings this year on Zoom. But the Zoominar itself, ably organized and hosted by Nic Helms, with whom it was a real treat and pleasure to work as co-organizers of the Watery Thinking seminar, was both intense and enlightening. We got almost the full group together on-screen, wifi-ing ourselves in from locations that ranged from California to England and Ireland, spanning around eight hours of time zones, with only one fake-Zoom background that I noticed (of Lake Huron?), as well as an assortment of crowded bookshelves, blank walls, and other interior spaces. We even had a hearty crew of maybe a half-dozen auditors, some of whom lasted the full ninety minutes and hung around to ask excellent and pointed questions.
I often feel the in-person hours represent just a visible spout above the hidden cetacean bulk of most SAA seminars. This year’s Zoominar probably accentuated the split between what happened when we were all on screen together and what got asynchronously distributed through e-conversations, comments on papers, and a bunch of still-active threads on our seminar’s Google Classroom page. We missed being able to raise a glass or perhaps some fried seafood appetizers together, but perhaps in Austin there will be a reunion? That’s assuming, as I’m sadly not sure we can assume, that we’ll be ready, willing, or able to travel in spring 2021. The future is another country, as somebody said. (Zadie Smith, sez google? Is she quoting someone else?)
Each year when I’m blogging and flying home from SAA I try to think both locally about my own seminar or paper and also collectively about what the SAA is and may yet become. I don’t have as clear a snapshot this year of the SAA-in-progress. I know lots of people e-attended the brilliantly-named Alone Society Dance on Saturday, but I kept my now quarter-century long streak of non-dancing alive. I saw lots of notices of great-sounding seminars on social media, but didn’t get myself organized to audit any. For me, at least, #shax2020 dispersed itself between two poles: the close and intense intellectual work of the seminar, and the maximally distant blips of social media postings. Both were great, if a bit disconnected from each other.
Feeling nostalgic for my community, I’ve gone back this morning to re-read to the overlong blog posts I wrote during the post-SAA glow over the past few years. Here are some bloggy ruminations after our gathering in NOLA in 2016 for Shakespeare’s jazz funeral, in Atlanta in 2017 when our numbers were decimated by #shakenados, in Los Angeles in 2018 when I supplemented my seminar’s vision of community by swimming in the Pacific alongside a harbor seal, and last year in DC, which featured the debuts of the #SAAllies lanyards, the #shaxgrads group, and a searing #shaxfutures panel about professional marginality that I felt didn’t quite get the attention it deserved, though I very much include myself among the people who haven’t been generous enough to contingent faculty and other at-risk people in the academic world.
Thinking collectively about the past five years of SAAs, it seems to me that my experience, perhaps like that of many other SAA-ers, bears witness to the intertwining of personal academic and other obsessions — in my case, blue humanities, ecocrit, and seeking out open waters in which to swim as often as I can every time I travel — with a desire to think about SAA as a collective and an institution. Starting with a seminar I co-lead in 2016 with Matt Kozusko about “Shakespearean Communities,” continuing through helping initiate the #shaxfutures panel as part of the Program Committee for the Atlanta 2017 conference, co-leading another self-reflexive seminar with Carla Della Gatta in 2018 in Los Angeles about “Shakespeare, the SAA, and Us,” and last spring in DC picking up the bar tab for the first meeting of #shaxgrads, I feel as if I’ve been part of a growing desire among members to make the SAA more responsive to its own status as an institution and its duties to the least powerful and secure members.
I’m worried about how institutions will weather the current covid-storm. My first attention right now goes to my students, whose circumstances in and around New York City over the past month include harrowing stories of illness and loss of life. I’m concerned about how a tuition-dependent and lower income-serving University like my own St. John’s will manage the upcoming months and years. I’m worried about my local community in Connecticut, where our hospital resources are massively under strain. But I think it’s also worth thinking about SAA, and similar scholarly societies, as we consider what will last and what must change in these disorienting times.
I won’t presume to speculate, or to give unsolicited advice to the SAA leadership, whose judgement I trust and dedication to the association I recognize. But I hope that as we move forward, we keep foremost in our minds ways that the SAA and its membership can support, value, and advance the paths forward of those in our communities who most need our help.