By Mika Kennedy, Doctoral Candidate in English Language and Literature
At time of writing [August 2017], I’m in rural Nebraska. I left the Interstate many miles ago, and the towns here follow the rail line. They are punctuated clusters of buildings and gas marts, and billboards celebrating Sinclair Oil. There’s going to be a total solar eclipse in a few days, and there are signs announcing that, too.
The Orientals already know that, though. Or at least, that’s what this Nebraskan shopkeep said. The Orientals all know, because birthing babies during a solar eclipse is dangerous business, and best avoided.
He’s not wrong – many non-western cultures are indeed wary of the supernatural effects of an eclipse on pregnancy – but “Oriental” is a strange word to hear in 2017, from the mouth of someone born after 1965. That is, after the Hart-Celler Act, which ended quotas restricting immigration primarily from non-western countries.
Back in Dearborn, where I’d just finished my Mellon Public Humanities Fellowship at the Arab American National Museum, stereotypes of the superstitious, inscrutable Orient – magic carpets, harems, the glut of gold – had long been replaced by stereotypes of the Muslim terrorist. As part of preliminary research for an exhibit on 9/11, I’d spent much of my time at the museum exploring this exact shift, trying to piece together a comprehensive, historically-based narrative of perceptions about Arabs and Muslims in the United States: Was 9/11 a turning point? And if so, how might we characterize such a turning point? For it’s not as though Arab/Muslim American history begins and ends with 9/11. Has 9/11 factored into the United States’ response to the Syrian Civil War and Muslim refugees seeking asylum? How much of 9/11’s power derives from factual incidents themselves, and how much from the cultural narratives that adorn them? (The vision of the terrorist, just like the vision of the Orient.)
Because when working in a museum setting, it’s important to remember that your audience is shopkeepers in rural Nebraska. It’s K-12 students in metro Detroit. It’s the community you serve. It’s tourists from anywhere.
This poses a challenge for academics, since we’ve spent so many years mercilessly attempting to pin down The Academic Audience – and whatever that is, it’s not any of the aforementioned. But audience is also what I found most interesting about museum-work.
I was most excited when at my most pedagogical: thinking about the particularities of these many audiences and how their background knowledge – or lack thereof – might feed productively into the way our exhibit was constructed. When I found visual materials that might be displayed in the exhibit, I thought about them in terms of focus questions that their placard might ask. I thought about how disparate moments in history might be discussed together, broken from the passage of chronological time that separates them. I thought about interactive exhibits that would not bestow information so much as bestow an invitation to re-think that which might already be known, perceived, assumed.
I learned that what I have been training to do, and what I was primarily hired to do – research – may not be what I actually enjoy. Research is why I came to grad school, and it’s often considered the “real work” of the ivory tower. But work is a function of force and distance, and unless you happen to be driving through rural Nebraska befriending shopkeepers, even the most forceful academic research in the world doesn’t always have the reach one might hope it would.
What I loved most about my time at AANM was thinking about reach – either in tuning my own research towards specific exhibit applications, or in observing how the museum works to further theirs. I loved sitting in on curatorial meetings as they discussed potential partnerships with other museums, and negotiated the flight paths and installations of their many traveling exhibits. I loved watching the research team brainstorm “unboxing” videos that showcase pieces of the museum’s extensive artifact collection, or put together a book award program that drums up excitement about Arab American literature hot off the presses.
In light of this, my fellowship experience might sound counterproductive, ungrateful, or like the beginnings of a sad violin ode to academia’s best friend, the existential crisis. But that’s not it at all. I loved my time at the museum, and the support I received from my mentors there has helped me lay down my own path forward.
Here are three directives I’ve set for myself, which stem directly from my Mellon fellowship:
1. Pursue programming opportunities within my communities, such as organizing reading groups, pop-up exhibits, or other community-facing programs. This means networking with public libraries in Michigan, proposing programming through the Detroit Japanese American Citizens League, and learning how to write proposals for funding – from sources such as the JACL’s Legacy Grant program.
2. Analyze job descriptions for positions in museums and other community organizations that I might want to pursue, and figure out how I can develop the skillsets that may not be covered under a boilerplate PhD. I now have a folder full of these, and am about to have a spreadsheet outlining my extant transferable skills and other skills as yet undeveloped/unproven.
3. Make use of my resources here at the University of Michigan. I am currently at work brainstorming a Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop dedicated to collaboratively translating graduate student work – conference papers, articles, full dissertations – into pop-up exhibits, interactive experiences, and other non-traditional and multimodal forms of learning/disseminating information.
I couldn’t be more excited. Because again, if work is a function of force and distance, then our work only matters as far as its reach will carry it. We are here because we believe in deepening the world’s understanding of forceful things – maybe it’s 9/11. Anti-refugee rhetorics. Anti-Islamic hate crimes. Anti-immigrant violence, and even cruelty. The more ways we learn how to tell these stories, and put them out into the world, the further they will go, and the deeper they will penetrate.
There’s a news broadcast from 1979, just after the last total solar eclipse in North America. The anchor says, “May the shadow of the moon fall on a world at peace.”
We’re not there yet. So we’ve got work to do.
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