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Para-academic Genres

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Organizer: Jennifer Wang

Co-Organizer: Danielle Wong

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In September 2021, poet and professor Cathy Park Hong was featured on the front cover of TIME magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People” annual issue. Comedian Ali Wong’s review of Hong’s book Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning for this issue described Hong’s writing as “beautiful, funny, sharp and--most importantly … easy to read.” Just one month earlier, Netflix released The Chair, a television show starring Sandra Oh as Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, the first woman of colour to chair an insolvent English department at a fictional Ivy League university. It is tempting to read such examples as marking the mainstreaming of academia and its representations. Has academia finally become generic?

If so, such mainstreaming and genericism--as shown in the above examples--has been firmly bound to, if not altogether precipitated by, racial crisis. In recent years, the general public as well as academic institutions have turned toward para-academic writings and figures in addressing the topics of race and racism. The sale of of books advertised as “anti-racist,” such as Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, skyrocketed during mass protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in 2020. This seminar considers the uptake in the public engagement with literature and critique that draws on the authority and prestige associated with academia, but are literary works understood as, to quote Wong again, “easier to read” and, therefore, more widely circulated. We are interested in how objects and texts such as these reveal what academia is understood to be by broader publics, and how academic institutions are mediated through public fascination, even as such mediations further obscure the market-driven and corporatized operations of the neoliberal university. We define the “para-academic” as genres, forms, and formations that authorize themselves precisely by their adjacency rather than interiority to “academia,” but in doing so, more often than not serve to consolidate the latter.

We situate the present para-academic turn within multiple and overlapping historical crises, from global and racial capitalism, to settler colonialism, to planetary catastrophe. These are the crises that inform shifts in research and pedagogical practices, manifest in course readings lists that diverge from “traditional” (such as peer-reviewed) academic texts and assignments that emphasize content production. Although, or because, the para-academic is a genre that emerges in response to racial crises and the neoliberalization of the university, this seminar also asks: Does the para-academic offer the possibility of generative, useful, or strategic means of addressing and countering racial violence?

We invite presentations that take up any of the topics raised by our seminar proposal.

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