On October 19th-20th, the Transatlantic History Student Organization put on their 19th annual graduate student conference at the University of Texas at Arlington. Highlighted by an engaging roundtable, keynote address from Dr. Nayan Shah, and exciting new research from graduate students in the field of Transatlantic History, the conference proved to be an excellent professional experience where I made great connections.
The conference kicked off on Friday night with a roundtable that directly tackled the theme of the weekend, “Subversive Spaces, Subversive Bodies.” With several discussants, including Drs. Stephanie Cole and Patryk Babiracki, the topics ranged from race to gender to the role of the state. One topic they deliberated that I found particularly engaging was the difference between subversive zones and borderlands. I had always considered those two concepts regarding their location in geographic space: the borderlands as an area that no state has yet to be able to fully establish its authority and subversive zones as areas within an established state where people are able to practice subversive activity. Their discussion got me thinking about how subversive zones exist within the borderlands, as people coalesce to challenge and subvert power in various forms, regardless of the state. It was a fun, engaging, and well-organized roundtable that, frankly, I could have listened to for another hour.
Immediately following the roundtable, Dr. Shah took the floor and presented his research on hunger strikes as a bodily form of protest in prisons. One of the key concepts of his work is the notion of the carceral control of food. Life in a prison is organized primarily around meal times and the primary power of the prison is that it can dole out and withhold food as it pleases. He argued that when political inmates went on hunger strike, it severely undermined the power structure within the institution. The prison’s control of food no longer mattered to the protester. If the hunger strike became public, it further undermined carceral control, thus making hunger strikes an important weapon of political prisoners throughout the twentieth century.
In thinking about his presentation and the topic of bodily forms of protest, my mind immediately turned toward more extreme protests, like bodily mutilation or self-immolation. When I asked him about it during the Q&A, Dr. Shah patiently went through the many forms of bodily protest that occurred in prisons but came back to his argument that hunger strikes were the most effective at undermining carceral control. It was a convincing argument and the talk overall was a rewarding experience.
On Saturday, the degreed professionals took a back seat and the graduate students got to shine. The first panel of the day, titled “Reinterpreting the Body: Gender, Race, and Youth Construction,” contained three insightful papers. One that stood out because it seemed quite relevant to the public activities of white supremacists today was Derrick Angermeier’s “The Germans are Beating Us at Our Own Game: The Path from Southern Eugenics to Transatlantic Nazism.” He argued that, while Nazism undermined scientific Eugenics in the South, white supremacy remained a welcome pathway for racial expression in the United States. He dubbed the post-World War II American white supremacist movement as “transatlantic Nazism” because it shared so many features with its German cousin, particularly the symbolism, like the use of the iron cross. Angermeier’s presentation was both engaging and a little bit scary considering some of the parallels he made to current events.
The second panel, “Policing the Body Politic,” only had two presenters but they both provided unique perspectives on their topics. Heather Lane enlightened us on the debates within police forces across the Atlantic about systematizing human identification. While fingerprinting ultimately won out, different systems of measurement were championed across the western hemisphere which led to considerable confrontations among police forces. Aleksei Rubstov similarly tackled the issue of police monitoring and identification but flipped it to show how police identified social networks within protest movements in Moscow. One of the highlights of Rubstov’s presentation was his beautiful visualization of those networks and how they connected or did not.
I was in the third panel, “Buying In: Subverting Economy, Citizenship, and Expectations.” After we three panelists all presented, I understood the real value of a graduate student conference. Throughout the conference, a panel chair commented on each paper and most of them provided an incredible amount of constructive feedback. Our panel was no exception as Dr. Christopher Morris gave us all individual comments that, for me at least, will make not only that paper better, but help me think through my entire dissertation. I also made excellent professional connections with the other members of my panel.
Overall, the Transatlantic History Student Organization put together a wonderful conference, which makes it clear how a graduate student conference made it to its nineteenth year. I encountered engaging academic discussion, received amazing feedback, and created a couple important professional connections that I hope lead to future conference panels.