The pandemic forced many faculty and graduate students to focus intensely on their teaching. They moved courses to online platforms, responded to students’ understandable stress and confusion, and braced up to the reality of engaging black boxes on a screen. Research projects were slowed or put on hold as travel restrictions and closures shut down archives and access to source materials. Conferences, an intellectual lifeline for many scholars, were canceled or moved online.
In this atmosphere, Obermann Working Groups served as unique spaces where research questions remained paramount. Trading the Obermann library for a Zoom screen may have been a disappointment, but the groups met routinely, even gathering new members from areas outside of Iowa City. Some groups turned their focus to reading, and others to program planning. Although the Obermann Center doesn’t require groups to produce a tangible end-of-year outcome, several groups were prolific despite many obstacles and all of the groups provided much needed intellectual, collegial, and sustaining community.
As Lina-Maria Murillo (History and GWSS, CLAS) said of the book chapter that she and Natalie Fixmer-Oraiz (Communication Studies and GWSS, CLAS) produced with help from their Reproductive and Maternal Health Working Group:
“It was madness! We were all working from home. … We both have children, and they were home the entire time.”
Over an entire semester of Tuesday afternoons, however, they “magically” managed to write and edit a chapter.
Perhaps the most important things that occurred in Working Groups last year are entirely immeasurable. These were the ongoing connections, kindnesses, and intimacies that the meetings provided when people were so isolated from each other and cut off from their usual intellectual work.
Elke Heckner, who directs the long-running Circulating Cultures group, said their regular Zoom meetings were “a source of intellectual (and emotional) support for many members over the course of the past academic year. It is not an exaggeration to state that the social and intellectual bonds among group members became an important resource during the height of the pandemic.”
Select Highlights from Our Working Groups:
Contemporary Literary & Film Theory
As noted by group member E Cram:
“Our readings and conversations—specifically Decolonizing Diasporas and the set of readings from Environmental Humanities—furthered my thinking about my current book project and helped me forward my thinking for grant writing related to the Poor Farm project.”
Cram is the author of North American West,which examines histories of sexuality through regimes of energy and extraction in order to bring sexuality studies in proximity with the energy and environmental humanities. Her second project, Transforming Care in the Heartland: The Story of the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm, examines the preservation of a former poor farm site through disability studies and the environmental humanities.
Global Media Studies
As reported by Melissa Tully, director of the group:
“This year, we focused on our collaborative research project, which looks at global disparities in authorship in journalism/communication journals. We’ve collected a massive dataset of approximately 130,000 articles from 400 journals published between 1990 and 2019, and have begun to analyze the data and have an abstract accepted for the 2021 IAMCR conference. Planning is underway for a second manuscript focused on the subfield of ‘journalism studies’ for submission to a special issue of Journalism Studies focused on the Global South. And we plan to produce online visualizations and searchable data to accompany this project to make it accessible to the public.”
This group continued as a space for talking, listening, and writing across a wide range of disciplines, including members from Theatre Arts, American Studies, GWSS, Dance, English, Rhetoric, German, and the Digital Studio. For the first time, the group hosted a bi-weekly writing accountability group to help with pandemic isolation. They also hosted multiple online guests. Co-directors Kim Marra and Jen Buckley reported:
“In October 2020, we hosted a Zoom session with new UI Writers’ Workshop Professor of poetry Tracie Morris, who joined us for a stimulating discussion about the way her work combines poetry and performance. In February, our group attended the Zoom visit of playwright, performance artist, professor, and activist Luis Alfaro to Jen Buckley’s undergraduate class, where he discussed his Greek Trilogy, focusing on Oedipus El Rey. In March, during the virtual Ida Beam visit of performance artist Holly Hughes and her partner, the queer anthropologist Esther Newton, we hosted a concluding discussion of their public events and other work. And in May, we sponsored the Zoom visits of Margaret Laurena Kemp and Sinéad Rushe, co-creators of AntigoneNOW, for a Q&A with Jen Buckley’s students and other guests following the screening of their short film.”
Translation in the Humanities
Co-directors Aron Aji and Morten Schlütter reported numerous presentations by group members:
David Stern (Philosophy, CLAS) on his retranslation and critical study of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and Diarie
Sabine Gölz (German, CLAS) on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s translation of Baudelaire’s “L’Invitation,” as part of a chapter on Gölz’s book-length project Reading and Retranslation
Aron Aji (Literary Translation, CLAS) on his essay, “Covalent Effect” forthcoming in a volume of critical essays, Translation: Crafts, Contexts, Conversations
Brian Gollnick (Spanish & Portuguese, CLAS) on his article in progress, “Missing the Joke: Rulfo Translation and Humor”
Newell Ann Van Aucken (Asian & Slavic Languages, CLAS) on her translation of the Spring and Autumn (722–682 BCE)
Pranav Prakash (Religious Studies, CLAS) on his translations of Tajiki poet Gulnaz
Janet Hendrickson (UI alumnus) on translating Treasure of the Castilian or Spanish Language by Sebastián de Covarrubias
Aji also noted that the group’s “enduring conversations … have had a formative influence on the shape and scope of our new BA program in Translation (start date F22), designed to present translation as humanities practice and scholarship.”
As reported by group director Carol Severino:
“We accomplished much toward establishing the groundwork for a Writing Across the Curriculum program at the UI. We consulted last summer with Brad Hughes, retired Writing across the Curriculum Director from the University of Wisconsin, toward planning our first Teaching with Writing Institute, held in January, with 16 faculty and graduate students from four different UI colleges.”
The group also sponsored a talk by Pamela Flash, Director of the Writing Enriched Curriculum and Teaching with Writing at the University of Minnesota.
2020-21 Obermann Working Groups & Directors
Addressing the Crisis: The Stuart Hall Project — Deborah Whaley (African American Studies, American Studies, CLAS)
Algorithms & Social Media — Brian Ekdale (Journalism & Mass Communication, CLAS; Rishab Nithyanand, Computer Science, CLAS)
The Cassandra Project: Critical Approaches to the Study of Scripting & Reading Apparatuses — Sabine Gölz (German, CLAS)
Circulating Cultures — Elke Heckner (German, CLAS) and Julie Hochstrasser (Art & Art History, CLAS)
Contemporary Literary & Film Theory — Kathleen Newman (Cinematic Studies and Spanish & Portuguese, CLAS)
Environmental Futures — Meena Khandelwal (Anthropology and GWSS, CLAS) and H.S. Udaykumar (Mechanical Engineering, College of Engineering)
Global Media Studies — Melissa Tully (Journalism & Mass Communication, CLAS)
Latina/x/o Migration and Education — Lisa Ortiz (Obermann Center and GWSS, CLAS)