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Orders of UnPrecedence: Introducing CALS’s “Unprecedented” Webinar Series

By Eunice Toh, the CALS Graduate Research Assistant. A review/preview story of the Center for American Literary Studies’ “Unprecedented” 20/21 webinar series.

Unprecedented: a word privileging the “never before” or “new” that has seen unprecedented use since COVID’s arrival. Given its proliferation across the media, however, the term ironically risks being evacuated of all meaning and value, teetering instead on becoming its antonym, or hackneyed, familiar, and tired. Such a paradox made “unprecedented” a provocative focalizing concept for CALS’s 2020/21 webinar series. “Impishly,” shares CALS Director Sean Goudie, “I thought we might focus a webinar series using the word and allow our panelists and presenters to tease out its possibilities and limitations in relation to a series of exciting topics.” As such, the “Unprecedented” webinar series was born, fittingly the first of its kind for the Center. 

In any other academic year, the Center would be hosting a spring symposium, bringing together Americanist scholars within and outside Penn State to discuss pertinent issues in the field. But with nary a chance of an “in person” gathering this year, CALS decided to embrace the challenges of this moment, as well as the possibilities for innovation. Having had success hosting both the 2020 First Book Institute and last spring’s postponed symposium virtually, Goudie noted that the move to a webinar series would not only allow for more event attendees, but also engage a slew of topics that would not easily fit into a one-day symposium. Consisting of five one hour-long webinars held each month from December to April, the webinar series features presentations and discussions by leading scholars, writers, and activists focused on developments in American literary and cultural studies that might be described as “unprecedented.” While the eclectic topics range from climate fiction to autobiographical poetry, they each engage with the term “unprecedented” and how it connects to, and/or is predicted by, the “precedented” in fascinating ways.

A presentation by Grace Yoo, Professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, during “Sewing the Seeds of Activism in an Age of COVID: the ‘Auntie Sewing Squad.’”
Kicking off the “Unprecedented” series was Sewing the Seeds of Activism in the Age of COVID: the “Auntie Sewing Squad,” a webinar that fittingly tied the series to the contingent crisis it emerged from. The panel focused on the activist efforts of the “Auntie Sewing Squad,” a collective comprised mostly of women of color who sew masks for disadvantaged groups. In a discussion moderated by Tina Chen (Penn State), three members of the Squad, Kristina Wong, Mai-Linh Hong, and Grace Yoo, were invited to remark upon the group’s formation, as well as its significance in the activist histories of communities of color. Founding member Wong, a performance artist and comedian, shared how the Squad started with her experience sewing homemade masks due to the Federal Government’s failure to provide essential workers with the necessary equipment. It was then that she conceived of the “Auntie,” a woman who was, as Wong maintains, “just kind of kindly—and maybe doesn’t even speak English—working at her sewing machine saving the world.”

Indeed, the very name “Auntie Sewing Squad” highlights the movement’s political roots, a point that the panelists were keen to emphasize. “We are driven by a women of color feminist outlook that values our labor and ideas in a way that the larger society might not,” says Hong (University of California, Merced). “That reference to the squad of women of color in Congress is really apt and has become very meaningful for us.” And like the social movements that inspired it, the Auntie Sewing Squad’s mark in the history of activism will continue to resonate in many places including the edited collection We Go Down Sewing, to be published by the University of California Press in Fall 2021.

Despite the unique challenges of COVID that led to the formation of the Auntie Sewing Squad, the first “Unprecedented” panel showed how the ethos of mutual aid movements and coalitions had its precedents. Similarly, in the second webinar, Expecting the Unprecedented: Speculative Fiction and the Climate Events of the Future, panelists Heather Houser, Stephanie LeMenager, and Claire Colebrook interrogated the very concept of the “unprecedented” as it relates to modes of speculation. While Houser (University of Texas at Austin) focused on the use of the term in climate data stories, LeMenager (University of Oregon) considered representations of climate change in texts such as Ling Ma’s science fiction novel Severance. The speakers also touched on the “familiar” language used in post-apocalyptic tropes that feature attachments to the world according to Western cosmologies and epistemologies. As Colebrook (Penn State) offers, “What would a counter-anthropological world look like instead?”

Question and Answer Session at _Expecting the Unprecedented: Speculative Fiction and the Climate Events of the Future:_ Top Row (L-R): Moderator Jessica Klimoff, Heather Houser (UT Austin); Bottom Row (L-R): Claire Colebrook (Penn State), Stephanie LeMenager (U of Oregon).

With the first two webinars tackling the “unprecedented” from different vantage points, the series’ organizing committee—including Penn State English graduate students Jessica Klimoff, Su Young Lee, Dillon Rockrohr, and Eunice Toh; CALS Undergraduate Intern Sophie Stein; and Director Goudie—is looking forward to how the remaining panels will engage the theme in unique and unexpected ways. On February 19, the series takes a historical turn with the third webinar exploring the intertwining of performance, politics, and pseudoscience in the nineteenth century, a focus responsive to the New England Journal of Medicine’s Editorial Board's decision to endorse a candidate in the 2020 US Presidential election for the first time in the publication's history. In March, three acclaimed women poets, including Natalie Diaz, Diana Khoi Nguyen, and Penn State's Shara McCallum, will address their “autobiographical” and “confessional” style of writing in a panel inspired by the “unprecedented” awarding of the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature to American poet Louise Glück. Finally, rounding out the series in April is a panel assessing the state of “the profession” generally and American literary and cultural studies in particular, both of which have been described as “being on the brink” of an “unprecedented” collapse. 

As Klimoff, moderator of the second webinar, notes of the different interpretations of “Unprecedented,” “The committee members’ interests had a way of bubbling up into the webinar framings and yet, there are threads of these topics that intersect surprisingly well.” Indeed, much of the webinars’ synergistic energy is made possible through the virtual format, with the eight-minute opening remarks by panelists long enough to spark points of discussion among audience members, while still leaving room for new ideas to come out in the Q&A. All of the webinars, thanks to the expert assistance of Penn State CLA IT staff members Marc Kepler and Andrew Wright, are being recorded and are available for viewing at the “Unprecedented” series webpage. Having seen success with the first two webinars engaging over one hundred sign-ups each from across the globe, Goudie surmises, “We’ve been able to have an impact with the “Unprecedented” webinar series that we never could have had with a single, in person, on campus symposium.”