The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Outtakes from the Space Between

Bonnie Roos, West Texas A&M University
Amy Von Lintel, West Texas A&M University

We were able to welcome roughly 70 scholars to our West Texas A&M University campus in Canyon, Texas for the 2023 Space Between Conference, with a theme of “Outsiders, Outlaws, and Outreach in the Space Between.” Worth noting here is our sheer joy at the pleasure of having the opportunity to host an in-person conference in the wake of Covid. 

The conference theme of “outsiders, outlaws, and outreach” evolved from a more personal, rather than a more scholarly place. Both of us love our work as academics, but we have often felt like outsiders. When we are feeling optimistic about this perceived isolation, we call our research scrappy. When we’re feeling defeated, as we have felt so often since even before the pandemic, it’s lonely, even with each other for company. Against the backdrop of volatile public politics, loss of confidence in higher education, and the disenfranchisement of humanities programs across the nation, we knew we were not alone in our loneliness. And bringing people together to talk about outsiderness, even when we are in many ways insiders, felt like a way to see and be seen, to hear and be heard. It is a hard time to be an academic in the humanities, isn’t it?

When we have spoken about our working lives to our academic communities or our lived-in communities, we have also sometimes felt like rebels, and—in our super-charged, reactionary moment—even outlaws. How we speak about abortion rights, about drag, about transectionality, about marginalized histories, identities, and cultures that challenge the status quo, has been threateningly curtailed in many red states, like our own. The Hamas-Israel war has extended these conditions to more comfortable blue-state and elite institutions, which we had imagined were immune to such divisions. As academics, we are frozen at a point of inflection: Are we true to the laws that govern our states and often our institutions? Or are we true to the students we serve and our own core beliefs? Is there an ethically sustainable compromise to be had, or must we choose between silence and activism, donors and the public, our values and our jobs, even our laws? As tenured professors, we’re sure we have less at risk than most people, and yet we had not anticipated the kind of entrenched resolution that the past few years have required to stand up for what we believe is right. 

Is there an ethically sustainable compromise to be had, or must we choose between silence and activism, donors and the public, our values and our jobs, even our laws?

Some of the positions we have come to in our region have been moderated by conversations between us, as academics, and the folks who live in our area—an idea we loosely imagined as outreach. We both have strong ties to our community of academics and the public we interact with through arts and social events. We can, of course, hold forth upon our areas of expertise when given an opportunity to speak at a local church or exhibition opening. We are interested in making the artists and writers that capture our attention interesting to the audiences who have so thoughtfully invited us. In such cases, we find that balancing between our scholarship and the accessibility of our ideas often requires that we address the relevance of our subject matter. In seeking relevance, we often find ourselves in discussions, political and otherwise, that exceed our areas of expertise and are interesting precisely because they do so. Over the two years of forced pandemic introspection and reemergence, our community has sometimes reminded us that we, in the humanities, can be as intolerant of diverse opinions as those we accuse of suppressing our freedoms, our truths. We wanted the 2023 conference to focus on the kinds of outreach that have shaped our thinking and have helped us better understand the communities we serve. 

As we organized conference activities, we were grateful to several established scholars who were able to scaffold our feelings of emotional conflict with scholarly support that beautifully reminded us how scholars have historically addressed these questions. Claire Buck and Debra Rae Cohen organized “Undisciplining the Space Between: Reading Together,” which on the ground had the nostalgic effect of making us feel like we were in a graduate seminar again—one in which everyone was wicked smart and had actually done the reading. Following the conference, a regular online reading group was proposed, which offered a lifeline to those of us who need the occasional incentive to keep abreast of our fields, established a venue for interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration, and provided us with a more regular opportunity to hear from each other between annual conferences.

It is a rare moment at an isolated public regional institution like ours to host such prestigious scholars, or to have such amazing academics gather to share ideas with us. The panelists who presented their work offered the usual spectacular range of cross-disciplinary Space Between interests.

Our highlighted artists and keynotes spoke to the Texas and High Plains region, recuperating stories that have not always been understood within the framework of modernist studies. Dustin Tahmahkera, enrolled citizen of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma and descendent of Quanah Parker, the Last Chief of the Comanche, spoke on the role of Comanches in early Western film and the complex subversion of cowboys that Quanah, who performed in several early films, introduced into these westerns. José E. Limón addressed Mexican-American modernity with a lively discussion of Jovita Gonzáles and Margaret Elmer’s Cabellero: A Historical Novel and Américo Paredes’s George Washington Gomez: A Mexicotexan Novel—both of which were written late in the interwar period but remained unpublished until the 1990s. His talk complicated our perception of southwest modernity in terms of sexuality, and his versatile lecture anticipated the style of his forthcoming book, The Streets of Laredo (Texas A&M University Press, 2024). Finally, Rebecca VanDiver’s insightful talk on artist Loïs Mailou Jones built upon her award-winning book Designing a New Tradition (Penn State University Press, 2020) to explore the aesthetics of Blackness in the Space Between era. These presentations demonstrated a truly interdisciplinary scholarship that appeals to Space Between devotées and presented complex and engaging discussions of the transcultural nature of modernity. 

It is a rare moment at an isolated public regional institution like ours to host such prestigious scholars, or to have such amazing academics gather to share ideas with us. The panelists who presented their work offered the usual spectacular range of cross-disciplinary Space Between interests. We saw art history panels with regional museum representation, communication scholars unpacking the rhetorics of modernism, artists talking about the debt their art owed to artistic traditions from the 1914-1945 period, and discussions of Space Between artists and writers from across the world. The program featured an entire panel dedicated to flight and the history of airports, airplanes, and pilots as well as a noteworthy panel on business in the Space Between. The imagination and breadth of experience brought to bear on the period was every bit as wonderful and weird as it so often is at this conference. 

We added two sessions to the Space Between conference roundup, which from our perspective were among the most productive. We found it so important to set aside time for our group to talk about the academic freedom issues our institutions are facing: these two sessions took the form of an unguided charette and a discussion of mental health for teachers, the latter guided by West Texas A&M University’s own Dr. Shanna Peeples, National Teacher of the Year, 2015. These last conversations afforded us an invaluable opportunity to network as a group in ways that are often limited to individuals and social media in our outsider-insider world.

The coming years in academia, especially in the humanities, will take imagination, collaboration, and courage from us all. As institutions, we can no longer be everything to everyone, and we will have to decide how we move forward and which constituents we are best positioned to serve. In this crucial moment, conferences like The Space Between can bring us together and allow us not only to share our scholarship, but also to challenge our assumptions, to strengthen our support systems, and to navigate our increasingly interdisciplinary and intercultural world.

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