Last Friday I had the pleasure of attending the annual Critical Theory Emphasis Undergraduate Conference at UC Irvine. Organized by the 2011-12 Koehn Fellow Timothy Wong and sponsored by fourteen campus faculty, departments, programs and academic centers across the School of Humanities, the School of Arts, the School of Social Sciences, and the School of Law, the one-day conference is one of the school of Humanities´ most inspirational events and one of very few forums for a public engagement with undergraduate work. This year´s conference-which managed to go forward despite cuts to the Critical Theory Emphasis (CTE) and Critical Theory Institute (CTI) budgets-featured the work of eighteen thoughtful and bright undergraduate scholars whose work beautifully made manifest the indispensability of the critical engagements of the humanities to higher education; and highlighted the seamlessness with which critical theory enables interdisciplinary engagements with ideas, texts, and themes related to what it means to be and to live in the world.
I cannot do justice to the thoughtful and truly engaging work of these students in a single post (I encourage you to see them yourselves), so instead I will tell you about my impressions of the event overall. I found the work of the students featured at this event truly inspiring. I joke not: I went home enthusiastically to work on my dissertation (not an easy excitement to muster), invigorated by the ease with which these students engaged with and made accessible incredibly difficult concepts. I heard innovative perspectives and incisive arguments about texts both within and well beyond the “canon.” The young scholars featured at this conference thoughtfully and carefully engaged with the reading and reception of complex texts and phenomena, ranging from Hamlet to SyFy´s “Ghost Hunters.” Other presentations took on the recent UCI School of Humanities “Needs Attention” Memo; various films from The Battle of Algiers to Ran; the work of Kant, Derrida, Foucault, Kundera, and Lewis Carroll; Philippine oral and written cosmogonies and national structures; architecture and corporatization; Frank Wilderson´s work on social death and black bodies, in conversation with Spillers´ work on the gendered body; Kant and Derrida on the university; the DIY punk movement, Facebook, and game studies, to name a few.
I cannot emphasize enough how much I recommend you watch some of these presentations yourselves (click here!). I should also mention that while this impressive body of work was certainly made possible by the diligence and hard work of these impressive undergraduate students, it was also enabled by the tireless efforts of the fourteen Humanities graduate students who mentored them and helped them to think through and connect their ideas. Attending this conference reminded me what it means to do academic work, including the joys of seeing nine faculty members take seriously and respond to the thoughtful work of undergraduate students like colleagues, and to know that the students had the support of the faculty that participated in the closing panel.
I would like to end this post with a simple reminder. Some of the students who presented at this conference will go to graduate school and – I sincerely hope – become future professors in the Humanities. But most will pursue other careers and follow markedly different paths. One may become a doctor, another an entrepreneur, perhaps others clerks, artists, drivers, office workers, writers, titans of industry, public intellectuals, and politicians. I am happy to know that they will continue on a path in postgraduate life having learned to learn from the world around them, use their own knowledge and experiences to light their paths, and to critically evaluate the structures that are their (and our) inheritance and forge possibilities within and beyond them.