Research and Road Trips: K-State English, the Western Literature Association, and the Road to Sante Fe

Four Kansas State University professors (Valerie Padilla Carroll, Michele Janette, Mary Kohn, and Lisa Tatonetti) and three students (Bailey Britton, Meghan Luttrell, and Kinsley Searles) attended the 56th annual Western Literature Association (WLA) conference, which took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico last week, October 19-22.


The conference, “Palimpsests and Western Literatures: The Layered Spaces of History, Imagination, and the Future,” was supported in part by Kansas State’s Provost’s Office, College of Arts & Sciences, and English Department, and hosted by WLA presidents Dr. Lisa Tatonetti (Kansas State) and Dr. Audrey Goodman (Georgia State).

wla_Luci Tapahonso_Lisa Tatonetti_Audrey Goodman_alt_oct2022

Audrey Goodman (left) and Lisa Tatonetti (right) with Diné writer Luci Tapahonso (center), recipient of the WLA 2022 Distinguished Achievement award

The event included over 300 national and international participants that encompassed a fabulous mix of scholars (of literature, history, environmentalism, gender studies, museum studies, Indigenous, Latinx, Black, and Asian studies, and more), creative writers (poets, fiction writers, essayists, playwrights, and visual artists) and community members.

Featured speakers included the incomparable Diné writer Luci Tapahonso, who was awarded the WLA 2022 Distinguished Achievement award, Latinx writer and activist Denise Chávez, who brought down the house with her performance at the New Mexico Museum of History, award-winning Mohawk poet James Thomas Stevens and his students from the Institute of American Indian Arts, and an array of fantastic writers from the newly released and already acclaimed collection The Diné Reader, including Tacey Atsitty, Esther Belin, Sherwin Bitsui, and Orlando White.

wla_Mohalk_writer_James_Thomas_Stevens_IAIA_studentsBrianna Reed_Emerals GoingSnake

IAIA students Brianna Reed Emerals GoingSnake with Mohalk writer James Thomas Stevens 

Below are reflections from the English Department participants on this shared research experience:

Bailey Britton (BA ’22) explains that “the WLA 2022 conference was my first professional conference I’ve ever attended and I’m so glad it was! Thanks to support from Dr. Tatonetti, Dr. Kohn, Dr. Knoblauch, and the McNair Scholars Program, I was able to present a poster over my McNair research project ‘Settler Colonialism and Indigenous (Mis)Representation in Monuments of Manhattan, Kansas.’ It was a great experience and all the other WLA attendees were very supportive. It was also amazing to meet graduate students and professors from other universities who are all passionate about literature, history, and uplifting marginalized voices. In my mind, ‘Western’ was a genre that focused on cowboys and the wild west, but through this experience I learned that it covers so much more and there is a world of Western literature for me to consume. I learned about reproductive rights, Indigenous representation, settler colonialism, ability studies, and so much more. Each session left me with a list of books to read, movies to watch, and things to look up later.”


Kinsley Searles (left) and Bailey Britton (right) with Bailey’s poster presentation.

Dr. Michele Janette, who presented a paper entitled “The Photograph as Critical Palimpsest in Dao Strom’s We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People,” comments, “What I love about WLA is getting to hear exciting work from outside my own particular research focus. Highlights of this year’s WLA for me included indigenous studies scholar Chad Allen’s analysis of Deborah Miranda’s phrase ‘we are all salt water, walking’ (now I will pair her poem ‘Ancestors’ with Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl in ENGL 680 next term); science studies scholar Jada Ach’s affective investigation of rocks in Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, which, among other things, made me want to know more about ‘feminist glaciology’; and from my own panel, creative writer Aristotle Johns’ explication of the pedagogical function of echo in Valeria Luisella’s Lost Children Archive, which resonated (pun intended) so well with the things I’m thinking about in Dao Strom’s experimental fiction. While in Santa Fe, of course I had to visit the famous Kakawa artisanal chocolate shop, and the delights of this year’s WLA were even better than a passion-fruit truffle!”


Slide from Michele Janette’s presentation


Michele Janette at Chimayo

Dr. Mary Kohn, who presented “Kansas without the Kanza, A Digital Resource : Understanding how the Kanza Homeland Became K-State” with Lisa Tatonetti, shares how, “As a linguist, I don’t usually attend literary conferences, but the focus on digital humanities at WLA this year convinced me to add the conference to my already busy October. I’m so glad I did! While the plenaries and poetry deeply moved me, the digital projects left me feeling inspired to bring these elements into my classroom and my research. Paisley Rekdal’s digital poem, ‘West: A Translation,’ will become part of my American English course as it voices the linguistic diversity of our region in a way that highlights the profoundly human experience of migration. Tribesourcing Southwest Film layers contemporary Native American voices over reclaimed documentary footage, bringing new meaning to Bahktin’s concept of double-voicing, a concept my students bring to their critiques of film narration in American English. Conferences are sites to exchange ideas, learn, and inspire. The place-based focus of WLA left me even more committed to centering my scholarship and teaching on the Great Plains.”


 Mary Kohn and other conference attendees on the post-conference hike.

Meghan Luttrell (BA ’22) writes, “After working on ‘Stirring the Silenced: Recovering Clara Holmgren and the Kansas School for the Deaf’ for three semesters (THANK YOU, Arts & Sciences, for three consecutive Undergraduate Research Awards!), I was thrilled to present my research at the 2022 WLA conference. I was certainly proud to share my work, but I felt also anxious to give a talk as an undergraduate alongside professors and graduate students. However, I quickly realized that the WLA community is incredibly encouraging: I felt wonderfully supported as a first-time presenter. In fact, every time I scanned the audience during my presentation, I was met with lots of encouraging smiles! My research reconstructs the life of a young woman, Clara Holmgren, who attended the Kansas School for the Deaf from 1874 to 1882 but hardly left any trace in the archive. My talk was a part of the ‘Reclaiming Bodies, Reclaiming Histories: Embodied Wests and the Politics of Ability’ panel, and I thought the conversations during and after our presentations were rich and meaningful. I cannot help but feel we do not think about and include deaf education and community enough in Kansas. As a matter of fact, completing my degree in American Sign Language (ASL) at Kansas State was impossible: I had to explore this interest independently and pay for it in addition to my university fees. I truly wish this will change for students interested in ASL in the future! I was grateful to share my research in Santa Fe in an environment, where I knew it would be valued. The exchange of ideas, stories, poems, and support at the conference was absolutely inspiring. One of my favorite moments was listening to Luci Tapahonso, the Navajo Nation Poet Laureate, who shared a poem about her granddaughter. It was quite moving, and again, it was great to see the love and passion for literature thriving.”


Meghan Luttrell presents her research

Kinsley Searles (BA ’22, MA ’24), who presented a poster entitled, “University Land, the Morrill Act, and the Kaw Nation: Kansas Land Treaties Project,” says that, like Bailey and Meaghan, “the WLA conference in Santa Fe, NM was my first conference ever. Although I had presented my research before in Kansas, I had never presented outside of the state. Thus, presenting my Kansas-specific research at a national conference was a new experience for me. In addition to presenting my poster with the Kansas Land Treaties project, I attended multiple panel sessions. Among my favorites was an analysis of the video game Red Dead Redemption 2 by California State University graduate student Jamie Buster. In this presentation, Buster explored how the games’ story and gameplay enforced white saviorism in the Western genre. Because of this panel and many others, I was introduced to fascinating analyses of different types of texts. Although it was my first conference, the warm community of WLA made me feel comfortable and welcome. I was able to meet graduate students and professors from all around the country and learn about their research, institution, and interests. In addition, the presence of K-Staters at the conference was fantastic. I saw Dr. Tatonetti and Michele Janette throughout the conference. I watched Meghan’s amazing presentation on Deaf culture in Kansas. Mary, Bailey, and I went out to dinner. The K-State community was out in full force in New Mexico! Because of this, my WLA experience was entertaining, engaging, and educational.  To conclude, I would like to take a moment to thank my travel partner Bailey, who kindly drove on our entire road trip to Santa Fe and back. She is very skilled at dodging tumbleweeds in the road!”


Mary Kohn (right) and Kinsley Searles (left) with Kinsley’s poster presentation

Finally, Lisa Tatonetti comments, “As a WLA 2022 conference organizer, I look back on this rich experience with delight. We encountered amazing research and inspiring creative work, met fantastic new friends, ate an impressive amount of green chili, and shared our own intellectual work with a larger audience. It was a joy to see my amazing K-State community come together with the larger network of WLA scholars and creatives to teach and learn. Thank you, K-State, for helping make this inspiring event happen!”

— Lisa Tatonetti, Professor

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