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American Studies Conference Explores Lowell

Immigration, Then and Now, Engages Scholars

Asst. Prof. Michael Millner, conference coordinator, with acting Assoc. Dean Melissa Pennell and interim Dean Nina Coppens.

By Sandra Seitz

The city of Lowell offers the perfect setting for scholarly discussion of historical and contemporary understanding of cities in a global context. With that in mind, the New England American Studies Association (NEAS) held a two-day conference of presentations and panels in the historic Boott Mill during October.

Michael Millner, assistant professor in the American Studies program and vice president of the NEAS, was the on-site conference coordinator, with support from the National Park Service and the Tsongas Industrial History Center.

“This year’s conference theme asks what happens if we think of Lowell and other American cities as global cities,” says Millner. “One of my many goals in bringing this conference to Lowell was to develop an opportunity for UMass Lowell faculty to share their great research on the city with other faculty from across the country.”

UMass Lowell faculty and professional staff took the lead in many of the conference panels. For example, in the workshop “New Challenges and Opportunities in an ‘All-American City,’” the presenters included faculty, an honors student and staff of the Tsongas Industrial History Center, including a Lowell National Historic Park ranger.

The presenters led discussion about immigration, past and present, in Lowell and the extent to which immigrants have encountered opportunities or misfortune.

“The ability of immigrants to gain employment depended very much on the luck of when you arrived,” said Prof. Robert Forrant, Regional Economic and Social Development Department and director of the Center for Family, Work and Community. Forrant is leading a park-funded ethnographic overview study of Lowell with Christof Strobel, assistant professor of history.

“As we studied these neighborhoods identified as being in continual transition, I learned that what I ‘knew’ was false,” said Forrant. “We think of immigrants arriving, facing issues and adapting, but many also left again, going back to their home countries.”

American Studies is an interdisciplinary field and the conference reflected that: Speakers represented English, history, urban studies, social work, film and political science, among others. 

Says Millner, “We also included speakers from secondary education, as well as from the public sphere. This year, for instance, Mayor Lisa Wong of Fitchburg was on a panel, and one workshop was a film and panel about the aftermath of Katrina for New Orleans’ Vietnamese population. The keynote speaker was the highly regarded art historian Anthony Lee, chair of art history at Mt. Holyoke College.” 

Melissa Pennell, acting associate dean of social sciences, humanities and fine arts, says, “The presentations that I heard by UMass Lowell faculty and student researchers were thought-provoking and insightful. Having scholars from across New England participate in the conference, sharing their work and discovering the cultural diversity of Lowell, was an enriching experience for everyone.”

From left, panelists Asst. Prof. Christoph Strobel, honors senior Scott Walfield and Prof. Robert Forrant.
Panelists Maryann Zujewski, left, and Michele Turocy, both with the Tsongas Industrial History Center.