Well, not quite *all* about methodology, but the discussion to large extent focused around the question of methodology — what is an American studies methodology? how does it differ from those of traditional disciplines? in what ways do they intersect with cultural studies? how does its history (as a field) inform the distinctiveness of its approaches, the questions it asks, the objectives it prioritizes?
The two dozen faculty and students who attended the first meeting of the seminar series were primarily CUNY affiliated but also represented NYU and Fordham. Everyone had the opportunity to say a few words by way of introduction, and in generative ways, the common concern over methodology that emerged in those introductory remarks intersected with some of the ideas that arose in the Gilmore and Gaines American Studies Association presidential addresses that were the anchoring texts for this session. Though quite different in some ways, both of these addresses emphasized the link between the field (or more broadly, the work of and in the academy) and transformation of the social in an effort to proliferate the public good and to contribute to the undoing of impoverishment and violence. In that sense, the addresses were also concerned with methodology: toward what ends should the field be working? not only “what is to be done?” as Gilmore emphasizes, but also, how and toward what ends? Gaines urges us to defend public education, and we are again reminded of the importance of asking what kind of good — what “publics” such education can and should serve, and what it is that we want that education to do — i.e., if, to produce “thoughtful citizens” (quoting Gaines quoting Emory Elliott), what does that mean? Does it make sense that “citizen” remain the unit the analysis?
The discussion recognized the urgency of such questions given the decimation of the public education system at all levels. Some of the ideas raised as possible ways of responding to the exigencies of the current moment included rethinking interdisciplinarity — and relatedly, inter-institutionality; identifying non-formal but organized modes of teaching — offering free courses, for example; and the consideration of the ways in which the link between the academy and non-academic sites/institutions/organizations/communities/peoples/and so on might be conceptualized in ways different from those that accept a fixed dichotomy between “town” and “gown.”
I have long conceived of “methodology” as being a shorthand way of identifying what question we are asking, why and for whom it is that it’s an important question to ask, and how — drawing on what materials, producing what archives — it makes sense to address that question by examining a particular set of materials. Articulated specifically to American studies, as I think was happening during this meeting, the question of methodology becomes one that attempts to capture at a macro-level the directions of the field. As was noted in the course of the conversation, familiarizing oneself with the history of the field is one illuminating way in which we might grasp the directions it has moved and is moving — and thus be able to inform or intervene in its directions. (Toward that end, we thought perhaps that we might create a bibliography on this site categorized in various ways including a section for texts that speak to the history of the field. Please feel free to comment with suggested titles, or to email any of us.)
This felt, to me, a really good start to the series, not only because of the kinds of insights shared but also because of the engagement of everyone present and their (our) collective willingness to be engaged. Because it was the first session, we spent some time on business, too. Among other things, we noted that for each session, we’d invite (ask) someone to act as a respondent or discussant for the readings at hand; and that we encourage everyone to use this blog as a site for further comment, conversation, and so on. We’ll try to get a post up after each session, even if it is fairly brief (like this one).
This is just a start, of course, and Roderick Ferguson’s visit next week (lecture at 4pm on Thursday and seminar at 12:30 on Friday) is much anticipated! Hoping to see many of you there.