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.
Yes, thanks to Kandice and Duncan (and President Kelly) for hosting last Friday’s conversation, and to both Kandice and Chris for your remarks on what transpired. I was inspired by the lively tenor of discussion, and look forward to more as we move ahead.
In thinking about the forum on the train back to Brooklyn, I realized another facet of American Studies that distinguishes the field, at least for me, and some others, I presume. As I mentioned when I introduced myself, the American Studies to which I was introduced as an undergraduate and graduate student very much informed by British Cultural Studies. As a result, it is not only “presentist,” as Duncan helpfully described the field, but also what I would call interventionist. That is, it seeks not only to reflect on and study the past in light of the present moment’s concerns, it also frequently aims to intervene in contemporary social/cultural/political debates. In other words, the field of American Studies has been marked for the last 30 years or so by its political tendencies, or at least by its hospitality to politically informed and inspired academic work. Is there another major professional association that would elect a president whose address calls on its members to “organize!” and advance an “abolitionist” vision of American and global society? I doubt it. Certainly, many scholars working in American Studies are not there for the politics, but it is also true that a certain openness to radical critical and political work has marked American Studies for several decades—and in part this helps explain why so many scholars working in ethnic and queer studies have found homes in the ASA, I think. Personally, I was drawn to American Studies not so much for its interdisciplinarity, but for its attention to the intersection of cultural and power, its focus on ideological critique, and the field’s self-consciousness about the political implications and potential of intellectual work. I assume that Kandice and Duncan selected the term “revolutionizing” (as opposed to the more tepid “rethinking” or “transforming,” for instance) for the seminar in part to raise these—or related—political issues, and I look forward to talking more about them. Best,
Thanks so much for organizing a great first meeting and for your post Kandice! I also have similar thoughts. I am so honored to enter the Graduate Center at a time in which it re-energizes discussions on revolutionizing American Studies and reconceptualizing the field beyond just our university. It was very exciting to be in a room with fellow students, professors, and academics across CUNY, along with what will hopefully become a larger number of fellow scholars from other universities of New York City and the Tri-state area. As we went around the table introducing ourselves, we also each offered our respective points of entry and relationship to American Studies. It is befitting for the first meeting that much of the conversation centered around questions regarding the parameters, definition, and ambiguities of the field. As President Kelly rightfully reminded us, it is crucial to remember the originary circumstances surrounding the field. Emerging from the nascent moments of the Cold War, American Studies was inextricably bounded by the interests of the nation-state in the mission of harnessing knowledge production as a tool for geopolitics. Furthermore, the very materiality of the field was made possible by the large economic investment by the government.
Rather than positing these circumstances as overdetermining all Americanist discourses and practices, we can perhaps look toward Kevin Gaines’ choice of John Hope Franklin’s quote to point toward the possibility for a productive negotiation of these founding moments: “With the creation of this social order founded on slavery, “the effort to establish a more healthy basis for the new world social order was [also] begun, thus launching the continuing battle between the two worlds of race” (quoted in 195). If this quote initially seems to point toward a disheartening vision of a social order bifurcated along the lines of race and violence, it more powerfully reminds us that projects for social justice and resistances against such violences have also always been occurring against these oppressive systems. These projects, as Gilmore reminds us, demand both political and academic work, fought for with the tools of policy and method. Gilmore eloquently asserts: “Policy is to politics what method is to research. It’s a scrip for enlivening some future possibility” (264). The point is not that such discussions are separate from action, however. Instead, in line with what Gilmore suggests, methods shape the very contours of the knowledges we produce. By mapping out how we discuss, methods provide the material grounds for the (im)possibilities of our discourses. Accordingly, methods directly connect to our concerns regarding the role of interdisciplinarity within American Studies.
If we view American Studies as analogous to the social order that Gaines maps through Franklin, the field both maps the violent practices of the nation-state, but also apprehends the various means through which social justice projects works to map and resist these practices politically and culturally, thereby necessitating and facilitating cross-disciplinary dialogues among fields from political science and history to drama, art, and literature. Teasing out the functions of interdisciplinarity is crucial to retaining its critical work and resisting its reduction as a celebratory word marshaled purely for purposes of cultural capital within academia. Brian astutely cautions that we must interrogate what is elided within the constant emphasis on self-reflexivity. In order words, self-reflexivity for its own sake is not enough; rather, it warrants a further elaborate on the productive avenues that such a critique opens. Cambridge discussed what familiarities with American Studies made possible for her scholarship in history. As Justin eloquently articulated, perhaps a more useful way of framing our conception of interdisciplinarity is the theoretical work it accomplishes by putting pressures upon the points that certain disciplines are most resistant to change, thereby questioning the very investments embedded in such areas. Perhaps this provides the material practices for interdisciplinarity, for what Sarah Chinn frames as the openness for exploring that which is not yet known.
This conversation gives me great hope about the future discussions. It is with these various questions in mind that I look forward to Rod Ferguson’s discussions this coming week to examine the very question of institutionality, its relationship to the multiple roles of difference that energize much of our academic interests, and the objectives of American Studies.