Changing Geographies of American Studies

Leaders of evolving field consider how they fit into higher education, business culture, area studies, local economies and the No Child Left Behind era -- and are urged to move beyond "siege mentality."
October 12, 2007

When Andrew Ross was doing research for his latest book, Fast Boat to China: Corporate Flight and the Consequences of Free Trade; Lessons from Shanghai, he found himself spending a lot of time at the American Chamber of Commerce in China. The people he met there, he said Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association, generally assumed that he was some kind of investor, looking for a good move for his money.

That Ross -- a New York University professor and leader in American studies -- was doing research in China really wasn't a surprise at the meeting, in Philadelphia. American studies is about as expansive as American foreign policy these days, and sessions at the meeting cover everything from the role of American Indians in the European imagination to the role of American studies in Vietnam. More surprising may have been the amount of time Ross -- a frequent and continuing critic of the treatment of low-wage workers in higher education and elsewhere in American society -- has been spending with business leaders of late. Not only can he pass for one (at least in Shanghai), but he's thinking differently about how academics in American studies critique higher education.

All of the talk about the "corporate university," he said, has led to a "siege mentality" that professors should move beyond. The phrase "corporate university," much bandied about in criticisms of academe, is "a lazy term," he said. Ross hasn't gone all corporate and moved to the business school. He's still quite critical of business values and their impact. But he said that a more nuanced analysis is needed, one that sees that the idea of the "corporate university" is actually part of "a two-way street" in which academic values -- and specifically the values of interdisciplinary humanities departments -- are shaping a new corporate culture.

He noted, for example, that the new "knowledge economy" industries -- investment bankers, media companies, consultants, technology companies -- all pride themselves on encouraging creativity as much as producing specific products, value intellectual breakthroughs, and operate in less formal employee structures. As in academe, where professors are always thinking about their research and teaching, employees in these businesses don't punch time clocks and "don't know if they are on or off the job," Ross said.

Ross even wonders, he said, if American studies and other interdisciplinary programs are now creating the "model employees" for this new corporate ethos, since interdisciplinary work requires students in these programs to look at problems from a range of perspectives and to think outside standard organizational boundaries. And as economists and politicians embrace the idea of the "creative class" of intellectuals, artists and entrepreneurs who make cities thrive, Ross said the role of universities in economic development (and gentrification) is growing in urban areas.

In China, Ross notes that in addition to finding business leaders at the Chamber of Commerce, he also ran into plenty of wheeling and dealing academics -- people looking to open new campuses, establish joint degrees and so forth. The executives from business are well aware of these academics, Ross said, and of their successes. Whatever ambivalence many in China have about parts of American society, degrees from American universities are highly valued, he noted.

Where this leaves American studies and its role critiquing society, Ross said, is in a more subtle place than before. Academics should continue to speak out about the way their institutions are run, and what they see as excesses of the business mindset. Ross was true to form in that respect, calling NYU -- in the midst of a merger with Polytechnic University and pursuing multiple overseas ventures -- a "mergers and acquisitions" outfit. But he also said that the nature of the critique needs to change, recognizing that business isn't just influencing academe, but academe is influencing business.

Ross was among several speakers at a session on the changing nature of American studies in "an era of financialization."

For other speakers, American studies is changing relationships with universities and local communities in part by necessity and in part driven by missions. Eric J. Sandeen, director of American studies at the University of Wyoming, talked about the realities of interdisciplinary programs at state universities that don't have much money and want to focus on economic development. The humanities are "more marginal than ever," he said, and are seen as "a loss leader."

His program has gained ground, however, by filling a niche in the state in historic preservation. Wyoming has little in the way of state regulation or a state infrastructure to consider these issues. His department has emerged as the key resource, advising local communities on what to do about high schools that are historic structures but that aren't consistent with state plans, for example. In many cases, the causes advocated by the department in historical preservation run against powerful interests, but the fact that the department is engaged -- and landing contracts for its work -- has won it backing, Sandeen said.

Wyoming is somewhat unusual in that it has a master's program in American studies for which students are fully funded. Most master's programs aren't -- and are instead, as one audience member said, "tuition mills" that produce revenue for departments. This isn't insignificant in that a survey presented Thursday suggested that master's programs in American studies are likely to see significant growth. NYU's program is trying to embrace that growth (without just going for dollars) by looking for ways that it might create a master's program for school teachers to take as a sabbatical.

The pressure to conform to university wishes (yes, a bit of the siege mentality Ross urged the scholars to move beyond) was present for many. Janet M. Davis, chair of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, spoke about the "new language" she had to learn as chair -- words and phrases like "performance management," "mission statement," "ubiquitous culture of performance" and "benchmarks." Davis said she and her colleagues try to keep up, and believe that what they are offering has real value. But she said that the "constant refrain of accountability," which she sees as an outgrowth of No Child Left Behind, amounts to pressure "to empiricize fields that defy empiricization."

She also said that for all of the talk at universities these days about supporting interdisciplinary work, that support isn't always real. She said that administrators like to support the large departments that serve the greatest number of students in large lecture classes. So when the English and history departments want to do something together, there's plenty of support. When truly interdisciplinary programs like American studies or ethnic studies want that same support, it can be lacking, she said.

At Texas, she said, her department has built support by strengthening its ties to ethnic studies programs.

But she also prompted much laughter and appreciation as she recounted spending on athletics at her university -- a contrast that doesn't make interdisciplinary program chairs feel terribly appreciated. She described in detail, for example, the Howard L. Terry-Bobby Moses Jr. Longhorn Locker Room at her university -- a sort of Taj Mahal for football players with 125 eight-foot tall individual lockers, five flat screen televisions, and a three-dimensional lighted 20-foot Longhorn on the ceiling. The tight spending that limits academic programs isn't uniform, she noted.

Nikhil Singh, a professor of history at the University of Washington, talked about the links between American studies and cultural studies and suggested that American studies needs to be open to new ties to other fields. For example, while Washington has many scholars who do work in American studies, they aren't organized into a program as is the case elsewhere. The international affairs school at Washington is well supported, SIngh said, and is interested in having American studies perspectives to "challenge" the conventional approach to area studies and to "recast study of America" within a modified American studies framework.

For years, American studies scholars have debated whether it is appropriate to see themselves through area studies lenses, with many answering the question with a decisive No, and at least one audience member Thursday was horrified at Singh's suggestion.

But in the same way Ross suggested that academic-business relations are a two-way street, Singh said that the same might be true for American studies and area studies. He noted that the international studies school at his university is named for the late Sen. Henry Jackson, the "grandfather of the neoconservatives." Sure, Singh said, American studies scholars need to watch their interests and alliances with such a program might not work everywhere. But with evident pleasure, he said that if Jackson could see Singh's courses -- taught through the Jackson school -- "he'd be rolling over in his grave."


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