American Studies on Offense and Defense

Scholars consider how to get more engaged in the political process -- and how to fend off attacks on what they do.
October 15, 2007

Nicholas Bromell started off his presentation at the American Studies Association meeting on Friday by asking a packed room of participants if they knew the names of any conservative think tanks that are powerful in Washington. Groups like the Heritage Foundation were quickly named by the professors. Bromell, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, then asked if they could name any liberal groups, and the audience was stumped.

Of course there are such organizations, but the audience reaction (and this was not an audience of Heritage fans) illustrated his point. "Conservatives have been very effective at bringing professors and scholars together to talk to their policy people," he said. Liberals less so.

Amy Kaplan, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said that the session was designed to encourage more professors on the left to reach out to Washington and to think about the policy implications of their work. It's not just getting the attention of policy makers, she said, but a question of "how we can listen" so as to shape ideas that can be executed.

There was general agreement at the session that American studies scholars needed to do more to engage with the public. But at other sessions, professors spoke with some concern about the way some members of the public are trying to hinder their work.

At the session on political engagement, Bromell described one such effort to promote engagement: the History and Democracy Project, a new organization of history and cultural studies scholars trying to set up Washington meetings that will bring together scholars and legislative aides or lawmakers. A debut program will take place in January at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, on "The Liberal Foreign Policy Tradition: Pluses, Problems, and Prospects."

Having these discussions will create dilemmas for the academic left, Bromell said, where many feel that the Democratic Party is too centrist. "We may need to compromise a bit on our politics," he said, to reach people.

Historians in particular may be able to score points with the public through comparisons rather than direct policy suggestions, said Mai Ngai, professor of history at Columbia University and a scholar of how immigrants -- legal and otherwise -- have been treated throughout American history. Her book on the topic ends in 1965, so she initially thought she would have little to add to discussions of current policy.

But she said that she has found op-ed editors like "a usable past" and she is able to thus get attention for key ideas. For example, she has been writing about how there once was a statute of limitations on immigration status, unlike today. Just telling people that, she said, makes them think about whether current policies are the best approach.

Likewise, writing pieces for the public showing that many generations of Americans arrived in the U.S. without required documentation shows them that "illegal status is not an innate condition," and does not mean "bad character," she said, only that "illegality is a product of law."

Another approach for professors may be in how they train graduate students. Dana D. Nelson described a graduate seminar, to be called "Democracy in Action," that she is planning in American studies at Vanderbilt University. The course will mix books on democratic theory and participatory politics with actual community engagement. Students will be required to do 20 hours of work in a nonprofit or activist group in Nashville and the final course requirement will be a research project for that group. (She stressed that students could work with any group they wanted.)

At another session, however, panelists talked about encounters with members of the public who are trying to limit their work. Louis Mendoza, chair of Chicano studies at the University of Minnesota, said that the classroom is increasingly a "battleground," with students (or their parents, in calls to department chairs or deans) demanding "balance" and wanting books added or subtracted from course lists.

Mendoza said that he thinks more of these students and parents have never heard of David Horowitz, the conservative activist who has pushed for the right to make such demands, but that his ideas have taken hold. Mendoza said that he isn't besieged by calls, but that there are "consistent" complaints, especially when professors criticize U.S. policies. "Criticism of U.S. policy is seen as treasonous," he said.

In some cases, these complaints are organized and intense, he said. Last year, an adjunct in his program, who is active in immigration issues from a pro-immigrant stance, was filmed by a local television station in verbal jousting with an anti-immigrant activist at competing rallies. While the woman only spends a little of her time at the university, and was not speaking at the rally in any way related to the university, calls poured in demanding her ouster, asking for the syllabus she used in class, and disparaging her. Her university connection was seen as the way to go after her, he said.

While the university didn't fire her, Mendoza said that the incident pointed to the vulnerability of professors whose views challenge conventional thinking. He tried to turn the scrutiny into a positive thing: When he sent out copies of her syllabus to those calling to complain, he took the time to include a note saying of the books she assigned: "These are good works -- you should read them."


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