H-Amstdy Wayback: Elections, American Studies, and H-Amstdy

Patrick Cox, H-NET President-Elect and Editor's picture

I’ve been looking through the ol’ H-AMSTDY logs for something timely to discuss. I found surprisingly little about The Pope and even less about Donald Trump. I was beginning to feel rather down about the whole enterprise until I stumbled across rich vein discussions about elections. Or rather, I found rich vein of discussions about a lack of discussions about elections. If no one is currently talking about Trump on H-AMSTDY, encounter this query from Eric Sandeen on December 12, 2000, that emerged from H-AMSTDY’s silence on the subject of the Bush vs. Gore election just as the Supreme Court was about to weigh in on hanging chads:

I'm writing before the Supreme Court ruling is handed down.  Is it just that many American universities are in the middle of final exams?  Or is it that this list does not feel that politics is an apt subject of discussion?  I'm curious, because, in fact, there has been absolutely no discussion of this continuing political/electoral process (and media event) that must rate as one of the most significant of recent years.

There may be evidence that this list is not interested in American national politics.  I did a word search for the word "politics" in H-AMSTDY strands since 1994 and only one of the 62 hits referred explicitly to an on-line conversation about national affairs.  I don't have time to take the search engine further, but I think it would be interesting to know how this list -- as one of the most visible (virtual?) ways in which American Studies manifests itself -- configures civic or national political culture.  Are these subjects worthy of discussion?  This isn't a rhetorical question.

Should a list like this one talk about an event such as the one we are enduring?  If the answer is yes, how could we go about this cultural commentary without turning into political hacks (as the Florida Supreme Court has been characterized by people who could themselves be hacks) or vacuous spin doctors (pick your poison:  CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc.)?

Eric’s question was not treated as rhetorical by any means. 30 replies were posted on H-Amstdy over the following three-and-half weeks, some of which veer into politics. Most it, however, turn on the question of “Is this American Studies?” Following Eric's lead in using the H-AMSTDY archives as a data set, and as a visible (virtual) manifestation of the field, and the current elections as context, let’s revisit the discussion, see where we were, and think about where we are now.

Bruce Spear was the first to reply Eric, on 12/14, noting: “For starters I would suggest that in part the lack of comment from our quarters might be due to the fact that there has been so much good commentary delivered daily by well-informed writers in the mainstream press (it is truly amazing that one can surf the news and opinion pages of all the major newspapers in just a few minutes before breakfast).” Another reminder from the not-very-old H-AMSTDY archives about the new-ness of the internet and its impact on how information has been exchanged and discussed. Bruce goes on to make a much bigger point about American Studies. He says he turned to two other H-Net lists for comments on current public events: H-TEACHPOL and APSA-CIVED, and sees distinct differences between them and H-AMSTDY (and by extension American Studies).

First, the lists I've mentioned assume a thorough grounding in American government, history, and politics.  In contrast - and I don't mean to offend anyone here, least of all my at times poorly-informed self -- I have the impression that many of us "Hamsters" are far more specialized and literary- than policy- oriented.  Moreover, a number of us are concerned with theoretical issues, the irrational, and philological/literary history issues that are by nature difficult to reconcile with the more mundane, institution-bound logic, procedure, and issue of much of our contemporary political affairs.  Still others of us got into literature as an alternative to politics, treat rhetoric as a trick, and so have little patience with the languages of law and persuasion characterizing public debate.”

So quickly a definition and division is established and it really becomes the center of the ensuing conversation: irrational vs. mundane. Or, American Studies is pretty well based in the humanities; political science is something we’re not interested in that is almost written in a different language. As I said, this was 2000, 15 years have passed. Has American Studies changed enough in such a way that folks today would be less inclined to consider our field uninterested in “contemporary political affairs?” Or does American Studies analysis tend toward something closer to “cultural studies,” still not done in a way a political scientist would recognize.

John Phillips, then editor of H-USA, contributed, on Dec. 19, 2000, “I think H-AMSTDY grew out of the American tradition of interdisciplinary 'American Studies' departments combining mostly literature and history, with a bit of what would later be labelled 'cultural studies' etc. H-AMSTDY editor Jeff Finlay vehemently disagreed, saying, “I don't believe there is a single person in an American Studies program or department in the US who would agree with your description of American Studies.” Though what American Studies is, Jeff did not say (in this post). And the Humanities vs. Science-y stuff was both bemoaned yet re-iterated by just about everyone in the thread. No one but Eric ever advocated for American Studies to get a little more political.

Gilbert Rodman on December 19 considered it likely that H-AMSTDY subscribers may very well have had plenty to say about current events, but that they were self-censoring, essentially, in order to keep H-Amstdy on the topic of, well, American Studies: “I'm a bit curious as to why he's interpreting the absence of any such discussion as a potential sign that 'this list is not interested in American national politics.’ Perhaps no one's posted anything to H-AMSTDY (or at least nothing that the moderators thought worthy of vetting) because no one's had anything to say on the subject that's got a clear American Studies spin to it."

So the subject matter of the election may be fair game, but “a clear American Studies-spin” is still called for.

Eric returns on January 3 to say: "My subject may be an irony familiar to some readers: in 'doing' academic American Studies for all these years I don't want to read and write myself out of my own culture, as problematic and vexing as it is.  Relatively few US students will become card-carrying American Studies practitioners.  Many more will remain citizens of what is now known as the United States.  It's in my best interest to sharpen their critical thinking skills.  I have to live with these people.”

A bit of a plea there for scholarship that is relevant to the contemporary culture-—not theorizing culture, and disciplinary spin be damned—-but insisting on relevant subject matter. It sounds like Eric wants to produce scholarship that is engaged with its culture. This seems to almost necessitate that scholarship be about, or very strongly linked to, something current, though not necessarily “politics” (which was the title of this thread).

So a few posts along the lines of, “This is politics, not American Studies,” and some positing of American Studies as really centered in the humanities and not something more like sociology. Still true today? There are a few appeals top American Studies being closely aligned with History and therefore less concerned with contemporary politics, but today historians seem more and more intent on proving their relevance to the present day. (To continue using H-Net as a data source, check out any of the many H-Net networks that have some aspect of history as their focus. You’ll find CFP’s and Announcements pertaining to just about every discipline and area of study you can think of, including examinations of digital media…) 

It’s not the first time the subject came up on H-AMSTDY. Back in 1995 Mary Beth Melchior wrote about her PhD candidacy in Political Science but her enjoyment of H-AMSTDY discussion. She asked about her chances of getting a job in American Studies. Jeff Finlay tagged on another question about what types of “Political Science Am Studies scholarship” list members valued, and another discussion of the nature of the field ensued.

Phillip Davis suggested, “that Am Studs cannot be comprehended without some understanding of the political dynamics of the nation, and any approach uninformed by that knowledge lacks a fundamental element.”

Rochard Hororitz gave Mary Beth some not optimistic numbers:

According to the "Individual Member Survey, 1990-91," published in the ASA Newsletter (September 1993), political science is not a strong presence in institutionalized American Studies.  71.6% of the members in 1990 held a doctorate in the humanities.  Since 15.5% of the membership were students, no more than about 13% could possibly be credentialled in ANY of the social sciences. At that time, American Studies, English, History, and Art History accounted for about 90% of the highest degrees of all members.  (By the way, this is among the reasons, in earlier posts, I characterized social scientists suspicions of American Studies -- that we are inexperienced in social science -- as understandable).  Of course, you ought to feel more welcome as a political scientists, but the track record is not great.

Regarding which Shirley Wajda mentioned, “There is something to the question of legitimacy, however, when American Studies Programs and Departments hire other-than-American studies Ph.D.'s (an increasing concern now than, say, twenty years ago, given the higher number of degrees awarded), and when the national organization gains its own economic viability and political legitimacy by embracing all comers. When was the last time an ASA President owned a Ph.D. in American Studies?”

Jennifer Hochschild agreed with many others who saw a mutual distrust (or worse) between American Studies and Poli Sci scholars: “I see few political scientists in the field, and a fair amount of mutual suspicion, which seems to me nonsense intellectually.  People who study 'power' from a 'cultural studies' perspective seem often to mistrust those who study power for a living--i.e. political scientists -- perhaps they think we do it wrong? I’d be interested in finding out why or how we do it wrong, from their vantage point.  People who study political institutions often seek to be more 'scientific,' or 'objective' or 'structural' or 'solid' than(their perception of) much of Am. Studies. “

Mary Schweitzer added the qualitative/quantitative divide to the "never the twain shall meet" argument. Briefly quoted: "I believe that the disciplines basically chose sides -- either narrative or models -- and having chosen sides, quit speaking to each other (with many scholars vociferously denigrating the other's choice)."

Jeff Finlay also used H-AMSTDY as a bit of data: “Having gleaned research-related info about most of the 1300+ subscribers now on H-Amstdy, I must admit I have seen very few who openly describe their Am Studies specialization as oriented towards Political Science. I agree that there is no reason - _pace_ those trained IN Am Studies who might find the notion abhorrent - why Poli Sci and Am Studies shouldn't mix.”

But there must have been some reason because it seemed to be pretty common. I wonder if we're maybe a tad more tolerant of multi-disciplinarity today. Though at the same time, how many political scientists are in your department? How many statisticians?

Two last quotes on the subject. 

On May 4, 1994 H-AMSTDY received a post from Dan Balz and Rich Morin that began, “We are reporters for the Washington Post, interested in understanding how the anger of voters in 1992 translates into the 1994 midterms.” They received this reply from Joseph Arpad, “Try talking with some people and make up your own mind, rather than talking with academics.” 

So academics are not the place to turn to learn things about people? Certainly sociologists would disagree, though that is one discipline that never came up in any of these discussions about American Studies. (Even Psychology did, but not Sociology.)

And from the original thread, Reinhold Wagnleitner, on Dec 15, 2000, wrote, “I think there hardly is a more fitting (and timely) response to the question of the political (ir-)relevance of much of the present academic brouhaha than the following reaction of the former attorney general Edwin Meese to a remark that the Republicans were slowly loosing ground in academia in the mid-1980s:  "You may have more American Studies departments, but we have the White House."

I think Meese is suggesting Republicans took Arpad’s advice.


P.S. If you found it annoying to click on all those names only to find blank profiles, take a hint and fill in your profile! People click on your name too! 

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