American Studies
American Studies

History of Academic Field

“American Studies: An Overview” by Michael Cowan.

In Encyclopedia of American Studies, edited by Miles Orvell
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

The term American studies, often treated as a singular rather than plural noun, has been most conventionally used to refer to the seven-decade-old institutionalized academic movement devoted to the multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary study, both in and outside the United States, of U.S. society and culture. Those institutional arrangements now include undergraduate and graduate degree-granting and other programs in over four hundred colleges and universities worldwide; curricula in numerous high schools; academic journals in a dozen countries; American studies sections in academic publishers' booklists; offices in various governmental agencies, private foundations, museums, and research libraries; and professional American studies associations in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, the South Pacific, Canada, and the United States, the oldest and largest of which is the U.S.-based American Studies Association (ASA).

In addition to this conventional use of the term, American studies has also at times been applied to over three centuries of self-conscious commentary on American life. Ranging from nationalistic celebration to antinationalist critique and constantly being augmented by new and rediscovered texts in print, electronic, and other media, this massive commentary is a continuous reminder that academic American studies depends in profound ways on the discursive and institutional worlds outside its own academic borders.

A third use of the term American studies has recently assumed some prominence, particularly among academic activists, and proceeds from a sharp critique of versions of American studies that focus exclusively or primarily on an analysis of the United States. Although, from the eighteenth century to the present, "America" has been conventionally applied in its singular form primarily to the United States, critics have increasingly attacked such application as symptomatic of nationalist chauvinism. Equally important, their argument for a broader, pannational use of "America" and " American" stems from a critique of the value of using nation-states as units of analysis and explanation.
Although academic American studies can be called a movement, it may be more accurate to say that it is constituted by a variety of movements, embedded in a wide range of practices, positions, and groups. From its outset, academic American studies has offered sites for myriad debates and negotiations over content, theory, method, structural arrangements, and membership. In general, the history of academic American studies can be seen as an unevenly developing and often contested movement toward enlarging the content of the field, diversifying the theories and methods brought to bear on that content, strengthening the often unstable institutional arrangements for the field, and achieving greater cultural diversity among the field's participants and leaders.

American studies' development in the United States both reflected and refracted most of the major changes animating the nation during the twentieth century. If some of this development can be captured imperfectly in "representative " moments, it can also be viewed in part in terms of the five or six overlapping generations of academics who have come, in varying degrees, to identify themselves with the movement or some of its aspects.

Most of the U.S. "founders" of academic American studies were born within a decade on each side of 1900. Like others of their era, they experienced the pressures of rapid urbanization, massive immigration, corporatization, professionalizing of higher education and other institutions, and dramatic changes in transportation, communication, and other technologies that were transforming the physical, social, and cultural landscape of the United States and other societies. They too were affected by the complex ideological and discursive legacies of the Progressive movement, World War I, and the immediate postwar era, and they negotiated the myriad and often contradictory impulses—utopian, pragmatic, internationalist, nationalist, populist, elitist, futuristic, nostalgic—emanating from such experiences. Some of this first generation labored in relative isolation from other kindred spirits. But most academic Americanists of the 1920s and 1930s undertook their work in a context of scholarly conversation and collaboration. Such cross-institutional and, to an extent, cross-disciplinary collaborations offered one important seedbed out of which an institutional American studies was to spring.

Arguably the most important proximate catalysts for institutional American studies were the Depression and President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. If the Depression created a widespread sense of cultural as well as economic and political crisis in the United States and elsewhere, the crisis also stimulated new and recently established academics in their twenties and thirties to inspect the social processes, values, and patterns of thought that had led to the crisis and to examine the social and cultural traditions and contemporary resources possessed by the nation that might lead the nation out of the crisis. The New Deal's pragmatic and improvisatory approach to the reconstruction of the economy and public morale paralleled curricular experiments, and academic writing focused, like many New Deal social programs, on bringing people together across boundaries (in the case of American studies, across departmental boundaries) and on highlighting the relationship of national traditions and contemporary problems. Even when many U.S.-focused courses of this period were historically oriented, they developed themes that self-consciously linked past and present. Like the Progressive historians, philosophers, and social theorists, many academic Americanists of the 1930s stressed the practical contemporary value of knowing about the national past. Also influential among Americanists of the 1930s were New Deal cultural projects that promoted not only attention to American literature and the arts but to local histories, folkways, and the celebration of ordinary Americans' lives. In addition to generating materials usable by scholars and teachers as well as others, these projects also implicitly taught the value of organized approaches to the study of American life. And the projects offered models for a handful of academics among the first generation of Americanists who were searching for effective ways of being public intellectuals, both speaking and listening to audiences outside the academy.

By 1940 this first generation of academic Americanists had founded a few formal American studies programs and had been joined in the nascent enterprise by the beginnings of a second generation, one that had entered college during the mid and late 1930s, taken recently inaugurated undergraduate and graduate courses in American social, literary, cultural, and intellectual history from the first generation, and been influenced by the liberal and left-wing currents of the decade. Whether they interrupted their academic lives when World War II broke out to serve in the military or stayed and studied on the home front, many in this generation emerged from the war with both nationalist and internationalist perspectives on the perils confronting democracy and capitalism, and they began to embody those perspectives in their teaching and writing in academic American studies.

A survey of the growing number of American studies undergraduate and graduate programs in 1948 found institutional patterns not surprising for a new academic enterprise. Most depended entirely or heavily on courses offered by established departments. In some could be found a small core of multi- and interdisciplinary courses sponsored by the American studies program itself. Faculty teaching these courses typically had their primary homes in an established department or held a dual department-program appointment. Some "interdisciplinary " courses were at the outset more so in title than in content and method. But, increasingly, often by focusing on "themes" or case-study " problems," a more or less distinctive self-labeled "American studies " curriculum became fairly widespread in programs of the 1950s.

The American studies movement of the postwar decades was tugged at by a number of often conflicting tendencies that Americanists at a number of specific institutional sites attempted, with varying degrees of success and self-consciousness, to negotiate. The preeminent political and economic power and assertiveness of the United States in the immediate postwar period, further heated by cold-war politics and rhetoric, undoubtedly affected in complex ways the character of the movement's development both in and outside the United States. For example, international postwar politics stimulated the United States's active effort, as a part of its foreign policy, to develop American studies programs, libraries, research institutions, associations, and publications abroad, to send U.S. Americanists abroad to teach and lecture, and to help foreign scholars from a variety of "free" and "developing" countries come to the United States to study. Most leaders of the first and second generation of U.S. Americanists had been overseas on Fulbright scholarships or private-foundation grants by the mid-1960s. For some scholars, such overseas experiences further stimulated an interest in cross-national comparative studies that had already been present in prewar American studies. The opportunity to travel abroad as a result of governmental and corporate largesse also carried its pressures and temptations. Even while not usually instructed explicitly by federal authorities to be evangelists of the American way of life, and even while they might criticize various aspects of American society and culture while abroad, many Fulbrighters and academic United States Information Agency (USIA) consultants nonetheless felt some obligation to be goodwill ambassadors of their nation.

Closer to home, American studies programs were beneficiaries of the unevenly distributed prosperity of postwar U.S. society, rapidly growing college enrollments, and a widespread although by no means unanimous celebration of "American " products, institutions, people, and values. Undergraduates looking for fresh kinds of courses—perhaps in the same way that they were drawn to postwar films, music, and the new medium of television and to a desire to discover and explain themselves in a rapidly changing world—found an outlet for their curiosity and restlessness in American studies programs. And a few of these undergraduates found their way into the steadily growing number of American studies graduate programs.

Most Americanists of the second generation, like those of the first, functioned more or less comfortably in the academic culture of the era. If many used American studies to pursue what they considered a progressive academic agenda, they for the most part dressed and spoke and socialized like most other faculty of the era. Still, this was the era in which the first large group of working-class, Jewish, second-generation "ethnic" American, and other nonmainstream students moved into elite institutions of higher education. American studies was one of the beneficiaries of the social ambitiousness and sometimes fresh perspectives they brought into the schools they attended.

In the course of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the first and second generations of Americanists were joined gradually by a third generation. Many American studies Ph.D.'s of the period participated in what might be thought of as a diasporic movement, migrating from their parent programs to other colleges and universities at which they founded or helped build new American studies programs. In the process they both imported and transformed the models of social and cultural analysis that they had learned in graduate school. The result was a range of postwar American studies programs, scholarship, and other Americanist activity that was much more various than can be captured by reductive characterizations of the period as one dominated by "myth-and-symbol, " "consensus," or "high culture" analysis. The agendas of local programs depended often on the personalities, interests, and skills of their core faculty as well as on the ethos, structures, and resources of their individual schools. Similar dynamics were also creating a variety of American studies programs abroad.

Despite these often striking local differences, most of the major themes, aspirations, and tensions in the postwar American studies movement in the United States were eventually felt and negotiated in what became its most prominent institutional manifestation, the ASA. Formed in 1951 at meetings in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia by a small group of prominent first- and second-generation Americanists, the ASA began as a loosely federated structure and to that extent reflected the diverse agendas and local institutional bases of the postwar American studies movement. For its first two decades, the ASA's national council—a rather clubby group if its minutes are to be trusted—consisted of the ASA's officers (elected by the council itself), several council-elected at-large members, and one representative from each of the growing number of regional American studies groups (gradually to become known as ASA "chapters "). Regional chapters organized regular conferences and other activities with little assistance from ASA, and some guarded their relative independence from the national body in language that often reminds one of states' rights or populist rhetoric.

With a small although steadily growing membership (from slightly over three hundred in 1952 to nearly twenty-three hundred in 1966) and very modest dues, ASA depended heavily in its early years on federal and foundation grants and on the generosity of a few universities, most notably the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), which housed the ASA's offices and provided other support for better than three decades. ASA focused its slender budget and part-time staff on a limited number of activities, most notably on joint sessions at annual meetings of well-established disciplinary associations. Perhaps the ASA's most defining early act was its designating as its official journal the American Quarterly, which had been founded at the University of Minnesota in 1949 and then migrated to Penn in 1951. Symptomatic of the limited powers of the early ASA, Penn owned the Quarterly until 1985, and the journal's editors were members of the Penn faculty. Penn's substantial assistance, although essential to ASA's growth, was not free of the strains often attendant on relationships between unequal partners. Some historians of ASA have thus termed the decades at Penn the colonial phase of the ASA's development.

The leadership of the ASA during the 1950s and 1960s was drawn almost entirely from the now well-established first and second generation of the movement. Not surprisingly, the primary goal pursued by many although not all of ASA's leaders during this period was to use Americanists' publications, curricular initiatives, conference papers, grant- and Fulbright-getting skills, and hard-won savvy at institutional negotiations to gain academic respectability for American studies. Although some scholars continued to argue for the importance of a more public role for American studies, the national leadership for the most part avoided a sustained debate of this question. Also avoided was a sustained discussion of the possibility of the ASA's sponsoring its own national conventions. When ASA finally sponsored its first national conferences—in Kansas City in 1967, Toledo in 1969, and Washington, D.C., in 1971—the association stuck at first to the East and Midwest.

But the very decision in 1965 to launch national meetings (if with a cautiousness reflected in the fact that, for two decades, the meetings were biennial rather than annual) suggested a growing institutional self-confidence, one fueled by a variety of dynamics in and outside the movement. ASA membership and the number of established local American studies programs had gradually reached a number, by the mid-1960s, sufficient to make a national meeting seem likely to draw a large enough audience and come close to paying for itself. The first wave of the postwar baby boom was reaching higher education by the early 1960s and causing an expansion of enrollments in Americanist courses in many academic fields, including American studies, with the concomitant need for new faculty. Although not yet central for the most part to the national ASA leadership, many of the postwar American Studies Ph.D.'s, augmented by American studies graduate students of the 1960s, were eager to interact with each other, confirm their common professional status, and consider ways to further strengthen the movement they shared.

In 1965 few of these Americanists could have anticipated that such national meetings would become focusing sites of other far-reaching political and social forces that were beginning to cause a seismic shift in the national landscape, and that those meetings in turn would become catalysts of often dramatic changes in the movement itself. As the shock waves from the civil rights movement had slowly pressed into the academy, beginning in the late 1950s, some of American studies' early if imperfectly institutionalized concerns—for bringing people and ideas together across artificial barriers, for relating past and present, for studying the lives and perspectives of ordinary people as well as dominant opinion makers, for speaking to and with publics beyond the academy—began to assume renewed prominence in some American studies classrooms in the form of greater attention to such topics as African American history and culture, urban studies, and critiques of corporate capitalism. And some American studies graduate students began to press the faculty to make the curriculum more relevant to pressing contemporary political and social problems and to open up the academic decision-making structure to students' participation.

Interestingly, the same increasingly flexible modes of communication and interaction that made possible the first national conventions of the ASA also made possible the national organizing of left and liberal student activism in the movement. At ASA's second national convention in 1969, surrounded by sharp memories of recent assassinations, urban race riots, antiwar protests on and off campus, and often violent police and military retaliation against demonstrators, a tense ASA council faced the demands of a newly formed group of American studies graduate students and young faculty who called themselves the Radical Caucus. Although its members tied their goals to larger movements for social justice, the caucus's demands were most notable for focusing primarily on American studies itself. Drawing perhaps unconsciously on an older if muted impulse in American studies, the caucus argued for the need to bring passion and commitment into the academy. It called on the ASA and American Quarterly to pay much more attention to contemporary popular culture and to the pressing social and political crises of the late 1960s. It called for more academic work in ethnic, women's, urban, developing-world, and ecological studies, and for sharper critiques of dominant United States and transnational political economic structures. But it also wanted the association to play a more active role in helping them find academic jobs. And it criticized many established Americanists for not asserting forcefully enough that American studies was a distinctive field of study rather than mainly a collection of the "American" aspects of other disciplines.

In addition to opening up subsequent ASA conventions to numerous workshops on these issues, sponsoring several summer institutes in the early 1970s, and publishing a journal (Connections and Connections II) for several years, the caucus pressed successfully for the addition of several student members to the national council. Although it faded as an organized group by the late 1970s, the Radical Caucus succeeded in accelerating the opening of the national leadership of the movement to the third and beginnings of a fourth generation of academic Americanists (one symptom of which was the decreasing average age of ASA presidents and council members) and making contemporary social and cultural analysis a much more important part of the movement's agenda. The caucus's call for a more public agenda was also reflected in the short-lived National American Studies Faculty, funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant, that during the 1970s sent Americanists on pro-bono cultural missions into high schools, libraries, museums, and other sites. The democratizing agendas of the caucus also manifested themselves in revisions of ASA's constitution in 1978 that, among other things, made the president and vice president electable by the entire association membership and, in a change protested by some loyal regional chapter members, that replaced chapter representatives to the council with nationally elected representatives nominated with an eye to drawing on the membership's diverse backgrounds and interests.

In addition to students, perhaps the single largest group of initial beneficiaries of such activism was women. At a meeting of the twenty-eight-member ASA national council in December 1969, the only woman on the council presented the body with a series of resolutions on the status of women adapted from a similar series just presented to the leadership of the American Historical Association. At its next meeting, the council formally agreed to state its opposition to discrimination against women in admissions, employment, and other areas and to establish a Committee on the Status of Women. Throughout the decade a feminist presence, taking energy from the larger U.S. women's movement, began to make its influence strongly felt in the work of the association and in the American studies movement as a whole. In 1975 the association elected its first female vice president. By the early 1980s close to half of the council was female, and feminist topics were prominent in the association's national meetings, as they had become in American studies classrooms and in the major Americanist journals. Not until 1986 did ASA elect its first female president. Since then, eleven women have served in that office.

While students, social activists, and women were steadily transforming the agendas and operations of American studies, another social transformation in the movement was more slowly taking shape. At the 1977 ASA convention, for example, the dozen black scholars on the program constituted less than five percent of the program roster. Despite the activism of the 1960s and early 1970s, the coming of faculty and students of color into the work of American studies, at both local and national levels, had been very slow. In 1967, John Hope Franklin was elected president of ASA and presided over its first national meeting; but he was only one of less than a handful of African Americans or other scholars of color to appear on the national council's roster before the mid-1980s. At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, most American studies programs diversified their curricula well before they diversified their faculty and students, and many students of color continued to see American studies as an enterprise unresponsive to their needs and interests.

Nevertheless, the increasingly cross-ethnic integrative efforts in some local American studies programs began slowly to yield greater diversity in the movement and gradually percolated up to the national level. In 1985 at the national convention in San Diego, as a result of vigorous recruiting by some members of the program committee, several dozen African American, Latino, and Asian American faculty and graduate students gathered for the first time. The association formed a special committee on minority affairs that evolved in the late 1980s into the Minority Scholars Committee. Scholars of color began to be elected in significant numbers to ASA's national council and to make their presence felt in all the association's standing committees. In 1996 a prominent African American scholar became president of ASA; and in 2000 the association's members elected their first Latino president. Such leaders have focused the association's attention, as they have local programs' attention, on building alliances with and actively supporting the work of ethnic studies programs and organizations. A recent sign of this multicultural and feminist activism was the council's decision in 1996 to refuse to hold its annual conventions in any state that had passed an antiaffirmative-action statute.

During six decades of national and international crises, transformations, conflicts, and shifting alliances, the American studies movement itself was thus transformed dramatically, if in fits and starts. Among numerous other factors resulting in the closing of some local American studies programs (as well as a temporary decline during the 1970s in ASA's own membership, and even in some loyalists' belief that the movement was in institutional and intellectual crisis) were: post-Vietnam and post-Watergate disillusionment; periodic recessions, such as those in the late 1970s and early 1990s; college budget cuts; ups and downs in the job markets for liberal arts Ph.D.'s; retirements and defections of some early Americanists; competition from emerging women's, ethnic, media studies, and other interdisciplinary programs; and expanded cultural-studies portfolios of established disciplines. In the 1990s, following the end of the cold war, additional challenges to American studies were raised by voices in the university arguing that area-studies programs (seen as ideological agents of U.S. cold-war foreign policy) and nation-based analyses of social, political, and cultural questions were no longer defensible explanatory models. Furthermore, in a world economy dominated by transnational corporations, massive movements of goods and people, and lightning-fast, globe-spanning modes of communication and representation, transnational modes of analyses were seen as the inevitable wave of the future.

In the face of these challenges, the American studies movement overall has nonetheless prospered, often as a result of the stimulus presented by the challenges. By the late 1970s, for example, ASA itself had begun to benefit, if not without internal debate, from pursuing the agendas of the third and fourth generation of academic Americanists. Its membership began to increase as it threw its weight more vigorously and systematically behind multicultural, popular culture, and ideological studies. In a gesture of institutional self-confidence in the mid-1980s, it purchased American Quarterly from the University of Pennsylvania, settled a large debt to Penn, and moved its offices and the Quarterly to Washington, D.C., under the sponsorship of a consortium that included five universities, a major academic press, and the Smithsonian Institution.

Americanists' work at all levels was dramatically facilitated in the last two decades of the twentieth century by such dramatic technological transformations as the burgeoning computer-based global electronic network. Such Americanist Web sites as the Crossroads Project and H-Amstdy facilitated more rapid exchange of scholarship, syllabi, and programmatic strategies. International American studies, and its transnational and comparativist proclivities, was further strengthened by the general and often dramatic expansion and transformation of universities abroad and the emergence of large waves of younger international scholars fluent in English, well-traveled, and highly knowledgeable about contemporary U.S. society as well as about other parts of the globe.

Academic American studies has thrived in large part because its participants have been able to choose and negotiate multiple identities for themselves, identities that are often tactical and among which "Americanist" is only one. If a committed core of true believers in American studies has been crucial to the movement's survival in bad times as well as good, the movement has also gained bite and energy from the critiques of various loyal oppositions, the goodwill of fellow travelers, and even the occasional consumers of its conventions and publications. In all its own diverse manifestations and agendas, the movement continues to offer an array of students and scholars a supportive home for their work. Key to its present strength is its flexibility, its willingness to treat challenges to its agendas as opportunities to engage in enlightening dialogue, its willingness to welcome new perspectives and participants as full partners. In their most idealistic moments, Americanists still set for themselves the difficult and never-completed task of modeling in the movement itself a just, creative, and humane "America" and helping make that imagined community a responsible partner in a just, creative, and humane world.

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