Roundtable Review: ‘American Studies in the Twenty-First Century’, BAAS Annual Conference 2021 (Online)

In his introduction to ‘American Studies in the Twenty-First Century’, Andrew Fearnley (University of Manchester), who co-organized the roundtable with Hilary Emmett (University of East Anglia), argued that the “greatest challenge that faces British American Studies is our subject’s diminishing profile among young people.” This panel sought to consider how we should explain what American Studies is today to the public and to potential American Studies undergraduates, who are increasingly being drawn away from American Studies towards other subjects. How do we explain this field to those who have little or no knowledge of what it is? What words best capture what it is we do today in American Studies departments, or in American Studies degrees? To begin addressing these questions, the roundtable brought together five speakers from different institutions around the United Kingdom. These speakers brought a variety of backgrounds and experiences teaching American Studies to the panel, a diversity that contributed to a fruitful and wide-ranging discussion.

 

The roundtable progressed in a clear, constructive order that led the audience from an understanding of the problem to possible solutions, with the first speakers establishing the state of American Studies in the UK and the final speakers using examples from their own research and teaching to suggest potential paths American Studies might use to promote itself to potential students going forward. Ben Marsh (University of Kent), the first speaker to present, established the stakes of this roundtable, and of the wider discussion surrounding the purpose of American Studies, by explaining the specific challenges surrounding recruitment and enrollment that the discipline faces. Marsh showed that there are demonstrable weaknesses in how American Studies is articulated as a degree and in how students understand it. Citing the example of American Studies at the University of Kent, where, despite hosting a longstanding American Studies Centre, the undergraduate American Studies degree program has recently been eliminated, he compared the state of American Studies to that of a bleached coral reef—both in need of swift action in order to reverse declines. Marsh suggested that finding new ways to explain and justify American Studies programs will be critical to the future of the field in the United Kingdom, setting up the rest of the panel to consider ways in which we as members of the American Studies community might go about this necessary reframing.

 

The following two speakers used the examples of their own home institutions to demonstrate how universities and individual researchers have responded to the challenges Marsh laid out. Patrick Andelic first explained what the University of Northumbria has done to try to expand its American Studies program, crediting much of Northumbria’s success in widening American Studies to the launch of two joint honors programs with history and English. Andelic was quick to note that while this has probably secured American Studies at Northumbria for the medium term, these programs, which borrow the more well-defined reputations of history and English, still haven’t solved the problem of how to promote American Studies as a distinct discipline. Goldsmiths, University of London, by contrast, does not have a stand-alone American Studies program, but Nicole King argued that she and her fellow Americanist lecturers at Goldsmiths are nevertheless “doing American Studies by stealth.” King claimed that while she and her Americanist colleagues are not working within an American Studies program, they are still utilizing an American Studies framework by training their students to think across disciplines and methods and to consider how written, spoken, or visual texts are situated socially, culturally, and historically.

 

King ended her talk with an example of how she uses an American Studies approach in her African American literature classes by encouraging students to read this literature in the context or—and in opposition to—the prevailing media narratives surrounding Black Americans. This segued well into the presentations of the final two panelists, who both suggested ways to reframe American Studies through examples from their own research and teaching. By demonstrating the association between the American slave trade and unpaid labor in Australia, Hilary Emmett argued for a transnational view of American Studies that would put the study of the United States in an explicitly international framework. Stephanie Lewthwaite (University of Nottingham) similarly argued for an approach to American Studies that emphasizes its timeliness, suggesting that the fact that American Studies often involves considering what is happening in the world currently is one of its greatest strengths. Both made clear the relevance and importance they saw American Studies as having for students in the United Kingdom and emphasized that these connections need to be made more obvious to students who are considering which subject to pursue in university.

 

In his closing remarks, Fearnley wrapped up the presentation portion of the roundtable by arguing that in order to move forward and better situate itself for the present, American Studies needs a better understanding of its past. Fearnley reminded the roundtable audience that in its earliest days in the UK, American Studies borrowed many aspects of its programming not only from history and English—the two fields with which it is most associated now, and which many panelists mentioned as the subjects which have partnered with American Studies in joint honors courses—but from social sciences as well. The social sciences of the mid-twentieth century offered students access to a more tool-based mode of learning, an aspect of American Studies that Fearnley believes we should foreground in our presentation of our field.

 

The roundtable was not long enough to really engage in a discussion about how to enact any of these ideas or promote American Studies during the question-and-answer section, which was regrettable, as a longer question and answer session might have generated more suggestions. However, panelists and attendees explicitly connected this roundtable’s questions to those that would be considered two days later during the conference’s final session on ‘Developing a Signature Pedagogy for American Studies in the UK,’ suggesting that the conversation begun through this roundtable would continue into the conference’s final weekend.

 

The sense that this discussion would and should continue was itself one of the most important takeaway points from the roundtable. Marsh maintained during his presentation that solving the problems facing American Studies can only happen when people come together to find a solution, arguing that one of American Studies’ strengths is that it is “a diffuse and open intellectual community that can work collectively.” Nick Witham (University College London), during the question-and-answer portion of the panel, echoed this, encouraging the panelists and everybody attending the roundtable to think about BAAS, which is embedded in area studies, as an agent for and leader in the effort to align American Studies with area studies. This roundtable was a compelling and thought-provoking place to start considering these issues, but it was clear both from the panelists’ presentations and from the attendees’ questions that this conversation was only a starting point for a much longer and vitally important discussion surrounding the future of American Studies. American Studies is at risk in the UK, and panelists, roundtable attendees, BAAS members, and anyone researching or teaching American Studies must continue these conversations in order to secure its future.

About Molly Becker

Molly Becker is a third-year PhD student at the University of Cambridge. She received a BA in English Literature, Linguistics, and Geography from the University of Chicago in 2017, and went on to receive an MPhil in American Literature at Cambridge the following year. Her PhD dissertation examines the relationship between the rural Midwest, language, and American culture and identity in the early twentieth century through the lens of Midwestern authors such as Ruth Suckow, Zona Gale, and Booth Tarkington.
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