Some of My Best Friends Work in American Studies: Bringing History and American Studies Departments Together

Steven Parfitt draws upon his experience collaborating between the American Studies and History Departments at the University of Nottingham to explore some of the best ways you can make lasting cross-departmental connections.

the-russian-mafia-versus-the-japanese-yakuza--a-comparison-of-how-each-is-organized,-a-comparison-of-methods,-and-a-look-at-their-respective-historiesEven though I am the graduate of a History Department, some of my best friends work in American Studies. I don’t mean that as the lead-in to some obscure joke about the frictions and rivalries between the two departments. I mean it sincerely as a form of advice to PhD students in my position – researching a topic that falls partly within the orbit of American Studies and partly within the realm of (usually non-American) History Departments.

My PhD thesis – currently under contract with University of Liverpool Press – concerned the Knights of Labor, one of the main staples of American labour history, but in Britain and Ireland. I researched my PhD at the University of Nottingham which boasts completely distinct American Studies and History Departments. Coming from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, which made no such distinction, and where I wrote an MA thesis on an American topic within a History Department, I never thought to apply for an American Studies programme and joined History instead. Even when I started the PhD I had little idea that such a programme existed. The main University Park campus sprawls over a wide area, with History next to the western entrance and American Studies a 10 minute uphill walk away. Few shared events or networks connected the departments together, and the 10 minute walk may as well have been an hour on the train for all the difference it made to my awareness of all these Americanist students and staff with their own place in the university.

It took a combination of luck and alcohol to raise my awareness. Two years into my thesis I hosted a house party. My flatmate, a PhD in the Politics Department, invited friends and friends of friends to come along. I, meanwhile, forgot to scoop up all of my books from the lounge and left a copy of Philip S Foner’s History of the Labor Movement in the United States on the table. One of my flatmates’ friends saw the book, found out whose it was, and within five minutes we had started talking.

mayday two[10]From that first boozy conversation Lorenzo Costaguta and I have not only become friends but have also collaborated, along with Matthew Kidd and John Tiplady, of History and American Studies respectively, on a highly successful conference, Workers of All Lands Unite, held at Nottingham University in March 2015. We both wrote a report of that conference for U.S. Studies Online. All four of us are currently turning its proceedings into an edited collection with Cambridge Scholars Press, with the same title as the conference. And in some crucial way we owe all of it to Philip S Foner. Many historians might now consider him the worst kind of unreconstructed Stalinist, and some have even accused him (posthumously) of plagiarism, but Foner’s book was the trigger for my awareness of American Studies and the people within it. Wine and parties, of course, were not unimportant here too.

So what does this say about the problems that PhDs in American history might face if caught between two separate and competing Departments. The first and most obvious thing to do is to check if an American Studies Department exists at your university, and to see if they have links with the History Department. If they do not, see if it is possible to attend the events that each department organises and try to get a foot in each door. Heads of the relevant Department should be your first port of call, and a single email can unlock all kind of opportunities that you would otherwise never hear about. History Departments usually run blogs that feature recent research and can be used to find scholars in your field at your own institution. The Nottingham one is here.  If my experience is anything to go by, historians in American Studies feel as much cut off from other historians as Americanists can feel isolated in their History Department. Don’t rely on booze and Philip S Foner to narrow the gap between you and your colleagues on the other side of the disciplinary divide. Be proactive – maybe more proactive than I was.

The second thing you can do, in a wider sense, is to seek out conferences and journals from the other discipline. For those in History Departments, the BAAS conference and its journals (including this one) are an excellent place to start. UCL run a research group and hold an annual conference, Radical Americas, which is an excellent place to meet other Americanists dealing with any kind of radical history that touches on the region. Incidentally I had to go to Radical Americas in London to meet a number of historians in the Nottingham American Studies Department that I never met at home. If you are looking for places to publish your research you can also look further afield: the Australasian Journal of American Studies is one such place, and if you can somehow afford a trip Down Under you can attend their annual conference.

BAAS-Logotype-Vert-CMYK-transHistorians in American Studies have hundreds of journals and many conferences to choose from, so many in fact that it might be worth asking your supervisor about which ones might be right for you. My supervisor certainly helped me to find the right places for my research – one of which was the Journal of American Studies. Online history and humanities forums and email newsletters, from the Social History Portal to H-Net, can put you in touch with the research of historians from a wide range of departments and institutions and can allow you to narrow your search for suitable journals to publish your research. If these forums could only be put closer in touch with their counterparts in American Studies, such as U.S. Studies Online, our job would be made even easier. It is certainly a worthwhile project that a future Americanist historian should undertake.

The third thing you can do is to collaborate, if you can, with those in other departments. Inter- and multi-disciplinary stuff is still all the rage at most universities – indeed this partially explains the growth of American Studies Departments in the first place – and collaborations with colleagues in both Departments certainly counts as interdisciplinary activity. This is good for your academic experience and your CV. For things like conferences this means, at Nottingham at least, you have twice as much access to funding as well. Even if the separation between the two Departments can cause problems in all sorts of ways there are steps that you can take to make that separation work for you in other ways as well.

I don’t want to get into arguments about the relative merits of History and American Studies Departments as a base for your research. I have friends who have done well in both. Your most important choice is to find a supervisor that is interested in and supportive of your research, and to find a Department that has the resources that you need to carry it out properly. If that means choosing an American Studies PhD programme rather than a History one, so be it. After all, some of my best friends work in American Studies.

About Steven Parfitt

Steven Parfitt is a Teaching Fellow in History at Loughborough University. He is the author of Knights Across the Atlantic: The Knights of Labor in Britain and Ireland, with Liverpool University Press, and has edited Working-Class Nationalism and Internationalism: Essays in Global History. He has written more than a dozen journal articles and book chapters on British, American and global history, and writes occasionally for Jacobin, the Guardian, and TheConversation.com.
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