American Studies in Dialogue

Radical Reconstructions between Curriculum and Cultural Critique

Nordamerikastudien Band 29

Matthias Oppermann

2.3 Radical Teaching Contra Cultural Consensus?

As Mechling, Meredith, and Wilson (1973) have suggested, the effects of the rapid growth of American studies during the 1960s are by no means exclusively positive. American studies scholarship of the time seems marked by a sense of both maturation and crisis. As early as 1963, Hennig Cohen assessed that
The American Studies movement has become just a little tired, careworn, and taken for granted. Once something of a siren, she is now somewhat fleshed out and matronly, and at moments capable of observing her household and progeny with a degree of self-satisfaction. But if she is no longer slim and starry-eyed, she has a better sense of discipline, balance, and of her own limitations, while retaining her original energy, curiosity, and purposefulness. (Cohen 1963, 550)
The mid-1960s were generally considered something of a turning point in the academic status and development of the field. In her essay on "The Mid-life Crisis of American Studies," Doris Friedensohn remarked that "American Studies had Cinderella status" in the academy until the mid- to late 1960s (1972, 372). Gene Wise referred to the period that followed the mid-1960s as "the 'coming apart' stage of American Studies" (1979b, 312). What exactly was coming apart? And what led to this heightened sense of crisis?
One likely answer to both questions entails a reference to the holistic and consensual notion of the culture concept that still operates in the mid-1960s. Despite its diversity and heterogeneity, a national culture-as it was understood by scholars like Hennig Cohen in the early 1960s (see above)-was based primarily on cultural consensus. In his article "Cultural History and American Studies: Past, Present, and Future" (1971), Robert Sklar described the 1960s as a time of increasing disillusionment with this idea of American cultural consensus:
During the 1960s the premises of an optimistic and largely uncritical American cultural consensus were shattered. Where most Americans had once perceived a society of affluence and well-being, many now began to see poverty and mal-nutrition. Where most Americans had accepted their nation's military and economic role in the world as benevolent and necessary, many now began to regard it as destructive and imperialistic. Where it had been generally assumed that economic and material growth were the signs of a thriving society, many now sensed that growth meant pollution and ecological crisis. Where it had been expected that assimilation and an end to discrimination were rapidly being achieved, many began to find identity and pride in heightened racial and sexual consciousness, confrontation, and separation. Groups which had seemed only peripherally or covertly or inconsequently a part of American culture-blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Indians, women, homosexuals-demanded to be recognized as part of the whole culture of the United States, as well as asserting their rights to create their own histories and determine their own cultural role. (Sklar 1971, 3-4)
Sklar's account highlights some of the issues that led to a radical critique of the notion of cultural consensus. Diverse social movements and identity politics came to the fore in various public arenas. These changes had profound effects on research and curricula in American higher education.
First, as minorities started to enter universities in larger numbers, many of the questions asked in political arenas were also rightfully asked about curricula in American studies, like "where are the blacks?" and "where are the women?" (Lauter 1999, 31). Second, the political turmoil of the 1960s put considerable strain on existing explanatory frameworks of earlier American studies. Depending on political perspective, the necessary changes to the field are today perceived as "salutary" by some, and unhealthy by others. James E. Hartley (on the more conservative side of the political spectrum) agrees that the 1960s were turning point for American studies: In 2004, in his version of the development of American studies, he remarked that
From a program designed to read the great books of American civilization, the American Studies movement has become nothing more than an extension of the politicization of the university itself. This complete transformation occurred in the 1960s. As Robert Sklar, former vice president of the American Studies Association put it, "The vitality, ferment, and conflict of the 1960s have had a salutary effect on American Studies." (31) A salutary effect: America Studies was sick back in the old days and the events of the 1960s brought it to health. No longer would American Studies be mired in the illness of looking for what was common to the American experience. Rather, the discipline of American Studies would now undertake a healthy study of the failings of America, a healthy examination of ethnicity and gender. (Hartley 2004, 51; emphasis in original)
As Hartley's rhetoric powerfully illustrates, the debates concerning benefits and drawbacks of the transformation of American studies in the mid- to late 1960s and early 1970s continue to be ideologically charged. Conservative and progressive critics agree, however, that American studies was in a deep crisis during that time. According to the aforementioned former vice president of the ASA Robert Sklar, this really should not surprise anyone, because "as an intellectual discipline American Studies has always been in crisis" (1970, 597). Nonetheless, he continues to note a year later, "[…] the present crisis is more serious than all previous crises" (1971, 5). During this "more serious crisis," several factors contributed to a radical critique of the holistic concept of culture that had been associated with earlier versions of American studies. Central to this critique were a perceived methodological chaos, uncertainties with regard to the culture concept as the central paradigm of the field, and, most importantly, the notion that current social and cultural processes could not be adequately described through the categories of "traditional" American studies. Building on Günter Lenz, Alice Kessler-Harris suggests that
By the late 1960s and early seventies, the lines that tied the holistic culture together began to fray. Perhaps a major reason, as Günter Lenz has noted, was the profound discontent with what was seen as the hegemonic unity created by mass culture. Groups struggling for racial and gender equality and against the Vietnam War exposed the ways in which a putative cultural unity served political ends. (Kessler-Harris 1995, 61)
In the early 1960s Hennig Cohen had claimed that America, complex as it may be, could be seen as one culture and studied as such (1963, 552). By the end of the decade, social movements had actively challenged such a holistic notion of culture. The cultural and political climate of the time exposed the alleged cultural unity of American society as a fiction in a myriad of ways. The assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy, of Martin Luther King and Malcom X, student demonstrations for the right to free speech and against the continuing Vietnam War, happenings at Haight/Ashbury, Woodstock, the Stonewall Inn riots, or race riots in Watts, Newark, Miami, and Washington, DC-how was one to explain these events as expressions of common cultural myths? What methodology did American studies have at hand to adequately theorize these cultural earthquakes?
In his book American Historical Explanations: A Strategy for Grounded Inquiry (1973), Gene Wise describes this methodological problem from a very personal perspective, in light of the now infamous events surrounding the Chicago Democratic Convention of August 1968. This convention lasted for a week, and during that time demonstrators and police clashed outside the International Amphitheater, the location of the convention were the delegates met. When police forces denied activists and demonstrators access to the parameters around convention locations and to the vicinity of the Conrad Hilton Hotel (which accommodated the delegates), the clashes intensified and violence erupted. In turn, the Chicago Mayor, Richard J. Daley, re-enforced the police presence of already almost 12,000 police officers by bringing in 7,500 soldiers, 7,500 national guardsmen from Illinois and 1,000 FBI and secret service agents (Chicago Historical Society 1999). According to police reports, by the end of the convention 589 demonstrators had been arrested, 119 police and 100 demonstrators had suffered injuries; Senator Ribicoff from Connecticut referred to the events as "Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago" (Chicago Historical Society 1999).
The political climate surrounding these events was markedly different from the "'historic' climates" Wise had been taught to envision as part of his training in American studies, such as the "'consensus' climate of the 1940s and 1950s," or the "'Progressive' climate of the 1900s and 1910s (1973; prologue to the rev. 1980 edition, xxiii-xxiv). Likewise, concepts like "Puritanism, Liberalism, Transcendentalism, the Idea of Progress, the Frontier, Technology, Manifest Destiny and Mission" did not help Wise to understand what cultural, political, and social processes were at work in Chicago in the summer of 1968 (xxiii-xxiv). Wise concludes that "what was needed were some different metaphors for ideas, and for change in ideas," a new set of "intellectual tools" (xxiv).
In his 1973 publication American Historical Explanations, Wise begins his search for a new method with a critique of the myth-and-symbol school, and the methodological shortcomings he associates with this group of scholars. The ways in which the political, social, and cultural climate of the 1960s challenged dominant explanation forms in American studies and led to a vibrant debate about methodologies and subject matter have been extensively problematized (see e.g. Lenz 1982; 1987; cf. Kuklick 1972), and I do not wish to re-rehearse that debate. My dominant concern here is how these changes reverberated in American studies curricula and eventually resulted in the reconceptualization of the traditional role of the American studies teacher. In this respect, another publication by Gene Wise is highly instructive: In 1979, the American Quarterly published a special thirty-year retrospective issue on the American studies movement. The volume was guest-edited by Wise. In the well-known opening essay, "Paradigm Dramas," Wise provided a cultural history of the American studies movement (cf. my introduction, this volume). This history is organized in four different acts that are meant to represent American studies at various stages in the twentieth century as comprehensive expressions of a particular "paradigm" (Wise 1979b, 301). The first act is embodied by Vernon Louis Parrington and his Main Currents in American Thought (1927), followed by Perry Miller's "jungle epiphany" in the second act. The following two acts are quite different from Parrington's and Miller's in that they are characterized through American studies courses, rather than through individual scholars.
Wise's third act, the act of the 1950s, is represented by the course "American Civilization 900, […] a seminar focused on American cultural values in the twentieth century, held at the University of Pennsylvania in 1954, and chaired jointly by Robert Spiller of the literature department and Thomas Cochran from history" (1979b, 308). This seminar, Wise goes on to note, was made possible by two Rockefeller grants, followed by a five-year, U.S. $ 150,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation (1979b, 308). Murray G. Murphey, who joined the University of Pennsylvania faculty in 1954, has pointed out that the course was created as a high-level interdisciplinary graduate seminar in 1952, two years before the grant was awarded in 1954 (1970, 491). According to Murphey, the grant was used to "develop and integrate the program" (1970, 491). This included substantial fellowships for graduate students, two faculty fellowships to develop and teach additional courses (for Charles Bowe in 1957 and Patrick Hazard in 1958), and four fellowships for European scholars to aid teaching and planning in the program between 1956 and 1960 (Murphey 1970, 492). Wise, however, singles out the fact that Carnegie money was also used to develop the "American Civilization 900" course further. For him, the fact is expressive of the "corporate nature" of the American studies movement in the 1950s: "the locus of activity and power points from individuals toward groups, from offering single courses to programs, from articulating personal visions toward making collective contributions to scholarly knowledge" (1979b, 308). This notion of the corporate and collective stands in sharp contrast to Wise's fourth stage that he referred to as "the coming apart stage" of American studies (1979b, 312).
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Seit seiner Entstehung in den 1930er- Jahren hat sich das Fach "American Studies" in den USA radikal verändert. Als Motor dieses Prozesses galt bislang die wissenschaftliche Forschung. Matthias Oppermann beleuchtet nun erstmals die Rolle der Lehre und zeigt, dass das Fach von Beginn an durch Kurse und Lehrpläne nicht nur didaktisch, sondern auch theoretisch kontinuierlich neu konstituiert wurde. Mit dieser Neubewertung liefert er ein revidiertes Verständnis der "American Studies" als interdisziplinäre Kulturwissenschaft im Spannungsfeld unterschiedlicher Theorien, Methoden und Forschungsgegenstände.

Matthias Oppermann ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Lehrstuhl North American Literary and Cultural Studies der Universität Bielefeld.


Einband Taschenbuch
Seitenzahl 297
Erscheinungsdatum 04.10.2010
Sprache Englisch
ISBN 978-3-593-39317-9
Verlag Campus
Maße (L/B/H) 21,9/14,1/2,5 cm
Gewicht 373 g

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  • Table of Contents

    Acknowledgments ix
    Introduction 12

    Histories of Curricular Innovation

    1. American Studies as Curricular Innovation: Interventions into Narratives of Field Formation 35
    1.1 "A Subject So Familiar and So Simple": American Literature and American Civilization in the College Curriculum 38
    1.2 Money, Jingoism, and Folklore? American Studies after World War II 55
    1.3 Bridging the Schisms of Culture and Method: "Peaux Rouges" and "Mandarins" in Minnesota 75

    2. Maturity and Midlife Crises: Radical Teachers, Cultural Turns 86
    2.1 Quantitative Growth and Organizational Structures in the 1960s and 1970s 88
    2.2 Cultural Experts and Literary Amateurs in the Early 1960s 94
    2.3 Radical Teaching Contra Cultural Consensus? 100
    2.4 Collaborators, Computers, Problem-Solvers: Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Davis (Re-)Considered 107

    Trajectories of Transformation

    3. Multiculturalism as Radical Critique: American Studies Beyond the Nation 131
    3.1 Social Movements, European Theory, and the Search for Resistance 134
    3.2 Contextualizing Cultural Studies: The Political Work of Cultural Critique 140
    3.3 Dialogics Beyond Borders: American Culture Studies 146
    3.4 From Coverage to Contact Zones: Curricula of Comparative U.S. Cultures 152

    4. American Studies in the Age of Digital Cultures 165
    4.1 American Studies and New Media 166
    4.2 Culture and Database: George Allen's Curse, Chris Crocker's Cupcake 171
    4.3 New Media-New American Studies? 179

    Expansions of the Field-Imaginary

    5. American Studies and the Learning Paradigm 187
    5.1 Understanding Student Learning 193
    5.2 Novice, Expert, and Beyond 203
    5.3 Does American Studies Have "Signature Pedagogies"? 214

    6. From Best Practices to Next Practices 226
    6.1 Going Meta: Towards a Scholarship of Teaching in American Studies 227
    6.2 Pedagogies and Epistemologies: Notes from the Visible Knowledge Project 234
    6.3 Digital Storytelling: Adaptive, Embodied, and Socially Situated 245

    Epilogue 266

    List of Tables 273
    Bibliography 274
    Index 292