11/13/2014 09:41 am ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

Back to the Future: American Studies' Noble Dreams

Beyoncé is in the house and historians are fuming!

If there is one debate that separates scholars in the humanities, it is the use of cultural theory. "There is no evidence," traditional scholars claim. "They are just dressing up politics to look like scholarship," others quip. "They are not making sense, they are just naming other scholars and speaking in circles," they denounce.

At the recent meeting of the American Studies Association in Los Angeles, these were the types of comments heard in the hallways in between the panel sessions and at the hotel bar by a number of scholars in attendance, particularly among my colleagues in the historical profession. Perhaps, Daniel Wickberg sums up their sentiments best in his essay, "Heterosexual White Male: Some Recent Inversions in American Cultural History," when he stated, "Many historians remain uncomfortable with what they perceive to be the more freewheeling and theory-driven forms of race, gender, and queer studies prevalent in interdisciplinary journals, precisely because such studies appear unmoored from the concrete and specific content of historical research."

Despite this critique, ASA manages to create a professional framework, a discourse, and a set of intellectual concerns that brings together scholars across a number of disciplines from art history, gender studies, history, literature, music, sociology to a host of other interdisciplinary programs. That their work may be labeled as "freewheeling" fails to consider how cultural theory has developed a common language that facilitates dialogue among scholars across fields. The language of cultural theory may appear arcane and indecipherable to some but to those in interdisciplinary studies it offers a common parlance. More to the point, the use of cultural theory has not limited scholarly exploration but it has enhanced it. ASA sessions range from cutting edge theoretical work in gender studies to activist-oriented concerns about mass incarceration to studies of popular culture. Within the academy, these are marginalized topics that often get short shrift at traditional scholarly conferences, but at the ASA they take center stage.

Despite the effort to emphasize understudied topics, critics of the ASA often claim that their reliance on cultural theory propagates a method of scholarly analysis that is unfounded. That scholars in these fields fail to ground their research within the material realities of archival evidence, which leads to speculation and to irrelevant often-vague conclusions. And this is to say nothing of the criticism that their actual subjects of study -- a scene in a movie, a Beyoncé video, a photograph -- do not really constitute evidence -- but instead privilege a form of academic inquiry that's facile and not really academic at all.

I get it. I have been to the panels. I have walked out with scattered notes that don't seem to make much sense an hour later. I found myself googling vocabulary words like an anxious high school junior getting ready to take the SAT. I often lose my bearings at the ASA.

But maybe that's a good thing.

On the plane ride home from the conference, I realized I would not have been an academic if it were not for the American Studies Association. All of my most influential undergraduate mentors that prepared me for graduate work were trained in American Studies, and when I started looking around the broader historical profession, I began to see that many leaders in the field today have roots in American Studies. Jill Lepore, the Harvard Early American Historian, who just published The Secret History of Wonder Woman, which will probably be one of the top selling books by a historian this year, was trained in American Studies. And not too far from her office at Harvard, the President of the University, Drew Gilpin Faust, was also trained in American Studies. And the list can go on. In literary studies, leaders in the field, like Farah Jasmine Griffin and Saidiya Hartman, were trained in American Studies.

Under the auspices of American culture, marginalized scholars working in literature, history, and sociology, among other fields traditionally found refuge at ASA meetings. When the MLA engaged in canon wars, the ASA offered literary critics with an opportunity to investigate writers who many powerful scholars dismissed as irrelevant. When historians only counted white men as actors, the ASA provided a place for scholars to investigate women's history. When most scholars could not even say the word "gay," American Studies scholars -- long before the mainstream acceptance of gay marriage -- formed panels that investigated sexuality.

That the Stonewall Riot, the Seneca Falls Convention, or even Toni Morrison can appear on syllabi in introductory history and literature courses results, in part, from the efforts of generations of scholars to foreground an otherwise neglected subjectivity as central to the American experience. Thusly, the panels on "affect," "performativity," and "carceral bodies," should not be shunned but instead embraced as fertile grounds of intellectual inquiry. American Studies has been at the forefront of introducing the terms of scholarly debate over the past century. They were one of the first organizations to have panels that used the word "queer" as an analytic. Even before that, they introduced terms like "narrative," "social construction," and "discourse," which have become old hat among mainstream scholars today.

ASA drove changes that actually transformed the academy not just individual fields. ASA embodied interdisciplinarity decades ago, while it seems that this idea is only now entering discussions about general education. Certainly, many institutions have had interdisciplinary departments and programs on campus but many of these departments remain segregated from general education requirements and offer only electives and courses for majors. Efforts to revitalize general education requirements -- similar to what is happening at my own institution -- will make interdisciplinary courses part of general education requirements. Many colleges and universities are consequently responding to the so-called "crisis in the humanities" by turning to interdisciplinary endeavors to both revitalize curricula and to capitalize on faculty expertise across disciplines. ASA has played a significant often-unacknowledged role in jumpstarting these interventions decades ago.

Additionally, within the historical profession, ASA not only offered a forum to discuss neglected topics but it also offered the opportunity for many women scholars to gain roles as leaders in the academy. Historian Alice Kessler Harris, for example, was President of the ASA long before she became President of the Organization of American Historians. Just as the ASA opened leadership positions to women in the academy many years ago, it is doing it today for gay, lesbian, and transgender scholars. The Organization of American Historians nor the American Historical Association has ever had an openly gay person serve as a President of their organizations, but the ASA has. The current president, Lisa Duggan, is a leading scholar of sexuality and an out lesbian.

Further, while other organizations are desperately trying to create innovative ways to attract graduate students and younger scholars to attend their meetings, ASA has no shortage of young scholars, people of color, and queer people in attendance.

ASA has opened a creative and intellectual space to cultivate scholars, and unlike other conferences, where most attendees spend their time at the hotel bar or touring the conference city, the sessions at the ASA are teeming with audience participants. The caucus on "Keywords in Critical Prison Studies," could not fit the entire audience in the room and many were turned away because there was not even floor space to sit on. The ASA has conceived of creative ways to engage scholars from across fields and to push the conversation forward. Within the historical profession, the reliance on historiography and the archive, both of which are crucial to the "historian's craft," have in many ways halted the advancement of provocative, new, and original ideas and have in many instances produced scholarship that is derivative. American Studies is not beholden to these frameworks, and as a result, dares to imagine the past (and the present) in bold, new, and quite creative ways.

In addition to the intellectual merits, the ASA is also aware of its political position. Last year, the ASA entered into major political debates regarding the organization's decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions due to Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Regardless of one's position on this highly polemical subject, ASA had the hutzpah to, at least, open a discussion about the political commitments of the organization and its ideological direction. Thomas Doherty, a professor at Brandeis University, however, does not see it that way. He claims, "the decision to morph from a scholarly association into a political action committee has proved disastrous for the group and the discipline it purports to represent, undermining its credibility, alienating many of its practitioners and betraying what should be a bedrock commitment to the American values that used to define the field." Yet, placing the ASA in the context of numerous other scholarly organizations in country, it seems less odd that ASA decided to boycott Israeli academic institutions and more odd that the numerous other scholarly and academic organizations view themselves as apolitical or even unwilling to foster a debate among their membership about their ideological orientations.

The scholarly profession needs a cutting edge, politically radical, mildly indecipherable group of intellectuals to continue to push us to dare more. We need to remember that the ASA has been at the future of the scholarly profession for the last half-century. We need to go back to the future. We all need to go back to ASA.