Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.
That adage received a curious twist after the American Studies Association voted in December to boycott Israel’s higher-education institutions to protest its treatment of Palestinians.
A symbolic and nonviolent gesture is what Matthew Frye Jacobson, a former president of the association, called it in a recent interview, adding, “If that’s not allowable, then what is?” Within a month, however, the presidents of more than 100 colleges and universities denounced the resolution. “Academic boycotts subvert the academic freedoms and values necessary to the free flow of ideas,” Drew Gilpin Faust of Harvard wrote in a statement echoing what the other presidents said.
Since then, the controversy has spilled into statehouses and even Congress. A bill introduced in February in the House of Representatives would make an institution that participates in such a boycott ineligible for certain funds. Legislators in at least seven states have introduced similar bills or proposed resolutions condemning academic boycotts (the Illinois effort was voted down in committee last week).
The association’s protest has also provoked larger questions about American studies. Has a discipline that in the 1950s and 1960s was a model of bold interdisciplinary inquiry — fusing literature and history, sociology and economics, popular culture and ethnography — changed, or degenerated, into a bastion of ideological militancy?
“More and more people like me left the A.S.A. over the years because of its increasingly narrow politicization and its preoccupation with race, empire and gender,” said David Hollinger, recently retired from the University of California, Berkeley, after more than 40 years as a teacher and scholar. The field itself, he said, “has become a domain in which folks in ideological overdrive can do their thing with a minimum of skepticism from colleagues.”
But to others, the current thrust of American studies, known as “the transnational turn,” represents a necessary corrective in the new globalist era. As the country’s standing in the world has slipped, so has its claim to “exceptionalism.” One nation among others, it is best understood in relation to the rest of the world and through its transactions with it.
In her 2004 address to the association, its president at the time, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, celebrated the transnational turn by singling out the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, the Chicano studies scholar whose prizewinning memoir, “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza,” recast the interaction between white and Mexican populations as “the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country — a border culture.”
The transnational turn has “decentered America by looking at its international embroilments, not just imperialism or immigration,” explained Amy Kaplan, an American studies scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. This has prompted scholars to examine parallels with seemingly disparate countries.
All of which is to say that in the end the debate over Israel is really about America, even to the most transnationally minded. And what looks like a bitter ideological battle may be the latest phase in a longstanding family quarrel.
Traditional approaches still flourish on many campuses. Until last year, Harvard called its program — the nation’s oldest, begun in 1937 — the History of American Civilization (it is now American studies). But at other institutions the field seems to be changing, or losing, its identity as it is absorbed into other departments or eliminated altogether, or as professors are dispersed among various departments.
Curtis Marez, the current president of the A.S.A., used to teach in the American studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, but is now a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego. Santa Cruz as well as Wayne State University in Detroit have abandoned American studies programs. Sarika Chandra, formerly Wayne State’s director of American studies, is now a professor of English there. New York University’s American studies doctoral program was rolled into the department of social and cultural analysis in 2005, along with Africana studies and gender studies.