On the third floor of Hamilton sits the Center for American Studies. Its glass doors are framed by warm yellow lights that make the room look like the star of the hallway, even though it is nestled in at the end. On the right of the entrance, there is a poster for “Learning to ‘March,’” a lecture given by Congressman John Lewis on Selma in 2015.
Just one flight up from CAS—and with fewer bells and whistles—sits the Center for Ethnicity and Race. A blue and white sign lists the center’s name above its doors. Just through the door is visible a long corridor with hardwood floors and offices with their doors closed. To the right, there is a corkboard with flyers for the center’s future events: “Crazy Rich Asians: Race, Representation, Resistance?,” “Mexican Mondays Seminar,” and “Korematsu v. United States” (which was co-hosted by the CAS) are just a few. There is hardly any empty space.
Despite being in the same building, the two disciplines feel like long-lost cousins. Both are centers, not departments, so neither can tenure faculty. The topics they explore seem dominated by overlap. Ethnic studies interrogates and explores “the study of ethnicity and race and their implications for thinking about culture, power, hierarchy, social identities, and political communities,” which seems integral to the study of the United States. It appears like the subjects should know each other well, but I’m surprised to learn that they barely talk.
In fact, Karl Jacoby, a professor in the History department and in CSER, says he really doesn’t know what goes on with the American studies program. According to Jacoby, the programs rarely engage with each other. He seems troubled by this, tapping the table as he speaks like he’s keeping time. Jacoby explains that both centers find new faculty from different sources, and the separation of their hiring processes could further mitigate need for dialogue.
While Jacoby seems unhappy about the gap, Professor Casey Blake, director of the Center for American Studies at Columbia, believes that although the two programs are complementary, he felt like it wouldn’t be useful to follow Ethnic studies’ model of pedagogy and focus when both centers are working with scarce resources. They should instead focus on their individual strengths and separate roles to play—which the divide presumably allows them to do.
Irrespective of the connection—or lack thereof—between the two centers, Columbia’s American studies major today creates an American narrative that does not include ethnicity, race, gender, or sexuality as focal points in many courses.
Since the spring of 2017 (a four-semester timespan), of the nearly 30 classes offered by the Center, there have been four classes that explicitly deal with race or ethnicity offered through the Center (without a syllabi for every course, it is impossible to know the content, and even then things are subject to change). They are Race, Poverty, and American Criminal Justice (Spring 2017), Equity in Higher Education (Spring 2018), Freedom and Citizenship in the United States (Fall 2018), and Immigrant New York (Fall 2018).
In comparison, Brown’s American studies department offered six courses on topics of race and sexuality in spring 2018 alone: No-No Boy: Experimental Scholarship on Asian-America; Blacks and Jews in American History and Culture; Disability: History, Theory, and Bodily Difference; Race, Class, and Girlhood; Bad Rehab: Rehabilitation Regimes of the American Ethnic; and Objects as Text: Materializing Race, Gender and Sexuality.
It is important to note, however, that students majoring in American studies may take up to four courses outside of the center. Though at least one of these classes must come from the history department, the other three could all be CSER courses. However, the major’s core classes remain remarkably undiverse.
The students of color majoring in American studies that I interviewed feel like the major doesn’t represent them. Arielle Isack, a junior in the school of General Studies who was majoring in American Studies last spring (she now majors in English and comparative literature, citing her love for the reading in her English classes), has noticed this lack of diversity in her peers, professors, and the curriculum.
Isack, who identifies as Chinese-American, said that though there were some students of color in her classes, it would have been nice to have that kind of perspective from her professors.
Of the 26 faculty members listed on the Center for American Studies’ website (under affiliated or seminar faculty), only eight list race or ethnicity as an academic interest on their pages or have work discussed in their biographies that refer to either of these two topics. While professors’ research interests may not always inform their approach to a particular class, it does reflect what topics they are specialized to teach.
In Isack’s experience, American studies did not include perspectives from minority groups. More often than not, the narratives presented were from the perspective of white Americans, and when race was discussed it was never from the perspective of the oppressed.
“We talk about how within this white society and like white community, [there is racism],” she says. “I guess the perspective of people who actually endured racism is not as elevated as the actual act of it."
Isack explains that she chose to major in American studies in part to learn how to be American. Both of Isack’s parents are immigrants, so she “never really inherited this identity of being an American.” The major was a kind of guidebook to claiming this new identity, but she felt it often left her out of its story.
Maddie Woda, another junior in the major at Columbia, agrees that the curriculum in American Studies at Columbia could provide more diverse perspectives, but attests that her professors do “at least a relatively good job of pooling works from not only different mediums and genres and parts of the country, but also people of different backgrounds.”
While American Studies can push for diversity on its own—by working to hire more professors of color, changing the content of courses offered, and specifically changing the content of courses that are required, one concrete way to have the field tackle race and ethnicity directly is a relationship with CSER.
None of the professors at Columbia’s Center for American Studies teach courses at CSER. And visa-versa. Both centers hire separately, so this lack of cross-over makes sense and mitigates the logistical need for dialogue between the two. Though institutions have varying degree of overlap between American studies and ethnic studies—Brown houses ethnic studies within American studies where a majority of Yale’s American studies faculty also teach ethnic studies courses—Columbia’s stark separation is not the norm. This separation has a long history of support, starting when students protested for the creation of an ethnic studies department in 1996.
I ask Jane Sung E Bai, an activist and former Columbia student who lobbied for the creation of a distinct ethnic studies department in the ’90s, why she advocated for CSER and American studies to remain separate in 1996. She responds immediately, as if she has been waiting for this question to come up. Advocacy for that separation, she tells me, was a product of the times, informed by the dynamics of Columbia’s campus in the ’90s. She and her fellow activists did not see the Center for American Studies as being able to support the ethnic studies paradigm at all, because of her interactions with the center as a doctoral candidate and activist. The protests ultimately helped pressure the University to establish the center.
Sung E was not the only person during the ethnic studies protests with strong opinions that it remain separate from American studies.
At a Columbia Student Council meeting in 1996, a pamphlet written by the student-led Committee on Ethnic Studies was passed around that read: “American Studies in its conception replicates the hierarchies and biases of Eurocentrism in its centralization of white Americans and marginalization of people of color."
Students at Columbia were able to create a distinct center for ethnic studies because there were members of the administration and faculty who saw American studies and ethnic studies as separate disciplines. Then Vice President for Arts and Sciences David Cohen agreed that the two subjects should remain distinct but work together. He told Spectator, “I don't see it as ethnic studies versus American studies—American studies can take various forms and we hope it will be much broader [than ethnic studies programs] and will complement ethnic studies programs.”
Today, there are professors in CSER who also believe the two centers should remain separate, albeit for different reasons. For some professors, CSER’s scope of study is global, while American studies is restricted to the United States. Last year, Robin Kelley, interim director of CSER in 2005, told The Eye that “part of that intellectual mission[of CSER] was to interrogate the construction of racial and ethnic categories, racializations, how difference is produced, interwoven in inequality, really questioning these categories but also thinking about these things not just in the United States but the world.” But though Kelley views CSER and CAS as having different scopes of study, he still suggest the original vision of the department called for collaboration.
However, the separation model may not be the best structure possible. In fact, having the two disciplines housed within one department may make communication easier—as with Brown University.
After negotiations with its faculty, Brown University created its Russian-nesting doll model, housing ethnic studies within American studies. According to Professor Matthew Guterl, chair of the American studies department at Brown, this structure has caused little to no strife even though it differed from original student demands, which included individual departments for Latinx studies and African-American studies. He claims that there’s constant back-and-forth between campus activists and faculty to make sure the relationship between ethnic studies and the American studies department at Brown is constructive.
Of the 30 faculty in Brown’s American studies department (not including those professors specifically affiliated with the ethnic studies concentration), 15 explicitly identify ethnic studies as an academic interest. When ethnic studies faculty are included, out of 46 faculty, 25 mention race or ethnicity as interests. Some Brown faculty pages redirected to department websites or a general Brown research page, and as a result were not counted.
Be it a consequence or a simple correlation, Brown’s American studies department is notably more diverse in its research interests than Columbia’s and, as seen above, has more courses that specifically address the lives of minority communities in America.
Nina Goetzen, a senior concentrating in American studies at Brown explains that at Brown, “an American Studies concentrator with ten classes required ... can theoretically only take two in the actual American studies department and take all the rest in ethnic studies, history, anthropology." To her, a complete dive into American studies requires delving into other disciplines.
Without ethnic studies, say advocates of combining the areas of study, American studies loses important pedagogical perspectives, and without the support of American studies, ethnic studies can be seen as less reputable.
While Brown’s model may not be feasible at Columbia, inspiration can be sought from it.
At Barnard, ethnic and American studies remain distinct (ethnic studies is categorized as an interdisciplinary program under the steering committee of the Consortium for Critical Interdisciplinary Studies). Since, the race and ethnic studies program is not housed at a particular department, there is more open communication and exchange between the American studies department at Barnard and the major.
When I sit down with professors Manu Vimalassery, Christina Heatherton, and Jordan T. Camp, all faculty members in Barnard’s American studies department, this is evident. All of the professors in the room have experience in ethnic studies and American studies. They all engage with faculty in the ethnic studies program—if they don’t do work in the program themselves.
Camp explains that he and his colleagues at Barnard are informed by “critical ethnic studies, queer [of] color critique, woman of color feminism,” and “critique of political economy.” These frameworks and traditions animate their pedagogical approach, their research, and their courses.
In a recent profile of Camp on Barnard’s website, the professor talked about his experience teaching the junior colloquium in American studies, “Last week, for example, we discussed the #NoDAPL protests by examining arguments American studies scholars have made about Indigenous-led resistance, capital, and global solidarity,” he said.
Some courses offered by Barnard’s American studies program in spring 2018 were: Incarcerating the Crisis (taught by Camp); Topics in American Studies: The Wealth of Natives; and Critical Approaches to the Study of Ethnicity and Race (this class is not cross-listed, it is solely listed under American studies).
This seems to be in stark contrast with the experience students at Columbia have had while majoring in American Studies.
Heatherton asks if she can interject while I write the above sentence down in my notes. Columbia and Barnard’s American studies programs have a wonderful and collaborative relationship, she says. Professors meet to discuss curriculum, and Columbia funds many initiatives taken by the Barnard American Studies program. The two programs are financially and personally intertwined.
For Sarah Patafio, a sophomore majoring in American studies at Barnard, the field explores being American while being inclusive of gender, sexuality, and race. She said this without question, and specifically mentioned Vimalassery as one of the reasons her studies have been so inclusive, citing one specific class with him, “I kind of think that American studies is like cultural and ethnic and women and gender studies and everything above.”
Patafio quickly pointed out that there was still room for improvement in her coursework. She wishes there was more attention paid to the contributions of indigenous people to the United States as we know it today.
Jacoby echoes Patafio’s sentiment more strongly, “I think if you want to call yourself an American Historian then on some level you need to grapple really deeply and profoundly with peoples who have been on this continent for the longest time.”
As Jacoby and I end our interview, he says something that stays with me: “History is all about power in the end, and I think that being aware of these other narrators can really make us much more aware of the intimate ways that power functions in the world.” Only when we acknowledge this power, structural or otherwise, are we able to address it. Otherwise, history stays ossified and deified in the far away past, and present consequences are ignored.
Right now, Isack tells me, the responsibility falls on students of color to “parse together a vague idea” of one’s place in the major and in the discipline based off “times it’s mentioned in overall white narrative.”
It is unrealistic to advocate for a copy-paste solution where we take Brown’s model and apply it to our own. When I ask Professor Jacoby how he would make Columbia’s American studies program more diverse, he is hesitant. He stops, and looks out past me for a long time.
Jacoby, tapping the table before he begins, offers the following, “We haven’t even begun to have that discussion yet, and so maybe even the fact that I don’t have a very clear sense of what American studies' vision is and why I’m fumbling with this answer is kind of revealing of the fact that there hasn’t been as much discussion between the two units.” Maybe discussion is the place to start.
Correction October 25, 2018: A previous version of this article implied that the “Korematsu v. United States” event was hosted by CSER alone and failed to mention that the CAS was a co-host of the event. The Eye regrets the error.