Why I believe American studies is vital in the new world order

April 16, 2004

The 2004 annual conference of the British Association for American Studies, in Manchester, marks the run-up to the association's 50th anniversary. In the aftermath of the second world war the US was clearly one of the world's leading powers, and scholars of US literature, history and politics, often isolated figures in their disciplinary departments, found the perfect moment to investigate together the nation that fascinated them and, rather imperiously, called their subject American studies.

A half-century later the dominance of the US seems to demand something new in the political lexicon. Cultural, economic and military strength lies with the US. Consumers worldwide buy its products and adopt its styles. But while the number of universities offering American studies programmes has remained relatively stable in recent years - at about 50 - there has been no surge of undergraduate students to American studies to reflect the growing significance of the US.

American studies is often taught by quite small subject teams, with members drawn from departments structured along traditional lines. The individuals find their cooperation stimulating and fruitful but can also find it difficult to protect their resource base. The loss of a colleague in a contributing department, a shift of emphasis within a participating subject, economic pressures to aggregate into larger departments and the demands of research assessment can all destabilise provision. Given these pressures, it is remarkable that the overall number of places teaching American studies has remained stable.

At the same time, students are finding their interest in the US may be satisfied outside the boundaries of American studies. US literature, history and politics are increasingly on offer, while international relations, a subject to which knowledge of the US contributes immeasurably, has seen an enormous growth. Film, media and cultural studies, usually involving considerable US content, were once a rarity but are now common options.

There is growth, too, in the American studies research community. The numbers participating in American studies conferences have grown steadily.

The Manchester conference, with more than 300 presentations listed, could be the largest the BAAS has ever hosted, with delegates from many disciplines and from around the world.

Not complacent about the future of the subject, and with some members so enthusiastic that they feel American studies should be a cradle-to-grave experience, the BAAS has supported American studies conferences for school students and teachers working on US topics as part of their curriculum.

Last year, I invited two former congressmen to speak at a schools conference. I was not sure that mixing retired US politicians and UK sixthformers would be successful. The discussions were intense, the questions pointed, the answers frank, the tone never less than challenging and always polite. Varied analyses were heard, and everyone benefited.

After the conference I stayed back to check the rooms. When I left half an hour later I found 20 students and the visiting speakers standing outside on the pavement, still in energetic discussion.

In a recent newspaper article, John Wood spoke of the present state of affairs as a "time in history when an understanding of the US has never been more important". The strength of American studies lies in its continuing to provide a multidisciplinary analysis of a many-faceted, and very significant, neighbour.

Philip John Davies
Director of the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library and professor of American studies at De Montfort University

Philip Davies' term as chair of the British Association for American Studies finishes at this year's annual conference at Manchester University, April 15-19.

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