UW-Madison Center for the Humanities

Center for the Humanities

Past Faculty Development Seminars

Fall 2010: American Studies


Led by Russ Castronovo (English) and Nan Enstad (History)

Our goal with this seminar is to constitute an engaged intellectual community on campus around the diverse field of “American studies.” Unlike most of our peer institutions, the University of Wisconsin does not have an institutionalized program in American studies. For the past several years, under the loose rubric of the “American Studies Collective,” there have been various endeavors to bring together a group of faculty and graduate students on campus who are interested in American studies. The ensuing conference (“States of Emergency”), guest lectures, and conversations have been successful in eliciting interest and participation. Last year, the Ethnic Studies Cluster (many members of which already participated in American studies conversations) joined with the American Studies Collective to form the Comparative United States Studies Cluster. As is often true on our large and diverse campus, however, events typically draw a somewhat different crowd each time, depending on topic and the vagaries of individuals’ schedules.

In addition, American studies is a broad and complex field, the boundaries of which are continually in debate and flux. Our hope for this seminar, then, is to create a more sustained conversation among a mixed group of faculty, some of whom would be new to American studies and others who have considerable expertise in this  interdisciplinary field. By having the space and time to discuss keywords in American studies, we hope to consolidate a core community and generate energy for future possible efforts in American studies, such as team teaching, curricular development, a Mellon workshop, or an MIU initiative.

Our seminar is organized to be both diverse and focused. To achieve this balance, we have structured the seminar around “keywords” in American studies. How do we approach “America” and to what extent is this project different from studying the United States? To what extent does this often homogeneous political imaginary rest on histories and experiences of immigration and empire?  Can we speak of a “trans-America,’ whether in terms of gender or linguistic practice?  We begin with such questions to provide a jumping-off point for identifying and probing keywords of American studies practice.

Each of our “keywords” pulls together a set of conflicts that appeal widely across the humanities, including art history, history, literary studies, ethnic studies, politics, and other area studies programs.  Every keyword thus identifies a problem.  To take one example from our list of keywords, the state at once brings together perspectives that focus on the deleterious effects of state power (incarceration, racialization, disenfranchisement, etc.) with those that defend government as a positive social good (the welfare state, protection of minority rights, arts funding, etc.). The logic of our seminar, which turns in subsequent weeks to neoliberalism and fundamentalism, allows us both to deepen and extend this focus, examining how tensions circulating around the state entail considerations centered on markets, privatization, transnational flows, and cultural formations around bodies and religion. That is, we’ve chosen our keywords not because each is discrete but for their capacity to bleed into one another. Since we will be operating as a collective, we anticipate that other keywords will emerge from our discussions, and the syllabus can be adjusted to reflect those interests.