Jun 7, 2016
Last month at the annual conference of the French Association of American Studies I met people from the Yale’s Cultural Studies Laboratory. Its official title is the Working Group on Globalization and Culture. It is run by Michael Denning. The lab is modeled after the now defunct Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, where Denning did a master’s degree. As a collaboration between senior faculty and graduate students, its pedagogy and research methodology are quite different from what I have encountered at Harvard or elsewhere in my education. During one of the conference sessions and in casual conversations participants were eager to share what they were doing and how they were doing it. Here is my reconstruction of the how.
The lab has about nine graduate student members and one consistent faculty member, Denning, though other faculty participate from year-to-year. The lab is by application only and its members meet together once a week, sometimes in small groups and sometimes as a whole, throughout the academic year. It is multi-disciplinary and the members I met included doctoral candidates in American Studies, literature, political philosophy, and history. In the past there have been law students as well.
At the beginning of the academic year the lab collectively selects a common research question. This process takes about six weeks and anyone can suggest a topic. Apparently, Denning stays out of the selection of the topic unless the graduate students can’t reach agreement.
Once the topic is selected lab members create a reading list which they then move through in their small groups. Around the same time they also select an empirical case study that relates to the group’s overall research question. This provides the group with opportunties to try out different theoretical discourses on varying empirical case studies in pursuit of answers to a common research question.
Denning then leverages a speaking engagement he gets to conference into an opportunity for the group to collectively present their work. At the French Association of American Studies the group offered it research findings in two panels of five students each. The presentations were tailored to build off each other, moving from the more abstract to the more concrete. Denning presented at one of them as a member of the group and then contributed to the conversation that followed the presentation. The panels were moderated by a graduate student member of the group.
As both a pedagogy and a methodology this lab approach rubs against the individualization of expertise that is rampant in the humanities. It challenges the idea individual should be responsible for a multi-disciplinarily approach. Instead, each member brings their own disciplinary perspective and shares it with the group. It also fosters a sense of collegiality and collaboration that it is rare in the academy. Overall, it is a way of generating knowledge that I wish was shared more widely. I think it could be deployed, in a modified form, in a community setting or amongst clergy as well.
Jun 2, 2016
I spent much of last week in Toulouse, France at the annual conference of the French Association of American Studies. I was there to present a synopsis of my dissertation and participate in the graduate student seminar that proceeded the conference proper. Along the way I learned a bit about the differences between American and French approaches to American Studies. Most of these stem, I suspect, from a combination of cultural difference and the size of American Studies in France. There were about 100 people at the conference and are, I was told, about 500 people who belong to the association. In contrast, the American Studies Association has several thousand members.
Not surprisingly, the most substantive difference between American Studies in France and American Studies in the United States is that French American Studies functions like something of a province of the latter. The two keynote speakers, Michael Denning and Shelly Jackson, at the conference were both American academics. When people made appeals to the authority of other scholars those scholars were primarily American. I was at one session where a paper’s author was told that if he wanted his work to be taken seriously he had to substantively engage with the work of James Kloppenberg.
In contrast, I got through the entire conference almost without hearing anyone make mention of the French academics who are the rage in America. The only time Michelle Foucault came up was during a conversation I had with a student from Yale. I did not hear any discussions of Gilles Deleuze and Pierre Bourdieu. I find this somewhat shocking. I cannot imagine spending three days at an academic conference in the humanities, of whatever discipline, in the United States and not hearing at least one paper referencing one of them.
American Studies in France is also organized differently than in the United States. The French divide pretty much all topics into two large categories: literature and civilization. Literature focuses on, well, literature. Civilization seems to include everything else: religious studies, history, cultural studies, etc.
I found myself in the civilization section of graduate students. I was surprised at the difference between my presentation and the presentations of the other graduate students. I followed the narrative form, leading with an anecdote and then laying out my major claims in an exegesis of the anecdote. I concluded by suggesting the kinds of contributions I think my dissertation is going to make. All of the French students presented papers that followed the same form. They began by stating their hypothesis. They then provided a brief discussion of their methodology. This was followed by a very specific literature review: I am engaging with x and y texts, which my work improves upon in the manner of z. Following the literature review was articulation of the project’s chapter structure and a brief conclusion.
Over the next week or so I will be posting some further reflections on my trip to France. I hope to include a piece on Yale’s Working Group on Globalization and Culture, who participated in the conference as a group, and something on French anarchism. I might also summarize what I learned about contemporary social movements in France and the conflict over French labor law.