Exemplary American Studies scholarship and work happens outside the academy just as frequently, and just as significantly, as it does inside it.
One of the most overt strengths of an interdisciplinary and (relatively) new field like American Studies is that there are few if any traditional, limiting academic definitions of or boundaries around the field. While there’s no question that older fields like English and History have undergone significant shifts and broadenings in the last few decades, as reflected by the diversity and breadth of attendees and presenters at the recently completed MLA and AHA conventions, I would still say that traditional, academic versions of those fields dominate many scholarly conversations in and around them (and I’m far from immune to that in my own English work, just to be clear). But since American Studies has from its origins crossed disciplinary and traditional boundaries, it has likewise consistently included in central and influential roles non-academic scholarly voices and perspectives as well—voices and perspectives embodied by my colleagues and friends Mark Rennella and Maggi Smith-Dalton.
Mark’s training and background is within the academy—I met him when he was completing his PhD in History at Brandeis University and working as a tutor in Harvard’s History and Literature program, and I was fortunate enough to work with him on my senior thesis in that program—and he’s done important and inspiring American Studies work therein: his first book, The Boston Cosmopolitans: International Travel and American Arts and Letters (2008), analyzes turn of the 20th century American writers and artists through a complex and compelling set of interdisciplinary lenses, including new technologies of travel, economics and questions of finance and patronage, and material and urban cultures. Yet while he was finalizing that book Mark was also transitioning into new and seemingly very different institutions and roles, including the Harvard Business School, where he co-wrote a history of the airline industry and ideas of leadership that is a model for linking American Studies questions to seemingly distinct yet ultimately interconnected conversations and settings. As Mark continues to move forward in his academic and non-academic—and always scholarly—American Studies roles, he constantly reminds me that such professional boundaries can be just as inspiringly porous as disciplinary ones.
While I’ve only known Maggi for the last couple of years—we met through the 2010 New England American Studies Association conference in Boston, and I’m very excited that Maggi has joined the NEASA Council this year—it didn’t take long for me to recognize the ways she (and her husband and partner Jim Dalton) embodies the kind of renaissance American Studies identity that I’ve often written about in this space. She’s a talented musician and singer who uses those skills to educate her fellow Americans about history and literature; a regional historian who founded and directs the Salem History Society; and an author and journalist who edits (and usually also writes) the weekly “Salem History Time” column for the Boston Globe online and who has published (among other books) Stories and Shadows from Salem’s Past: Naumkeag Notations. To say that all of these activities exist outside of the traditional academy is only a partial and relatively minor truth—instead, it’s more accurate to say that Maggi’s (and Maggi and Jim’s) work has greatly expanded the scholarly conversations and communities centered on Salem, on New England, on music and history, and other significant American Studies topics.
I’ve got nothing against academic scholarship (duh), but it’s infinitely richer and stronger when it engages with the many parallel and interconnected American Studies conversations happening in other scholarly communities—as exemplified by Mark and Maggi. Next models tomorrow,
PS. Any non-academic American Studiers, conversations, or communities you’d highlight?
1/10 Memory Day nominee: Robinson Jeffers, the iconoclastic poet whose works compare favorably to modernists like T.S. Eliot, American Studiers like William Carlos Williams, and natural/spiritual poets like Robert Frost, and whose biting and bracing views of human nature offer important correctives to some of our more blithely sunny ideals.