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Publications: ASA Guide for Reviewing American Studies Programs

Acknowledgements and Preface


This guide is in substantial debt to many parties. The Modern Language Association provided relevant review materials that stimulated my own thinking about what kinds of questions would be most important in reviews of American Studies programs. Numerous ASA officers, committee members, and staff helpfully critiqued various drafts of this guide. Particularly important were the incisive contributions of the Association’s Committee on American Studies Programs, which initiated the project and offered sustaining encouragement, the consistently wise advice of ASA Executive Director John Stephens and the extraordinary editorial efforts of Toby Maria Chieffo.

I also wish to stress that, both indirectly as well as directly, this guide has profited from the review experiences of numerous local American Studies programs. I therefore see it as a continually evolving document, as new review experiences yield new insights. On behalf of the Association, I invite readers—and users—to suggest ways in which it can be revised in future editions to make it even more useful to local programs and to ASA.

Michael Cowan, Past President
American Studies Association


As a self-consciously interdisciplinary enterprise, American Studies is relatively venerable—arguably the oldest in the country. At the same time, compared to the standard disciplines of the academy—English, History, Anthropology, Physics, and the like—, American Studies programs are still in the eyes of many faculty and administrators on their campuses one of the new kids on the block, still under pressure to prove their legitimacy. Although the oldest American Studies programs in the United States have been around for well over fifty years, many are much younger. And although that youth has been for many programs a key source of energy, they continually have to answer to the charge of academic immaturity. At the same time, as new interdisciplinary fields have emerged—women’s studies, ethnic studies, cultural studies, media studies—and as many English and other traditional departments have themselves taken on an increasingly interdisciplinary task, American Studies’ particular form of interdisciplinary work has sometimes been dismissed as outmoded or unnecessary, and local programs have often had to compete for tight resources, often rather unsuccessfully, with these other new programs. The past two decades have witnessed the deaths of more than a few American Studies programs.

But in the complex ecology of higher education, death and birth intertwine. Virtually every year in the 1990s has seen the founding of new American Studies programs at both small colleges and major universities, not to mention the significant renewal of American Studies programs at other schools. In addition to its defining cross-disciplinary focus on the study of the United States, American Studies has characteristically been at its strongest when most flexible and outreaching: when it has worked self-consciously and creatively to integrate into its own study the newest research of other fields. Ethnic and feminist studies, postcolonial ethnography, postmodern theory, communication studies, critical historicism, political cultural studies, international comparative studies, and countless other threads have thus been woven into the most dynamic American Studies programs, invigorating without displacing those programs’ traditional concerns with questions of culture and citizenship.

The strength of the national and international American Studies movement and the strength of local American Studies programs are reciprocal. It is thus very much in the interest of the American Studies Association to foster the vitality of local programs. One key tool for doing so is periodic program reviews. Such reviews offer individual programs the chance to assess their own health and to view themselves in the context of the larger American Studies movement. They also offer valuable information to the American Studies Association about the actual practices and problems of local programs—information that the Association in turn can use to help those programs. At the same time, such reviews play an important advocacy role. When most successful, they give both the local program and, indirectly, the Association an occasion to reaffirm the valuable contributions that a strong local program can make to campus life as well as to the larger profession.

This guide to program review is thus premised on the review’s dual role as a tool for both searching assessment and measured advocacy. It is directed primarily to the leadership of the local program, secondarily to scholars serving as external reviewers of the program. It does not address systematically the question: what should an excellent American Studies program look like? There are numerous plausible answers to that question—answers that will depend in large part on how energetically and imaginatively a local program takes advantage of its own specific on-campus and surrounding off-campus constituents and resources: the strengths of its campus’ faculty, the interests of its students, the presence of local museums and archives, the needs of the local public school system and community agencies, the political and social issues that preoccupy the local community. What the guide does try to do is stimulate the local program leadership to consider whether it is taking best advantage of its local situation while keeping an eye on what is happening nationally in American Studies; and to consider how it can better convince campus administrators and faculty that its efforts are worth supporting.

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