Frank Wojciechowski
Task force calls for new approach with interdisciplinary, problem-oriented focus

A faculty task force has proposed a makeover of American studies that would transform the University’s oldest certificate program into the Collaborative Center for the Study of America. It would have dedicated faculty and an undergraduate major and would assemble working groups in a research hub called the Collaboratory. A statement by President Eisgruber ’83 and Dean of the College Jill Dolan endorsed most of the recommendations while noting that fundraising would be needed for many of them. PAW spoke in December with professors Anne Cheng ’85 and Hendrik Hartog, the co-chairs of the task force.

What needs changing in American studies?

Hartog: We talk more about affirming and expanding what the American studies program already does. One of the things that’s distinctive here is that we’re a relatively small, relatively less-powerful interdisciplinary unit on a campus where the traditional disciplines are probably more powerful and more successful than at any other major university. So one discourse is about what is America; the second problem is about interdisciplinarity, which we embody.

The report talks about how the natural sciences give research more of a problem orientation than the humanities and social sciences.

Cheng: And that’s why we propose the model of what we call the Collaboratory. ... You would be problem-directed, not discipline-directed, and the people participating would be people from all these different disciplines, who may have very different approaches but may be worrying over the same problems. We also want to have faculty and graduate students together. This is about creating intellectual communities.

Where do ethnic studies fit in? You recommend that an American studies major offer an option of specializing in Asian American studies or Latinx studies.

Cheng: We think it’s really important that as we build these fields at Princeton, they are intellectually integrated so that we understand Asian American studies is part of American studies and American studies is enriched by paying attention to Asian American studies — and the same with Latinx. Part of the lessons we’ve learned from ethnic studies that have been developed elsewhere is that over time, they become increasingly segregated. ...

In the last 10 years or so, there have been various trends in American studies — a more transnational focus, and a move toward thinking about ethnic studies as being within the purview of and of great concern to American studies.

Hartog: Part of the dynamic is that in the ’80s and ’90s, many programs — both ethnic studies and American studies — created separate fields that were all connected to American studies, but often as their own identities. There’s been a pushback against that. I think you can read in the report our attempt to mediate between both the need for recognition of group identities and a kind of commitment to integrating groups in a larger conversation.

What about the cultural divide we see in America today?

Cheng: If one thing is clear over the last year, it’s that we hardly know what America is. We all think we know this thing, but it’s constantly changing, its borders are changing, its self-perception is changing, there’s just so much for our students to think through. And we do not want to tell them what to think; all we can do is give them a safe place for conversation and for difficult, conflicting points of view — and to give them some tools, some vocabulary. 

Interview conducted and condensed by W.R.O.