American Studies and the New Technologies
Alan B. Howard
October 1, 1999
Originally prepared for the SAAS-USIS Conference,
Santiago de Compestello, Spain,
March 24-26, 1999.
Revised for the Mid-Atlantic
I - The Disclaimer
Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, recently let slip his mask of Olympian certitude before a Congressional Committee. In response to questions centered on the puzzling ways in which global markets were refusing to behave according to traditional economic principles, Greenspan remarked that We're all learning on the job here. He then explained the one principle that still seemed reliable: If someone tells you they understand what's going on, they don't!
This also strikes me as a sound place to begin a discussion of American Studies and the New Technologies. In thinking about this presentation, I soon concluded that the condition and direction of American studies was too varied and muddled, the present and future condition of the new technologies too complex and dynamic for any sane person to claim he understood their individual trajectories, let alone the ways they will intersect. So, following Greenspan's advice, I'm not going to tell you I understand what's going on. What I am prepared to venture is a set of observations on current trends and tendencies and some hypotheses about where these might be leading us.
II - American Studies
presidential address to the American Studies Association convention last November, Janice Radway characterized the history of American Studies as a creative tension between consensus and dissensus. Building on Gene Wise's description of America Studies as paradigm drama, she suggested that the current situation looks like the dissolution of a unifying paradigm, the fragmentation of the field into a series of sub-fields focused on particularist issues of race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and, to a lesser degree, class and cast. And this fragmentation, she said, this loss of what Donald Pease calls the unconscious and field imaginary of the discipline, threatened the very coherence and identity of American Studies.
Professor Radway went on to argue that, in order to counter the fragmentation in the field, we needed a subtler appreciation of the complex, intersecting ways in which people are embedded within multiple and conflicted discourses, practices, and institutions, a fuller appreciation of and commitment to describing what she calls the intricate interdependencies of American Culture(s). In effect, she said, we need a more sophisticated paradigm and subtler ways of implementing it in our work.
On the question of how American Studies might move in this direction, she proposed..., a name change. She suggested that the field might be called United States Studies and the Association renamed The Association for the Study of the United States. Or, evidently not wanting to offend, she also suggested that it might be called the Inter-American Studies Association or even The Society for Inter-Cultural Studies. In the end, she left the matter for the membership to mull over.
With all due respect to Professor Radway and understanding that the remedy she proposed was less important than either her description of the problem or the conversation she hoped to stimulate -- and she evidently did stimulate conversation -- this strikes me as something like proposing to deal with the the Exxon Valdez disaster by renaming that crippled tanker the Queen Elizabeth III and declaring it a primary tourist destination.
Had I been in Radway's shoes, I would have focused on another passage from Wise's article, Paradigm Dramas' in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement. Near the end, he offers a kind of balance sheet for American Studies. After recounting our many virtues, he says that,
On the negative side, we in the movement have been much too ready, especially in past decades, to make peace with the dominant structures of the academy; we have too frequently allowed our ritual rhetoric of newness to substitute for actually thinking or doing our work creatively; we have often let intellectual flabbiness get by as openness or innovation. And, most basically, we have been too faint of heart in our commitment to a distinctive American Studies venture, and all too often have retreated to our disciplinary havens when matters threaten to get precarious in the field.
I very much like this, especially the phrase, the ritual rhetoric of newness. Unlike Radway, I believe that the present danger facing American Studies is less its fragmentation than its numbing sameness. I see a set of nominally different discourses deployed by a variety of discourse communities that are actually almost indistinuishable one from another, that are all superficial variants of a single paradigm rooted in poststructuralist theory and identity politics. The malaise we suffer is that of difference without distinction in either primary or secondary sense of this last term.
I like the phrase as well because I believe there is something actually new going on outside the tidy precincts of our field and our disciplinary association, something that will demand actual thinking and real creativity. The new technologies are coming!
III: The new technologies
Whatever the term new technologies eventually comes to mean, a lot of very smart people are predicting that they will be radically transformative. Like the railroad or the electric light or the automobile or the radio, they will eventually alter our economic structures, our social systems, our daily living, and our fundamental modes of constructing reality. They also predict that the changes they compel will be of unprecedented in scale and size and speed, their effects moving almost immediately from Redmond, Washington to Bangaladesh, from Microsoft Corporate Headquarters to the woman who has just set up as the phone company for her village using a cell phone and a satellite link.
Granted, the movement of the technology -- and its effects -- will be uneven: because the technology itself is still evolving, innovating and interconnecting like some global mold or fungus; because, and for a variety of primarily economic reasons, access to the technologies will be quite varied from place to place; because it will be as true of this technology as it has been of past ones that it will be misunderstood and misapplied at the beginning. Despite Edison's predictions, the phonograph did not prove the long-awaited vehicle for recording and distributing the wisdom of great men; despite IBM's best thinking on the matter, the computer did not turn out to be primarily a computational mechanism for advanced scientific research. And certainly there will be places that, in the end, prove to be relatively immune to it -- economically advantaged parts of the world, for instance, that will be able to afford the luxury of maintaining anachronisms as a kind of theme park, and economically disadvantaged societies that will be electronically colonized, reduced to even greater economic, social and cultural dependence on the those who control the technologies and can exploit them. But come it will, change us it will.
American Studies will be a very negligible item in all this, a mote in the storm's path. But from the point of view of the mote -- your and my point of view, I fear -- it's something we really must attend to. For American Studies, these new technologies introduce three new factors, three important new dimensions to our enterprise. First, they alter radically the scale and complexity of what is possible. For example, the new databases and the new tools for interrogating them -- corpora of texts, social and economic data, archives of images -- permit the incorporation of vast quantities of information and much subtler kinds of analyses. Second, because they are multimediated, they permit the inclusion of kinds of information that have been marginalized, ignored or treated naively -- images, objects, events, sounds. Third, because they are interactive, they permit a range of social behaviors -- collaborative work between academics, between teachers and students, between academics and non-academics -- and a variety of intellectual behaviors -- theoretical modelling, game and what if scenarios, multi-variable questions and answers, as well as multiple perspective solutions to single problems. And all of this permits to think about and represent anything, even American Culture(s), not as a static and spatial map, but as the fluid and dynamic flow of something like an organic process.
I've said that in these three areas, the new technologies permit something; in fact I should have said that they argue for these new activities and behaviors, perhaps even that they demand them. The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere along the continuum these terms describe. The capacity, the potential of the new technologies, will certainly be explored and instantiated. And as that happens, they will constitute a new standard for what makes both good questions and good answers. Questions that cannot operate at sufficient scale and complexity, that cannot be genuinely multi-media/multi-disciplinary, questions that employ individual cultural products to map whole cultural processes -- all these will come to seem inauthentic and unathoritative. And each of these are, in my judgment, pretty much what we now do in American Studies.
IV. Mapping the Terrain
A first question, then, might be, how has American Studies been affected by the new technologies to this point? The short answer? To all appearances, not much. Appearances is, of course, a crucial term here. There is obviously an enormous difference between a program description and a program or between a course syllabus and a course. The instructor is there, but only as a very schematic outline of his intentions; the students are usually gone, whatever they actually learned left to be inferred from the instructor's good intentions. In effect, we are often cast in the role of anthropological anthropologists, fingering the bones and trying to imagine the living organism. In addition, some sites are locked down, public access denied out of what may be exaggerated notions of intellecual property or quite justificable embarassment. And a good deal of material that is supposed to be out there, just simply isn't Sites have been closed or abandoned without anyone sending in either a change of address form or an obituariy; URLs have gone bad because they haven't received the technical support and maintenance they require; or sites can't be accessed because someone along the chain of evidence incorrectly keyboarded in the address and the site didn't generate enough interest for anyone to notice. In sum, knowing the relation between what appears and what is, as in all things, difficult.
Bearing this in mind, if we start at the American Studies Association's own Project Crossroads, the official gateway site for American Studies, you see that the Association has done a remarkable job of utilizing the new technologies to extend and enhance its traditional responsibilities as a professional organization. Built by Professor Randy Bass, Crossroads has grown from what was essentially a cumbersome, randomly and arbitrarily selected archive of xerox copies of old course syllabi to an indispensable full-service utility for anyone interested in American Studies. Bass has created, first, a gateway site, a central portal for accessing AS electronic resources; by and large, if you want to know what's out there, you need to start with Crossroad's Reference and Research utility with links to both association services (Full texts of American Quarterly articles from 1975; theoretical essays about AS from the ASA Newsletter archive, dissertation abstracts, etc.) and to a broad range of AS-related work on the web through AS WEB: a subject based directory of resources.
Secondly, he has created an set of links to models for American Studies in the electronic classroom (dynamic syllabi) and Crossroads test sites and dissemination projects. Thirdly, he has created a series of fora for discussion of AS related issues. They works horizontally -- linking out to related groups, fields and associations (Communities: Organizations, Communities, and Associations) -- and vertically -- through discussion platforms like the Crossroads Expo of May 1998 and the Highroads Discussion List, a listserv for secondary school teachers.
Each of these is a valuable service, providing pointers to resources for students and teachers that can be acquired at any time and from anywhere in the world, by anyone with access to a computer and an internet connection; providing syllabi and model courses which suggest the variety of ways in which one can think about American Studies and the variety of ways in which that thinking can be systematically organized in a curriculum; and providing asynchronous platforms where teachers can talk with colleagues. Each of these is clearly welcome and potentially very useful. Undergirding all of them is the fundamental understanding that the physical networks the new technologies provide -- the computers and software and the cabling and satellites that link them -- are really far less important that the human networks they make possible.
If one does a quick latitudinal search, scanning across the range of disciplinary associations in some ways similar to the American Studies Association, the Modern Language Association and The American Historical Association, for example, one finds a number of interesting, if not always surprising things. First, you find that the American Studies Association is among the most evolved of the sites, the furthest forward in the understanding of the technology as reflected in its practice. Second, one finds that many of the associations link to one another in some form or another, either directly or, more frequently, indirectly through third-party sites. This, too, is a familiar and understandable institutional behavior. On the internet, you enhance your own asset base, your own cultural capital, by capturing the assets of others. Theirs' becomes Mine when I link to it, especially if I can use it on-site, for example, keep the reader on my site while embedding the other site in it with, for example, frames. And, although its not necessary, I can also transform their asset by simply linking it to other people's assets, creating an array of information and implication that is both itself different in kind and that transforms each of its components through the new set of inter-associations. -- a kind of collage, electronic anthologizing, or found art-work. Sometimes this looks like nothing so much as a small village whose economy is based on everyone taking in everyone else's wash; often it becomes densely inter-textual, monads of information re-written in a variety of places, creating subtly different meanings.
The result is indeterminate, but not exactly incoherent. If you go across the disciplinary associations I think you'll be struck first by the number of places in which something like American Studies is now being done. This is true to some degree of the larger, long established associations - The American Historical Association and The Modern Language Association , for example,
but even more so in the newer ones, particularly those that one might characterize as having hived-off from American Studies over the past two decades, Popular Culture, Women's Studies, African-American Studies, Latino-Studies, etc.
Everywhere, some variant of multiculturalism, postructuralist theory, and identity politics is in play. Race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and to a lesser degree caste and class prevail as predominant categories of inquiry and explanation. There's a certain amount of morphing to be sure, subtle changes of texture and shape as one moves from site to site, from one discipline or sub-discipline to another, but it is still recognizably the same face. If an evolutionary biologist looked at this, he would suspect that the already fragile boundaries separating sub-fields in the American Studies family had largely broken down, that some macro-field had already emerged and that the illusion of difference and individuality was being maintained as a social fiction.
If, instead of moving horizontally, you move vertically in Crossroads, digging down through its layers, you will find that ASA is where it probably ought to be, out well ahead of its membership. Moving down from the American Studies Association itself, to the colleges and universities, then deeper into the departments and programs and eventually into the classrooms, one finds a decidedly mixed picture. The great majority of American universities now have a web presence, a home page that functions at least as an advertising vehicle for the institution, characterizing its aims and its services, listing out its departments and faculty and athletic programs, etc. In many cases, these also include some degree of functionality: email contacts, downloadable literature, applications for admissions or financial assistance, and online access to library catalogues. In the main, however, the web presence is a kind of billboard or electronic pamphlet, providing information that is also available through the mail. And almost exactly the same thing could be said at the departmental or program level -- and to a slightly lesser degree and where visible in the classroom.
At the program level, I can find only one American Studies program that actually seems to have been shaped in an attempt to take advantage of the new technologies, my own program at the University of Virginia. I'll try to make good that claim somewhat later.
At the level of the individual classroom, there is a good deal more activity and imagination as well as an equally impressive range of quality and utility. A few teachers are now using electronic syllabi, some with a modest amount of class material attached, bulletin boards and email links. for example, Al Filreis' Literature and Culture of the 50s at the University of Pennsylvania is a well developed instance of this kind of electronic classroom. He provides links to the majority of course assignments and introduces a variety of kinds of cultural texts into his classroom, course matter that would have been very difficult include without the technology. But Filreis's is an unusually well-developed site.
An equally interesting site, this by Susan Ressler (Purdue), and Jerrold Maddox, (Penn State) is called Women Artists of the American West: Past and Present This course,
organized around ideas of community, identity, spirituality and locality that makes extensive and imaginative use of the artists and writers who were both creators and sometimes the subjects of the site. It includes a large archive of images with accompanying critical and auto/biographical texts by academics and non-academics, which frame the weekly discussions, and a bulletin board to enable asynchronous discussion. It survives the original occasion and stands on its own feet as a kind of electronic publication and a kind of learning space accessible to all. Apart from the quality of the materials and the structure, I think its thoroughly collaborative nature sets it apart. Two other sites, the from Charlene Mires' students in a Material Culture course at Villanova University, is a virtual exhibition on the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the second an American Liteature survey course from Natasha Sinutko at the University of Texas at Austin I particularly admire these sites for the various ways the instructors have found to engage the students actively in their own education and for their willingness to let that work be viewed outside the classroom.
One of the most interesting sites I found is actually an antique as these things go, Richard B. Latner's Crisis at Fort Sumter. Published in 1996, this is an interactive site in which students are asked to assume the perspective of Abraham Lincoln at five critical moments in the policy making process that led up to Fort Sumter. It provides a rich set of contexts for each "critical juncture" and enables students to compare their decisions with Lincoln's own. All in all, an imaginative use of the web to create a near-virtual participation in both the original event and in the problematics of the historians reconstruction of that event.
In general, though, as I look at the AS electronic classroom I don't see very much going on. Occasionally, there is some expansion of the kinds of materials offered students, excerpts from out of print books, fugitive materials -- periodical literature, journal essays, images etc. -- that have never been reprinted or anthologized and could not be made so easily available to students. Often there is a bulletin board or email advising attached, and infrequently a MUD or MOO (chat rooms). In the main, however, what seems to be going on is the electronic distribution of print materials; where relevant electronic resources are available on the internet, the instructor doesn't seem to have found them; where multimedia is clearly indicated, it isn't actually used,. And most sigificantly, the process of studying AS still runs in chronological and survey organization. The subject matter has not been refocused, the learning process has not been rationalized in some new and more coherent fashion than the one-book-a-week model. Finally, very few courses feature electronic student work that might indicate the degree to which the students themselves are able to integrate American Studies and the new technologies.
If we continue post-holing in Crossroads, looking now for the impact of the new technologies on American Studies research and scholarship, we find again a decidedly mixed picture. In contrast to the situation five years ago, when nothing was available for scholars on the web and precious little through the various ftp sites, there is now a huge amount of research material online, special collections of all sorts, image banks, interactive census data, full-text copies of primary and secondary works, manuscripts, indeces to special collections' holdings, and some proportion of those holdings themselves.
Links to archives, corpora, and image databases are, as always, only as good as their content -- which varies. But they are becoming increasingly searchable and represent an important increase in analytical power and accessability. Scholars who would find it impossible to actually visit these collections will be able to work with them -- and that is obviously a very important levelling of the scholarly playing field.
But, evidently, not yet. In a quick survey of articles published in American Quarterly for the past two years, I could find not a single citation of material acquired over the internet. Although publication schedules are undoubtedly dampening the appearance of citation as an indicator of scholarly use of the internet, I think its also true that, while students now turn first to the internet to do their research, faculty are not turning to it at all. Scholarly journals, on the other hand, are struggling to adjust to the new technologies, and many have chosen some sort of electronic reprint or simultaneous electronic and print publication. The American Studies Association has chosen this latter strategy and, if you are a member, you can visit their site at Project Muse and find a full archive of back issues as well. Important, but underutilizing the technology, pouring old wine into new computers.
Elsewhere, however, there are a number of completely electronic journals. In the American Studies world, Postmodern Culture at The University of Virginia, is one of the more highly evolved and is one of two journals available through Project Muse. The current issue of Postmodern Culture includes a full array of multimedia services, images, film clips, audio clips, and interactive maps as well as reader feedback loops, links to sources and resources, etc. It also includes essays that are largely laid out in conventional linear fashion, as well as one essay, on Rock-and-Roll, that doesn't have what one might have expected, sound clips. A very new journal, Picturing Justice: The On-line Journal of Law and Popular Culture comes from NovaSoutheastern University Law Center. Despite its warrant to explore the representation of American law in popular media, it is only a text and image-based site. Similarly 49th Parallel: An Interdisciplinary Journal of North American Studies from the University of Birmingham is, as of its third issue, essentially a conventional print text distributed electronically. More promising is The Journal for MultiMedia History from the State University of New York at Albany. Pledging "to publish a journal of history that uses hypertext and multimedia technologies to merge audio, video, graphics, and text into a form that can only be communicated on the World Wide Web (WWW) or on CD-ROM/DVD mediums," the editors have just published their second volume. The premier issue fell somewhat short of its editors' ambitions. The graphics were often fairly low in informational content, there were no video components, and one of the offerings is simply an audio recording of a lecture. But the extensive use of oral histories collected from participants in the The 1939 Dairy Farmers Union Milk Strike in Heuvelton and Canton, New York was a significant extension of the article by the same title. The second volume is significantly better, especially its lead article, I Can Almost See the Lights of Home: A Field Trip to Harlan County, Kentucky. This is an innovate use of audio in which the traditional dialogue between oral historian and subject is nested inside another dialogue, that between the two scholars as they work to create their interpretation and struggle with the best means to present it as scholarship.
Of the established journals in our field, both the William and Mary Quarterly and American Quarterly are exploring the electronic possibilities: WMQ published a electronic version of two articles that were amplified in ways that could not have been captured in print
But AQ and the ASA are much further down the road and have launched their own e-journal, Hypertext Scholarship in American Studies debuted March 8 of this year and includes four articles.
Each of the articles is extremely interesting, both for what the authors say and for the ways in which they use the technology to say it: Castonguay's hypermedia essay about film's role in shaping public perceptions of the Spanish-Civil War is relatively low-tech and linear; The Kasniewicz and Blitz piece is relatively hi-tech, postmodernly complex and aggressively non-linear; Westbrook's piece on comic strips seems the most conventional, an illustrated argument, while Thurston's piece on photograpy and legal theory and practice brings together in one space pieces of a cultural dynamic that would be almost impossible to represent without the technology as well as virtually all the relevant documentation. In effect, then, the articles more or less describe the arc of current practice, from repackaging of conventional pracitice to genuine explortions of what new practices might look like.
In the end, what distinguishes the articles most is that they are presented as organic and dynamic sites that could, at least theoretically, become open-ended projects, continuing to grow and develop over time, gathering component parts, perhaps even attracting collaborators and detractors. What this organic instability very nicely suggests is that the new technologies pose some very interesting practical problems of evaluation, ownership and authority, problems Roy Rozensweigboth addresses and elides in the editorial preface but which receive fuller and more direct treatment in the very suggestive follow-up Forum on Hypertext Scholarship: AQ as
Web-Zine: Responses to AQ's Experimental
Online Issue published -- in paper and online -- this past June.
Overall, the condition of the new technologies in American Studies seem pretty much what one might expect, largely attempts to use the new technology in order to do old business at increased speed and scale and in hopes of lowered costs and increased returns. And in the process, using them awkwardly and ineffectually, especially when they bump up against institutional structures and habits of mind.
In effect, we seem to be at something like the stage builders reached at the middle of the last century when they tried to understand what the new capacity for mass producing large pieces of cast iron might mean to their profession. The majority decided the new technology was ideal for mass and modularized manufacture of iron building fronts; cast in modules and shipped from factories in the East by steamboat where they were assembled on site by workers far less skilled and costly than stone cutters or masons, they could even be bolted to frame structures and yield the appearance of much more substantial buildings. Against these, another group understood fairly soon that cast iron might be less interesting as false facade than as structural members, still factory-made, still shipped and assembled, but inside the building rather than outside. Most of us, I fear, are still working on the facade.
V - Has American Studies left the Building?
Outside ASA and the academic practice of American Studies, however, the situation is quite different. There is actually an enormous amount of American Studies going on; it is just that it is increasingly being done outside the academy. If you follow many of the links on Crossroads or if you just look at Best Practice at AS@UVA, you repeatedly see, not just .edu sites, but .org, .net, .gov, and -- .com sites. These vary in quality, but many of them are well funded, well constructed, culturally powerful sites. They already have such enormous reach and power they make me nervous, but also suggest much about the potential of the new technologies.
On the margins of academe stand a host of centers, institutes and projects: An NEH Seminar, for example, North by South: From Charleston to Harlem - The Great Migration, traces the cultural continuities and changes of African-Americans who migrated from Charleston, S.C., to Harlem. Group projects from The American Studies Seminar of the Salzburg Center for American Studies. include From Melting Pot to Mosaic about the changing role of immigration in America. Projects like these often have solid and substantial ties to the universities like The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi or the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies at the University of Maryland. Others are based in more or less independent institutes, like the Franklin and
Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, which sponsors the New Deal Network. And others, like The Sixties -- offering a Julian Bond comic book and exhibitions of 60s political memorabilia along with a variety of other things -- seem only provisionally or virtually connected to traditional institutions or even physical location.
Just a bit further outside the campus gates stand the new proprietary universities like Britain's Open University, and America's own University of Phoenix but including a host of others. At this point, they seem more able to deliver introductory-level courses, especially skill heavy courses like mathematics or nursing. But the Open University is offering an MA in Humanities that emphasizes courses in history, literature
and popular culture, and its Sixties Research group sponsors a twice-yearly seminar and offers a variety of courses at the Open University History Department. They are clearly moving toward offering something like American Studies for the distance learning market.
Even further from the center stands a host of other players. Museums, for example, at every level, federal, state,and local. For example, The Library of Congress has 44 of its collections mounted online, including The Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures, Voices from the Dustbowl, The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920 and America from the Great Depression to WW II: Photographs from the FSA-OWI 1935-1945. And the National Park Service offers more than a dozen exhibits like The Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Our Shared History: Celebrating African American History and Culture, and Lying Lightly on the Land: Building America's National Park Roads and Parkways. The National Archives has a series of document and teaching materials on American history from 1787 to 1868, and The National Gallery has established an extensive gateway site for Art History teachers.
You might also look at The White House Collection of American Crafts. The National Museum of American Art : Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York and the Smithsonian Insitution, Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops. Perhaps the most technically sophisiticated and interesting site comes from the Whitney Museum in its two part The American Century: Art and culture, 1900-2000. Employing significant amounts of Java-scripting, it combines audio, video, with excellent graphics and visual effects throughout, providing a tour which provides an overiview of the exhibition, the opportunity to customize your own tour, as well as a set of interactive learning activities and a multi-threaded discussion board.
State governments and historical societies are also very active: for example, the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University collaborated to present The Great Chicago Fire and the Atlanta History Museum is currently offering Gone for a Soldier: Transformed by the War - 1861-1865. And state humanities councils like those in Texas and Virginia and a host of others are doing interesting work for both the schools and the public.
Local museums, historical societies and interest groups are also doing American Studies. for example, Colonial Williamsburg , The Diego Riviera Museum , The Franklin Institute's Virtual Science Museum, The DeYoung Museum's Francisco
The Art of the Americas: Art and Ethnography
The Navajo Nation and the Country Grain Elevator Historical Society headquartered in Bozeman, Montana.
Libraries, concerned about the survival of the book in the age of hyertext are also feverishly active, especially University libraries which often have access to unusually powerful human resources. For example, The Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia has on line a very large number of texts of interest to Americanists. The library's Special Collections Division regularly mounts exhibits like these on The Psychedelic Sixties , Southern Women in the Civil War,
and its Geospatial and Statistical Data Center now houses the Historical Census Browser.
Created by Paul Bergen at Harvard, this utility interactively displays U.S. all census data from 1790 to 1970.
Publishers, especially commercial presses like Prentice-Hall, Harcourt Brace, Norton, Houghton Mifflin (Heath Division), are all busily creating web sites to amplify and extend their hard copy anthologies. Houghton Mifflin's site is fairly representative. The site is to be used in conjunction with any of three textbooks they publish: Berkin et al, The Making of America, Bailey et al, The American Pagaent, or Norton et al, A People and a Nation. Each sub-site includes a small archive of graphics and documents, a battery of self-tests for students covering each chapter in the book, a set of external links, links that point to complementary material outside the Houghton-Mifflin domain that has been vetted and judged appropriate and relevant, and a body of instructor notes on both the central text and the external resources. This site doesn't include additional features found elsewhere, chat group, email help lines, a pad so students can take notes and email them to themselves, a bibliography -- text and electronic -- etc. but its a fairly typical representative of the low end of such things.
At the high end one finds more comprehensive primary and secondary resources, the inclusion of sound and film, and generally higher quality 'design elements,' i.e., packaging. But across the range, the publishers' strategy seems to be to re-cycle existing hard-copy product by enhancing it in some fashion or another. And the common pressures of both commodity intent and the technology mean that the sites look very much alike. In U.S. history, literature, sociology, anthropology, art, and architecture, the disciplinary boundaries begin to give way, each site becoming a kind of multidisciplinary/multi-mediated cousin of the other -- an American Studies site in kind if not in name.
One exception to this pattern of recycling and amplification -- and one of the best of the print/electronic publications -- is the soon-to-be released Border Texts edited by Randy Bass. To be published as a textbook by Houghton Mifflin, the web-site that accompanies it is temporarily housed on the Georgetown server. This is essentially a composition text, using American material and the multi-cultural notion of borders. It includes longer versions of the editorial material framing each chapter in the hard copy book; a set of exercises that teach students how to use the web intelligently; and sections on the relation of texts to contexts, on various kinds of narratives and generic conventions, on physical and electronic communities and on the electronic frontier and the American West. And it contains a very selective set of external sites that are closely keyed to the Border Texts'own materials. Because this site is conceived from the ground up; all of its component parts are intelligently integrated; it focuses on writing at the level of thinking about real things; and it is process driven, unfolding, not as monads of information, to be digested and stored at least until the test at the end of semester, but as an intellectual process that is intended to develop understanding by giving students increasingly difficult problems to solve with progressively more sophisticated information, skills, and analytical models.
Finally, another kind of publishing, CD-ROM publishers like Educorp , which now lists 27 titles in American History and 25 in American Art and Voyager, which has a number of more or less AS like titles including Roy Rozensweig, et al, Who Built America?, are also important players in this expanding universe of the New American Studies.
Media organizations are also doing American Studies these days. Not just Zines like Wired and TIME and U.S. News and World Report-- although they're there and they have ambitions to become educational institutions -- but organizations such as the Public Broadcasting Corporation. Paralleling the print publishers, PBS and a number of its affiliates like Maryland Public Broadcasting and WGBH in Boston, are recycling and extending television programming as web sites. And this is certainly going to filter down to the local affiliates, to the stations in Atlanta and Sacramento and Missoula where, in all probability, the recycling will take on a regional focus and local color -- American Studies letting down its bucket where it is, as it were.
One of the most recent productions at PBS -- and one of my favorites for the very simple reason that it was produced by one of my own students -- is the Frank Lloyd Wright site, which builds on Ken Burns' film. Organized chronologically -- from Wright's first project, his own house in Oak Park, to the Guggenheim Museum commission -- the site moves from major building to major building. At each point, the reader finds schematic drawings and elevations; contemporary reviews and responses; biographical pieces on Wright's life at the time of the speicific project; and links to antecedent and parallel movements in architecture, literature, and art. After moving through this history of Wright and his times, you can go to various assessments of Wright's career -- estimations and demonstrations of his influence on architecture, design, community -- to maps and tour itineraries that allow the reader to find out where the closest Wright building is, as well a Resource page with bibliography and electronic links to material off-site for those who want to read about it rather than go see it. The whole is nicely amplified with graphics and audio segments; and the whole site is integrated into a large arry of other PBS projects including Teacher Source, an internal gateway to PBS sites which have been re-drawn or created specifically for K-12 students and teachers.
And, what PBS is doing, all of its local affiliate stations are doing or are preparing to do: for example, WGBH - Africans in America, , or Maryland Public Television,
And, inevitably, there are the commercial ventures -- lots of commercial ventures -- from
commercial sites attached to commercial educational television channels like The History Channel to large corporations like The Union Pacific Railroad Company all the way to a small retailer of western and native American goods in New Mexico, who gives us The American West: A Celebration of the Human Spirit
And, finally, individuals: enthusiasts, amateur historians, cranks and culture mavens of every kind and condition -- many of whom are actually quite accomplished. For instance, another Sixties site from a 19 year-old biological sciences
major at the University of East Anglia; a site on the History of Illinois Courthouses from an independent journalist working on a book on the topic; a site from a collector of memorabilia relating to the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair ; an impressive site by Jim Zwick, a graduate student at Syracuse University, whose passionate website, Anti-Imperialism in the United States: 1898-1935, seems to have been banished to a .com site; and
from Todd Post, an amateur historian, New Jersey: Crossroads of the Revolution.
I suspect my point was painfully clear some time ago: from the academic margins to the furthest reaches of hyperspace, American Studies is very much alive out there: everybody's doin' it, doin' it, doin' it.... and often doing it a good deal better than we are.
VI - What's Happening?
All of this is, of course, but a small piece of a larger process in which education seems to be seeping out of the university. If the higher education people are right about this, Americanists might take some comfort in not being alone as we drift to the margins.. But I also believe that it is possible to see that the new technologies offer us an opportunity that is really remarkable -- if not entirely unique to American Studies. At the very least, someone will have to train and educate these new americanists who will practice their craft outside the university; and we are the most logical people to take on that task. Perhaps even more importantly, the new technologies may actually help us in the regeneration and renewal that Radway called for at the American Studies Association Conference. If we go back to her call for a new American Studies and focus, not on her nomenclatural solution but on the ways she describes what she undertstands to be the new models of cultural process we pretty much agree about, we see something very interesting. The terms she used to describe the cultural process all point toward the complexity and dynamism of cultural process: it's an process of 'intersecting,' 'interweaving,' and 'interacting,' 'interrelationships,' that 'mutually transform' one another as a host of parties navigate 'borderlands,' and create 'hybridities,' perform an endless interactive and inter-animating, endlessly 'fluid,' 'mobile,' and 'flexible' processes.
The new technologies offer us, I think, the means to do exactly this kind of American Studies. They allow us to deploy the more sophisticated models of cultural process that have emerged to displace the mono-cultural models of the fities and sixties and the multi-cultural models of the seventies and eighties. This new model argues that culture is not carried in written texts -- high or low -- but in a welter of crypto-, pseudo-, or proto-texts, images, sounds, events, built and un-built structures. Obviously, the multi-media capabilities of the new technology give us the power to really incorporate all of these different kinds of texts in a single analytical space. The new paradigm also argues that these various kinds of texts never braid into a single narrative or even settle out into a chorus of counterpointed and competing narratives, but eddy in agitated arrays of inter-relation and inter-dependency, meaning and action. They also suggest that this process is less linear than multi-threaded, less synchronous than asynchronous. And they suggest that it is less monolithic that multi-vocalic and multiply situated ; that it is not centered but radically de-centered and radically interdependent. In short, culture now looks less like a book than like,......, well, like a web,.... of signification and interrelation, effect and affect. And that, of course, is where the technology gives us a platform of sufficient power, scale, and complexity, not so much to tell stories about that world out there, but to mirror it, to create something like a simulacrum, not so much of that world itself, but of its intricate inter-connected-ness as a dynamic processes.
VII - Three Possible Models
There are clearly many innovative and suggestive attempts out there to imagine what the new American Studies might look like. But I'd like to look briefly at three sites at The University of Virginia which I find suggestive and which are projects I think I actually know something about: The Valley of The Shadow Project, The Uncle Tom's Cabin Project and AS@UVA.
"The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the Civil War" is the first site I want to look at. It is the brain child of Edward Ayers, an exellent American historian who writes about the social history of the South. It is focused on two communities in the Shenandoah Valley from 1859-1866. Ed and his colleagues have created a huge database, some 18 GB worth, all searchable, from a Confederate county in the middle of the Valley and a Union county at the Valley's northern end: images, church records, military records, census statistics, full contents of the local newspapers, official documents, maps -- including annual maps of property ownership based on tax records -- diaries, and personal and official correspondence.
It is far more than simply a archive, documentary middens of two Shenandoah Valley towns. Ed and his team have built a site that is theoretically approachable from any intellectual angle and have made it user-friendly for everyone from grade-schoolers to octogenarian civil war re-enactors. It is also an argument, about both the complexity of the social history of the period when viewed in specific detail and about how different from our conventional models lived life actually was in the period. Ayers has used the technology to assemble an quantity of information that would be impossible to house or to make sense of without it. The site also employs the technology like a lens to view that material. And, like the telescope or the microscope, it alters radically what is seen, repeatedly complicating existing interpretations and, in a number of cases, simply overturning conventional wisdom.The Valley of the shadow has also become a gateway for those interested in the Civil War and American social history, an educational resource and tool for teachers, an intellectual space where a community of scholars and lay persons meet to share a common passion, and a paradigm, I think, of how social history must be done in the future.
The second site is "Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture" by
Stephen Railton at The University of Virginia. Railton has been
working for a number of years creating hypertexts of Twain's works with his students. Last year, he received a grant from the University's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and has spent the past six months, with the Institute's technical assistance, building this hypertext centered around Uncle Tom's Cabin. The site is still in process, but it already includes a full text of the novel and illustrations from various editions. The site branches into two sub-sites, the first on the cultural condition out of which Stowe created the novel --antebellum evangelical Christianity, sentimental and domestic culture, the abolition movement, and minstrelcy and the second on
the long cultural aftermath of the book -- reviews, newpaper articles, African-American and pro-slavery responses, and various adaptations of Uncle Tom in material and popular culture, in knick-knacks, songs, stage plays and films. And each of these is virtually present on the site, from 3-D images of the Staffordshire pottery Tomitudes to the entire Edison-Porter film of Uncle Tom produced in 1903. The objective is to represent not merely the novel but the larger, more dynamic and more diffuse public icon which the novel became. Next year, Steve will insert the project into his classes and publish it on the web.
The third site is AS@UVA, a master's degree program in American Studies designed from the ground up to integrate American Studies and the new technologies. It is a thoroughly rationalized curriculum, wrong-headed perhaps, but rational; at each stage in the year-long program students are learning something about American Studies and new technologies by doing them. We begin with an intensive bibliography and research methods course and go on to build a portal for AS resources organized by sub-field, the Yellow Pages for American Studies. We learn scanning and the manipulation of text image, audio and video by creating collaborative hypertexts and virtual exhibitions. We design and construct thematic or period sites that are then added to over time in an effort to complicate and amplify them. At the conclusion of the program, each student creates a major project that is intended to stand as a capstone exercise, a demonstration of both the technological skills acquired and the ability to use them. To return to the metaphor I used above, as a lens for analysis and a medium for conveying to an educated general public the cultural process seen at work. Over time, the components and projects that the students have created have become a major web resource At least as important to me, they become a resource for my own teaching. In my introductory seminar this past fall, for example, and in my undergraduate classes generally, I am now able to use significant amounts of student-created material where it serves a threefold purpose: they allow students to see what their peers had been able to do; they provide models for their own work, and they provide them with substantial intellectual content. As someone has said, the most underutilized resource in any university is the students themselves.
At this point in the term, students are mounting a display space tentatively entitled Imaging the Depression, an attempt to capture the visual landscape and soundscape of the 1930s. This is a first-generation project, and we'll grow it out over the next few years. But it now contains a set of iconic moments from print, film, radio and documentary photography in the 1930s. Each iconic moment has been selected and then framed by its editor to point up how it captures some critical issue, attitude, idea of the period. The project stands alone, but it is also related to a project begun last year on the 1930s that will be further amplified by the present group before semester's end.
The Valley of the Shadow, Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture, and AS@UVA are, from one perspective, very different kinds of sites. One stands on a huge new database of information created for the purpose; one starts with a single material artifact, a book; and one is really the by-product of an educational process. The Valley is what might be termed a top-down model: well supported by traditional funding, staffed with highly qualified technical support people and equally well qualified researchers, and given a very significant amount of institutional support by the University.
Uncle Tom and American Culture is a mid-range project, created by a single faculty member with some institutional support. After the main components are built this year, Railton will take to the classroom and the street, further developing the site with the help of his students and collaborators at other institutions. AS@UVA is the low-end model, a bottom-up model: begun without foundation or institutional support, using cast off equipment and staffed entirely by the students who have designed, built and maintained it.
All three projects share certain crucial features. They began with questions rather than answers; they work very close to the ground, looking at particular, bounded and concrete things; they are open and heuristic, built to discover their own natures; they are collaborative, incorporating the perspectives and talents of people with varied skills and interests; and they work across or around a series of conventional distinctions, between teaching and learning, between research and teaching, between the academy and the general public.
As I've suggested already, these new technologies are very
destabilizing; they tend to subvert existing modes of thought and the social and institutional structures that support them. They encourage the proliferation of competing organizations that claim to do better what we do and that are willing to battle us for our territory. They proliferate various kinds of gray literature that work outside traditional and established centers of authority; allowing almost anyone to do American Studies, to do it with the authority the technology itself confers, and to do it without the traditional internal and external markers of legitimacy and reliability. Most importantly, they bring into question the preferred ways of knowing that are embedded in our discipline and thus bring into question the very notion of expertise, create a multitude of questions about faculty roles and rewards, shift power to the young, who know the machinery and who just get it, and away from their elders who know the field.
They involve substantial capital investment to be effective, not even most importantly in money. There are costs in hardware and software,in retraining faculty, and in ongoing maintenance costs for projects and procedures that may never be, in the old sense, completed. But the really large expense will be in imagination. These technolgies argue for collaborative work across institutional, spatial, and temporal boundaries in an academic culture that, whatever its claims, is a thoroughly specialized, highly individualistic, and competitive business. They require flexibility, patience, trust, risk and commitment, in a arena grown thoroughly and narrowly professionalized.
For American Studies to meet the challenges posed by the new technologies, we will have accept the fact that we don't really know how they work, how to speak their language or navigate their systems. And because we don't understand, we'll be forced to learn alongside our students, often to learn from our students. We will also need to find ways to integrate training in the technologies into our curricula, something that is becoming increasingly possible to do even if you don't have a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. And there will be substantial gains to offset whatever the costs might be for, as with the advent of printing, it will force us to consider our most basic assumptions about analysis and information and audience. We will also need to forge collaborative partnerships within our own institutions,with other educational institutions, and with individuals and institutions outside the academy. The scale and complexity I've noted as important properties of the new technologies clearly argue against the notion of the academic as solitary genius. And we will need to press forward on the creation of discipline specific standards to evaluate work done in the new technologies, standards that connect specific objectives with credible and specific measures of outcomes. And, perhaps most importantly, we need to find opportunities to work more visibly and effectively in the public arena, to use the new technologies to make clear the relevance of what we do in the academy to a broader non-academic audience and, if possible, to have a direct impact on public discussions and public understanding of the nature of American Culture.
VII - Conclusion
And so I come back to Gene Wise's phrase, our ritual rhetoric of newness. It captures much of what I see about me: a field in which we agree to disagree on matters about which we are actually in agreement or, for those with darker visions, about which we are actually quite indifferent; a field looking to cure its malaise by changing its name and moving to another city; a field half-heartedly playing with a tool that offers it the opportunity to do what it has claimed to be doing all along. The new technologies, in contast, offer a real and authentic challenge. They are a genuine new force in the world, not just a rhetorical one, one that will allow us no retreat to our disciplinary havens. We will have to re-organize everything: the way we think about our field, the way we do research and analysis, the way we think about our disciplinary and institutional objectives, the way we do our daily work.
There was an IBM TV commercial some years ago that began with a closeup of a face of what eventually turned out to be a WW I cavalry officer. As his horse moves nervously under him, the officer focuses intently on something he hears but that we can not. Eventually, the sound level increases to the point that we recognize the sound that still puzzles him, the clatter of tank treads. And we also understand what he cannot, that for him, the sound spells disaster.
That noise you don't quite hear in the
background? That's a computer.
American Culture/Popular Culture Association
Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
November 5-7, 1999.