A Movement in the Mirror:
American Studies in the 1970s

By Lisa Guernsey


2. Agents of Change

Above the confusion of institutional and ideological politics, however, one aspect of the institution's development in the 1970s requires no debate: the sheer growth of the movement during that decade. From 1970 to 1980 the number of American Studies programs in the United States climbed at a phenomenal rate. In 1970, 168 programs existed within higher education institutions; in 1975, the number hit 306 and by 1980, 329 programs were running across the country.30 Undergraduate degree programs more than doubled as well.31 Some of this growth spurt was surely due to the new attention paid to interdisciplinary programs within higher education institutions at this time.32  Independence from other departments also grew. In 1956, only 5 percent of programs functioned independently with tenure-track lines specifically in American Studies, independent budgets and curricular control. In 1973, 13 percent of departments reported that degree of autonomy, and the latest study shows continued growth: in 1992, 26.3 percent of programs considered themselves independent.33

New money may be part of the reason for such pronounced program growth. The American Studies Association received several grants from the National Endowment of the Humanities in the 1970s, one of which was used to organize faculty into a body known as the National American Studies Faculty, modeled after the National Humanities Faculty.34  Members of the NASF acted as American Studies consultants and were charged with gathering syllabi from departments and faculty members across the country as well as compiling and recording data on as many American Studies programs as possible. Under the direction of John Hague, the NASF also developed innovative programs for high schools and inner-city students, brought expertise to local museum exhibits and enlisted some of the more radical members of the American Studies Association (those involved in what was called the Radical Caucus) to teach summer conferences, thereby somewhat quelling potential storms of division. Through its work across the country, the NASF was able to bring added recognition and new interest to the movement.

Beyond new money and program growth, the 1970s brought an influx of women into the American Studies profession and a stronger voice for those already there. Charles Bassett's 1975 survey of American Studies programs highlights several of the advancements. "Beginning in 1971," Bassett writes, "more women than men began receiving American Studies bachelor of arts degrees, and by 1971, 57 percent of bachelor's degrees went to females, up 20 percent from the late 1950s."35  In 1975, 37 percent of American Studies programs featured women in America and women taught in 58 percent of American Studies programs.36

Gaining entry into the field did not necessarily mean gaining a voice of authority, however, until the Women's Committee (an ad hoc committee which became a standing committee in 1972) and the radical American Studies group, the Radical Caucus, began to voice dissent and eventually call for a resolution on the status of women. The resolution, which was printed in the American Quarterly in October 1972, noted that "women have been conspicuously underrepresented in chapter offices and on the ASA executive council," and resolved to "amend the ASA constitution to increase the representation of women to approximate the percentage in the organization." The resolution also called for more women on the American Quarterly editorial board and the major committees of the organization, as well as the formation of a standing committee on the status of women and the expansion of women's studies courses. Prior to the resolution, women had never held positions as officers of the American Studies Association or members of the American Quarterly editorial board, only one woman had ever been seated on the ASA Council (Betty Chmaj of Wayne State) and female contributions represented a small fraction of the material printed in the journal.37

Dramatic changes like the resolution on the status of women where choreographed to a large extent by the Radical Caucus, another significant agent of change of the 1970s. Born at a 1969 ASA meeting in Toledo, Ohio, during an era of ubiquitous unrest and pushes for radical reform, the Radical Caucus was founded by two graduate students, Nancy Bannister and Robert Scarola, and assisted by Robert Merideth, Robert Sklar and Betty Chmaj. For two years in the early 1970s, the Caucus held two week-long summer workshops (encouraged by John Hague and funded by the NASF) and asked for a widening of intellectual and social boundaries, hoping to open the field to black studies, women's studies, urban studies, popular culture studies, quantitative studies, material culture studies and others.38   Fortunately for the long-term health of the association, the executive council of the American Studies Association moved to accommodate the Caucus as early as 1971, and in the fall of that year President Robert Walker applauded the avoidance of conflict:

A year ago the American Studies Association, along with other professional groups, faced the possibility of an  involved and destructive confrontation between factions of the membership with differing definitions of what the association was and should be. We may now, I think, congratulate ourselves that a wasteful and destructive confrontation was avoided, that the Council and the officers listened sympathetically to their radical critics, and that the critics themselves put the good of the association above the act of protest.39

The Radical Caucus's demands, and the council's willingness to listen to some of those demands, markedly changed the way the American Studies Association reached and represented its members.  After hearing the concerns of the Caucus, the council voted to subsidize the publication of a Radical Caucus newsletter, later to be called Connections, and to accommodate at least one voting representative of the Radical Caucus on the Council.

Fair representation, in fact, emerged as yet another pressing issue throughout the early 1970s. National elections began in 1972, perhaps an offshoot of the Radical Caucus's demands and certainly a result of more money coming into the association. Before then, chapter officers acting as delegates voted for the officers of the American Studies Association--individual members had no direct vote. Walker's "Report from the President" of 1972 hailed the first national election's effect on the communication between members and the authorities within the association, asking cordially "We are in better touch, are we not?"40 Since that time, national elections have become a mainstay of the American Studies Association.

Yet even with national elections, the levels of participation by members still needed a substantial boost.  Some of the problem was the vehicle of communication: the American Quarterly. In his 1971 presidential report, Walker noted that 1970's annual meeting disclosed a "considerable expression of discontent concerning the relationship between the association and its official journal."41  Although Walker failed to detail precisely what caused the displeasure, part of the reason may have been the lack of newsletter-type material sent to the membership. At that time, the American Quarterly's more formal essay format left little room for business updates.

But another likely factor was the American Quarterly's unusual relationship with the association. Here is where some of the greatest conflicts occurred within the 1970s. While most academic associations, such as the Modern Language Association or the Organization of American Historians, establish and own their journals, the American Studies Association and the American Quarterly sprouted from two different roots. The association was started in 1951, two years after the 1949 founding of the journal, and adopted the American Quarterly as its official journal in the same year. Since the fledgling association could not afford to finance its own journal, the adoption of the American Quarterly did not translate into an ownership of it. Instead, by the 1970s, the University of Pennsylvania owned the journal with absolute control over its editorial content. Editors, assistants and managing editors were culled from the University of Pennsylvania, and only the chairman of the American Studies department at Pennsylvania could nominate the editor. The ASA played no part in editor selection aside from ratifying Pennsylvania's decision. Essentially, then, the editorial decisions of a few University of Pennsylvania scholars dictated the entire content of the American Studies Association's mouthpiece.42

Needless to say, the University of Pennsylvania's concentration of control did not necessarily sit well with the membership. The perspective of the broad range of members, both regionally and intellectually, was lost. Members far outside the University of Pennsylvania wondered if their needs were being met. As one ASA member put it, "The magazine itself appeared unwilling to address some of the issues" about which members wanted to learn.43  On the other hand, one cannot lay blame entirely with the University of Pennsylvania and its editorial board, for they had little to no control over the submission of material and were not expected to request specific articles or writers. Regardless of the underlying reasons, many ASA members (including editors from the University of Pennsylvania) were not content with what some might call the inaccessibility of the American Quarterly .  Considering the climate of introspection and unrest surrounding the movement, change appeared inevitable.

Continue to chapter two, part three, The Bibliography Issues

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