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Radical History Review 89 (2004) 218-229
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Teaching "The Americas"
For the past two years, we and other colleagues at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (U.K.) have taught a one-year master's program, "The Americas: Histories, Societies, Cultures." The degree has the stated aim of providing "an innovative, interdisciplinary MA that seeks to develop understanding of the political, historical, and cultural formations of the modern Americas, including North America, Latin America, and the Caribbean." Our goals in establishing the program shared much with the aims of this issue of Radical History Review, whose editors express the desire to "move beyond the bifurcating paradigms of Latin American area studies and American (U.S.-based) studies . . . [to examine] relationships among North America, Latin America, Caribbean, and other island societies and cultures, including histories of colonization, slavery, migration, capitalist development, and nation-state formation." In designing and teaching the program, we have had to confront the power of both disciplinary and nation-/region-based formations of knowledge, manifested both in our own backgrounds and training and in that of our students. Equally important, disciplinary habits and administrative practices at the university level have sometimes made running an interdisciplinary program unnecessarily complex. Although interdisciplinarity is supposedly an institutional goal, in practice, the conventional institutional structuring of scholarship does not always provide support for it. However, the resulting program has been challenging and exciting to teach and has stimulated our own research, in particular by posing sharp questions about the conceptual tools necessary for making comparisons and tracing connections among American societies.
Students in the program take two short compulsory courses, "Identities in the [End Page 218] Americas: Racial and National Formations" and "Resistance, Accommodation, and Consent in the Americas," undertake research training, and choose additional courses from a list of options. In addition, they write two short independent research papers linked to their courses and a final 18,000-word thesis ("dissertation"). There is room for students to study advanced-level Spanish or Portuguese in place of some of their options, although so far our students have not had the linguistic background to do so.
Why "the Americas"? We could, after all, have established new programs in American (i.e., U.S.) studies, Latin American studies, and/or Caribbean studies—all of which already exist in Britain. Indeed, one of us did his first degree in such a program. American studies in Britain suffers from a particularly acute case of the divided soul that has always characterized this field: part cold war-influenced cultural Marshall Plan, part Birmingham-style Marxist cultural studies. It has been left-leaning and highly critical of U.S. hegemony, yet often drawn toward (a particular version of) U.S. culture inflected by the peculiarities of Britain's perceived relationship with the United States. U.S. history and literature has a fairly strong research and teaching base in departments of history and English across the country. Latin American studies, meanwhile, has been based in a number of institutes established in the 1960s and in departments of modern languages, but it has struggled to find a place in disciplinary-led departments such as history, politics, and music. Caribbean studies (which in practice has tended to mean the study of the anglophone Caribbean) is more marginal than either of the other two "areas," frequently being positioned as a subordinate part of the study of the British Empire (and "Commonwealth") whose agenda has been set by studies of the "white dominions" on the one hand, and the "second British Empire" on the other. This framework, while allowing for fruitful connections in terms of comparative colonialisms, downplays the anglophone Caribbean's connections with other parts of the Caribbean, let alone with North America and mainland Latin America.
Unsatisfied with all of these frameworks, we chose to move beyond them into comparative teaching. The decision to do so in part derived from our own intellectual trajectories and interests. Of the two of us who contributed most to the design of the program, one is a historian of slavery...