- Chicana/o Studies's Two Paths
Chicana/o studies travels along two paths. One is guided by instrumental pragmatism and outcome. The other pursues an introspective interrogation of knowledge and process. These two tracks very often cross, many times collide, and overall seldom coexist peacefully.
The pragmatic view takes an oppositional stance, one premised on the idea that a community (that oft-invoked and ill-defined condition of social/moral cohesion by which special area programs are judged) must intervene in the educational institutions for its needs to be addressed. Resources must be attained in order to ensure the presence of the community in academia. This representational stance opens Chicana/o studies (and ethnic, race, gender, and sexuality studies more generally) to the pervasive accusation that it forms a politicized space geared to a separatist politics of victimization and exclusion. It does little to further the intellectual life of a university but serves, instead, as a specialized fiefdom: a cauldron of political ferment and fomenter of half-baked scholarship.
In contrast, the introspective view takes a transformational stance, one sometimes dismissed as so much intellectual navelgazing, a fawning, often-derivative engagement with contemporary trends in scholarship and a betrayal of the more pressing imperatives of political representation and social justice. My pedagogy is my politics serves as a phrase, its critics argue, that betrays the fundamental principles upon which special area studies in the university were founded. Rather than further the cause of social justice and equality, an engagement with this train of thought leads to a cooptation of resources as well as academic projects. Personal ambition and a desire for respectability trump the need for community accountability and responsibility. [End Page 683]
Two professors long engaged with academia reflect upon the creation and re-creation of Chicana/o studies, taking on how these two conflicting (rarely complementing) views about the field have shaped and delimited its development. The resulting books provide a powerful if not fully cohesive and certainly not conclusive portrait of a discipline in dynamic transformation.
For Michael Soldatenko, former chair and professor in the Department of Chicano Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, Chicano studies has been premised on a utopian ideal, an intellectual and social project driven by a desire for social transformation but subsumed by the ideological dominance of the university system. His study Chicano Studies: The Genesis of a Discipline (2009) focuses on the formative years from 1967 to 1982 as the ones that generated the processes by which systemic university demands for service, publication, and conformity undermined the transformative energies that established the field. To that end, his book considers the various disciplinary practices and theoretical perspectives that have shaped the genealogy of Chicano studies and transformed it from an "oppositional epistemology into a traditional, albeit alternative, academic discipline" (3).
For Rodolfo Acuña, former chair and emeritus professor in the Department of Chicana/o Studies at California State University, Northridge, the sacrifices endured and struggles waged by students (and some faculty) led to the establishment and survival of Chicana/o studies over the course over the last four decades. The field has had to be built through protracted engagements with various power structures, the most prominent, of course, being the hiring, promotion, and tenure processes of the university itself. Acuña's study, The Making of Chicana/o Studies: In the Trenches of Academe (2011), moves through the late 1960s to the early 1990s, tracing—as does Soldatenko's book—a narrative arc of initial struggle, conflict, retreat, and reentrenchment.
A quick marginal note: where Soldatenko tends to use the term Chicano studies, Acuña employs the more inclusive Chicana/o. It bears emphasizing that, despite this difference, both authors make clear the centrality of gender to the transformation of the discipline. In this review, I employ the latter terminology.
Beyond the marking of gender, the titles of the two books manifest the principle difference between them: a belief in the moral...