The reunion conference, “Interdisciplinary Americas: the Legacies of African American Studies, American Studies, and History at Yale,” held on campus in November, “was stupendous,” says Joanne Meyerowitz, chair of American Studies.
“It brought together generations of Americanists, allowed old friends to meet again, and gave our current graduate students the chance to learn from and talk to our illustrious graduate alumni.”
Nicholas Forster (African American Studies, Film Studies) found the conference “inspiring and insightful. It felt like I was dropped into a conversation that had been going on for decades, and yet I felt welcomed.”
The weekend was hosted by the Graduate School, coordinated by the Association of Yale Alumni, and organized by faculty members Matt Jacobson, Glenda Gilmore, Alicia Schmidt Camacho and Mary Lui. At the welcoming event on Friday, participants were greeted by Dean Thomas Pollard and chairs of the three departments: Meyerowitz; Jonathan Holloway (PhD 1995, History), of African American Studies; and Naomi Lamoreaux, History. Yale President Peter Salovey (PhD 1986, Psychology) spoke at a reception held at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
“Interdisciplinary Americas” provided a vivid demonstration of the success of cross-disciplinary scholarship at Yale, with talks by alumni who now teach at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, University of Chicago, Washington University, Stanford, and more. Each panel was moderated by a Yale faculty member and was comprised of alumni who wove personal anecdotes about their graduate student days and commentary on their careers into their presentations. Panels included “Culture as an Object of Study,” “Stubborn Sources – Adventures in the Archive,” “Interpreting Violence in American History,” and a look at “Higher Education in the 21st Century.”
Those who arrived on Thursday were treated to a private showing of new Americanist materials in the Beinecke Library, led by curator George Miles, and to an exhibition of photographs and text by Laura Wexler: “The Tenderness of Men in Suburbs,” at the Whitney Humanities Center. The closing reception was hosted by the Afro-American Cultural Center, established in 1968 – the same year that Afro-American Studies (as it was first called) was launched as a department at Yale. African American Studies began granting Master of Arts degrees in 1978, and PhD degrees in 1999.
The American Studies program was established in 1948, and, like African American Studies, has been a leader in its field nationally and internationally from its earliest days. In her welcoming remarks, Meyerowitz described the first 15 years of the program based on departmental reports that she found in her office when she became chair.
“At the start of American Studies at Yale, the chief concern was what was called ‘American civilization.’ It was presumed there was such a thing, and it appeared in the titles of a number of courses. American civilization was placed alongside European civilization (and placed within ‘western civilization’) as the critical object of study. ... the initial list of graduate courses included nothing, at least in their titles, on our recent interests in race, class, ethnicity, indigeneity, gender, sexuality, religion, environment, popular culture, empire, theory, or transnationalism. … But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Much of the commentary in the early reports sounds like reports we might see from our programs today. There were several calls for greater interdisciplinarity and – no surprise here – requests for more money for graduate fellowships and additional faculty.”
History has been taught at Yale since the 1760s, and the Department of History has existed since 1919, when Yale first divided the faculty into academic departments. The first PhD in History was awarded in 1882, and since then, the department has awarded more than 3000 graduate degrees.
“For many of us, this reunion conference provided a chance to reflect on the long history of these three departments and the kind of scholars they have produced over the years,” says Schmidt Camacho. “Yale has created generations of scholars who are institution-builders elsewhere. More PhDs have come out of Yale’s African American Studies Department than anywhere else. Yale graduates from these three departments have become leaders and developed careers both as scholars and administrators in higher education. I think the conference gave current graduate students a much stronger sense of where Yale stands and what it’s possible for them to accomplish.”
Holloway, who earned his degree in History and is currently chair of African American Studies, told those gathered at the welcoming event, “It is something quite special to look across the international landscape and see our graduates doing great work at leading institutions — research universities, liberal arts colleges. It is even more luminous to see our first cohorts publish their first books, gain tenure, and start to develop the next generation of scholars who are asking critical questions about racial formations, … about urban ethnography, about the South, about slavery, about intellectuals, about the archive… Closer to home, it is wonderful to see the work that is being done by our current cohort of graduate students. They are woven throughout the fabric of the Graduate School, dazzling their peers and professors in History, English, American Studies, Anthropology, French, Political Science, Sociology, Religious Studies, Philosophy, and Film Studies. Happily, they are also attendant to the past that they are inheriting and, true to form, are asking critical questions about that past and where they will fit in as they look to the horizon.”
For Mary Lui, who worked with Schmidt Camacho to put the conference together, the panels offered “cutting-edge modes of inquiry. It was wonderful for graduate students to see that our fields are not just about covering a canon of material, but about asking what is the point of scholarship? What is the meaning of higher education? Who is our public?”
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the event was the “warmth and collegiality among all the people who had returned to campus, toward each other and the current graduate students and junior faculty. I heard over and over again from students that they felt exhilarated by how open and engaging the returning alumni were to them,” Lui says.
Wendell Adjetey (History) found “the inter-generational exchange of ideas between current graduate students and established scholars to be the most enriching aspect of the conference. This exposure has allowed me to see concretely that I, too, am a part of a long tradition of Yale-trained scholars.”
Schmidt Camacho adds, “It was wonderful to see the sense of community among the different cohorts who came. There is something special about the way these departments have cultivated that spirit. And we’re truly grateful to the AYA for all their help the resources they provided us to create an event that would serve the purpose of community building and celebrate our shared histories, experiences, and visions for the future.” Leadership was provided by Julia Downs, associate director of Graduate School Alumni Relations at AYA, with Jessica Rostow, senior administrative assistant.