A few weeks ago, I had an exchange on Facebook with Leo Ribuffo about encouraging people to get a doctoral degree. Leo and I are much alike in some ways—I think our backgrounds in the NY metro area account for certain aspects of a common worldview that spans generations. But I am hopelessly more optimistic about the prospects for doctoral programs than he is. I have built a new one at IUPUI in American Studies and the thought of that makes Leo shake his head (not the first time my work has made him do that).
Leo made the quite valid case that the job market and the intellectual climate poses challenges that no advisor should wish on a student. The crisis that besets the humanities is real, of course, substantiated by stories of the hundreds of Ph.D.s applying for the few plum positions in universities and declining enrollment in humanities majors across universities the world over.
Thus concern about a crisis in the humanities sounds practical: students are not taking as many courses offered in history and other majors so there should be decline in the number of people training to teach those courses. However, and Leo would agree with me here I think, such practical considerations do not negate the intellectual value of humanities training. When he (or another of our colleagues) appears on CNN or C-SPAN or some other more contemporary media, their training, experience, and work makes them relevant and respected. I’m not the only one listening to them!
My enthusiasm for the work of my colleagues lead me to propose something different for the American Studies program at IUPUI. Last summer, the state of Indiana’s Council on Higher Education approved the creation of a doctorate degree in American Studies at IUPUI that trains students to be pretty much anything but teachers in college. The idea for this program combined my intention to leverage the geographic position of IUPUI in the middle of a big Midwestern city and my admiration for scholars who can speak directly to contemporary social issues. Like most universities, IUPUI has research centers and faculty who collectively provide methods and research that cut across almost any issue that might interest students. Moreover, I am working to partner these students with organizations, corporations, and government agencies that will sponsor—both financially and intellectually—aspects of student projects. These students will do thinking and research that many of these external partners could never justify if they had to hire such people as consultants. One analogy for this approach is to see the students working in humanities-based labs on questions that connect them to groups outside the university.
While we can discuss and debate the general idea of this program at some point, I have a more immediate question for our community. I am teaching a course in the spring that links how American Studies scholars think to how the world operates. In this class, I am using American Studies to cover a great deal of scholarly terrain—from intellectual history to sociology. What I need are ideas on the kinds of books and people students and I should discuss.
So far I have a short list of books that speak to my intention to suggest WAYS to think about contemporary problems rather than, necessarily, the background to teach courses about those issues. Below is a brief annotated list of folks who provide examples of ways to think about contemporary issues, please add to it:
- Tom Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: In many interesting ways, Detroit is the photographic negative of Indianapolis. Both began the century (and persisted through mid-century) as cities devoted to the automobile. But Indy diversified into bio-tech and expanded its tax base through something called Uni-Gov (that made the county and the city one and the same). Indy did not have a major riot, though it certainly has a history and continuing problem with segregation. I see Sugrue as an exemplar for using streams of thinking—historical, sociological, geographical, and political—to build an analysis of urban America.
- Melinda Cooper, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism: I included this book primarily on Andy Seal’s strong and specific recommendation.
- Sid Vaidhyanathan, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry): I am a big fan of Sid’s clear-headed thinking and his intention to historicize the organization of information through one kind of technology.
- John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: Gaddis remains among the most important influences on my intellectual development. I know, he has his faults, but he also created the Contemporary History Institute at Ohio University and taught us to see intersections between disciplines in ways I seek to reflect in the development of the Ph.D. program at IUPUI.
- Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: This has to be one of the most talked about books of the first half of 2017. Rothstein’s ability to write across law, social policy, and history recommends his book to a group of students who will need to do the same thing as they work in Indianapolis.
- Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: a critique of social policy steeped in intellectual and political history.
- Corey Robin’s updated edition of The Reactionary Mind: I want students to think about how we understand conservative ideology from a source that will surely provoke discussion.
- Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools: A title that addresses Indiana’s claim to fame as ground center for “choice” in public schools