Philip J. Ripperger
The American Studies Scholar
While attending this weekend’s meeting of the Eastern American Studies Association (EASA) I was struck by the intense level of engagement among the attendees. Each panel member, from the undergraduate presenters to the most tenured professor, explored their research with a great depth and multifaceted engagement. As a first-time attendee among seasoned members of the American Studies community, I was tentative to engage them in academic discussion. However, there was a sublime moment that grabbed my interest and helped break common intellectual ground.
After a Friday afternoon attending panels of mainly graduate students, we convened in a medium sized lecture hall to witness a panel entitled “The Future of American Studies.” My apprehension was at its peak here, as I was at a loss to see what I could contribute to a discussion between long-standing, even founding members of the field. Rather, I found myself amidst a debate on the EASA boycott of Israeli educational institutions, a cause they chose to take up to help alleviate the suffering of Palestinian people whose academic freedoms had been infringed upon. The discussion boiled down to two sides: Those members who believe the EASA should remove itself from all political affiliation that could potentially isolate minority members, and those who believed the cause rightly justified political action and, regardless of the boycott’s effectiveness, had faith that this would assist progress towards a peaceful solution.
Long after the meeting the debate raged on in my head. What was so wrong about taking a political stand? The weekend speakers had preached how active engagement with their research was what allowed them to gain deeper understanding of their subject. Wasn’t choosing a side on an issue a natural step in this process? Conversely, I saw how the necessity to make inclusive political statements, if any, so as not to isolate members who didn’t share the same views. As someone interested in continued involvement with this group, how would I feel if they represented an ideal at odds with my own?
Regardless of the EASA boycott or any further political engagement, my biggest takeaway was how much these people obviously care about the future of the discipline. Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his speech “The American Scholar,” “Thinking is the function, living is the functionary,” claiming that it is one thing to engage with an idea from an academic point of view, but to truly have an understanding one must live their education. People like fellow Rutgers undergraduate James Malchow and Dr. Robert Snyder, Director of the Graduate Program in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark, embody this maxim, approaching life with the interchangeable eyes of both an unbiased researcher and an engaged activist. Although it is complicated to define where these two personas should convene, this conference showed that it is important to pursue worthy studies, and use education to rationalize goals with widespread benefit
(Photo of “Future of American Studies” panel, taken from EASA Facebook.)