Forrest Robinson, a humanities professor at UCSC, said American studies “was dumped by its faculty.” Photo by Toby Silverman.
Michael Cowan sits with the American studies founding documents in McHenry Library. Photo by Toby Silverman.

“American studies was dead in the water before anybody knew it.”

UC Santa Cruz humanities professor Forrest Robinson made this assertion, his voice heightening in pitch as he reached the end of the sentence. He was recalling what it was like when the American studies faculty’s decision to dissolve their own department and suspend admission into the major was made public last September.

“For several years, we have sustained our major with fewer permanent faculty than is desirable,” department chair Eric Porter wrote in an email sent to all American studies majors and proposed majors around that time. “It has become clear to us that we cannot permanently sustain a high-quality major on current faculty resources. We have therefore concluded that the best way to support the teaching and research in our scholarly areas and to ensure our own professional development as faculty is to seek homes in other campus departments.”

Porter and others involved in the decision stressed the point that everyone who was already declared or proposed as an American studies major, as well as many first-years who could get in under the wire, would be able to carry out their education as planned. But no new majors after the class of 2014 would be admitted, and the future after that point remained decidedly unclear.

In public meetings held in the weeks after the email was sent, and in the rest of the academic year, it remained uncertain what the department’s status was, whether it would ever come back and why exactly the faculty voted to end their own department. Monica Deebs, a UCSC alumna who was in her final year as an American studies major at the time, remembers confused students “attacking” Eric Porter with questions.

“This meeting [after the announcement of suspension] was packed,” Deebs said. “Everyone showed up — American studies majors, non-American studies majors, faculty. The tone was very much like, ‘What’s happening? Why is this happening?’”

American studies’ confusing end came in the wake of community studies being cut a year earlier, yet the student and faculty responses differed greatly between the two cuts. Both Robinson and Deebs believe the reason there was no public protesting from American studies students was because they took the faculty’s lead in accepting the department’s end as a foregone conclusion, an inevitability.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of students who are very confused,” Robinson said. “There’s a feeling of bafflement, of ‘How can this happen? Why wasn’t more being done to protect the program? Why didn’t I know about this? Why weren’t there meetings [before the decision was made]?’ And the answers were not forthcoming. It was pretty much stated as a fact. So maybe people were baffled into a kind of acquiescence.”

The American studies faculty’s vote to dissolve the major begs a few questions.

Is the department’s end really all about the budget? If not, what else played a role? Does the major stand a chance of resurrection, and if so, what would that look like? What does this mean for the future of interdisciplinary education at UC Santa Cruz? What can the rest of the campus stand to learn from the story of American studies? And what role does the possibility of a critical race and ethnic studies program play in all this?

These questions were brought to various past and present faculty members involved in some way with the department. Although there was some overlap in their answers, the faculty had varying viewpoints.

For Robinson, losing the major on campus is particularly troubling, given the wide range of opportunities and creativity it allows students.

“There is nothing at all like American studies now that American studies is gone,” Robinson said. “You design your own programs. It is the study of the United States in any way that you can make coherent. In a way, you get to shape your own education.”

Or as Michael Cowan, UCSC’s American studies department founder and professor emeritus, put it, the major allows students to “pursue a whole range of interests, and at the same time, focus on things they are particularly interested in.”

For Cowan, 2005 marked the “beginning of the end” for American studies at UCSC.

Cowan founded the major, which was officially proposed in 1977 and approved in 1979, although students had been pursuing independent majors called “American studies” for years already by that time.

He described starting the independent major out of Merrill College in 1970 and watching it grow, of spending the 1975-76 school year at Yale to learn more and eventually develop a core course for the major, and of the exciting early days with a limited faculty.

“It was a rather ambitious project, and when you have only a few faculty you can’t do everything,” Cowan said. “So we agreed that some of the most critical things were to see if we could agree on some of the big questions we wanted to ask.”

Cowan said he sought to tackle issues of citizenry and society in a way political science and sociology could not. For him, the American studies major was to serve as a nexus, linking a cascade of social, historical and political issues in fashions otherwise ignored by their respective departments.

“That was our goal,” Cowan said, “and we felt that the faculty had to remain dedicated to talking to each other, not just go off and teach their own courses, but also modeling civil discourse, often with sensitive materials, because that’s what we hoped the students would be doing.”

For a long time, that was how the department worked, graduating around 2000 majors to date. There has always been a small amount of faculty within the department, but because American studies is interdisciplinary, the department could rely on outside faculty to both teach American studies courses and make classes in their own departments available to American studies students.

“What always struck me,” Cowan said, “was how successful the major was with such a small number of courses that we ourselves could control.”

After the undergraduate department was established, Cowan and the rest of the faculty set their sights on a graduate program. There was some support and interest from the humanities division, and in 2003, prominent American studies scholars George Lipsitz and Tricia Rose came to UCSC, adding fuel to that fire.

“We were this close,” said Cowan, holding his index finger and thumb less than an inch apart.

For department chair Eric Porter, obtaining a graduate program and holding onto faculty members was a matter of life or death for the major. The small faculty model had been successful up to a point, but a growing campus with limited resources posed danger to smaller departments.

“The previous dean of humanities had basically sent this message that the division can’t really support as many departments as it has, and certainly can’t rebuild them to the state that they wanted to be at,” Porter said. “We had this sense that if we had 10 faculty, and were moving towards a graduate program, then we’d be in pretty good shape.”

But an issue with spousal hiring — the school refused to hire new professors’ spouses despite their qualifications and chose to continue the usual faculty search  — prompted the new additions to quickly leave in 2005, and, as Porter remembers it, “then it became clear that the support was not going to be forthcoming.”

Porter calls the lack of a graduate program a catch-22 for the department. He acknowledges it made American studies less influential and valued, but also that there was some resistance from other departments who depended on TAships with American studies to fund their own graduate students. The departures of Tricia Rose and George Lipsitz fit into a “pattern of inconsistent support” within the humanities.

As current humanities dean William Ladusaw sees it, the desire within American studies for a graduate program came more out of necessity than over-ambition. The University of California requires its professors to engage in both graduate and undergraduate education, and for American studies professors, that can be difficult. The decision to disband the department came after the realization that, as Ladusaw put it, “The only way they were going to be fully integrated into graduate education was to move to other departments.”

The failure to start a graduate program was both a symptom and a cause of American studies’ decline at UCSC. Michael Cowan and other professors within the department soon retired or transferred to other departments, making it difficult to sustain the major. Adding to the difficulty were financial limits that made crossover teaching and courseloads less feasible.

“On campus, we have a lot of people who do American studies, and who are active in the American studies organizations, some of whom are really well-known,” said professor Kim Lau, who recently moved from American studies to the literature department. “But they have so many things going on in their own department that they can’t just come teach for us in the way that they need, and the budget exacerbates that problem because departments can’t just loan one of their professors out to teach one of our courses, or to even teach an elective that’s cross-listed. It’s not because they don’t want to, but because of administrative structure and budget constraints.”

Dean of humanities William Ladusaw made the point that this lack of availability was not fair to the students, and cited as proof a survey conducted by SUA last year to determine how difficult it was for students to get into the classes they need. It turned out majoring in something that requires interdisciplinarity can leave students somewhat lost when enrolling for classes.

“If you don’t organize it well, then the people who are not part of the major that is the same name of the department can feel like stepchildren,” he said. “What the class survey showed is that the two majors in humanities that were having the most trouble getting the courses that they needed were feminist studies and American studies, and those are the two majors who use very frequently courses in social sciences, where the courses are very impacted.”

The dean added that general growing pains for the university didn’t help matters.

“Right now, with the number of faculty we had in the mid-nineties, we’re trying to teach twice as many undergraduate students and five times as many graduate students,” he said. “I’ve been here since 1984, and we never really did feel lavish, but the faculty is shrinking in size, and therefore there are lots of things people do want to do, but they have to make choices, and that’s forced on it by the budget.”

The American studies department’s budgetary problems and absence of extra-departmental support has disconcerting resemblance to several other UCSC departments. Community studies was the first to go in 2009, and there are other departments both within humanities and elsewhere facing similar problems. History of consciousness faculty have a mirror image crisis right now — because it is only a graduate program, they are having trouble finding ways to involve themselves in undergraduate education, according to both Eric Porter and Ladusaw. Environmental toxicology, a department within the sciences division that draws on chemistry, biology, and environmental studies, is suffering from a limited faculty. And critical race and ethnic studies — the much buzzed-about potential major — will inevitably need to be interdisciplinary in order to give its area of study justice. But how, when American studies failed, will these programs flourish?

For some UCSC faculty, it all comes down to a matter of semantics.

American studies didn’t start out as a department — it started out as an inter-disciplinary program. The difference between an interdisciplinary academic program and a department is a department houses faculty who must teach that department’s courses, while a program is an academic pathway students can take that involves classes from various departments. Classical studies is an example of one such program — there are no courses or professors designated under classical studies, but students can major in it by taking courses from the literature, history and language departments.

For humanities dean Ladusaw, this is an absolutely crucial distinction.

“A department doesn’t have as much to do with what the program is as it does with the mechanics of building a faculty and making money flow through the system,” he said. “If you’re a department, then you have all of the responsibility of running academic programs, and also a lot of other activities having to do with both faculty assessment and budgetary distribution.”

From Ladusaw’s perspective, it was being a department that killed American studies, and that could pose danger to other fields.

“We’ve got interdisciplinarity all over the place, but creating new little departments is not a smart thing to do,” he said. “That’s one of the things American studies showed. When I first came here, there was no American studies program, but they, from their departments, formed an interdisciplinary program. Later, they got the bright idea of creating a department instead of just having a program. If we knew then what we know now,” he concluded with a chuckle.

Ladusaw says he could see American studies and other departments being brought back to life as academic programs, though proper planning would be important to ensure students could still get into the classes they needed.

“In getting rid of the department, we don’t have to get rid of the program,” he said. “Part of the trouble is that when faculty were moving into these other departments, they felt that they were unable to promise, in perpetuity, that they would be able to teach the courses that they needed to teach in order to keep the American studies major going.”

But department chair Eric Porter doesn’t quite see the feasibility of existing that way, though he said he’s considered it.

“There was actually a quite long conversation that went on [before the decision was made to dissolve the department]” he said. “What were our options? Should American studies become a program in another department? Or we could merge with another department. Then there was also this idea of reconstituting as an interdepartmental program, and there’s some versions of that in the division, like Jewish studies and classical studies, but we’re significantly bigger than them, so it’s still unclear how that would happen.”

Literature professor Susan Gillman sees blurring the lines between departments and even between divisions (such as humanities and engineering) as a possible bright future for UCSC.

“Santa Cruz, for all its interdisciplinarity, has a very fixed set of divisional structures which make it harder to talk across them,” said Gillman, who is also a faculty member affiliated with American studies. “There is this horrible cliché, ‘let no budget crisis go to waste.’ That’s the idea — you can think the unthinkable much more easily.”

This is how Gillman envisions critical race and ethnic studies working, which brings up a whole new issue. One of the biggest arguments thrown around for keeping American studies has always been that it offers a path for students to pursue ethnic studies. If American studies is eventually brought back, it’s unclear how the two would coexist.

What role ethnic studies plays in American studies has long been a point of contention both on campus and on a national level.

Today, humanities professor Robinson teaches classes that he says are intended for American studies students, but his business card identifies him as a “humanities professor.” He made this switch a few years ago, after realizing that the American studies department at UCSC was going in a direction — towards more ethnic studies — that he didn’t agree with.

“I always thought of American studies as the study of the United States in all its dimensions,” Robinson said, “with attention to race, class and gender, but certainly not exclusively. I never thought of American studies as an ethnic studies program. I see them as entirely different.”

Michael Cowan, too, pointed out that American studies is not solely about the issue of race, but rather that race plays a role in American studies. He also speculated that Executive Vice Chancellor Alison Galloway’s motivation for supporting an ethnic studies major as a replacement for American studies, rather than building on American studies’ own long-standing successful focus on cultural diversity, might be in part that she believed it would “solve some political problems.” But Gillman pointed out American studies’ approach to race at UCSC was not always fulfilling to all professors on campus.

“We wanted to be more global, and it was difficult to do that in the way the program was set up,” she said. “One of the courses was called ‘The African-American Experience.’ Experience was singular, as though it were all homogeneous. That model of ethnicity came to be questioned. American studies had long had an uneasy relationship with ethnic studies.”

If American studies makes a comeback and ethnic studies is born on this campus, then what roles would they play with each other? UC Berkeley has both an American studies program and an ethnic studies program, while the University of Southern California combines the two into one.

It remains unclear what could happen at UCSC. Despite Ladusaw’s insistence the American studies major will return in one way or another, others are unconvinced. Professor Robinson expressed doubt, and Porter said American studies coming back might be “an impossibility at this point,” though he said he is optimistic for critical race and ethnic studies.

But for the next three years, American studies remains, though it is being phased out. After the class of 2014 graduates, an entire area of study will, at least for a while, be leaving with them. A lot of reasons have been given as to why, but still some questions remains. One from Cowan, the man who made this major possible, feels particularly relevant.

“Once the horses were out of the barn, once the faculty had left, it was virtually impossible to pull them back together,” he said. “To switch metaphors, my sense is they wanted to avoid remaining on what they saw as a sinking ship. The question is whether, at some key moments, if there had been the right leadership at several campus levels or more conversations, especially with students … that might have changed.”