American Studies Department Heads "Back to the Future"

With a new chair and faculty, old name, huge jump in undergrads and a lot of Asian grad students

Release Date: February 18, 2005

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The American Studies Department at the University at Buffalo -- until last fall known for several years as the "Center for the Americas" -- is one of the oldest in the United States. In large part due to the foresight and scholarship of its founders, the department maintains an international reputation for leadership in the field.

The new chair of the department, Professor Donald Grinde, Ph.D., a scholar of Native-American history, says many things have changed since then, including the size of the department, the curriculum and its student demographics. In fact, the department has changed rather dramatically in the past year alone.

"There has been a 256 percent increase in our undergraduate majors since 2003," Grinde says. "The faculty has increased by 50 percent, and we will add an additional full-time professor in the fall of 2005."

When the field of "American studies" developed in the 1960s, Grinde explains, many American studies programs across the U.S. focused on the traditional study of political science, history and American literature. Others, like UB's, became the bailiwick of African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and women who undertook the empirical study of the American experience of marginalized groups, and many of the department's faculty have helped to define and found the academic discipline.

By their very nature, such departments had a nontraditional student body and promoted social and economic change. For decades they had to defend not only their methodology and subject matter, but their very existence against criticism from outside the academic realm and from within their own universities. However embattled, many prevailed and, as their research methods and topics of study became part of the standard curricula, American studies itself changed.

"If you looked at the graduate thesis and dissertation topics from even 10 years ago, you would see quite a difference from those students pursue today," Grinde says. "This has always been a multi-disciplinary field, but it has broadened greatly.

"As in the past, our students still complete many courses in the departments of women's studies, anthropology, history, African-American studies and English in preparation for a degree. Today, however, we place much more emphasis on critical analysis, theory and methodology, along with law and policy, and cultural studies -- media, music, art, popular culture," he says.

Another difference Grinde cites is that today, about 33 percent of the department's graduate students are Asian.

The American Studies Association says about three percent of doctoral students in American studies' programs in U.S. universities are Asian. No figures are available for master's-degree programs, but the numbers at UB still are striking.

"Asian students in American studies used to stay in the U.S., teach here, work here, but that has changed," he says. "Now, most intend to take their degrees back to India, Korea, Indonesia and China where they will teach American studies, or apply what they've learned to their endeavors in the business and development realm, for instance."

Why is the interest in this field so great among Asians and why are they coming to UB?

"Asian students seem to have a great interest in learning from us the historical successes and failures experienced by the U.S. as it evolved from an agrarian, rural society into an industrial, and then post-industrial, society," says Grinde.

"Remember, most Asian students in the U.S. are from their nations' middle- and upper-economic classes," he says. "They are part of Asia's educated elite and are in a position to go home and actually apply what they learn here.

"They see this program as offering positive and negative models for developing countries," he says. "Using American cultural, economic, political and social history as a template, Asian students want to promote selected benefits of American life in their own countries and avoid its pitfalls.

"They come to UB because we have a strong program with an international reputation that was one of the first in the U.S.," Grinde says "It has graduated a very large number of highly-rated Ph.D.s -- for many years, at least half of the Ph.D.s in American studies east of the Mississippi graduated from UB.

"Our reputation is such that our Ph.D. students are very much sought after by prestigious universities," he adds, "so those students who do want to remain in the U.S. to teach or conduct research have an excellent opportunity if they graduate from this program.

The UB program also is quite varied, he notes.

"Department faculty and associated faculty members come from many different disciplines -- media study, economics, Native-American studies, Asian-American studies, English, theatre and dance, romance languages, linguistics, African studies, women's studies, environmental studies, art, history, social work, law, art history, anthropology. As a result, there are many, many academic disciplines from which a student can construct a degree program, many strengths from which to draw."

Historically, the UB American Studies Department has been one of the smallest on campus in terms of full-time faculty members, but it always has served a large number of undergraduate and graduate students, majors and non-majors alike.

This fall, the department, which has been known for the past few years as the "Center for the Americas," reverted to its original departmental status.

Grinde, a Yamasee Indian from the Savannah, Ga., area, is a specialist in Iroquois history and the history of Native-American thought, and previously directed the program in ethnic studies at the University of Vermont. He took over the chair at UB from John Mohawk, Ph.D.

Grinde is a highly respected American historian and a long-standing member of the American Indian Movement who has authored or edited 10 books and more than four dozen articles in his field.

Among them are "Native Americans" (Independent Publishers, 2002), which was selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title in 2003, and, with Bruce E. Johansen, "Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Lands and Peoples" (Santa Fe: Clear Light, 1996) and "The Encyclopedia of Native Indian Biography: Six Hundred Life Stories of Important People from Powhatan to Wilma Mankiller" (Holt and Co., 1997).

He is a member of the American Indian Historian's Association and a founding member of the American Indian University Professors. He has received publication commissions from the U.S. Congress, served on an advisory board of eight historians to plan the 200th anniversary of the Library of Congress and has testified before the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs.

In addition to Grinde, recent additions to the department faculty include Kari J. Winter, Ph.D., associate professor, specialist in African American and Native American studies, author of "Subjects of Slavery, Agents of Change" and editor of "The Blind American Slave" (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004); Elayne Rapping, Ph.D., professor, noted author and specialist in culture and media studies, who was formerly a member of the Women's Studies Department faculty, and, in 2005, historian Carl Nightengale, Ph.D., associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, a specialist in 20th-century U.S. and global history and author of the highly original "On the Edge: A History of Poor Black Children and their American Dreams" (Basic Books, 1994).

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