What Even Is Comparative American Studies?
April 30, 2022
Minerva Macarrulla ’23
As a prospective student, one of the cons on my Oberlin pros and cons list was that there was no Ethnic Studies department. Looking through Oberlin's areas of academic study, my eyes skipped right over Comparative American Studies (CAS) as just another field I had never heard of, probably adjacent to History, Politics and Comparative Literature. I would have been surprised, then, by this conversation that I had last week:
"Hey, how are you doing?"
"So good. I fucking love the CAS department."
"Damn, people really be liking those professors, huh? Maybe I should get on that."
[Practically yelling] "Yes you should. They're a group of real people who actually care about their students and are down for the revolution and ready to throw down for our collective liberation."
"See, that's what I need!!"
I don't think I could think up a better summary of the CAS department than the one I blurted out in that conversation, high off the energetic buzz of an event that celebrated the work of six CAS professors who have all recently published books, charged with the feeling that the people I most admire here see me and value what I have to say. But here's something that might give you a fuller picture: in Latinas/os in Comparative Perspective, a class I took the second semester of my first year, I remember Professor Gina Pérez saying that CAS was built to be "the departmental home for ethnic and queer studies on campus." The way I see it, CAS has grown into a departmental home for the interrogation of oppression in general— potentially all forms of it. (Trans and disabled, in particular, seem like other "studies" that have been added to that list.) Despite the weird name, CAS actually embodies what prospective-student-me wanted out of an Ethnic Studies department, plus some.
Here is where I confess that most of the time, when people outside of Oberlin ask me what I'm majoring in, I shortcut Comparative American Studies as "basically Ethnic Studies, but someone didn't want to call it that." I've said the sentence so many times that it feels like my own, but I actually heard a fourth-year CAS major say it when I was a wide-eyed, impressionable first-year, and it just stuck in my head. I don't know what the actual naming process was like, but I've heard that there have been many debates about the name Comparative American Studies since. My own thoughts about the name are more complex than I lead on to strangers.
To start off, I'll admit that I don't understand why the "comparative" is there. I don't really get what we're comparing. Comparison is present in my CAS coursework, sure, but it doesn't necessarily seem like the central theme of any of it. Are we comparing identities and experiences that take place within the United States? Are we comparing oppressive ideologies to one another? Are we comparing oppressive ideologies to more libertory and transformative ideologies? Are we comparing the ways that different social movements arose across time and space? Are we comparing academic disciplines as we weave them together? Are we comparing different constructs of what it means to be "American," or to participate in the construction of "America"? I genuinely could not tell you. I will say this: whenever we discussed the word in my Theories and Methods class, it seemed like everyone was speaking from the assumption that "comparative" implied a more consistently politicized rendition of American Studies. I felt like I was missing something the whole time, but everyone I asked about the exact link between "comparative" and "anti-oppressive" couldn't give me a straight answer. I am left with all these fragments of possibility. Predictions that I think are plausible but still do not quite convince me that comparing— rather than dismantling, relearning, interrogating, and dreaming up freer ways to be in the world— is the central task of Comparative American Studies.
And then there's the question of "American." As a Latina coming into this coursework having investigated, throughout high school, the impacts of US imperialism on the people I come from, this is a loaded term. My first ever semester on campus, when I had only heard of Comparative American Studies in passing, it drew me away from the department. Throughout this continent (this continent stretching from the penguins at the tip of Argentina all the way to the polar bears of northern Canada), in almost every country, "America" refers to the Americas, not specifically to the United States. I do not call the US "America" in everyday conversation, and neither do most CAS majors or any CAS faculty I know. That's because we are mindful of the imperialist worldview that we invoke when we reduce a continent to a nation, that leftover egotistical ring. And yet, the America in the CAS department's title is, specifically, the United States. As a first-year, I didn't automatically trust a social justice-oriented department that took seriously this idea of "America."
But of course, no way of describing the land and society that the United States encompasses would be perfect. If I was saying what I mean, I would have inserted a "the land that we call" before every place name I've written in this entry. Nations and their borders are legally and socially constructed, and that's kind of the whole point. CAS could turn away altogether from names bestowed by white supremacists and choose instead to call their place of focus Turtle Island. There would be power in that, to be sure, but I've actually come to believe that a CAS department without "American" in the title wouldn't serve exactly the same purpose. CAS takes up the study of "America," the construct, the set of ideals, the system of systems, the geopolitical crayon marking in the sand, in order to dissect it and unearth between its flesh the most urgent truths about the place where we are living. And that is why I stayed.
In Theories and Methods of Comparative American Studies, we had an assignment to define American Studies in our own words. My definition would not be quite the same if I were to rewrite it now, almost a year later. My understanding of CAS is always shifting along with my understandings of academia, social movements, Oberlin, and even the contributions of specific faculty and students to the field. Still, the last sentence of the definition I wrote feels important: "American Studies is unlike most traditional academic fields in that it grounds in a moral imperative towards justice, often critiquing the institutions that it inhabits and supporting efforts for equitable transformation."
Here is where my thoughts on "studies" come in. There is a very meaningful distinction to be made between an academic field whose goals are to produce knowledge and spark open debate and an academic field whose goal is to help us all get free. That's not to say that CAS and other social justice-oriented departments (like Africana Studies and Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies) don't produce knowledge or spark open debate, but it does mean that the knowledge produced is in some way oriented towards the liberation of oppressed peoples. It also means that the intellectual work of these departments is interdependent with more direct forms of activism. A reading I did in Theories and Methods called "American Studies as Accompaniment" encapsulates this idea. That one reading and the class discussion that followed gave me hope for the potential of academia's role in social movements. It basically argues that American Studies is to activism as musical accompaniment is to the melody it complements: American Studies is not meant to stand on its own, but in conversation with many other parts of a larger social movement. The most obvious way this shows up in my life is that, in the two years that I have spent on the board of Obies for Undocumented Inclusion (OUI), I have never once doubted the support of the CAS department in any OUI initiative. CAS faculty are trustworthy and unconditionally supportive of what OUI does, which is not a sweeping generalization I could readily make about any other department.
That difference in orientation between CAS and most traditional academic fields manifests in so many other ways, and I definitely don't know enough to list them all. From my perspective, it also looks like emphasis on continued relationship and mutual gain when conducting research. (A lot of academic research extracts information from participants for a scholar or institution's benefit; CAS explores how research can model reciprocity and genuine solidarity.) It also looks like classes that leave no room for the kind of "devil's advocacy" that retraumatizes marginalized students by empathizing with oppressors. (A lot of departments excuse these kinds of thought processes in the name of "open-mindedness" or of not being a "liberal echo chamber.") It also looks like validation of lived experience as a legitimate way of knowing. (Yes, Wendy Kozol did make "epistemology" one of my favorite words.) So, I have no objections to CAS having "studies" in the name— it only makes sense. But you have to notice how much the structure of an academic discipline has to invert in order for departments with things like moral imperatives and community care to exist.
I did not have to major in CAS. I already had my other major when I declared. But I couldn't not major in CAS, because it was a community of people that I wanted to be a part of and a body of work that I wanted to contribute to. Relationship is everything, and all the Oberlin students and faculty who inspire me the hardest and support me the loudest are in some way connected to this department. I didn't enter Oberlin expecting to be in awe of a department called Comparative American Studies, but the work that it does, despite and because of the obstacles to supporting social justice movements within and beyond an academic institution, makes me proud to be a CAS major. Deep gratitude for all that CAS gives us.
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