Changes in American Studies Program Address Global Challenges

New people, approaches, and challenges are revitalizing the American Studies Program at UC Davis. A faculty search is underway for a specialist trained in transnational American Studies; the program welcomes an assistant professor and two postdoctoral researchers; and a deep reflection on the program curriculum is energizing this profoundly interdisciplinary program in Hart Hall.

“UC Davis offers the very best tradition of American Studies and its historical commitment to interdisciplinary training,” said former American Studies Program director Julie Sze. “This program excels at hiring people who practice the interdisciplinarity represented in our teaching aims.”

The tenure-track faculty hire of a former ACLS fellow and the addition of two postdoctoral researchers in the American Studies program bring attention to issues of environmental justice, queer and disability studies, and militarism in the U.S. context and globally.

Ryan Lee Cartwright, Assistant Professor of American Studies

Ryan Cartwright is an Assistant Professor of American Studies after completing his one-year term as an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) New Faculty Fellow. At the time of Cartwright’s ACLS appointment, the former Dean of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies Jessie Ann Owens said that “the field of talent from which he was chosen was simply phenomenal, and he stands out even among this group.”

Cartwright is developing his book project, “Peculiar Places: A Queer History of Rural Nonconformity,” which analyzes the queer history of gender, sexual, and social nonconformity in the twentieth-century rural U.S.

Julie Sze, American Studies Program director during Cartwright’s hire, said Cartwright is a scholar rounded in the field of American Studies but with remarkable teaching skills on a range of topics. Cartwright brings together sexuality and gender, landscape and place, and disability studies from a compelling standpoint of rural issues and popular culture, according to Sze.

“We are very lucky and excited to have him,” Sze continued. “He [Cartwright] is equally talented in his specific research and in his capacious ability to range widely in a way that feels deeper rather than scattered.”

Cartwright teaches key undergraduate courses in American Studies on landscape and power and feminist cultural studies. He is currently leading a special topics graduate course in Cultural Studies on queer/crip genealogies: a course that analyzes the cultural intersections between gender/sexual difference and disability.

Cartwright’s work on intersectional approaches to disability carries over in his engagement with the 2014-2015 Campus Community Book Project; which examines disability issues through Temple Grandin’s memoir Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism. Cartwright has organized the visits of Alison Kafer, Associate Professor of Feminist Studies at Southwestern University, who spoke on “Crip Futures, Future Coalitions,” and Ellen Samuels, Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies and English at University of Wisconsin Madison, who spoke on her new book Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race.

President’s Postdoctoral Fellows Javier Arbona and Lindsey Dillon

The American Studies Program continues its successful recruitment of interdisciplinary scholars with two postdoctoral researchers working at the intersections of environmental justice and U.S. militarism. Javier Arbona and Lindsey Dillon were awarded the prestigious two-year University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellowships to work with American Studies Professors Caren Kaplan and Julie Sze, respectively.

Arbona and Dillon are both graduates of the doctoral program in geography at UC Berkeley. At Davis, they continue their work, forging new research connections, organizing a speaker’s series that builds on the momentum of the recent Mellon Research Initiative in Environments & Societies and the Critical Militarization Research Cluster, and coordinating sessions for the Annual Association of American Geographers conference.

Born and raised in the city of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Arbona explained that the “colonial history of militarized landscapes in Puerto Rico under several empires pushes me to continue documenting a spatial knowledge of everyday forms of violence anyplace else I go.”

Broadly, Arbona is interested in the study of urban cultures, the social imaginaries and histories of cities, and socially-shared ideas of urban space. Most recently, he spoke in the Cultural Studies Colloquium series at Davis on “City of Radical Memory: reclaiming spaces of World War II home front repression and resistance in the San Francisco Bay Area” and at the Oakland Museum of California.

Dillon will develop a book manuscript from her dissertation research on environmental justice issues in Bay View/Hunter’s Point in southeastern San Francisco. Dillon’s dissertation examined “articulations of racial formations and toxic waste, health inequalities, and the relationship between post-war urbanisms and the military shipyard,” and her book project takes a broader scope to look at military nuclearism in the San Francisco bay area and Pacific region.

“I want to be very clear about the linkages between the San Francisco military bases and the Marshall Islands,” Dillon said, “especially the circulation of knowledges, people, and radioactive waste between sites such as Hunter’s Point, Treasure Island, and weapons testing in the Pacific.”

Motivated by the ethics, values, and politics of environmental justice, Dillon’s research accounts for the historical legacies of militarism that shape the health outcomes and daily realities of people living in toxic areas.

Developing a transnational approach and international teaching focus

American Studies as a field has wrestled with the challenges of globalization since the 1990s, with scholars recognizing that the transnationalization of American Studies is a crucial step in rejecting American exceptionalism and globally situating the United States. The American Studies Program continues to address the question of what American Studies means in a global context, according to Sze.

With that goal in mind, a new faculty search is underway in transnational American Studies. Eric Smoodin, interim director of American Studies, explained that this position will focus on U.S. global connections, histories of colonialism, and U.S. relations to empire, and will place American Studies at Davis at the forefront of teaching and research in this area.

Julie Sze noted that “we as American Studies scholars [at Davis] have already shifted our research to better integrate transnational American Studies and decenter the U.S. and whiteness, but what does this look like as a pedagogical task?”

Sze and American Studies colleague and Associate Professor Grace Wang have collaborated on integrating transnational American Studies into AMS 10: Introduction to American Studies – a large, introductory lecture class that they both teach. The goal of this curriculum development is not only to address the transnational turn in American Studies, but to reformulate American Studies courses to address the unique perspectives of international students at Davis, said Sze.

Smoodin described how the University-wide initiative to increase the number of students from foreign countries has impacted the aims and goals of their program. “American Studies has an important role to play in terms of the University’s recruitment of international students,” Smoodin said. “We are situated to help those students understand what it means to live, work, and go to school in the United States.”

In addition to reworking the introductory course, American Studies has formulated the AMS 198 series on “Transnational American Studies and Popular Culture” to focus deeply on singular aspects of American life and bring to light complexities and contradictions in the culture of the United States. This extends the work begun by former AMS 198 instructors Abbie Boggs and Christina Owens, who developed a handbook on teaching American Studies in a global classroom.


– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies