British studies, the latest import from the US?
British studies is a growing field in the US, bringing together many different disciplines. Should UK universities have it too?For the last few weeks, Philippa Levine has been an academic under siege. American journalists keep ringing up wanting her to say insightful things about the royal wedding. "But what do I know about William and Kate?" she asks exasperatedly. "It is really not what most of us study."Welcome to life as a US British studies academic. Levine, a historian of Britain who arrived in the US 20 years ago from the UK, co-directs the British studies programme at the University of Texas, at Austin.The field brings together academics from across all disciplines who study Britain and its empire including its history, literature and politics and puts them into critical discussion, explains Levine, who is also the president of the North American Conference on British Studies the field's largest subject association.British studies is, of course, a field that doesn't exist in the UK. "It is a weird thing, but no one in Britain knows what British studies is," says James Vernon, a Briton who set up the Centre for British Studies at the University of California, Berkeley in 2003. "There is no organised curriculum or research agenda around British studies."Britain is simply so ubiquitously studied in humanities and social sciences departments in UK institutions that an interdisciplinary field called British studies barely makes sense. This is in stark contrast to the US, which, while dogged by worries that it is overly nationalistic, has a large "American studies" field.But outside the UK, British studies is flourishing, most particularly in the US. Since the early 2000s, in addition to Berkeley, research centres and programmes have been established at the University of Chicago 2003, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City 2005, Columbia University in New York 2007 and, most recently, Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey 2010. Yale, along with the University of Texas, at Austin and the University of Colorado, Boulder, have older programmes the Texas one dates from 1975. And they are decidedly neither celebrating nor castigating Britain."Half a century ago, a lot of British studies in the States was motivated by a kind of Anglophilia, but this isn't the case any longer," says Steven Pincus, of the British studies faculty at Yale. Buoying the field in recent years has been a "new way" of looking at the British empire that is less sanitised and whitewashed, says Levine. British studies which originated when the "area studies" model developed in the cold war era to study potentially threatening countries was latterly applied to America and then Britain has gone from focusing on "little England" to being a much broader programme that studies the empire in all its facets.Studying Britain is important for many reasons, say the academics, from the fact that Britain was the source of the industrial revolution, to the fact that English is so widely spoken, to the continued place of Britain in the world today. But, tempting as the idea is that British studies can actually "teach" contemporary America lessons as it grapples with its own position as a world superpower, most academics resist. If there is any lesson from British studies, it is that how the world works is a "peculiar condition of time and place", says Ethan Shagan, who recently took the baton from Vernon as director of Berkeley's centre.As yet no one is offering British studies degrees although Utah does an undergraduate minor and Colorado a certificate, but US academics teach plenty of British courses within their respective disciplines that are attracting growing numbers of students.Certainly, a degree of Anglophilia does drive student interest, says Levine. While academics might have given up celebrating Britain to study it critically a deference to kings and queens and tea parties pulls students in, just as many Americans are fascinated by British royalty. Likewise, a pop-culture version where British music, film, TV and football teams peak interest is also evident. There are also "heritage students" intrigued because their parents or grandparents have origins in Britain or its former colonies. More practically, students can study a new culture without needing a foreign language. Regardless of the lure, once in, the idea is to get students "somewhere more sophisticated", explains Alastair Bellany, who heads the British studies centre at Rutgers.Robin Lam, who graduated in history last year from Berkeley, was drawn to study Britain because she "grew up reading about princes, castles and courts", but it was actually the "non-traditional" history courses she liked best. Last year, she travelled to Britain to research "fashion photography as a genre in postwar Britain". With an Irish family background Anne McGrath, currently studying history at Columbia, was interested in learning about the relationship between England and Ireland.The material students study is intriguing. Nicholas Dames, who heads Columbia's programme, uses Victorian fiction to engage students in a discussion about "class", still a difficult subject to raise in America. Utah students visited London to consider the city itself as a work of theatre. Meanwhile, Vernon uses The Office as a way to understand masculine banter and the advent of 1980s management styles in Britain. Students' answers to what most encapsulates Britain range from Zadie Smith's White Teeth, to the inside cover of the Sun, to Blackadder, to the insignia of the British East India Company.Among those funding the centres and programmes include Anglophile philanthropists, which can be tricky, says Vincent Pecora. Pecora heads the British studies programme at Utah, which was funded by an endowment started by the London-loving former president of the Mormon Church, Gordon Hinckley. Most of the academics working in the field are American, which can raise some British eyebrows. "I was not nearly as British as she would have liked," recalls Pecora of the time the British consul-general in Los Angeles paid a visit to his programme to find it led by an American. Many regularly travel to the UK for their primary research. Colorado University has just invested in a flat in Westminster so that faculty and research students at its centre for British and Irish studies have accommodation.The academics believe, however, that their approach does bring something extra and they are freer than academics in the UK to see things in a larger framework. "It helps to study Britain from outside because you can think afresh," says Vernon. Unlike their British counterparts whose study of their nation is simply taken for granted US British studies academics have to answer questions about why their scholarship is important, which leads to "real differences" in the kind of work being done, says Pincus. Peter Mandler, a professor of modern cultural history at Cambridge, notes that American academics studying Britain will have their "own biases", too, but concedes that they can draw attention to things Brits themselves might neglect.Meanwhile, Levine is adamant she would like to see the field expand its empire: "I would love to see British studies travel to Britain. I think it would be very healthy." Universities keen to attract overseas students might like to think it over.Could it catch on here? Education.email@example.comHumanitiesSocial sciencesHigher educationUnited StatesBritish identity and societyguardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions More Feeds