News

Community College Faculty Discuss Globalizing Regional Studies

Kate Masur, October 1999

This past July, 28 community college faculty gathered with university faculty and librarians in Washington, D.C., for a seminar titled "Globalizing Regional Studies." The seminar was the result of an unprecedented collaboration among the American Historical Association, the Community College Humanities Association (CCHA), and the Library of Congress (LC). Funded by the Ford Foundation, the seminar placed the research interests of community college faculty at the center of an agenda focused on rethinking the study of world regions.

According to CCHA executive director David Berry (Essex County College), the seminar was innovative and important because it encouraged the research interests of community college faculty, who have few opportunities to pursue research and are rarely recognized for their efforts. For its part, the LC sought to promote its collections and services and to act as a "gathering point for scholarship and thoughtful exchange," according to Lester Vogel, special assistant to the LC's director of scholarly programs. LC staff provided seminar participants with advice and privileged access to special collections in their areas of interest.

With ready access to the library's rich resources, seminar participants pursued research on a wide variety of topics, including the development of civil society in the Chinese diaspora, constructions of identity in the U.S. West, and Iranian women in the performing arts. Some also came with the goal of revising their world history and Western civilization courses and developing primary source-based readers for those classes.

Seminar participants reported that the LC curators were extraordinarily helpful. LC staff, in turn, were impressed by the participants' enthusiasm. According to Vogel, the participants had "an energizing effect" on the LC staff who were "greatly impressed by the quality of the projects and the energy and motivation of the participants."

The library's resources frequently pushed researchers' projects in new directions. For example, as Michele Dolphin (Front Range Community College, Westminster, Colorado) researched American musical traditions, she discovered the "Colorado Collections" in the LC's Archive of Folk Culture. Dolphin never expected that the LC would yield such rich resources on Mexicans, Native Americans, and Italians in her home state. Jon Q. Lu (Community College of Rhode Island) came to the seminar expecting to compile a bibliography of research on Southeast Asian immigration to the United States. "Overwhelmed by the resources" at the library, Lu decided to confine his focus to the literature on Cambodian immigration, since Cambodians are the largest immigrant group in Rhode Island and have been the subject of far less research than Laotian or Vietnamese immigrants. Lu, along with many other participants, plans to present the results of his research at the CCHA 1999 National Conference in Chicago, October 28 through 30.

Synergy and Serendipity

Library materials were not the only source of synergy and serendipity at the seminar, as participants also encountered unexpected opportunities for collaboration with colleagues. Maureen Nutting (North Seattle Community College) and Jan Tyler (Black River Technical College, Pocahontas, Arkansas) discovered their shared interest in the experiences of people of Japanese origin during the World War II era. Tyler is looking at an internment camp in Arkansas, while Nutting is researching Japanese experiences in South America. They compared their case studies and clarified their own projects in the process. Like many other seminar participants, they look forward to ongoing collaboration.

The seminar also sought to facilitate connections between community college faculty and faculty at research universities by inviting seven guest scholars—with areas of expertise ranging from biological exchanges in world history to African women's history—to address the participants and highlight ways of rethinking area studies and world history. The guest presenters assigned prodigious amounts of reading, scheduled one-on-one meetings with participants, and engaged in lively question and answer sessions. According to Berry, creating such links between community college and research faculties helps the CCHA emphasize the integrity and significance of community college teachers in academe. The effort to build cross-institutional connections within the historical profession has also been a major goal of the AHA.

The Ford Foundation supported these efforts as part of its initiative, "Crossing Borders: Revitalizing Area Studies," a program designed to answer intellectual and practical challenges to the "area studies" paradigm. Ford helped develop area studies in the early 1950s. Since then, critiques of the paradigm; the collapse of the Soviet Union; the changing roles of nation states; and the increasingly global integration of people, capital, cultures, and technology have all emphasized the need to rethink area studies as a conceptual framework. The Ford initiative seeks to "foster innovative approaches to the field's foundations and practices in light of a dramatically changed, and increasingly interconnected, world." According to seminar co-director Jerry H. Bentley (University of Hawaii), "The intention of the seminar was not to displace area studies, which have immense value for purposes of understanding individual societies, but rather to build on them and move beyond them by crossing the geographical and cultural boundary lines usually observed in area studies scholarship." The seminar did exactly this by encouraging discussion of boundary-crossing phenomena such as migration, trade, and human rights.

Tensions and Divergences

The different experiences of community college faculty and university faculty, which are often founded on unequal distributions of resources and prestige in academia, sometimes produced tension during the seminar. Seminar participants tended to share a sense that their work is critical to post-secondary education in the U.S., but that colleagues outside community colleges often fail to appreciate this. Some participants said they felt the guest scholars did not recognize their expertise or commitment to following developments in their fields.

Some community college faculty—whose teaching often crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries and requires collaboration with people outside their fields—found the seminar's emphasis on history confining. According to Berry, because community college humanities faculty are frequently part of small departments, their range of expertise is often, of necessity, wider than that expected of faculty at research institutions. As a humanities-based organization, the CCHA tries to respond to the realities of community college teaching. However, in this collaborative project with the AHA, and in light of the rich historical resources at the LC, the seminar was slanted toward the field of history. This proved challenging for participants who specialized in languages and literary studies and for those accustomed to the crossdisciplinary nature of community college work.

These manifestations of real dilemmas in higher education led to productive friction between participants and guest scholars. Corrie Haines (Prince George's Community College, Maryland) admiringly described the seminar sessions as "honest intellectual combat conducted with the greatest of decorum." Susan A. Fischer (Essex County College) said the conversations between community college and university faculty were "an important beginning" of a larger dialogue about the negative assumptions sometimes made about community college faculty. She added, "The CCHA is doing important work to change some of these assumptions and to ensure that community college faculty begin to have greater support for their scholarship and access to scholarly programs."

While many aspects of the seminar focused on traditional research methods in media such as books, newspapers, and manuscript collections, the seminar also plunged into new technologies for producing and distributing knowledge. References to personal and institutional web sites, as well as CD-ROMs, abounded, and participants learned about the LC's major digital initiative, the American Memory Project.

Some of the challenges raised by high-tech information distribution also became clear when participants were informed, on the seminar's first day, that the Library of Congress planned to broadcast the seminar presentations live on the web. Having successfully "cybercast" an international conference in June, the LC was interested in testing its new capacity to transmit its on-site activities throughout the world. But some of the participants were caught off guard by the request that they sign waivers granting the library permission to use their images. Guest speakers were also conscious of the video cameras, and Patricia Seed (Rice University) acknowledged that she had considered the cyber-audience, as well as the seminar participants, as she designed her presentation. Ultimately, seminar participants and speakers made peace with the cybercast, sometimes sitting out of the cameras' vision and other times turning off the cybercast completely. This appeared a satisfactory compromise, as Vogel reported that cybercasting the seminar provided valuable experience for the LC staff, too.

Crossing the border from work to play or, in the words of Haines, moving "beyond the wall of professionalism," was also of vital importance to the participants. They made trips into the wider Washington world, visiting museums and monuments. They filled their lunch hours with conversations about community college teaching and dilemmas raised by their research. Many participants seemed to share Lu's opinion that the group became surprisingly cohesive and that the "personal and human" side of the trip to Washington would leave the most lasting impression. For Linda Quintanilla, who has been working as an adjunct for four years and is now at North Harris College in Houston, these connections were especially important. Having felt marginalized by her adjunct status, she said she was delighted to make connections with far-flung community college colleagues and honored to be recognized for her research.

The second phase of the "Globalizing Regional Studies" project will include an international conference. For more information about this program, refer to the AHA web page http://www.historians.org/grs/index.html or contact Debbie Doyle at AHA, 400 A St., SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889. E-mail: ddoyle@historians.org.

—Kate Masur is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan and is currently a staff assistant to the AHA's Research Division.