A Case for Area Studies

Globalization may prompt some to question the need for specific and diverse language, literature and regional studies programs in higher education. As a result, scholars respond with innovative and interdisciplinary approaches, collaborating with history, politics and other disciplines. "Scholars of history and literature, anyone who appreciates culture, share a keen interest in memory and, in countries with volatile politics, a fear for the fate of priceless documents and precarious archives,” explains César Braga-Pinto, professor of Brazilian, Comparative, and Global Lusophone Literatures, and chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Northwestern University. “This takes place amid a broader crisis with dismissal of the humanities.” Such studies, while focusing on a specific language or region, remain borderless due to histories of colonialism, immigration, trade, diasporas and more. The expansive approach, coming at a time of reduced support, requires new forms of collaboration and prepares scholars to analyze the cultural nuances of global challenges. – YaleGlobal

A Case for Area Studies

Foreign language, literature and area studies, collaborative and multidisciplinary, are crucial as some political movements try to erase events from history
César Braga-Pinto
Thursday, March 21, 2019

students in Univ of Tampa language lab; summer program at the Theater of the Oppressed in Rio de Janeiro
Connections: Students bridge cultural divides with multidisciplinary studies in language classrooms and summer travel programs, including study of social action through theater at Centro de Teatro do Oprimido, or Theater of the Oppressed, in Rio de Janeiro (Sources: University of Tampa and UCLA)

NEW HAVEN: Scholars of history and literature, anyone who appreciates culture, share a keen interest in memory and, in countries with volatile politics, a fear for the fate of priceless documents and precarious archives. This takes place amid a broader crisis with dismissal of the humanities. Language and literature departments may be among the most vulnerable, especially teaching and research in the less commonly taught languages, such as Portuguese, which constantly struggle to prove their relevance.

Scholars of the humanities are alarmed. Eric Hayot, a professor of Comparative Literature and Asian Studies, calls attention to the steady decline in tenure-track jobs advertised, by as many as 50 percent, and a corresponding decline of humanities majors reported by institutions. To remain relevant, scholars in the humanities must pursue all avenues of interdisciplinarity, although the scope and viability of such studies vary among institutions. Likewise, the nature and scope of research and teaching, or the discipline and departments, do not always coincide.

Yet scholars of area studies must commit to renewed forms of collaboration. Consider Brazilian area studies: For decades, courses focused on subjects such as Brazilian popular music, mestiçagem and democracia racial, carnival and other cultural exceptionalisms. But this has changed in the last decade, as scholars understand Brazilian culture and history as part of the world. Cultural studies must be transnational, interdisciplinary and innovative.

Scholars of Brazilian cultures work most often within Spanish and Portuguese departments, with some confronting shrinking interest. For example, the United States has only two departments of Portuguese, namely at Brown University and University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.  Portuguese foundations and the Portuguese government have traditionally provided helpful support to programs in regions where there are considerable Portuguese communities. The Brazilian government, on the other hand, has expressed more interest in financing programs based in the wealthiest research universities such as Columbia University or University of California, Berkeley, than providing support to Brazilian-American (or Brazuca) students in general.  In addition, there is growing interest in courses on Brazilian topics taught in English particularly comparative literature as well as Africana Studies, African Studies, and Women and Gender Studies.

As Brazil gained prominence as an emerging economic power, US colleges and universities increased their numbers of professors of Portuguese, no longer limiting themselves to one. Then, the 2008 financial crisis hit universities hard, especially their humanities departments. Since then, as professors retire or resign, many positions go unfilled. Portuguese and other professors have had to adjust their expectations by designing interdisciplinary minors with requirements from various departments, including readings in English translation, not always ideal, but at least possible with translation grants offered by the Biblioteca Nacional.

So interdisciplinarity and collaboration are a welcome imperative that opens the study of Brazilian literature and culture to students in multiple programs including economics, political science, psychology, business, journalism and more – not to mention student athletes initially attracted by their interest in soccer or capoeira, a form of martial arts. Granted, private institutions with resources can run a class with five or fewer students while public universities are expected to fill classrooms.

Many US institutions of higher learning lack a doctoral program exclusively in Portuguese, and in the current economic climate, it may be unrealistic and even irresponsible to consider creating one. Still, students of Latin American studies express enthusiasm for graduate courses on Brazilian literature, film or theory, and many include a Brazilian component in their dissertation. Monographs published during the last decade show an upward trend in tackling topics related to Brazil, a reversal of findings from a comprehensive study of the field published in 2005, which found comparative studies were rare. By contrast, a survey of recent doctoral dissertations shows more interdisciplinary and comparative work, increasingly with hemispheric scope.

Meanwhile, graduate applications to US institutions from Brazilian students tend to increase during volatile political and economic periods amid attacks on higher education, intellectual work, critical thinking and academic freedom in their home country. A challenge for prospective students trained in Brazil is the requirement to be proficient in both Spanish and English, preferably willing to consider a career teaching Spanish to be competitive at all. With a new wave of populist nationalism in Brazil, many wonder if foreign languages and Spanish in particular will remain a priority in the Brazilian curriculum.

Collaboration takes place within and between universities. For example, universities may coordinate in hosting events with groups of Brazilian writers and graphic artists. Bringing Brazilian writers, if done consistently, has proved to be a successful way of drawing interest to Brazilian literature for students of all levels.

Finally, the burgeoning field of decolonial theory and renewed interest in critical theories from the south offer an opportunity for introducing the works of Brazil’s major intellectuals. Again, translations of the essays by classical as well as contemporary thinkers are required. With professors located not only in language and literature departments, but also in gender studies, African American studies, performance studies, art history, musicology and so on, the trends reveal promising signs of growing interest in Brazilian cultural studies.

Collaboration is required at all levels – with universities throughout Brazil and with professors anywhere who demonstrate interest in the region.  

The need for Brazilian studies and research may have never been greater, considering the agenda of Brazil’s Secretary of Education Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez who recommends establishment of “norms for a conservative society, traditional values associated with the preservation of the family and humanistic morality.” Studies of literature and culture are essential, as political leaders and their supporters deny global warming and the effects of deforestation, threaten the rights of indigenous peoples, demonize social movements and human rights – and even attempt to erase entire events from history. Those teaching Brazilian and Lusophone literary studies, along with Portuguese language and literature, must prove their relevance along with those practicing in the fields of anthropology, environmental sciences, public health, social sciences, law and history.

The best creative writers respond during times of crisis, skepticism, or even despair, and it is essential in this era of propaganda and fake news to understand the elements of rhetoric, irony, dialogue, fiction, narrative, storytelling, alternative truths and more. A vibrant and heterogeneous new generation of writers and readers who despite the many troubles in their homeland continue to make literature not only relevant but also a mode of resistance and even an alternative form of citizenship.

César Braga-Pinto is a professor of Brazilian, Comparative, and Global Lusophone Literatures, and chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Northwestern University. He is the author of A Violência das Letras: Amizade e inimizade na literatura brasileira (1888-1940) (EdUERJ, 2018) and As Promessas da História: Discursos Proféticos e Assimilação no Brasil Colonial (EdUSP, 2003). This article is based on a paper delivered at the conference “Brazilian Studies in the United States: The Road Ahead,” held November 30 and December 1 at Yale University’s MacMillan Center.

© 2019 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center

Comments

Thank you for this poignant reminder of the difference between global studies and regional and area studies, and the cultural treasures we lose when such programs are cut or lumped all together. You captured the spirit of area studies.

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