To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Interviews with Brandeis University’s academic leadership: the American Studies program

The chair of Brandeis University’s American Studies program, Professor Maura Jane Farrelly, sat down for an interview with The Brandeis Hoot to shed a little light on the program, its future and herself. This interview is part of a series of interviews with the chairs of a plethora of different academic departments and programs at Brandeis.


Editor’s Note: This interview was recorded during the 2022 spring semester.


Why did you choose to come to Brandeis?


I had actually left academia after I got my Ph.D. and although I continued to [be an] adjunct [professor] just for the fun of it, I wanted to have an audience when I went on about the 18th century. I was working full-time as a journalist, but I will say that the work was very grinding. I will admit to you completely on the record that I roll my eyes sometimes when academics talk about their deadlines because academics don’t know what a deadline is compared to journalists. I never missed a deadline, but I would get red circles on my cheeks from the stress of hitting deadlines sometimes. I was living in these two worlds and I wasn’t even actively looking for a position, but a friend saw the posting at Brandeis and it looked like it had been written for me. It’s this elite school that wanted somebody with a Ph.D. in a traditional liberal arts field like American literature or American history, but they also wanted somebody to direct the journalism program. So I was like, okay, I’ll apply and see what happens. 


What do you think you gained from being a journalist?


Humility. It was a very humbling experience. Typically if you work in newspapers, you think in terms of inches, the length of a column that you have. When you work in radio, you think in terms of minutes and you become very aware of unnecessary words. When I went back and I looked at my dissertation and had to think about turning it into a book in order to get tenure, I realized without even trying that I had become a much cleaner writer as a consequence of the time that I spent in journalism. Strangely, it was a humbling experience for me. It was also an empowering experience; I really don’t get intimidated by people [like] I used to. Some of that may be just because I’m older, but I do think a lot of it is that I had to get comfortable with asking pertinent questions …. Your job as a journalist is to ask questions that are sometimes going to make people uncomfortable. The more often you do it, the better you get at it and the more confident you become. What I was doing before I came to Brandeis was working for an international news organization. So I interviewed John McCain, I walked through the metal detector at the DNC in front of Joe Lieberman (the Senator from Connecticut, Al Gore’s vice presidential nominee) …. You really do realize that the phrase “everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time” [is very accurate]. The really important, powerful people that you see on television and you read about in the newspapers are just human beings.


What do you think the American Studies program does right?


I’m often asked what makes us different from history or literature. So there’s a sort of academic answer to what makes us different. In the history department, you have the history of other cultures and in the literature department, you have the literature of other cultures. But I think the other thing that we do, and I say this as somebody who was trained as a historian, we [in American Studies] are much more comfortable with this idea of saying that the reason we want to understand the past is entirely so that we can understand ourselves in the present. It’s not that you don’t have that in history, but historians bristle a little bit sometimes at the idea that there has to be something useful in the present about the study of the past …. In fact, you need to be careful with getting too oriented toward the present when studying the past, they even have a word for that: “presentism.” I think in American Studies, we’re a little bit more comfortable with this idea. Why am I going to study America’s past? So that I can understand exactly how we got to this day. There’s a lot of relevance to the way we approach America’s past.


Is there anything that you think the American Studies program could do better?


If you go and take a look at our website, we have our learning goals. One of the things we have as a goal is something along the lines of, “we want our students to be able to situate American culture within a global context, and to walk away from the major within the understanding of both how American culture has influenced cultures in other countries but also how our culture bears the mark of the immigrants.” We’re a little weak on that front. A lot of it is because we’re a program now but when I arrived here we were a department. The big difference is that when you’re a department, you get to hire people after your colleagues retire while when you’re a program, you don’t. So we have not been able to hire people, which makes us increasingly dependent upon faculty hires in different departments to satisfy our learning goals. We’re a little weak right now because we can’t hire a specialist in race and immigration in American society.


If you could tell Brandeis students one thing about the American Studies program, what would it be?


What do you mean when you say you’re an American? I promise you there’s a history behind [every part of the American identity]. I like to think that your identity as an American is a bit like a room that is illuminated with a deceptively simple flick of the switch. Every day, I walk into the bathroom in the morning to brush my teeth. I flick on the switch and the light is there. It seems really simple. It is not simple. There is an incredibly complex grid behind that illumination in my bathroom. I know that the grid may be traced up to Quebec, there’s a grid system that brings the electricity down into Massachusetts, et cetera, et cetera. I think American studies is about trying to understand that really complex grid. First of all, trying to get you to even realize the grid is there and then to realize how complex it is. We are not a common race. We are not a common ethnicity. We are not a common language. We are not a common religion. We are an invented nation, so the story behind that invention. There’s a story to every attribute that you’re going to associate with American identity.


Some of your research focuses on religion in America. What draws you to that?


I took a course my junior year of college called “Catholics and American Culture.” I don’t think that I understood before that course how much disagreement there can be among people who profess to believe the same things. I don’t think I ever understood how many varieties of just Christianity there are just in this country and how deep some of those differences were at one point in the country’s history, and are still for some people. For instance, there was a big debate in the 19th century between Baptists and Methodists, about what is the proper way to baptize somebody. Can you just sprinkle it on their heads or do you need to do a full dunking? Do you have to immerse them entirely in water? This was a deeply debated conflict among two varieties of Protestants in the 19th century. So I think the contentiousness that is associated with American religious history is fascinating to me. Also, I was a philosophy major in college and I think I just like understanding what people believe. Even if you’re one of these people who thinks that there’s no logic and that religion is not rational, that doesn’t mean that there’s not an internal logic to religious belief. So I enjoy tracing the internal logic in different belief systems. As I always say to my students, you don’t have to believe any of the ideas that we’re gonna study in this class. But what you do have to understand is that these people did believe it and those beliefs motivated their actions and those actions had consequences that in some instances are still reverberating today. If you want to understand the contemporary landscape of America, you have to understand America’s religious history, pure and simple.

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