As the 50th Anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination approaches I thought it would be a good time to republish my 2009 interview with Professor Philip Davies, Emeritus Professor of American Studies at De Montfort University and Director of the Eccles Centre for American Studies. The interview itself took place shortly after the election of Barak Obama as the first non-white president of the United States.
The original article (with pictures) appears in Liaison Magazine 3, July 2009, pp. 12-15
Philip Davies arrived at Keele University in the late 1960s to study mathematics and geography. Thanks to the Keele tradition of joint honours degrees and flexible courses, and a year at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Davies graduated with a degree in sociology and American studies. After a Masters degree in American politics at Essex he studied and taught at the University of Maryland, College Park, Lanchester Polytechnic (now the University of Coventry) and the University of Manchester before becoming Head of the International Office at Leicester Polytechnic in 1991, just as it was becoming De Montfort University. As well as writing and editing numerous books and articles on US politics, he has served as Chair of the British Association for American Studies (BAAS), the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Benchmarking Group for Area Studies and the UK Council for Area Studies Associations (UKCASA), and is currently Chair of the American Politics Group of the UK. Now Emeritus Professor of American Studies at De Montfort University, he is Director of the Eccles Centre for American Studies, hosted by the British Library.
How did you first become interested in the United States?
I was born in 1948 at the time of the Cold War so you really couldn’t ignore the US. I came from a fairly working- class background but my family was very politically aware. My generation lived through Kennedy getting shot; I do remember exactly where I was and it was the first time I had seen my father cry. Although I discovered American studies at university I was ready for it. As a school kid in Shropshire I was always at the town library. You could borrow books from the American Embassy by post and I was doing that. I was reading books about obscure jazz musicians, and politics books only available in the US. I won a school essay competition with an essay on the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination. I had no idea you could study American studies at university. At school I studied history, geography and mathematics. I knew I didn’t want to do a single honours degree. I think that there were only six universities in the whole country where it was possible to do degrees of the kind I wanted. I was brilliantly lucky to go to Keele. And then there was American studies. David Adams gave this lecture on the St Valentine’s Day Massacre and it was just superb. I thought “If you can do this at university, why am I still doing maths?” In those days they gave you four years to do your degree and you had to study a subject you had never done before. All the departments knew that they had the opportunity to take you away from your original subjects. I was always brilliant at maths at school, but I got to university and found that there were 40 other people who were just as brilliant, if not better. I knew American studies would be hard. I had not studied A-level English literature. I wasn’t very good at languages but I was interested in foreign countries, interested in America and interested in history, and there it was. With some trepidation about the literature I decided to give it a go. I think that’s where the extra year was so important. It gave me the time to work out how literature works. I’m not sure whether it is the politics or history which interests me most – if you live long enough the politics becomes history!
Student exchanges were competitive and I won one to Swarthmore College in Philadelphia. In those days they didn’t transfer credit which meant that you could experiment. I did courses which were more challenging and offbeat than I would have done if the marks had been transferred. In the end my degree took five years, but I had two years’ more reading than most students. On my first visit to America I arrived in Chicago the Saturday before the 1968 Democratic convention. I thought politics was very exciting and ended up getting into a barney with police outside the convention!
What changes have you seen in American studies over the years?
When I was a student and when I first started teaching, American studies was a fairly well-formed tripod of history, literature and politics. You had Dick Pear who was professor of American politics, Dennis Welland in literature, and Peter Marshall in history. There has been a slippage away from politics and social sciences in American studies. As I got involved in UKCASA I learnt that this was not true in all area studies. I may be wrong but in my mind European studies has this very solid social science basis which even includes economics (you don’t get this much in American studies). Cultural studies, media studies, film studies are a big part of American studies now. The political science element seems to have diminished in undergraduate teaching, though not necessarily in the research culture.
Part of that is student demand. Even when I was at Manchester the vast majority of students had English literature and history A-level and very few had politics. When they arrived they were mostly interested in literature, but by the final year when they had choice they were divided roughly a third each way. Over time programmes have responded by becoming more arts and humanities focused, including subjects like cultural studies and media studies, which didn’t exist or barely existed when I was young. International relations (IR) has grown and a huge part of IR programmes is American foreign policy. There are many other opportunities to study America.
In the 1960s English departments, history departments and to a lesser extent politics departments didn’t do a lot about America. Many literature departments were very snooty about American literature, several Nobel prizes notwithstanding – they still didn’t believe Americans could write! Now all these subjects have increased their coverage of America and in newer areas such as IR, film studies and media studies American content plays a big part. American studies is competing against these subjects and the number of students applying to study for a discrete degree in American studies has been in decline for a long time, though it has gone up this year. I believe that the number of undergraduates studying America as part of their degree is bigger than it has ever been because of all these other options. It’s great that literature, politics, history and so on now contain American options.
However, like all area studies people, I believe there is virtue in studying an area in a multidisciplinary way which is not achieved through a single discipline approach. You know more about the literature if you know the history and politics of the place, you know a lot more about the politics if you know the history and about the cultural artefacts including literature and so on. Area studies gets squeezed, underused or undervalued because of the nonetheless valuable inclusion of the area in more single disciplinary areas.
Have you noticed any changes in the type of people who choose to do American studies?
When I first started at Manchester we did surveys of student background and 100% would have either English or history A-level and about 80% had both. Just 5-10% had politics. I don’t sense that has changed. If anything the proportion of social sciences was getting lower in the last couple of years I was teaching. The American politics A-level is really popular. We run events for the students here at the Eccles Centre and we have hundreds coming. We have given them the American studies CD but very few are considering American studies; they are thinking politics or IR or PPE (philosophy, politics, economics).
You are currently Chair of the American Politics Group of the UK, you have been Chair of BAAS and UKCASA and you chaired the first QAA Benchmarking Group for Area Studies. What motivated you to be involved in the leadership of these groups?
I think it was Ben Franklin who said something like “don’t join anything unless you can run it” – I’m sure he would have said it a lot more eloquently. I was chairman of my kids’ parent teacher association as well. I like running things and it has generally been a pleasure. I enjoy the way it introduces you to people with a wide variety of experiences. Now I am on the committee of the European American Studies Association which involves 25 different nations – a great experience.
In the early 90s after I had got to De Montfort, I decided to become more actively involved in the professional side. I was lucky to be chair of BAAS while the Subject Centre was being set up. Many people forget there are Anglophone area studies. The first QAA subject list did not have area studies on it and they included American studies in English literature. BAAS created a noise about that. I discovered American studies at university, I have lived American studies throughout my career and it has given me a raison d’être. I’ve lived in America, I’ve got American friends, and my kids’ godparents are Americans. I’m locked into the country and I’m from a working-class background where nobody left Stoke, so I feel I owe a lot of the pleasure I’ve got out of life to American studies and now at the Eccles Centre I have the best American studies job in the country.
What attracted you to that role? What does being Director of the Eccles Centre involve?
It’s brilliant. The job came up just as my time as chair of BAAS was finishing. We organise a lot of events. We do a research conference with the Institute of the Study of the Americas and sponsor lectures and conferences, and we do politics conferences for A-level students, undergraduates, and their teachers. For the general public we work with the Fulbright Commission and Benjamin Franklin House. We’ve had Timothy Garton Ash and David Cannadine is coming soon. The British Library has its own events so we work with them on topics which have an American spin. We do publications and several books have come out of our conferences so there’s editorial work, chasing authors, etc.
We have Eccles Fellows money so people from North America and outside London can come to the British Library and use the North American collections. The Eccles Centre is also tasked with adding to the Americas collections. We fund the acquisition of items which are so expensive that the Library would have to go fund-raising for them and which are important enough that the general public can understand why they are special. We recently purchased the first map of the Americas by an English cartographer. He did a set of four continental maps. The Library already had the other three and the American one came up at an auction. We got it very cheaply – within a few months a similar map at a different auction sold for more than three times the price. We have purchased a couple of very early American books, notable not only for their quality and early production, but because they are about the contemporary 17th and 18th century debates on theology and government. In both cases no copies existed outside North America.
Is there anything you miss about working in a university?
One misses particular colleagues of course, though I still do have connections with De Montfort. In a university your actual teaching hours are a small part of what you do, but talking to colleagues is a substantial part of the job. I ask myself whether I miss the teaching. I don’t miss the marking and I don’t miss setting the exams. I don’t miss the meetings, except for the conviviality of the meetings. I give a few guest lectures at De Montfort and I’m still doing a modest amount of research. I don’t get the consistent relationship with a group you get throughout a year or a complete degree, so that body of people I proprietarily think of as “mine”, I don’t get anymore. So when I look at the television and see Richard Lister, the BBC Washington correspondent, I can say “he’s one of mine!”, or I listen to the radio and hear that it was produced by Sally Flatman, I say “she’s one of mine”. Even Boris Johnson’s media adviser was one of mine – all this stuff about how these left wing professors politicise their students, it never worked for me! Campus experiences are nice, but the British Library is a bit like a campus. In many jobs you would say you miss the library, but I’ve got The Library!
As an expert in US politics and US elections in particular, people inevitably ask you about the election of Barack Obama as America’s first black president. Do you see Obama’s election as something particularly historic?
Even if it tarnishes it will be significant because of the number of people emotionally affected by it at the time. When you see a big swing in one election, the people who voted for the first time in that election tend to maintain that bias. Obama brought new people to the polls.
The turnout went up a bit, about 1%, but there was a significant dropout among conservative and evangelical voters – they weren’t going to vote for Obama and they weren’t happy with McCain. 19% of black voters had never voted before and there was also an increase in the Hispanic vote. These voters are more into governmental action and more liberal on social issues. If they continue to vote it would suggest a swing in those kinds of directions. I expect that if in four years’ time the Obama administration is perceived as even moderately successful, the impact will be seen for a number of elections. If it is seen as very successful it could continue like Franklin D Roosevelt. I was there for the last few days of the election campaign and people were very moved. Even if the administration cannot cope with the great problems they face, there is now no barrier to a non-white person becoming president of the United States – that’s hugely significant. The barrier has just gone. If Hillary Clinton had got in a woman would have done it – that barrier has probably gone