Faculty Spotlight: Paul Smith is the New President of CSA

The program is pleased to announce that our distinguished faculty Professor Paul Smith has been elected as the president of Cultural Studies Association. Paul Smith was the vice president of CSA since 2014. CS student Adam Proctor has conducted an interview with Paul Smith in which Professor Smith shares his reflections about CSA and Cultural Studies as a field in the contemporary academic world.


Many folks in our audience will be aware of the Cultural Studies Association, but can you begin by giving us a brief overview of its history and its role within the discipline?

We just held our 14th annual conference earlier this year in Philadelphia, so we’re still a relatively young organization compared to disciplinary organizations like Modern Language Association, American Anthropology Association, American Studies Association, and their ilk. However, we’ve been growing slowly but surely, and we seem to be becoming the preferred home for a lot of younger interdisciplinary scholars in the humanities and qualitative social sciences, people who might not find their disciplinary homes (maybe in terms of their universities, maybe in terms of national organizations) very hospitable or very helpful. That’s a niche I’m very happy for the CSA to offer since it automatically gives us a vitality that I think some of the older and bigger disciplinary organizations desperately lack.

On the other hand, one of the difficulties we have is that a lot of people—including some of our own Cultural Studies faculty at Mason— primarily identify with the more traditional disciplinary organizations (like English, or even American Studies) and see CSA as at best a secondary affiliation. That’s something that CSA needs to be able to address and ultimately change, with the goal of becoming the first choice, not just for people who work in cultural studies and similar kinds of programs, but really for anyone who seriously claims to do interdisciplinary work.


You are known to your students for possessing a strong vision for the mission of Cultural Studies. Could you elaborate this vision and talk about how you intend to shape the discipline during your tenure?

It’s true that I personally have a sense of what I think cultural studies should be and do, could be and do. And you don’t have to go far to get a sense of what that is, because I’ve talked about it a lot over the years, including in the volume I edited a few years ago, The Renewal of Cultural Studies. Basically, the position is that cultural studies has been stunted by a kind of intellectual laissez-faire attitude, by an antipathy towards the idea of consistent methodology, as well as by a rather sniffy anti-Marxism and by a somewhat jejune sense of politics. In my view those things are kind of genetic flaws, ones that hark back to the Birmingham School in Britain. So, part of my position is that, here in the US we’ve no real need, no real cause to burden ourselves with those kinds of traits and that we can and should produce a viable form of cultural studies which both fosters the considerable strengths of cultural studies and learns from past errors.

That said, I certainly don’t think that it’s my job or my right, as CSA president, to try to impose that view of the field on everybody. You see, by the way, I keep calling it a field where you call it a discipline? That’s because I feel it lacks the cohesion and coherence of a discipline, especially at the methodological level. So, yes, I’d like to think that I could help push the field a bit more in that direction. But I’m fully committed to the idea that the organization and its president both are and have to be much more ecumenical.


What are some of the trends you see emerging in the field, particularly in terms of the kinds of jobs and positions being taken up by graduate student members? If you were a young scholar, how would you position yourself in the field, given this climate?

I think there might be two different questions intertwined there…one about thintellectual character of the field, and the other about the institutional situation. To answer the second question first…though I think my answer is going to stand no better chance than anyone else’s of being correct or useful. In part because the academic job market, and indeed the whole of academe, is in a state of flux and under extreme stress. It’ll not be news to anyone if I say that the conventional tenure track job is getting rarer and rarer. Or another way of saying it, the chances in the US of an undergrad class being taught by a tenure line instructor are dwindling almost to 1 in 10. It’s probably true to say that there’s still lots of work for PhDs in higher education, but it’s less and less likely to be a tenure line post. So the kinds of jobs that graduates can get in academe are changing. This isn’t the place to go much further into it, but I do believe we all need to get real about this.

In terms of trends in the field of cultural studies, I’m seeing a lot of interesting things going on. Though, whatever I pick from the array will reflect my own leanings, rather than necessarily be representative. One of them is being foregrounded in our own Colloquium this year…the question of the university itself, and the question of public education—and higher education generally--and its place and role in a culture that seems more and more prepared to look on its demise with indifference. In the current conjuncture, it’s important for us to be analytical about our own positions, our own labour, our own function. That’s always been true for me, but it’s urgent right now and I think a goodly number of people in cultural studies know that. Also, I think a lot of scholars who, like us, think culture politically, are trying hard right now to think about how to throw off the still powerful influence of identity politics and are aiming for revised ways of thinking and acting politically without giving up the kinds of institutional and ideological gains that identity politics won. The whole question of politics itself is up for grabs again in a way that I think it hasn’t been in the North since the 1960s and cultural studies is going to be at the table, I hope. And that might also have something to do with a another tendency I think I’m seeing, which is that I think there’s a lot more genuinely international work going on in cultural studies than there has been. In the wake of globalization, or maybe since the effects of the 2008 financial farce, whose import we’re still just beginning to register, since then the shape of the world has changed and people in cultural studies are helping to understand it.


As former Vice President of the CSA you are no stranger to the organization. As President, how will your role and responsibilities change? Could you tell us a little about the new opportunities you will have for teaching and lecturing over the coming years?

Hah! Becoming President means I have more bureaucratic work to do, is all! And more responsibility to make sure that things function smoothly—which I’m only just managing to do, and not without the help of our admin assistant, Michelle Fehsenfeld, and our treasurer, Sean Andrews (who’s an alum of our program, of course). The presidency really is primarily an administrative position where I don’t have too much opportunity (or right) to say a lot about, as it were, the content of the field. I don’t expect that the job will open up any new of those new opportunities you speak of, but if you hear of some, let me know!


As the new advocate-in-chief of the CSA, what message do you have for graduate students in terms of getting involved?

Well, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? And the message is for faculty as well as students. This is the national organization that bears the same name as your doctoral degree or the program in which you work. It seems to me rather obvious that it's in the self-interest of everyone who works under the banner of cultural studies to work for the field and to work to expand the field’s influence. (Maybe beneath my answer you can hear the echoes of the sentiments of a union man!)