Beyond Borders: A Reflection on the Challenges of Transnational, Multidisciplinary Scholarship in the Twenty-first Century

Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy

This fall, when nationalism is marking an unwelcome return in European and American politics, it behooves Early Canadianists to reflect on the relevance of borders–disciplinary and national–in studying and publishing about Early Canada. The paradox of academic life in the global village in an age of instant connectivity and seemingly endless access to resources, is that national borders still matter in our intellectual and professional lives. We grapple with them when conceptualizing our fields of study; as scholars and researchers, our training is informed by national orthodoxies that have the potential to shape the focus of our research; funding institutions are grounded in national locales, and even the process of academic publishing cannot fully escape the nation. All these challenges are present in various degrees when venturing into interdisciplinary research on cross-border Canadian-American topics.

It is a truism by now to state that any work on ‘early Canada’ is a product of a retrospective construction of space and a periodization of history that build on the contemporary national project of ‘Canada.’ With some obvious differences, the same can be said of Early America, which scholars study today with the retrospective certainties of the following 200 years of US history. Cross-border “early-” does not reflect the same temporality in American and Canadian contexts. Elsewhere on this blog, Jeffers Lennox celebrated the Canadian turn in Early American history; sadly, the same is not true of all disciplines. Given literature’s close relationship to the national project, it seems not entirely surprising that literary studies have been more impervious to cross-national approaches. Granted, neither early American, nor early Canadian, literature offer too many gripping page-turners to the contemporary reader. But both do provide valuable clues for understanding the history of their region, as they illuminate the many ways in which the recent and raw national political delimitations of the post-1776 years were welded into collective literary and cultural referents still relevant today. The fact remains that, whether we are examining the history of the region or the literature produced and consumed in Anglophone North America, cross-border examinations of Canadian-American phenomena–historical, social, or literary-struggle to reach a correspondingly cross-border audience.

This brings me to the second part of my reflection. As an interdisciplinary literary studies scholar who periodically ventures into the realm of history by way of cultural studies, I am fully aware of the existence of methodological border guards. Despite the increasing numbers of historians using literature in their work, publishing venues remain largely segregated by discipline. Where can one publish multidisciplinary research that deals with literature and literary analysis, as well as with history, in a transnational, early North American framework? At first glance, there is a slew of publishing venues that straddle literature, history, and ‘cultural studies,’ yet not all have the same impact. Furthermore, publications like The Canadian Review of American Studies, The American Journal of Canadian Studies, Canadian Literature, The Journal of Commonwealth Studies, the Journal of Postcolonial Literature, American Literary History, Early American Literature, and many other similarly prestigious journals, target different readerships and bear the mark of the different geopolitical hubs in which they are located, and of their respective intellectual paradigms.[2] A comparative piece on early Canada and early America may not be interesting for a US American Studies publication, but has a good chance of being sent for review by a British American Studies journal or a by journal focusing on Commonwealth Studies (where, incidentally, scholars working on American studies or American literature may never see it). The Journal of Canadian Studies openly states on its website that it intends to be a publishing venue primarily, if not exclusively, for Canadian scholars; American Literature focuses only on work on American writers, the International Journal of Canadian Studies welcomes global submissions on all things Canadian, while the American Review of Canadian Studies “examines Canada and the Canadian point of view from an American perspective.” Fortunately, there are exceptions: Early American Literature specifically invites work on British North America, while The Canadian Review of American Studies and The American Quarterly both welcome cross-border content, although the latter overwhelmingly does so on topics that only deal with immigration and Indigenous relations.[2]

Lastly, our own scholarly training is not devoid of national biases and orthodoxies; despite our best efforts to attain objectivity these orthodoxies are bound to shape the kind of questions we ask of the material at hand and perhaps determine what material we choose to work on. The borders of disciplines often overlap with the national borders and with scholarly approaches that are shaped by those intellectual spaces. For instance, as Jerry Bannister observed elsewhere on this blog, many American historians and American studies scholars tend to presume that the American national experience of revolutionary liberalism is fundamentally normative–an assumption which will shape the types of questions and topics American-trained scholars tend to gravitate towards. Conversely, what first got me excited about Early Canada, as an Eastern European doctoral student with no historical horse in the North American colonial race, was a question that spoke to my own experience of, and interest in, sudden breaks in political regimes: if early Canadians and Americans were not ethnically different, what role did political structures and forms of government play in shaping two distinct national identities? In other words, the very questions we ask of our material bear some mark of the national locales we hail from, and of the national historiographies that we, in our various roles as scholars, writers, and anonymous peer-reviewers, imbue and, consciously or not, are prone to reproducing.

So what does all this mean for the early career researcher looking at a future in academia and keen on cross-border research on Early North America? We all know we need to “publish or perish.” But many of us will also be familiar with the frustration of submitting papers to subject-specific journals when our work is perceived either too US- or too Canada-focused, too historical or too literary, or giving papers at conferences where it is simply not understood, or just too ‘early.’ In turn, publishing such work faces the dual hurdles of national and disciplinary boundaries, and the related degrees of interest that various publication venues have in such topics or in approaches that move beyond dominant intellectual trends. In short, for all of us working on Early Canada and Early America, the wider academic structures, from the way journal papers are reviewed and assessed, to how research projects are funded and by whom, make it challenging to reach readers for whom our work would be relevant. National borders and disciplinary borders still hold sway, and this is why venues such as Borealia are so welcome in building community and creating online readerships that can successfully trump artificial intellectual divides.

Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy is a senior lecturer in American Studies and teaches in the Global and Intercultural Studies Department at Miami University, Ohio. She has published in the Journal of European Studies, the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Early American Studies, and Early American Literature. Her research focuses on transatlantic and hemispheric studies, settler colonial literatures, and globalization.


[1] This list leaves out the many other nationally- or regionally-grounded publications in American and Canadian Studies. For a list of American Studies journals globally, see http://www.theasa.net/journals/directory/; for Canadian studies, various national associations have their own journals (such as the British Journal of Canadian Studies http://online.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/loi/bjcs).

[2] An online search in the archives of the journal identified only around 150 articles that deal partly with Canada between 1956 and 2016.

Featured image: A Correct Map of the Seat of War [1812?], by Samuel Lewis and John Conrad. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, Washington, D.C.

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