An American Studies program could easily become an exercise in navel-gazing, with U.S.-born scholars and students examining the nation’s role as a global leader.
Purdue’s 55-year-old American Studies program – one of the oldest of its kind – does not take that approach. It prides itself on its international ties, with multiple faculty members who have worked overseas on Fulbright scholarships and a partnership with the American Studies program at East China Normal University in Shanghai.
Through these influences, and with input from its numerous foreign-born students, the interdisciplinary program is able to incorporate many different viewpoints that examine the United States’ various spheres of influence.
“I think that’s the beauty of this program, because we all come from different backgrounds and with very different research interests that really encourage us to discuss issues from very different perspectives,” said Annagul Yaryyeva, a Ph.D. student from Turkmenistan. “I really hope I learn a lot about the United States through the perspective of U.S. nationals in the program, as well as other international students who study the United States and its impact.”
Yaryyeva grew interested in studying U.S. influence after observing the way American culture shaped life in post-Soviet countries following the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s. Other students in the program – including natives of the Middle East, Germany, and China – also examine America’s impact on their homelands.
For example, Ph.D. candidate Ozgun Basmaz studied English language and literature as an undergraduate and is now examining the Cold War relationship between the U.S. and her native Turkey, focusing specifically on its effect on Turkish cinema.
“I think part of what motivates some of these students is they live in countries that may have an antagonistic relationship with the United States,” American Studies director Rayvon Fouché said. “I think they’re trying to understand what that all means because the United States has such a large presence globally, from the perception of media, military, and economics. I think they’re really fascinated by how it influences the countries in which they live.”
A Purdue faculty member’s influence is actually what drew Basmaz to West Lafayette. She struck up a friendship with American Studies faculty affiliate and associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies TJ Boisseau 15 years ago while attending her American pop culture course at Germany’s University of Bayreuth, where Boisseau was working as a Fulbright Senior Scholar. Basmaz later studied under Boisseau at the University of Akron, and has once again enrolled at a university where Boisseau teaches.
In fact, Basmaz credits Boisseau for convincing her to resurrect the Turkish film study after she nearly dropped it and settled for life in the working world.
“I really regard her as my mentor,” Basmaz said. “I feel emotionally indebted to her because she really opened a path for me. Sometimes I was like, ‘OK, I’m not coming to the United States.’ I was really pessimistic. ‘I’m almost 40 years old. I’ll just call it (quits). I couldn’t do it. I’m OK with this failure.’ But she never let me drop this project, and now after spending one year here thinking about my theme, writing about it, talking to other professors, I just see it as a wise decision to come here.”
Although both Ph.D. students participated in American Studies and English-language programs overseas, they admit that they still had a lot to learn about U.S. culture when they traveled stateside. Basmaz discovered Americans’ Thanksgiving traditions after accepting Boisseau’s invitation to spend the holiday with her family. Meanwhile, Yaryyeva recalls being stunned as a high school exchange student in Athens, Tennessee, by the way students in the cafeteria would segregate along racial and class lines.
“The United States exports this image as a very racially diverse and integrated society. At least that’s the image that the United States is trying to sell abroad,” Yaryyeva said. “However, when I got to the United States, I saw the way people in the cafeteria would separate from each other – segregate based on race and class, because I saw high school cheerleaders and football players sitting away from lower-class white students. And then you have Black students sitting separately from the rest of the group, and Hispanics and international students, as well. To me, that was very unexpected.”
Yaryyeva’s hope while attending Purdue is that she will develop skills that will allow her to facilitate understanding and empathy between Americans and citizens in her home country, a former Russian republic. Tensions have peaked between Russia in the U.S. in recent years, heightened by Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election and its military conflict in Ukraine.
“I’m pretty sure a lot of Americans are paying attention, but the post-Soviet communities especially are paying a lot of attention to what is going on between the two countries politically,” Yaryyeva said. “But there is never really a conversation about the post-Soviet population and how they are impacted by this hostile environment between the two nation-states at this moment.”
She hopes to someday use her academic training in university administration or at a non-profit organization – two of the most common career paths for American Studies students according to Fouché.
Basmaz also hopes to work in academia, perhaps teaching film studies, cultural studies, or American Studies.