Visiting with the AMSJ Board

Visiting with the Editorial Board

The AMSJ Blog is doing a series of features on our Editorial board members… in no particular order.  Having a strong, active editorial board is one of the many things that makes American Studies such a current and vibrant journal.  So, we are going to take a peek at how members of the board think/write/practice their research, teaching and position on the board.

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This week: Dr. Davarian Baldwin

Dr. Baldwin spoke with me on the phone about his current research and how he brings that research into his teaching.  As an “historian, cultural critic, and social theorist of urban America, he has researched American urban spaces through the lens of the African Diasporic experience and mass culture.  He is also particularly interested in intellectual history, the racial foundations of academic thought and transnational social movements.  Baldwin’s projects deal specifically with the intersection of urban environments and cultural production.


Bringing that research interest into the classroom, Baldwin created “Race and Urban Space”, a course that helps students gain a deeper understanding of their own urban and racial spaces through an applied approach to American Studies.  “Such an approach adds to students’ post academic lives and professional choices.”  By increasing their awareness of issues surrounding public policy decisions, he teaches them to think critically about their living and working spaces.  Baldwin pointed out that even though he teaches at a small liberal arts college (Trinity College, Hartford Connecticut) where students don’t always go on to graduate school, he see value in urban policy literacy and has had students go on to work in urban education and in urban planning .

I asked Dr. Baldwin to tell me more about the specific kind of work the students do in the course.  “The paper assigned in the course is designed to help students develop an urban tool kit by thinking and writing about land use, urban environments and pop culture references.  The course and paper bring together urban analysis so that students walk away with tangible skills.”   He also asked “How do we reproduce ourselves in our students, not as clones, but who have the kind of intellectual training we devised in our own graduate work?”

Specifically, Baldwin uses a scaffolded paper assignment with three major parts.  First, students essentially do a walkthrough of their own town: getting information from the chamber of commerce, thinking about what brought their families to that community, looking at their own housing and work spaces and also considering the physical spaces of social engagement.  Then students do a series of readings about typical urban issues such as minimum lot sizes, property taxes, urban renewal, and suburban development.  They use these readings to examine their own community from a spatial standpoint – is it an industrial town?  A bedroom community? Lots of historical preservation rules? Noise ordinances?

Finally, students think and write about the racial or racialized components by looking at policy decisions and their racial consequences, not just racially aimed policies.  For instances, how do ordinances about single family dwellings vs bringing in affordable housing affect the racial mix of a particular neighborhood?  “Students walk away with a scaffolded approach to viewing urban environments.  They learn that environments are the product of decisions; that our cultural conversations about built environments are infused with racial coding: inner city, safe, ghetto, urban, suburban.  As citizens, students have an increased urban literacy.”

(Yes, I want to take this course.)
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Editorial Board Member Davarian Baldwin, running a relay and passing the baton to himself.  Photo by VisionMerge Productions. American Studies Vol 55, No.2 (2016), 78.

Current Research

The majority of Baldwin’s research has focused on Chicago’s history such as the forthcoming book Land of Darkness: Chicago and the Making of Race in Modern America which explores the racial foundations of sociological thinking and policymaking through the “Chicago School.” His newest book project has a more contemporary spin as he looks at the growing role of higher education in shaping urban use and development through case studies of Phoenix, New York, Hartford and Chicago.  For instance, Phoenix is the 6th largest city in the U.S. – not something that we really think about much – and has been a ‘donut’ city with new developments on the edges.  “But the 2008 recession hit and the city really had to consider the issues connected with urban sprawl. There is an increased interest in urban renewal and engagement to infill the urban core.”  Baldwin is interested in how Phoenix differs from cities on the edges of the country because, among other issues, even as they develop and redevelop the downtown, they still used building codes transplanted from outer suburban areas.  Initially, when proposing an Arizona State-downtown, there had been promises of a dispersed campus a la NYU, but in the end, a typical multi-block campus developed that tends to focus inward on itself rather than outward toward the rest of the community.  The downtown redeveloped with national chain stores that students would recognize, rather than encourage the support of local businesses.  Baldwin did suggest that there is still hope for a more integrated downtown where new wealth generated by the university may feed into local businesses and the smaller markets.

Editorial Board perspective

Toward the end of our conversation we talked about his work on the editorial board which he sees as “a form of mentoring, as an opportunity to help young scholars think about how to present knowledge, engage with methodologies that take into account the integrity of existing fields but also present new knowledge.”  When seeing articles that touch his own areas of research, Baldwin doesn’t just want to give them a gentle nod, but to encourage rigorous investigations: to dig into existing research, but also actively engage with new material.  He pointed out that there are still whole bodies of scholarship that can shape knowledge; that are not yet part of mainstream literature.  “Such pockets of discussion play a vital part in thinking about what it is to ‘do’ American Studies.  Such intellectual labor is vital to the field as a whole.”

Thanks to Dr. Baldwin for chatting and for serving on the American Studies journal Editorial Board.

Carla Tilghman
Media Production Assistant
American Studies

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