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Whither Portuguese Studies?


As I eagerly look forward to my weeklong visit to Columbia in just a few days, I've decided to share with you my contribution to "Portuguese Studies: The Next Ten Years," a roundtable organized by Vincent Barletta (Stanford) at the 2014 meeting of the American Portuguese Studies Association in Albuquerque. I didn't intend to publish it anywhere, but it now seems apposite to my assigned task of representing Portugal or "Portuguese" in the context of the colloquium on modern Iberian studies you kindly invited me to join. So here's what one Portuguese-studies insider had to say to other Portuguese-studies insiders last October about the state and the futures of our field.

I think I should begin by stating what many if not most of you already realize: I represent a Portuguese program that is a highly atypical outlier in the general US context and beyond, in that it does not occupy a minority position among language and literature programs on our campus. In fact, I believe UMass Dartmouth is the only university in the nation where the number of tenured faculty in Portuguese (five) exceeds the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty in Spanish (three). Additionally, the Portuguese program is organizationally situated in a department of its own—as is well known, there’s only one other university in the country (Brown) where that is also the case. And a final factor I will mention is that the inclusion in our curriculum of literary and cultural content related to Portugal is not only an easy proposition to make and sustain, but is in fact fully expected, given UMass Dartmouth’s identity as a public university that serves, among other constituencies, its regional community with a very high percentage of residents who claim Portuguese descent. What I will have to say here is therefore not going to be primarily informed by the exceptional conditions in which I have worked over the last thirteen years, but rather by my previous experience in very different university settings (which, for the record, include Harvard, Ohio State, and the University of Georgia), as well as my direct and indirect knowledge of a number of other Portuguese programs across the country and outside the United States.

I realize, of course, that specific institutional paradigms, material conditions, and pragmatic considerations affecting the present and future of Portuguese studies—whatever that is taken to mean in the context of this particular panel—are not necessarily what we are being asked to address here. Epistemological horizons, strategies of intellectual engagement, and concrete research agendas of individual academics working in the field may not be fully aligned with—may even be largely unrelated to—the curricular structure and content and other aspects of the Portuguese programs they direct or help manage. But I think it is necessary to keep both these dimensions of academic labor in mind as we survey the state of the field and imagine its possible futures, which is why I’ll keep collapsing them here (both in these very brief initial remarks and in the hopefully robust discussion to follow).

It is a truism, but a truism that bears repeating at every opportunity, that the single most important factor shaping the present and future of Portuguese studies, both in US and globally, is the already vast but still-growing international recognition and prestige of Brazil and Brazilian culture. Since the overwhelming majority of Portuguese programs in US, Canada, and other non-Portuguese and non-Spanish-language countries are integrated more or less strongly with their Spanish counterparts, this flourishing of awareness and consequent demand for things Brazilian creates excellent opportunities on different levels for growing and diversifying Brazilian studies in productive institutional and intellectual alliances with established programs of Latin American studies. In this specific venue of dynamic convergence between “Spanish” and “Portuguese” interests and strategies of program development, there is no particular need to look outside Brazil and the Americas for curricular content or inspiration for research agendas, although a more globalized version of the Brazilian studies model will likely address such themes as intercontinental migrations encompassing, for example, Asia and Europe, or historical and contemporary Afro-Brazilian exchanges in the Lusophone “black Atlantic.” In such an institutional setting, is there any space for content related to Portugal, except in the most tangential form? For the most part, I don’t think so, unless such space happens to be created by way of an externally sponsored injection of resources—say, an appearance by a Portuguese writer paid for by Camões Institute or a visiting lecturer or researcher supported by the Luso-American Foundation. Such situated windows of opportunity are certainly not worthless, but neither do they affect established institutional structures and emphases, except by disguising their actual limitations and effective absence of internal strategic recognition and support.

What, then, about Iberian studies, that putative counterpart to Latin American studies on the other side of the Atlantic divide? As we know, the push for such a “new paradigm” is a far more recent development in US academia, at least in what regards teaching and research of Peninsular literatures and cultures from the nineteenth century onwards. (Given the strong effective interpenetration of Iberian literary cultures in the medieval and early modern periods, a retrospective imposition of strict nationalist boundaries on this heterogeneous cultural patchwork has always been more difficult to enforce, which is not to say it hasn’t taken place at all.) The new, decentered and polymorphous model of Iberian studies seems quite promising for our purposes in its ideal vision, although perhaps somewhat less so in such few practical enactments as I’ve so far been able to observe—but then, this new version of the old Iberia truly cannot be built in a day. The very real absence of mutual knowledge and interest between respective academic establishments in Portugal and Spain in the area of literary and cultural studies—with notable exceptions, of course—also can’t help but hamper such crossbreeding initiatives taking place outside of the Iberian Peninsula. At the same time, however, it needs to be recognized (and celebrated) that extraterritorial academics such as ourselves are a lot freer than our colleagues in Portugal or Spain to strike out on our own in directions we find worthwhile and engaging. Thus I remain reasonably optimistic about the potential of the new model of Iberian studies for Portuguese programs, at least in those locations where propitious conditions for Peninsular collaborations exist, the most important of those conditions being of course the presence of engaged, innovation-minded and favorably disposed faculty in Spanish.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge the existence of many other forms of opportunity for forging intellectual connections and institutional alliances across departmental and disciplinary boundaries, which faculty in Portuguese studies have been both discussing and effectively exploring and developing for decades. The exact configuration of such opportunities will vary from campus to campus, from program to program, and from person to person. As a hypothetical but fairly representative example, Professor X, who counts among her interests the new Portuguese cinema and who happens to be hired by a university with a strong film studies program, will likely find receptive ground for designing courses or organizing events that capitalize on this convergence. Meanwhile, Professor Y, at another university, may discover that his research on, say, Pepetela or Paulina Chiziane will interest colleagues in the African studies department or faculty working on postcolonial literatures in English. And so on. The possibilities here are endless—of course, so are potential limitations to what can be effectively accomplished, whether related to plain inertia, territorial protectionism, real or alleged lack or resources, personal burnout, etc., etc. At any rate, we do and will keep forging on—for the next ten years, and surely also well beyond.

Last Updated 3 years ago


Anna M. Klobucka, « Whither Portuguese Studies? », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on April 4, 2015. Full URL for this article

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