Teaching The President: Assessing The Value Of ‘Obama Studies’

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As President Obama’s second term gets underway, it is increasingly common to find him in a place he left long ago: the academy.

Obama's name appears in the titles of courses at colleges and universities across the country, and even those that don't pitch themselves as classes about the president are full of Obama-related reading and discussion; “Obama Studies” is emerging.

But as students and researchers increase their attention to the president’s life and career, criticism of “Obama Studies” as an academic venture mounts.

Despite the disapproval, the field amounts to far more than celebrity gossip or current events. “Obama Studies” does not hang on the president’s every word and is not primarily focused on his personal life. It is about the conversations that Obama forces and unlocks, and the way his rise impacts issues that shape our lives. But to arrive at this truth, three huge misconceptions need to be dispelled.

To Study Someone Is Not Necessarily To Put Them On a Pedestal

The first falsehood is that academic courses and research that look at the life and work of the 44th president amount to, basically, cheerleading. Some critics go even further, calling them a liberal assault on education, and pointing to instances of blatant Obama propaganda as evidence of the destructiveness of “Obama Studies.”

This myth has several roots, and perhaps the most intuitive recalls the moment of Obama’s first victory in 2008. No doubt, many of us academics took part in the early Obama festivities, but unease about Obama-mania and bias is buffeted by a few more recent developments.

During the 2012 elections, a handful of academic commentators for media outlets were “exposed” for donating to the Obama campaign, and Bloomberg News ran a story about how much more money Ivy League professors donated to Obama’s campaign than Romney’s. These grievances add to the maelstrom of disparagement of “liberal media” and “liberal academia,” and Obama’s elitist, “professorial” aura.

Trend Or Not?


Second, “Obama Studies” is condemned for being a fad, just like Obama-mania, which seemed to fade as Obama the president replaced Obama the candidate.

But those who call research and writing about Obama a fad are actually betting against the significance of this historical moment. The critics do not think Obama’s eight years in office will be especially formative in America’s development. With the record voter turnout, demographic shifts, financial collapse, revolution in gay and lesbian rights, proliferation of drones, and ongoing military conflict, such doubt about the gravity of the moment and the Obama presidency seems absurd.

One of the chief values of this new wave of scholarship is that Obama is part of common ground that students have experiences with and opinions about; they feel personally invested in the topic, which is half the battle in building a lively and productive classroom. If “trendy” is code for that which motivates students to learn and challenge themselves, professors will gladly follow.

Questioning The Quality

The final denigration of Obama scholarship follows from the last. There are those who concede the topic’s staying power, but argue that the scholarship is not up to par.

To that I’d say, nobody can or should defend the entire landscape of an academic field. Conversation and criticism are of vital importance — especially as they relate to a burgeoning area of study.

Questions we ask of ourselves and of others should probe deep: Does the field make us think? Or, does this work shape lives inside and outside the classroom?

This is not just about figuring out what makes the president tick, or raucously praising or condemning his administration. It is about enriching our connections with students and colleagues, and attempting to better understand our world in real time as best we can.

The answer to both these questions is a resounding “yes,” and the most obvious and immediate contribution of “Obama Studies” is that it forces discussions of race and racism in both college classrooms and the public sphere. The falsehood of post-racialism continues to have traction despite the depth of racial inequality, shifts in racial divides, and resurgence of racist sentiment during the Obama presidency.

There is tremendous diversity within “Obama Studies,” and academic voices are often among the most critical of the Obama era, if not the president himself: Harvard University historian Jim Kloppenberg examines the roots of Obama’s political philosophy and intellectual history, while Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy looks at Obama’s constraints and shortcomings in addressing race and countering racism. Columbia historian Fredrick Harris measures the cost of Obama’s rise for black politics, while Stanford and Michigan State University linguists H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman highlight the role of language in the racial politics that have shaped Obama’s career.

The handful of books I've referred to above are just a few in a rapidly growing domain, and the continued energy and demand for “Obama Studies” points to a final contribution: the power of this topic to generate conversations across disciplinary lines. Perhaps the exemplary text for illustrating this trend is the memoir written by Obama himself: “Dreams From My Father” has spread across the academy, landing on syllabi far beyond its nominal home in courses devoted to literature and writing.

Melissa Herman includes “Dreams” in her course on the sociology of identity, while Caleb McDaniel teaches the memoir in his class on United States history from 1848 to the present Award winning political scientist Daniel Martinez HoSang engages Obama’s writing in “Race, Politics, and the Law,” as well as a course on Obama and the 2008 election.

We should not overestimate the impact of studying, talking and writing about Obama in the academy. A course or a book on Obama should never be the sum total of all that a student learns about race and racism, or political campaigns or the rule of law. But the difference between “Obama Studies” and useless chatter is the difference between deep investigation and blind celebration.

Ultimately, this is not just about figuring out what makes the president tick, or raucously praising or condemning his administration. It is about enriching our connections with students and colleagues, and attempting to better understand our world in real time as best we can. If Barack Obama helps us toward that goal — so be it.

Editor’s note: Michael P. Jeffries is the author of the new book, “Paint the White House Black,” which uses President Obama specifically to show how race relies on other social forces, like gender and class, to generate meaning and impact our lives.


This program aired on February 21, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.