Ruben Flores is an intellectual and cultural historian from El Paso, Texas who studied at Princeton and Berkeley before coming to Kansas. He studies the relationship of ideas to political institutions in the United States and Mexico, including the complicated history between local communities and the national state. He also studies philosophy and literature, including the modernist movement in writing that swept through Mexico and the US beginning in 1900 and the 20th-century transformation of the social sciences that produced the modern configuration of the research university. His research and writing for Backroads Pragmatists has been supported by the Institute for Historical Studies at UT Austin, the National Academy of Education and the Spencer Foundation, the Bill Clements Center at Southern Methodist University, and the University of Kansas.
Flores is the Undergraduate Director for the Department of American Studies and Associate Director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.
Statement of Teaching and Advising Philosophy and Goals
Classroom Teaching. One of the principles that the University of Kansas has established as a “bold aspiration” is to build communities by promoting the power of diversity and exploring best practices for solutions to the problems facing America’s people. Whether teaching undergraduate or graduate students, I emphasize diversity and best practices through an approach and method that underscores experimentation. Experimentation does not mean casual play, but as suggested by experir, its Latin root, sustained engagement and assessment to gain direct knowledge from what one has newly encountered. In my classes, experimentation means exposing students to patterns of life with which they are not familiar, presenting value systems that challenge their daily assumptions, and considering solutions that others have proposed to problems shared by societies around the world. It also means practicing ideas in writing, to sharpen description of societies with which my students are unfamiliar.
I direct students toward diversity and best practices through comparative assessment across time periods and multiple societies. In AMS 332, “America in a Global Context,” a core undergraduate lecture class, my students compare American and Brazilian conceptions of time to understand why Henry Ford’s 20th-century car factories did not work in the jungles of South America. In AMS 575, “The History of Mexico,” my students compare ethnic and racial diversity in the Republic of Mexico to racial difference in the United States. Experimentation works by reconsidering the assumed naturalness of America’s institutions and immersing students in societies that have established a different set of priorities. It also works by emphasizing America as a collection of different communities to understand why Americans exhibit differential responses to foreign societies.
Written expression is also a means of experimenting with ideas and the subtle distinctions that are essential to comparative analysis. I allow students to turn in their assignments as many times as they wish during the course of the semester, for example, in order to clarify their understanding of distinctions across societies and to establish a tangible measure of progress. I also encourage experimentation in reasoning and approach. This sometimes means that the paper does not get completed as it was originally conceived. But it is essential to create the psychological space that allows students to take risks. In such a climate, mistakes become opportunities to learn about stereotype and difference, about conviction in analysis, and about integrity in expression. Experimentation in writing and methodology is especially important for graduate students, who are not simply evaluating differences, but learning to portray social systems that others will rely on. Thus, I push them to share their work with colleagues in order to grow accustomed to the feedback commentary that is a necessary element of sharpening analytical arguments. Recently I revised my syllabus in AMS 803, “Methods in American Studies,” to allow my students to experiment with practice-based methods in oral history, statistical analysis, and literary criticism more than I had been. This change allowed my students to viscerally compare methods to one another and generated much higher student satisfaction in my curriculum surveys.
Experimentation in my teaching leads to a consideration of the deep ethical questions that are a focus of the new undergraduate curriculum at KU. Differences across communities are not simply theoretical debates to be considered in the abstract, but political concerns that are correlated to policy questions about institutional design, resource management, and what the right society should look like. Experimentation also complements KU’s Study Abroad and Civic and Social Responsibility programs. Like the Latin root that it shares with “experimentation,” the “experience” of immersing oneself in a foreign society or with a community action agency calls for tangible engagement with the newly discovered. In both its ethical implications for our society and complementary relationship to the university’s social engagement programs, my teaching opens my students to the real-world concerns that animate KU’s new curriculum rather than classroom debate alone.
Undergraduate Advising. The most important moment in my relationship with undergraduate students is the moment of the question. That is when they risk the opportunity to frame their interests and expose their confusion. This can happen during office hours or during a debate in a lecture class. But because it does not happen automatically, my task is to help shape the question that is meaningful in the context of their lives. For some, the question means establishing confidence to break through deference. For others, it means illuminating the complexity of the ordinary life. I used an award-winning book about Appalachian families whose children were dying of AIDS to help a student think about her desire to attend medical school even as she struggled to understand the sacrifices that her farmer father made to put her though college. She is now a medical intern at the Children’s Hospital of Colorado. Another student used essays by Froebel and Dewey that I had given him to understand whether schools are institutions of social control or of social opportunity. Today, he is a schoolteacher in urban Memphis. For these students and more, the questions that I helped them to shape connected the details of their individual circumstances to the relationships that helped to define their lives after the University of Kansas.
Graduate Advising and Mentoring. Listening for the successful fit is the foundation of my graduate advising in an interdisciplinary academic unit. Amid the curricular changes to the contemporary university and the expansion in the fields of study, I advise students to look for conceptual connections outside of their program training as well as inside and to study institutional organization across university programs and disciplines. Because professionalization in American studies necessitates a connection to the multiple patterns of work being performed across the academic units, I also steer my students toward discussions of methodological practices like “descriptive statistics,” “literary criticism,” and “ethnography” and away from easy assumptions about specific disciplines. Sharing the range of possibilities with my students begins with reading and publishing in my own research field, meanwhile, as well as active conversations with colleagues at other institutions, familiarity with changing fellowship opportunities, and knowledge of the financial pressures that are reshaping public and private institutions. My attention to the structure of the university has helped to broaden my advising to 16 graduate committees at KU across 6 departments and 3 area studies centers. I have also advised students who specialize in Latin American and US cultures, a challenge that involves negotiating the different methodological and theoretical platforms for fields of study that have developed in historically different ways.
- Civil rights
- US-Mexico relations
- Intellectual history
Statement of Program of Research/Scholarship/Creative or Artistic Performance
Focus. I study ideas and institutions in the US-Mexico borderlands as a way of deepening our understanding of the United States of America and the Republic of Mexico. Methodologically, I contextualize ideas within the structures of meaning and the institutions through which people make sense of their world. I am also a comparativist, meaning that I use the evolution of US society as a counterfactual example through which to deepen my understanding of Mexico, and the evolution of Mexican society as a counterfactual example through which to better understand the United States. My approaches have been a good fit with American Studies, which has been transformed by a turn toward international analysis over the last decade.
Two dimensions of intellectual history especially interest me. The first has been our understanding of the relationship between the rise of the social sciences and the growth of the state in both the United States and Mexico. Almost no government agencies included social scientists as a part of their regular staffs before 1910, for example, but by 1940, economists had become ordinary elements of labor bureaus and historians and anthropologists had become government researchers at the Interior, War, and State departments. Sociology and anthropology did not become autonomous departments of American universities until nearly World War II, but their disciplinary boundaries expanded quickly thereafter to include the study of new social groups and forms of written expression. My second interest has been our understanding of social reform movements in Mexico and the US that have struggled to define the relationship between ethnic particularity and the national community. Between 1935 and 1965, the US federal courts arbitrated civil rights access to public schools and mass transit for African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Jewish Americans, for instance. In the Republic of Mexico, meanwhile, postrevolutionary reform movements produced Mexico’s modern-day public education system, labor unions, and land redistribution acts that expanded the privileges of citizenship across the diverse constituencies of Mexican society. Whether in the context of the US or Mexico, my interest in social reform has revolved around the ethics of the good community within societies that are culturally and politically diverse.
Major Accomplishments/Significance of Contributions. The result of my work has been the first book in American and Mexican scholarship to study of the influence of Mexican statecraft and Mexican pluralism over American civil rights, The Backroads Pragmatists. By using Mexico’s national archives, the history of American social science, and biographical analysis, The Backroads Pragmatists shows that the public school system and government bureaucracies that Mexico built in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution became the primary sources of ideas and institutional models for the American social scientists who helped to desegregate the public schools of the American West after World War II. My book has received attention in both the United States and Mexico for showing that the expansion of the American state took place not merely in the context of European statecraft to which it is usually compared, but also in the context of the growth of the state in Latin America. Scholars have also been surprised to discover that the social reform movements of modern Mexican nationalism were central to the redefinition of American politics, a result that flips the usual understanding of the US-Mexico relationship on its head. The Institute of Historical Studies at the UT Austin, the National Academy of Education, and the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at SMU have supported my research and writing, and I have been invited to share my results with some of the important North American centers for the study of the US and Mexico, including the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, UC Berkeley, Southern Methodist University, and UT Austin. I have published two book chapters as a result of my research, including one in the United States on philosophical links that connected reform projects in Mexico and the US in the 1930s, and a second published in Spanish by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México on the extraordinary influence of Mexico’s social theorists over US scientists who built the public schools of the American West. The latter publication especially reflects the growing value of my work to scholars in Mexico rather than in the US alone.
Goals for the Next Five Years. My immediate goal is to submit my book manuscript to Mexico’s prestigious press, the Fondo de Cultura Económica, for translation and publication in Mexico in 2015. This will help to draw colleagues in Mexico into a dialogue with colleagues in the United States on questions that the two sides have long shared but not always recognized. Meanwhile, my intellectual interests are moving to the relationship between religion and science in the thought of Mexicans who migrated to the United States and built new lives there amid the rise of the New Deal state. How did such individuals move away from a Catholic-centered view of society in Mexico toward a relatively more secular view of society in the United States in which the state predominated? Accordingly, I have begun work on a book that will combine the intellectual and social history of immigrant Mexicans who settled in the United States from the state of Jalisco, Mexico in the 1930s. My analysis will attempt to better understand the transformation from conservative Catholicism in Mexico to the more secular political thought that characterized democratic politics in the American West during the first half of the twentieth century. This trajectory includes a secondary project that I am developing with colleagues, which will include an anthology on the competing platforms in religion and science from which Mexican-Americans have constructed their ideas of the national community across Mexico and the US.
Statement on Service Activity
Statement of Service Activity. My service while at the University of Kansas falls into three categories. I have fulfilled the department expectation of all faculty members to participate in department governance and policy. Second, I have performed a large role in support of the academic programs of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and of the Provost’s Office. Third, I have provided professional support for arts and humanities agencies in the State of Kansas and for scholarly associations at the regional and national level.
Within the American Studies Department, my service has been heavy at the level of graduate education and faculty hiring. I served on the graduate application and graduate fellowship units of the department’s Graduate Committee for four years, during which time we recruited several of the outstanding MA and Phd students who have been successful in winning prestigious fellowships at the Hall Center for the Humanities and externally across the country. This came at a time of heavy transition in our faculty ranks from senior to junior faculty that necessitated intense focus but also new opportunities for diversifying our program. During my time, I also contributed to our changing program priorities in two other ways. In Fall 2007, I revamped the course syllabus in AMS 801, our core introductory course for graduate students, into the format that is now used each fall. I added emphasis to the changing methodology of American Studies over time and the central foundational principles that underlie American Studies philosophy. My second contribution was in the area of faculty hiring. I represented American Studies on the college-wide hiring committee that brought two outstanding scholars, Benjamin Chappell and Jessica Vasquez, to our teaching ranks in 2007. That service required training in Equal Opportunity Hiring practices on behalf of the department and continuous liaison work with the KU Latino Studies Initiative.
At the level of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and of the Provost’s Office, I have contributed heavily to developing the strength of our interdisciplinary teaching and research. Among my heaviest involvement has been faculty research at the Hall Center, which has invited me regularly since 2009 to participate as a judge in the faculty fellowships competitions that it annually sponsors. I have served on the Individual Research and Collaborative Research competition boards, two programs that have produced important new scholarship at the national level across the humanities and social sciences. As part of my service commitment to CLAS, I have also contributed to Hall Center faculty panels on diversifying the faculty, to Spencer Art Museum artist-in-residence panels, and to panels at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. I continue to support the College’s academic programs in various ways, including an external role on the 2013-14 faculty hiring committee for the Department of Spanish and membership in 2013-14 on the advisory board for the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. At the Provost’s Office, meanwhile, I served on a semester-long student retention panel as KU began preparing changes to the university’s core curriculum, and I helped with the provost’s faculty diversity campaigns.
I have involved myself regionally and nationally in service commitments that broaden KU’s expertise to professional and popular audiences. I have served on the traveling speakers series, fellowship application boards, and short film projects of the leading humanities outreach organization in the state, the Kansas Humanities Council. I also serve on the board of the Brown v. Board of Education Foundation in Topeka, Kansas. In these outreach efforts, I have been guided by my belief that one of KU’s core constituencies are the citizens of the state beyond the students who come into our classrooms each semester. My efforts to broaden our interdisciplinary footprint have also included service to national and international journals and to regional American Studies associations. These have included service for one of the leading journals in the field of inter-American culture studies, The Americas, and membership on the national ASA committee that is the primary liaison between the various regional ASA organizations and the American Studies Association in Washington, D.C.
AMS 803 Research Methods in American Studies, Spring 2015