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CAMPUS CLOSEUP
Ruben Flores - Assistant professor, American studies

R. Steve Dick/University Relations

Ruben Flores advises a student in his office.

Years at current job: Four months.

Job duties: I teach an introductory seminar for undergraduates on American diversity and an advanced class on Mexico and the United States. Next semester I will teach the role of America in the Western Hemisphere. I also have two bachelor's, five master's, and two doctoral students whose independent projects I am helping to shape.

American studies is a somewhat broad term. How does a student determine what area of American life or culture to focus on? Franz Boas once defined "culture" as the entirety of the material and intellectual products that a society produces. This is necessarily a broad term, given that human beings are complicated, paradoxical and always surprising.

If one accepts this definition of culture, then American studies represents such a rich lode of potential study that what to study is not a particularly difficult problem: students rely on the central questions about society that their experiences have magnified. The real key becomes engagement with our faculty, in order to shape responses that provide a meaningful analysis for the student.

Latin American migration is one of your areas of study. Have their been periods in U.S. history other than the recent past that have seen large amounts of migration from Latin America? Yes. The Mexican Revolution precipitated the movement of at least three million Mexicans to the US between 1910-1950, while 1 million Puerto Ricans moved to the American East Coast in the 20 years after World War II. The Cuban Revolution and the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua shaped immigration in the 1960s and 1980s, as well. But I also want to underscore the smaller number of immigrants from Latin America over the last 100 years when compared to European immigrants: In 1900-1930 alone, 15 million Europeans came to this country.

Another of your research interests, competing foundations of truth offered by science and religion, has been in the news recently. Do you find it difficult to study such an issue impartially when it is such an impassioned topic on both sides? I'd never claim impartiality about the subject, but I do find the debates difficult. What always strikes me about the discussion between science and religion is the unwillingness of their respective defenders to imagine the reasons why each remains important to people. Human beings are fragile creatures that operate in a complex and diverse world, and we make a mistake in making assumptions about why faith and reason are meaningful to them.

The comparative histories of the United States and Mexico have many differences, but what do you feel is one of the more overlooked similarities? There are at least two easy answers. First, Mexico is a nation of wide cultural diversity, as is the United States, and questions of social unity amid difference have been central concerns there throughout the 20th century, just as they have been in the U.S. The other is the increased role of the federal government in both countries before World War II, as a mediator of social conflict and as an institution for the redistribution of social resources.

Kansas' rural communities have undergone a great deal of change in recent years. What do you think will be necessary for such communities to thrive in the future? Government policy will continue to be central to the support of agricuItural production, of course, and young adults will have to choose ranching and farming as viable occupations. One partial solution may be cultivation of alternative crops, for food and to transform our reliance on fossil fuels.

But there is no question that this is a huge question, especially in a world of global markets.

What are some aspects of your job others might not realize you're involved with? Twice this semester I have been asked to talk to members of the Kansas public, outside of the classroom setting. It is a challenge to translate what I do for this larger audience beyond our campus, but I like the opportunities to respond to the concerns and understandings of the larger communities that KU serves.

What do you like most about your profession? I like the challenge of teaching students. I honestly believe that there isn't a student I can't teach – which is different from saying that there isn't a student who can't learn from me.

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