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My New Book!

Monday, May 6, 2013

May 6-10, 2013: What is American Studies?

On Saturday, May 4th, this AmericanStudier was honored to host the third annual New England American Studies Association Spring Colloquium, held at Suffolk University’s Poetry Center.
This year's Colloquium focused on the questions, “American Studies: What, How, and Why,” and featured two roundtables: one with American Studies directors and instructors discussing the discipline from those programmatic and pedagogical standpoints; and one with scholars highlighting how they practice American Studies approaches, methodologies, and skills in their work. They were great conversations, and I’d love to follow them up with some further discussion here!
So I’ll ask you: if American Studies is a part of your teaching, officially or otherwise, what does that entail? If you’d say that your work is interdisciplinary in American Studies ways, how do you try to do that? And, for everybody, why do you think American Studies matters? What does it add, to these efforts or any and all others?
Comments on these and any other questions or topics that come to mind will be very welcome, and will help ensure that we keep these discussions alive. Thanks!
Special Mother's Day post this weekend,
PS. You know what to do!


  1. Sarah Hentges ( writes:

    "What a great conversation; I'm sorry I missed out on it! These are questions that I think about often since part of my work is concerned with the pedagogy and methodology of American studies. Certainly we have been in a process of figuring out if American studies does, in fact, have only one particular methodology, or many. (Certainly many!) And, certainly our pedagogies are not uniform. But, for me, American studies hinges on its commitment to social justice and the ways in which it helps us to question conventional ways of knowing and being. American studies also asks us to consider what we might want to be--as Americans and America, and as scholars and students of such a subject. But, I don't think this is the way that everyone understands American studies. A lot of people think that if you are studying something related to "America" or something about the United States, that you are doing American studies. I have worked with many colleagues who think that American literature or American history are "American studies." It's not that they aren't; it's just that if we are offering conventional approaches to these subjects, then they are not the kind of American studies I know and teach. There is, for me, a bigger picture that has to be interdisciplinary.

    The question "what is American studies?" is one that I am sure we are all asked over and over. I have more than one answer depending upon who is asking. When people outside of academia ask, I often answer some version of--a combination of English, history, and other disciplines that considers issues in and around the United States. This is often how their question is formed--"is that, like, history or something?" When students or colleagues ask, I usually speak to the critical, interdisciplinary, comparative, intersectional nature of American studies. My students appreciate the ways in which American studies helps them to make sense of themselves and the world around them and gives them tools to use inside and outside the classroom. I offer relevance to the world we live in and opportunities to make new meanings and create interventions in oppressive systems. I offer complexity and flexibility, multiple approaches and complicated answers. Some of my students are disappointed when they find out that this is not what "American studies" is outside of my classes. This is the only American studies I know--one with foundations in feminist studies and comparative ethnic studies as well as English and sociology and more traditional disciplines..."

  2. [Sarah continues] "These questions about American studies are also influenced by the small, public university where I teach. My official title is Assistant Professor of American Studies, and I am the only such professor at my university and, perhaps, in the whole UMaine system. I was brought to University of Maine at Augusta to help design a minor in American studies to complement our rather diffuse Liberal Studies major; through this work, they hired me full-time, tenure track and I redesigned the minor and developed a variety of American studies courses (that all have rather long, clunky titles, otherwise I would list them here). In addition to the American studies courses that I teach, I also teach English and women's studies courses, often cross-listed among these areas (as well as others). But we have only a minor in American studies, so much of my work with students in American studies is done through our Interdisciplinary (INT) studies major. If I thought that people had a hard time understanding what American studies is, I have been shocked at how difficult it is for people to grasp what INT is. American studies is less threatening, perhaps because it sounds patriotic and containable. If I let people assume this, then it is easy to slide under the radar. INT, on the other hand, seems to threaten people; maybe because of the times we work in where departments are being pitted against each other as programs are being considered for elimination. There are also odd organizational structures, long-standing conflicts, and other factors that have caused rifts between, for instance, humanities and social sciences. So, despite the fact that the work I do straddles humanities and social sciences, I am a Humanities faculty member because this is where the interest in American studies originated.

    So, for a variety of reasons, I struggle with what "American studies" is and how it is different from the other areas where I teach and work. Most of the time I see them as versions of the same--everything I teach and write aims to be interdisciplinary, critical, comparative, intersectional, and complex and multi-layered. This is the only way I know how to be. And since studying "America" is complex and contradictory by its nature, I spend less time ferreting out the differences and more time muddying up the waters."