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Reflections on the American Studies Program

We encourage a continuing dialogue among alumni and current faculty and students.  If you would like to include your thoughts about American Studies or news about your own life and work, please email the Program Manager, Judith Ferszt.  For confidential notes or concerns, please contact the Program's Director, Anne Cheng.

Robert D. Schrock, Jr. '60

 . . . John William Ward's course "Individualism in America" in 1956 hooked me. He was in the English Dept. at the time but switched to history just in time to be my thesis advisor. It led me to a fascination in the multidisciplinary approaches to history. I audited all the American art and architecture courses that I could, took Alpheus T Mason's constitutional law course in the politics dept., took all the American literature courses that would fit my schedule ( I was pre-med ) and wrote my thesis on "the Image of the Individual in American Educational Theory". It was how art, literature, science and politics flowed together that would have been my focus if I had become an academic historian. Eric Goldman's works fascinated me. He supervised my junior paper on The Education of Henry Adams. I only missed the music part even though I sang in the Chapel Choir.
How valuable to present a 101 level introduction that will surely capture someone like me who seeks to be excited by ideas before diving into the work a day world. My history major in American studies made all the difference as I dealt with people from all walks of life in my career as an orthopaedic surgeon. Now in retirement it continues to guide me to a University of North Carolina Civil War Study group and to the many learning experiences available in our region to understand our nation better - to become a better citizen.
 

Kevin Block '08

American Studies at Princeton holds a special place in my heart. I started working in the office as a student-employee before I even became a member of the program. I was a timid underclassman and my studies lacked direction, but once I started to take classes in the program, including Dirk Hartog’s "American Legal History" course, I discovered that the interdisciplinary approach was amenable to how I naturally thought about cultural problems. I continue to work this way at Berkeley and think of my interest in architectural history and design as part of my interest in American Studies. Hopefully now I am a little bit more rigorous than I was as an undergraduate, but I find myself confronting the same basic ideas--even the same kind of historical evidence. The curriculum and the syllabus as theoretical documents continue to fascinate me. I guess I like institutional history as a genre of analysis. 

I also now recall the Program’s interest in a more radically progressive approach to American Studies. On a campus without an independent critical theory program or cultural studies department, I found that inspiring. There is no reason why "American" needs to be a conservative category of thought, despite the ideological history of the American studies movement, at Princeton and elsewhere. As a student, I thought that was part of the message Professor Hartog was trying to convey to us, in various discussions about intellectual and social diversity. It is an important message, and at the basis of interdisciplinarity. Dirk was an important role model for me when I made the decision to pursue graduate school. 
 
Incidentally, this semester I am working as a reader for an Anthropology course at Berkeley on the idea of the avant-garde. Donald Drew Egbert, one of the founders of American Studies at Princeton (and an architectural historian), was the author of the course's first assigned reading! I told the Russian professor that I had never seen Egbert assigned before, in any class. He said that it was the best introduction to the idea of the avant-garde that he had ever read in English. I felt proud, perhaps irrationally. Either I'm following American Studies at Princeton or it’s following me.   
 
Nicholas Williams ’15
 
I wanted to take a moment to say thank you for these past few years in American Studies. I’m so grateful for many things, but I think most of all would be the community—both intellectual and personal—that you foster within the Program, which I know takes a considerable amount of work. Thank you, too, for the impressive array of lectures, workshops, and a variety of other events that I so took advantage of. I had such an enjoyable time in American Studies learning so many new things, meeting new people, and getting to know all of you better. I know that wherever life takes me in this post-graduate journey, I will have a valuable set of skills with which to engage as well as a set of experiences and memories to look back upon fondly. 
 
Mitzi Mock ’04
 
Over 11 years since graduation, I can safely share that my AMS classes had a profound effect on my life. Intellectually, these courses laid the foundation for thinking about the interconnectedness of our world in a way that my classes siloed in other departments did not. It taught me to synthesize information from diverse sources and to value the inclusion of voices and materials beyond those heralded by academic publishers. And more importantly, my experience in the AMS program challenged me to be a more sensitive, nuanced and empathetic adult. Even as a biracial, bicultural student, I walked into Princeton with little awareness or understanding of how different the American experience has been for different people. So many of my other social science classes (yours excluded) were only asking me to look for sweeping generalities: predictable patterns of social behavior, motivation and causation, social bias, policy effects etc. Only in my AMS classes, with the rich mixture of primary and secondary sources, literature and arts, was I forced for once to think deeply about human stories, and how a particular confluence of time, location, need, power, personality and so forth led to the unique experience and contribution made by individuals and communities.

This to me is what the American Studies classes are about. It's not admiring the collective quilt; it's unstitching the patchwork of the American tapestry and holding each square to the light before sewing it back together. Such human-centered learning inspired this would-be-law-school student to take a risk as a journalist, filmmaker and education advocate. So thanks for sparring me the drudgery of taking the bar! And thank you so much for your contribution to the AMS program and your work as a teacher! 
 
 
 Alexis Sanford '91

Since graduating, I have pursued a career that incorporates cultural studies as a significant component-- specifically conducting socio-cultural exploratories to understand how current realities impact businesses and social change organizations. I have found it fascinating and it has kept me inspired to pay attention to the world in which I operate.  I credit my early work at Princeton as a big factor in helping me realize the import of how these cultural forces of change impact the landscape of the world in which we all operate.
 
Dean Boorman '48

My educational career was influenced by the Program. My father was a civil engineer, and I started out to get first an A.B. and after that a B.S.  I took enough engineering type courses at Princeton so that I was admitted to MIT as a junior in civil engineering. However, I was always more of a liberal arts type, and after my junior year at MIT switched to the two year graduate course in city planning, and ended up with a Master's in that field, where I have worked ever since, having my own consulting firm since 1962. 


Ruth Bush '90

I learned how to learn.  Many of my fellow students, who were doctors and nurses, were amazed that I could keep up with and challenge them when I, the "non-science major," began a Master's in Public Health with a concentration in biostatistics.  Such a program was easier than preparing for a AMS 201 precept!  I continue to love the multi-disciplinary nature of learning about and trying to understand America.  In the almost 20 years since I have graduated that concept has been challenged and modified in many ways.  I believe my undergraduate experience continues to help me to think critically, to challenge, and to embrace the concept of America.

Elizabeth Anspach Carlson '83

I graduated from the American Studies program in 1983, with a concentration in English.  I have such great memories of working with Professors Emory Elliott, David Van Leer, and Valerie Smith!  After graduating, I went into the field of elementary education. In 1995, I relocated to North Carolina with my young family.  Soon,  the rich, multicultural music heritage of our part of the state caught my attention.  I met with other people in our community  interested in this subject, and we formed Carolina Music Ways Music Heritage Resource Group, www.carolinamusicways.org.  This project combined my backgrounds in American Studies and in education, and I have found it to be very rewarding.  I feel blessed to have had the experiences and training I received in the American Studies program at Princeton, as they set me on a meaningful path that I continue to enjoy greatly.

Richard Cummings '59

Having completed the program when I was at Princeton,  I am thrilled to learn that it is flourishing in such splendid fashion.  James Ward Smith and Perry Miller conducted the seminar during my junior year, which was the most stimulating academic experience I had as an undergraduate.

Jess Deutsch '91

I've always felt that the American Studies aspect of my Princeton experience was really the way that I confirmed that no matter what I'd do in my life professionally, I'd want to incorporate the idea of cross-disciplinary thinking...And, as it's played out, I've been lucky enough to do just that. Most recently, my graduate background in education and social work is being put to exciting use as the Assistant Director for Health Professions Advising right here at Princeton. I love the chance to work closely with students who tend to have interest in both science and the humanities, and who are on the verge of shaping what healthcare will look like in this country and beyond. 

Clem Dinsmore ’65

I loved the program—everything about it -the professors, the courses, the seminars. 
My career undoubtedly has been affected by my participation in the program.  One example: as a VISTA Volunteer lawyer during 1968-1969 in Anacostia, D.C. my most notable community advocacy success was to help persuade the Congress to appropriate the monies necessary to the restoration of the last home of Frederick Douglass in Anacostia. 

Peter Maruca ' 87

What a fertile, thought-provoking concept (America)!  Since my graduation in 1987, I have been thoroughly steeped in America, working as an itinerant carpenter on both coasts, playing a lot of folk music and finally settling down and starting my own little construction company.  We specialize in renovating, remodeling, salvaging (and occasionally moving) uniquely American structures.  I focused on American architectural history as an undergrad and I love both it and the level of craft at which we “play the game.” 

Spencer B. Meredith '53

I was fortunate to have been in the PAS (Program in American Studies) and it was the educational foundation for my life.  Because it was cross-disciplinary we covered a lot of ground, and I learned to be a generalist, picking information from all sources, and the program gave me an understanding of the complexity that is my country and its culture.  We were exposed to the ideas that made us productive human beings, and we did well with our lives, in all manner of fields. 

Connie Quarles Wonham 83

I guess the biggest impact the program had on me was that it was my first experience with the concept of an integrated curriculum, and I found it so much more interesting to meld the history with the literature and the art history. I went on to teach middle school English and history for 15 years, and I have no doubt that echoes of the American Studies program resonated in my teaching. 

Ari Weinberg '99 -- following "Reunions 2009:  Reinventing American Studies in the 'New' Princeton."

After hearing the talk of proliferation of Ethnic Studies at Princeton, I am decidely of the mind that these programs/centers should exist within the American Studies program. It is a slippery slope towards Balkanization when other groups wish to follow the example of Latino Studies or even African-American Studies. I understand the politically charged nature of African-American Studies, but even this program should be recognized as a subset of American Studies.
 
I applaud the Lapidus family for their understanding of this and endowing a course in Jewish American Studies AND NOT pushing through a Jewish-American Studies program. I believe Sidney was at the meeting as well and backed this up. In terms of ethnic or gender studies devoted to a certain geography or time period, the macro category should take precedent.
 
As a Classics major, with an American Studies certificate, I understand the geographic and temporal nature of disciplines. But, with 2000 years of reflection to back me up, a Jewish Classics program or an African Classics program seems all but absurd.
 
If we at Princeton are set on creating an educational legacy with stronger departments and well-rounded students, the route of specialized American Ethnic Studies outside the purview of American Studies would do the school a disservice.