American Studies 101: America Then and Now
Professor Anne Cheng, Department of English/Center for African American Studies
Professor Rachael DeLue, Department of Art & Archaeology
Professor Hendrik Hartog, Department of History/American Studies Program
This course introduces students to a series of significant episodes and events in America’s past and present in order to take stock of America as it exists now. Because our present moment incorporates a variety of histories, images, and global processes, the course will examine a diverse and fascinating selection of signature ideas, concerns, and debates that have made the nation what it is today and that promise to play an important role in shaping its future.
As befits a course in American Studies, students will engage with a multitude of sources, scholarly disciplines, and methodologies. We will consider primary documents alongside recent scholarly writing on the U.S. and we will range across multiple media, including texts, images, works of art, music, performance, and film. For this reason, in our investigations we will draw on the information and insights of a variety of fields, including literature, history, political science, art history, economics, law, cultural studies, and the history of science. Some of the material we will examine is popular and well known, such as the songs of Bruce Springsteen, the history of disco, or the novels of Toni Morrison. Other material will be less familiar, including the legal arguments over plant closings in the 1970s and 1980s, child-care and parenting manuals, or the politics of Native American identity.
The course adopts such a wide-ranging and inclusive approach because it is devoted equally to the examination of historical material and to the modes of seeing and knowing that have over time fashioned America as a nation and as an idea. As such, the course will attend closely to how knowledge about America has and continues to be produced, disseminated, and consumed. Thus it will place emphasis on the cognitive processes associated with the invention and delineation of America, including perception, memory, and the production of language. To this end, assignments will entail close readings of a range of objects that prompt a range of sensory and cognitive experiences, including texts, works of art, archival documents, and music. Indeed, the course overall will emphasize this type of close reading and analysis and, in so doing, it will highlight how the microanalysis of specific objects, be they mundane or monumental, yields major insights about the bigger picture of American culture, history, and experience from a range of scholarly perspectives. Analyzing a rock song, for instance, can aid in illuminating aspects of economic history, while examining a work of art can yield information about immigration policy or controversies within the scientific realm. The course will thus greatly expand participants’ understanding of America, then and now, while fostering skills of rational analysis and critical thinking immensely useful for other courses, other fields of study and, perhaps most importantly, other walks of life. Key questions underpinning the course will be: What is America? Who is an American? Where has America been? Where is America going? What is the relationship of America to the rest of the world? What goes into the making of America as it is, in this present moment? And how do we as students and scholars proceed to address and answer these questions?