American Culture Program

Director: Randolph Cornelius (Psychology); Steering Committee: Randolph Cornelius (Chair), Peter Antelyes (English), Frank Bergon (English), Wendy Graham (English), Joy Lei (Education), Eileen Leonard (Sociology), Karen Lucic (Art), Adelaide H. Villmoare (Political Science), Patricia Wallace (English); Panel of Advisors: Randolph Cornelius (Chair), Lisa Collins (Art), Paul Kane (English), Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert (Hispanic Studies), Robin Trainor (Education); Participating Faculty: Lee Bernstein, Lisa Brawley (Urban Studies), Miriam Cohen (History), Randolph Cornelius, Margo Crawford (English), Margaretta Downey, Rebecca Edwards (History), Wendy Graham, Joy Lei, Karen Lucic, Thomas McGlinchey, James Metzner, MacDonald Moore, Adelaide Villmoare, Patricia Wallace.

The multidisciplinary program in American Culture offers students an opportunity to study the civilization of the United States from a variety of perspectives and through the methodologies of different intellectual disciplines. “Culture,’’ as used in this program, means the ways in which Americans understand themselves and interact with each other and their environment. It includes their institutions as well as their literature, their families, their politics and economics, work and machines, habits, rituals, ideas and beliefs, and art and artifacts. Because of the social diversity of Americans, the study of culture in the United States refers to many cultures and must ask how this diversity coexists with national identity. 

The program has three main purposes: (1) to familiarize students with the dissimilar ways that various disciplines study culture; (2) to give them a broad knowledge of various facets of American culture; and (3) to develop a more sophisticated understanding of one aspect of American culture. 

Because Vassar offers a broad range of courses relevant to the study of American culture, students interested in the concentration should consult with the program’s director as early as possible in order to plan a coherent program of study around their interests. Although the emphasis varies with the training and interests of individual students, all students in the program should think of their study of American culture as including some attention to: (a) American expression in the arts; (b) American institutions—political, social, economic; (c) American thought and beliefs; (d) American history; and (e) the American physical environment. Students are admitted to the program by the director, subject to the approval of their statement of focus and program of study by the panel of advisers.

Requirements for Concentration: 16 units, including (1) the Seminar in American Culture; (2) at least 2 units of special studies in American Culture; (3) 1 unit of advanced (300-level) work in each of two separate disciplines, in the junior or senior year, one of which must be selected from the supplementary list of approved courses; (4) familiarity with a culture other than American (this requirement may be met by a semester’s study abroad in the junior year or by 1 unit selected from an approved list of courses); (5) the senior project; (6) the senior colloquium; and (7) remaining courses chosen from the supplementary list of approved courses. 

After the declaration of the major, no required courses may be elected NRO.

Junior-Year Requirements: 1 unit of special studies in American Culture; and the Seminar in American Culture (250).

Senior-Year Requirements: Senior thesis or project (300); Senior Colloquium (301); and Multidisciplinary Research Methods (313).


I. Introductory

 
105b. Themes in American Culture
(1)
Youth and Community in American Life is the theme for 2003/04. Using a variety of materials drawn from literature, history, film, and the social and natural sciences, this course examines the tensions between American youth and society in the family, school, religious, and ethnic communities and society at large. Topics to be considered include particular periods in history when the tensions between youth and society were more or less acute, the ways in which youth are represented in various media, the ways in which young people adjust to society, and the ways in which the values of society are transmitted to youth and transformed in the process. Instructors to be announced.
       Topic for spring 2003/04: Race and Social Space. How are American cities shaped by race? How do cities in turn affect the meaning of racial identities and differences? Through a study of political processes, literary and cultural representations, and social practices, this multidisciplinary course explores the role of race in the shaping of cities. We see how cities have become sites of contact, creativity, and conflict within an among people of different racial backgrounds. Topics include immigration, urban reform and renewal, ethnic enclaves and "ghettos, " riots and rebellions, and urban iconography. Mr. Bernstein, Ms. Tu
       Special permission.
       Open to freshmen and sophomores only.
       Two 75-minute periods.
 

II. Intermediate

 
212b. The Press in America
(1)
The course examines the media’s role in the contemporary world, covering mostly traditional journalism venues of newspapers, magazines, and television. Different kinds of writing are explored from news reporting to feature profiles, from editorial writing to criticism. Journalism standards and ethics and the history of the press are reviewed, especially since Watergate. Through reading assignments, students are encouraged to take a critical view of journalism, both print and electronic. Students are also asked to develop their skills as editors by evaluating work of their peers in class. Applicants to the course must submit samples of original nonfiction writing and a statement about why they want to take the course. The nature of the writing submissions is specified beforehand in flyers distributed to students through the program office. Ms. Downey.
       Not open to first-year students.
       Deadline for submission of writing samples one week after October break.
       Admission by permission of the instructor.
       One 2-hour period.
 
250a. Seminar in American Culture: The Multidisciplinary Approach
(1)
The intent of the seminar is to help students converge upon a cultural feature from more than one direction, to recognize some of its inherent complexities, and to assess the peculiar resources for such illumination offered by a multidisciplinary approach.
       Topic for 2003/04: Silver and Gold: Politics and Culture in Gilded Age America. This course focuses on money as a thematic tool for understanding the tension between progress and poverty in post-Civil War America. Americans of the era debated the very definition of money as they wrestled with the implementation of a new banking system and a high protective tariff, a prolonged crisis in the rural economy, and increasing use of abstract assets and debts such as stocks, bonds, and mortgages. Many contrasted the desperation of urban laborers with the luxuries of a new millionaire class. With the end of slavery, would wage labor provide the new standard of value? In the industrial economy, which practices were fair and which should be outlawed? In a burgeoning consumer economy, how would non-pecuniary standards of value be conserved? Our approach enables us to cover regional perspectives and to deal with issues of class, race, and gender in a variety of contexts, roughly covering the years from 1870 to 1900. Contemporary texts include selections from such authors as Mark Twain, Henry Adams, Henry George, Thorstein Veblen, Edith Wharton, Willliam Dean Howells, Charles Chesnutt, Frank Norris, Henry James, and Theodore Dreiser. The course also draws on the work of such historians as Richard Bensel, Ronald Takaki, William Cronon, Barbara Fields, and David Montgomery. Ms. Edwards, Ms. Graham.
       Required of students concentrating in the program. Not open to senior majors. Open to other students by permission of the director and as space permits.
       Prerequisite: course work that has dealt with American materials in at least two separate disciplines.
       Two 75-minute periods.
 
275b. Ethnicity and Race in America: Constructions of Asian America
(1)
This multidisciplinary course examines U.S. culture through an understanding of the social, historical, and structural contexts that shape Asian American identities and experiences. Topics include immigration, legal constructions, racialization, community formations and pan-ethnicity, political and social activism, educational achievement and social mobility, race relations, and intersections of gender, class, and sexuality. Ms. Lei, Mr. Bernstein.
       Special permission.
       Two 75-minute periods.
 
284b. Ideology, Politics, and Material Culture
(1)
(Same as Women’s Studies 284b) This course examines the cultural history of material objects and the ways in which ideology shapes our relationships with material objects. As we study tourist souvenirs, photography, book covers, clothing, food packages, and other objects, we think deeply about commodity fetishism, museums and other exhibitions of “culture,” and visualizations of race, ethnicity, gender, and class. The course is divided into three units: “Nostalgia and Material Culture,” “The Beauty Myth and Material Culture,” and “Ethnicity and Material Culture.” Theorists include Marx, Althusser, Roland Barthes, John Berger, and Susan Stewart. Ms. Villmoare, Ms. Crawford.
       Special Permission.
       One 2-hour period.
 
287b. (Re) Discovering Listening
(1)
(Same as Environmental Studies 287) In this course, a series of recording field trips and workshops put students in touch with their cultural and natural landscapes. It allows them to explore the world of sound and share their discoveries with fellow listeners. Students are trained in the art of field recording, interviewing, writing, editing and producing a radio piece. They are given an oral history assignment as well as a soundscape study. Mr. Bernstein, Mr. Metzner.
       Special Permission
       One 2-hour period.
 
288b. Culture and Killing
(1)
This course examines various forms of killing, responses to them, and the cultural contexts within which people give them meaning. Killings is memorialized, celebrated, condemned depending on the socio-political circumstances surrounding it; we explore ways in which Americans bear witness to the violent end of life. the course studies race, class, and gender dimensions of lynching, group and individual murder, and state execution at different historical moments. Mr. McGlinchey, Ms. Villmoare.
       Special Permission
       Two 75-minute periods.
 
289b. Pop and Politics in Asian America
(1)
Asian Americans have historically had a complicated relationship to American popular culture, which has generated and sustained various myths and stereotypes-from the Dragon Lady and Fu Manchu to Charlie Chan and the Japanese whiz kid-about their "racial characteristics." However, particularly in the last few decades, Asian Americans have also engaged with popular culture in complex ways-consumed, reused, reimagined, and presented alternatives to its practices and images-that have allowed them to create new forms of leisure, modes of individual and collective representation, and new avenues for political contestation. Using a variety of theoretical tools and "case studies," this course will address the relationship between Asian American culture and the "popular" in its various forms and practices (including: music, film, print media, and performance) and in its various spaces (including: dancehalls, car clubs, and city streets). In this course we will also consider how the recent popularization of transnational Asian cultural forms and practices (from anime to Bollywood, and yoga to acupuncture) has shaped these Asian American cultural productions and popular ideas. Ms. Tu
       Special Permission
       Two 75-minute periods.
 
290a or b. Field Work
(1/2 or 1)
Permission of the director required.
 
298a or b. Independent Study
(1/2 or 1)
Permission of the director required.
 

III. Advanced Courses

 
300a. Senior Thesis or Project
(1)
Required of students concentrating in the program.
       The senior project is graded Distinction, Satisfactory, or Unsatisfactory.
 
301b. Senior Colloquium
(1)
A study of particular forms and concepts, versions and visions of American community at the national and local level. The course is designed to enable students through individual and group projects to explore contested issues and methodological problems in American studies. Ms. Brawley.
       Prerequisite: Required of seniors concentrating in the program, open to other students whose concentration makes it appropriate, by permission of the director and as space permits.
       One 2-hour period.
 
313a. Multidisciplinary Research Methods
(1/2)
This course is required for all senior American Culture majors. It considers the practical difficulties of applying multidisciplinary approaches to various kinds of American cultural texts. It is intended as preparation for developing the Senior Thesis or Project. Mr. Cornelius.
       Prerequisite: permission of director.
       One 75-minute period.
 
386a. American Modernism: Aesthetics and Social Conscience, 1929-1945
(1)
During the crises of the Great Depression and World War II, America saw the growth of a number of social movements, including the mobilization of labor, women and minorities, and the development of new social and political institutions. American modernism during this period was characterized by wide-sweeping experimentation but it was also a time when many artists were deeply concerned with the social issues of the day. They saw their art as commenting on, intervening, and at times attempting to transform society. This course studies ways in which modernist images reflect and participate in the social constructions of class, race and gender, and also reconfigure (represent) those images. Whether or not the image is produced by the camera, the movie projector, the paintbrush, the typewriter, collage, or any number of other media, it is the image which is at the heart of the modernist aesthetic and which binds many artists to a social world and to an era they hoped to transform.
       Course materials include the work of photographers, painters and muralists, filmmakers, novelists, poets, theorists and historians. We study such artists as Jacob Lawrence, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, William Carlos William, Charlie Chaplin, the photographer Esther Bubley, such theorists as Theodor Adorno and Roland Barthes and a number of social, cultural and political historians of the period. Ms. M. Cohen, Ms.Wallace.
       Special Pemission.
       One 2-hour period.