American Culture Program

Director: Eileen Leonard (Sociology); Steering Committee: Eileen Leonard (Chair), Frank Bergon (English), Lisa Brawley (Urban Studies), Andrew Bush (Hispanic Studies), Lisa Collins (Art), Rebecca Edwards (History), Wendy Graham (English), Maria Hoehn (History), Joy Lei (Education), Jennifer Ma (Psychology), Deborah Moore (Religion), Robin Trainor (Education), Adelaide H. Villmoare (Political Science), Patricia Wallace (English); Participating Faculty: Lisa Brawley, Andrew Bush, Kristin Carter (Women’s Studies), Miriam Cohen (History), Lisa Collins, Anne Constantinople, Randolph Cornelius (Psychology), Margaretta Downey, Rebecca Edwards, Wendy Graham, Tomo Hattori (English), Katherine Hite (Political Science), Maria Hoehn, Joy Lei, Eileen Leonard, Peter Leonard (Field Work), Karen Lucic (Art), Jennifer Ma, Thomas McGlinchey, Marque Miringoff (Sociology), Deborah Moore, MacDonald Moore (Urban Studies and Religion), Joseph Nevins (Geography), H. Daniel Peck (English), Robert Rebelein (Economics), Tyrone Simpson (English), Linta Varghese (Mellon Post-Doc), Adelaide Villmoare, Patricia Wallace, Judith Weisenfeld (Religion), Laura Yow (English).

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. Students interested in pursuing a concentration in ethnic studies within American Culture should consult with the Director. (For example, a list of Asian American Studies courses and interested faculty has been prepared and is available in the American Culture Office.)

Requirements for Concentration: 16 units, including (1) the Seminar in American Culture; (2) at least 2 units of special studies in American Culture (American Culture 280 or 380 courses); (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

105a. Themes in American Culture: Getting and Giving in American Culture (1)

Individualism and private enterprise are widely recognized as hallmarks of American culture. The purpose of this course is to examine those mores and their counterparts, collectivism and philanthropy, as they are reflected in American history and the enduring institutions that support both public and private enterprises. Such topics as volunteerism, faith-based initiatives, the rights to and responsibilities of wealth, and philanthropy as a citizen’s duty in a democracy may be considered. Particular attention is paid to the enactment of philanthropy in diverse communities, including the community of Vassar College. A willingness to reflect on one’s own role as both giver and getter enhances the work of the course. Ms. Constantinople, Mr. McGlinchey.

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 2005/06: America in the World. This course focuses on current debates in American Studies about resituating the question of “America” in global terms. We explore the theoretical and political problems involved in such a reorientation of the field as we examine topics such as American militarization and empire, American involvement in global monetary organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank, the question of a distinctive national and international American culture, foreign perspectives on American and “Americanization,” and the global significance of American popular culture including film and music such as hip-hop. Mr. Cornelius, Ms. Varghese.

Required of students concentrating in the program. Generally not open to senior majors. Open to other students by permission of the director and as space permits.

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. Varghese.

Two 75-minute periods.

284b. Theatre for Social Change: Collective Creation in the Americas

This class examines methods of collective creation by playwrights and theatre collectives primarily in the United States and the Caribbean, although Africa is also included. The class reads plays and critical works by theatre scholars, and puts these methods of creation on their feet in the classroom through a range of exercises. The selected works all strive for social change and engage community in some way. We examine the purposes of such collaborative work, pay special attention to the issues that artists and groups select to communicate, and how performances might inspire change in their communities. Ms. Robinson.

285b. Social Movements in the Americas (1)

(Same as Latin American and Latino/a Studies 285) In this multidisciplinary course, we examine continuities and transformations in both the study and practice of modern social movements in the United States and Latin America., as well as movements that are transnational in scope. We explore the origins, dynamics, and consequences of a range of social movements from class-based movements to movements that are based in gender, racial, ethnic, national, and transnational identities. We pay particularly close attention to links between social movements in the United States and Latin America. Ms. Collins, Ms. Hite.

Two 75-minute periods.

289a. Introduction to U.S. Latina and Latino Literature. (1)

This course introduces the student to a diverse body of work by Latina and Latino writers in the United States, and helps them develop a set of critical tools for analyzing and interpreting these works in a multidisciplinary context. U.S. Latina and Latino literary and cultural production engages a history of conflict, resistance, and mestizaje, and this course examines the ways in which a select group of artists acknowledge that history and attempt to shape it to their own personal, literary, and political ends. For some understanding of context, we turn to the facts and pressures of transnational migration, exile, assimilation, bilingualism, and political and economic oppression as these variously affect the means and modes of the particular literary productions with which we are concerned. At the same time, the course emphasizes the invented and hybrid nature of Latina and Latino literary and cultural traditions, and it investigates the place of those inventions in the larger framework of American intellectual and literary traditions, on the one hand, and pan-latinidad, on the other. Authors studied may include Americo Paredes, Piri Thomas, Cherríe Moraga, Richard Rodriguez, Rosario Ferré, Cristina García, Oscar Hijuelos, Ana Castillo, and Junot Díaz. Ms. Carter.

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 local, national, and international level. The course is designed to enable students through individual and group projects to explore contested issues and methodological problems in American studies.

Topic for 2005-2006: The Mexican Community in Poughkeepsie. This course examines the decade long immigration of people from Oaxaca, Mexico to Poughkeepsie, New York. Emphasizing field research, we explore the lives of these immigrants in Poughkeepsie, their effects on the local community, and their continuing transnational experiences. We focus in particular on education, health care, and religion. Mr. Bush, Mr. Leonard.

Prerequisite: Required of seniors concentrating in the program.

Special Permission.

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. Ms. Leonard.

Prerequisite: permission of director.

One 75-minute period.

381b. The Desert and the Skyscraper: New American Landscapes of the Early Twentieth Century (1)

In the early twentieth century, the deserts of the American southwest and the skyscrapers of Manhattan came to the attention of writers and artists. That these new landscapes came into the purview of art at the same time, and sometimes in works by the same figures, reflects deep changes in American culture: intellectual, social, and technological (the invention of the hydraulics of elevators, for example). These matters are considered through the works of artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and John Marin, and writers such as Mary Austin and John C. Van Dyke. Mr. Peck.

One 2-hour period.

382b. Documenting America 1900-1945 (1)

This course explores the various ways in which artists, photographers, writers and government agencies attempted to create documents of American life in the first half of the Twentieth Century. The course examines in what ways such documents can be seen as products of aesthetic vision or social conscience, or both. Among the questions we consider are: In what ways do these works document issues of race and gender that complicate our understanding of American life? How are our understandings of industrialization and consumerism, the Great Depression and World War II, shaped and altered by such works as the photographs of Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange and Esther Bubley, the paintings of Jacob Lawrence, the novels of William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Chester Hine and Zora Neale Hurston, and the poems of William Carlos Williams. Ms. Cohen, Ms. Wallace.

One 2-hour period.

384a. Whiteness in America (1)

This course examines “white” American identity as a cultural location and a discourse with a history-in Mark Twain’s terms, “a fiction of law and custom.” What are the origins of “Anglo-Saxon” American identity? What are the borders, visible and invisible, against which this identity has leveraged position and power? How have these borders shifted over time, and in social and cultural space? How has whiteness located itself at the center of political, historical, social and literary discourse, and how has it been displaced? How does whiteness mark itself, or mask itself? What does whiteness look like, sound like, and feel like from the perspective of the racial “other”? What happens when we consider whiteness as a racial or ethnic category? And in what ways do considerations of gender and class complicate these other questions? Readings include works by artists, journalists, and critics, among them Bill Finnegan, Benjamin DeMott, Lisa Lowe, David Roediger, George Lipsitz, Roland Barthes, Chela Sandoval, Eric Lott, bell hooks, Cherríe Moraga, Ruth Frankenberg, James Baldwin, Homi Bhabha, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, James Weldon Johnson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Alice Walker, and Don DeLillo. The course also explores the way whiteness is deployed, consolidated and critiqued in popular media like film (Birth of a Nation, Pulp Fiction, Pleasantville), television (“reality” shows, The West Wing), and the American popular press. Ms. Carter.

One 2-hour period.

[385b. American Friendships] (1)

This course undertakes to question the fundamental terms of individual and community through an examination of a middle position, a dual voice, most audible in the theorization and experience of friendship, which is to say the course moves the implicit focus on politics to questions of ethics. The discussion begins, then, in the field of philosophy, returning to the Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle as a point of departure, followed by a consideration of contemporary philosophical approaches, such as Jacque Derrida’s work on the politics of friendships. From these bases one takes up the relevant text of the founding figure of American philosophy, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, Friendship, thereby entering fully into American materials. From there the philosophical framework opens out in two principal directions: sociology, especially as represented in the research of Ronald Sharp, now Dean of the Faculty at Vassar, and literature, including works by Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Lillian Helman and Alice Walker, and such films as Thelma and Louise and Clint Eastwood’s recent version of The Unforgiven. Mr. Bush, Mr. Leonard.

Special Permission.

One 2-hour period.

Not offered in 2005/06.

[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.

Not offered in 2005/06.