American Culture Program

Director: Eileen Leonard (Sociology); Steering Committee: Eileen Leonard (Chair), Lisa Brawley (Urban Studies), Andrew Bush (Hispanic Studies), Lisa Collins (Art), Randy Cornelius (Psychology), Rebecca Edwards (History), Wendy Graham (English), Maria Hoehn (History), Jennifer Ma (Psychology), Marque Miringoff (Sociology), Robin Trainor (Education), Adelaide H. Villmoare (Political Science), Patricia Wallace (English) Judith Weisenfeld (Religion); Participating Faculty: Lisa Brawley, Andrew Bush, Kristin Carter (Women’s Studies), Mario Cesareo (Hispanic Studies), Miriam Cohen (History), Lisa Collins, Randolph Cornelius , Margaretta Downey, Rebecca Edwards, Wendy Graham, Maria Hoehn, , Eileen Leonard, Peter Leonard (Field Work), Karen Lucic (Art), Jennifer Ma, Marque Miringoff, Joseph Nevins (Geography), H. Daniel Peck (English), Robert Rebelein (Economics), Tyrone Simpson (English), Sam Speers, Adelaide Villmoare, Patricia Wallace, Judith Weisenfeld, 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: Introduction to Native American Studies (1)

This course is a multidisciplinary introduction to the study of Native Americans including the topics, literature and leading scholars in the field. It acquaints the students in a broad way with the historical, environmental, legal, spiritual, and artistic aspects of Native America. Literary production (novels, short stories, autobiographies or essays) are considered in light of both the oral tradition and the artisitc and cultural traditions of selected groups. Instructor to be announced.

Open to freshmen and sophomores only.

Two 75-minute periods.

180a. Introduction to Social Problems (1)

(Same as Sociology 180a) Ms. Leonard.

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 2006/07: 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 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. Ms. Brawley, Ms. Weisenfeld.

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: Whiteness (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? We read 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. We also explore 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.

Two 75-minute periods.

280b. The Practice of American Social Movements (1)

This course examines social movements as a practice where issues of class, race, gender, politics, universes of discourse and social imaginaries are contained, exploded and articulated. The theatricality of political practice and the political dimensions of performance are explored. The course focuses on social movements that started in the 1960’s, including civil rights, Black Power, Brown Berets, Plowshares, feminism, and national liberaton movements and follows their historical development and transformations into the present. Students are encouraged to reflect upon the issues and the interpretive models required for their understanding. Mr. Cesareo.

Two 75-minute periods.

282b. US-Mexico Border: Nation, God, and Human Rights in Arizona-Sonora (1)

(Same as Geology 282 and Latin American and Latino/a Studies 282) Born in large part of violence, conquest, and dispossession, the United States-Mexico border region has evolved over the last 150 years into a site of intense economic growth and trade, demographic expansion, and ethno-cultural interaction. It has also become a focus of intense political debate and conflict-especially over the last decade or so. This course focuses on these processes as they relate to the US-Mexico boundary, with an emphasis on contemporary socio-political struggles and movements and their historical-geographical roots. In doing so, it examines the dynamic intersection of different ideologies, social identities, and ethical and political commitments as they relate to nationalism, religion, and human rights in the Arizona-Sonora, Mexico region. Course participants visit the region during Spring break. Applications to determine enrollment for the course are reviewed by the instructors in the Fall. Mr. Nevins and Mr. Speers.

Admission by permission of instructor.

Two 75-minute periods.

[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.

Not offered in 2006/07.

287b American Television Culture (1)

This course introduces a set of critical tools for analyzing television culture. We begin with the assumption that television is a major shaping force for culture, politics, and society, and therefore deserves our notice and considered engagement. It offiers the student a chance to examine, in a critical context, his or her own relation to TV in all its forms: the soap, the sitcom, the made-for-TV movie, the documentary, 24-hour music and news channels, the infomercial, and reality TV. Special attention is paid to the way in which television’s modes of address and technologies of representation constitute and transform race, gender, and class identities in the U.S. Ms. Yow, Ms. Carter.

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 2006/07: To be announced.

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.

315a. Religion and American Culture (1)

(Same as Africana Studies 315 and Religion 315a) Ms. Weisenfeld.

380a. Art, War and Social Change (1)

(Same as Sociology 380a) Ms. Miringoff.

[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.

Not offered in 2006/07.

[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.

Not offered in 2006/07.

385a. The Art of Nature: Painting, Literature, and Landscape Design in the Hudson Valley (1)

(Same as Art 385a) This seminar examines the vital concern for picturesque landscape—both actual and imaginary—in the evolution of art and cultural expression in the Hudson River Valley. The course investigates the relationship of important innovators in landscape design, such as Downing, Vaux, and Olmsted, to the literary and artistic works of Cole, Durand, Irving, Bryant, and others. It concludes by considering contemporary artists’ engagement with the landscape, such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “Gates” in Central Park, William Clift’s photographs, Peter Hutton’s films, Andy Goldsworthy’s wall at Storm King and the installations of the Minetta Brook Hudson River Project, such as Christian Muller’s earthwork at Bard College. The course includes several fieldtrips to study the continuing impact of nineteenth-century landscape theory and traditions in New York City and the Hudson River Valley. Ms. Lucic, Mr. Peck.

Prerequisite: Special permission.

One two-hour period.