American Culture Program

Director: William Hoynes (Sociology); Steering Committee: William Hoynes (Chair), Andrew Bush (Hispanic Studies), Randolph Cornelius (Psychology), Eve Dunbar (English), Wendy Graham (English), Maria Höhn (History), Hua Hsu (English), Eileen Leonard (Sociology), Jennifer Ma (Psychology), Molly McGlennen (English), Marque Miringoff (Sociology), Tyrone Simpson (English), Linta Varghese (Anthropology), Adelaide H. Villmoare (Political Science), Patricia Wallace (English) Participating Faculty: Peter Antelyes (English), Abigail Baird (Psychology), Kristin Carter (Women’s Studies), Mario Cesareo (Hispanic Studies), Miriam Cohen (History), Lisa Collins (Art), Randolph Cornelius (Psychology), Dean Crawford (English), Eve Dunbar (English), Rebecca Edwards (History), Carmen Garcia (Education), Wendy Graham (English), Maria Höhn (History), Hua Hsu (English), Eileen Leonard (Sociology), Peter Leonard (Field Work), Judith Linn (Art), Karen Lucic (Art), Jennifer Ma (Psychology), Molly McGlennen (English), Marque Miringoff (Sociology), Joe Nevins (Geography), H. Daniel Peck (English), Robert Rebelein (Economics), Tyrone Simpson (English), Linta Varghese (Anthropology), Sam Speers (Religious and Spiritual Life), Adelaide Villmoare (Political Science), Patricia Wallace (English), 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 steering committee. Students interested in pursuing a concentration in ethnic studies within American Culture should consult with the Director.

Requirements for Concentration: 14 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) Multidisciplinary Research Methods; (8) 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 (302/303); Senior Colloquium (301); and Multidisciplinary Research Methods (313).

I. Introductory

105a. Themes in American Culture (1)

Topic for 2008/09: Introduction to Native American Studies. This course is a multi-and interdisciplinary introduction to the basic philosophies, ideologies, and methodologies of the discipline of Native American Studies. It acquaints students with the history, art, literature, sociology, linguistics, politics, and epistemology according to an indigenous perspective while utilizing principles stemming from vast and various Native North American belief systems and cultural frameworks. Through reading assignments, films, and discussions, we learn to objectively examine topics such as orality, sovereignty, stereotypes, humor, language, resistance, spirituality, activism, identity, tribal politics, and environment among others. Overall, we work to problematize historical, ethnographical, and literary representations of Native people as a means to assess and evaluate western discourses of domination; at the same time, we focus on the various ways Native people and nations, both in their traditional homelands and urban areas, have been and are triumphing over 500+ years of colonization through acts of survival and continuance. Ms. McGlennen, Ms. Wallace.

Open to freshmen and sophomores only.

Two 75-minute periods.

179a. Major Author: Thoreau (1⁄2)

(Same as English 179) Mr. Peck.

180a. “Something is About to Happen”-America in the World’s Imagination (1)

“No visitor can ever have set foot on those shores, with a stronger faith in the republic than I had, when I landed in America”—so claimed Charles Dickens, in his account of an 1842 visit across the Atlantic to the young democracy. What did he see? More importantly: what did he hope or expect to see? This course considers literature (novels and short stories, essays, travel writing, journalism and manifestos), film, music and visual art that approaches “America”—as an idea, a hope, a promise, an empire or merely an unreasonably large piece of land—from abroad. Possible authors include: Franz Kafka, Haruki Murakami, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Vladimir Nabokov, Karl Marx, Sayyid Qutb, Graham Greene, Jessica Hagedorn and Martin Amis. Sample artists include: Fela Kuti, the Clash, Tseng Kwong Chi and Jean-Luc Godard. Mr. Hsu

Open only to freshmen; satisfies college requirement for a Freshman Writing Seminar.

181b. The Criminal and the Carceral (1)

Possibly the most cherished national value of the United States—and the principle that most swiftly enchants both native and immigrant to celebrate themselves as American citizens—is the notion of personal freedom. Yet the recent announcement by justice experts that the U.S. prison population threatens to exceed 2 million inmates suggests that there is an unsavory and desperate underside of U.S. freedom and that in the grand design of U.S. institutions lurks an imperative to confine its citizens as well as liberate them. The criminal and the carceral, however, serve as our muse. In addition to carefully considering the reigning critique of the burgeoning prison-industrial complex in the first portion of the course, we meditate on Enlightenment penological theory and the history of U.S. incarceration to better understand why our society has embraced the prison as a punishment practice and how it goes about administering the institution’s discipline. The second portion features a study on literary and documentary representations of the prison experience. We explore how writers and other creative artists have imagined or personally negotiated the challenge of confinement. The third section offers additional meditations on the workings of the justice system and culminates in an exploration of how the U.S. increasingly remakes itself into a carceral society wherein governmental politics, public space, and popular television reveal the extent to which policing and social control have become the defining features of our national culture. In short this inquiry into the nature of American justice, goes beyond critical analysis of literary texts toward a broader understanding of cultural history, cultural change, and cultural ideology. Mr. Simpson

Open only to freshmen; satisfies college requirement for a Freshman Writing Seminar.

II. Intermediate

[205. Arab American Literature] (1)

(Same as Africana Studies 205) Mr. Mhiri.

Not offered in 2008/09.

212b. The Press in America (1)

This course examines the media’s role in our changing world, covering different journalism venues, including the Web. It looks closely at what role ethics play in the news media, other related media, and how those roles are changing quickly with technology. Students research these issues, and report and write different types of stories, such as news, features, and commentary. They also visit the newsroom of a daily newspaper and meet with news professionals about the important transitions that are happening in the news business and how it affects their jobs. 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. Instructor to be announced.

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 2008/09: 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. 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.

Prerequisite: course work that has dealt with American materials in at least two separate disciplines.

Two 75-minute periods.

[257. Reorienting America: Asians in American History and Society] (1)

(Same as Asian Studies 257 and Sociology 257) Ms. Moon.

Not offered in 2008/09.

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. Globalization and the U.S. Economy (1) 

This course provides a multidisciplinary exploration of the US economy in a global context. How does globalization affect the choices, constraints, opportunities and uncertainties faced by North Americans? How has globalization reinforced and/or transformed structures of economic, political and social inequality in the US (and the rest of the world)?  Topics include outsourcing and off-shoring by U.S.-based multinational corporations; immigration; the consequences of dependence on petroleum imports; the U.S.-led global credit crisis; the impact of a falling dollar on the U.S. and the rest of the  world; and the effects of globalization on the bargaining power of corporations, workers, communities and governments. Ms. Ali.

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

(Same as Latin American and Latino/a Studies 282 and Geography 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, Mr. Simpson.

283a. Native Americans and the Environment (1)

(Same as Environmental Studies 283 and Anthropology 283) Ms. Johnson.

284b. U.S. Militarism at Home and Abroad (1)

(Same as Geography 284 and Sociology 284) The United States is the largest military power in the history of the world. By some estimates, its current military spending exceeds that of all the rest of the world’s countries combined. The U.S. military’s reach is both sociologically and geographically extensive. Sociologically, the military is widely embraced within the country as a necessary and virtuous institution; indeed, for many in the United States it is the ultimate embodiment of patriotism. Geographically, the Pentagon’s presence is felt in all fifty states through production of military equipment and the presence of recruitment and training facilities; moreover, the U.S. military has a strong presence in dozens of countries via, among other things, approximately 800 military bases abroad. This course seeks to understand how this situation has come to be, how it relates to American identity and practice, its material impact on communities and populations at home and abroad, and social movements that champion a robust, geographically extensive U.S. military and those whom contest it. Mr. Hoynes, Mr. Nevins.

287a. 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 offers 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 given 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

289b. Native American Women (1)

In an effort to subjugate indigenous nations, colonizing and Christianizing enterprises in the Americas included the implicit understanding that subduing Native American women through rape and murder maintained imperial hierarchies of gender and power; this was necessary to eradicate Native people’s traditional egalitarian societies and uphold the colonial agenda. Needless to say, Native women’s stories and histories have been inaccurately portrayed, often tainted with nostalgia and delivered through a lens of western patriarchy and discourses of domination. Through class readings and writing assignments, discussions and films, this course examines Native women’s lives by considering the intersections of sex, class, and race through indigenous frameworks. We expose Native women’s various cultural worldviews in order to reveal and assess the importance of indigenous women’s voices to national and global issues such as sexual violence, environmentalism, and health. The class also takes into consideration the shortcomings of western feminisms in relation to the realities of Native women and Native people’s sovereignty in general. Areas of particular importance to this course are indigenous women’s urban experience, Haudenosaunee influence on early U.S. suffragists, indigenous women in the creative arts, third-gender/two-spiritedness, and Native women’s traditional and contemporary roles as cultural carriers. Ms. McGlennen

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

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 2008/09: To be announced. Ms. Varghese

Prerequisite: Required of seniors concentrating in the program.

Special Permission.

One 2-hour period.

302a-303b. Senior Thesis or Project (1⁄2, 1⁄2)

Required of students concentrating in the program.

The senior project is graded Distinction, Satisfactory, or Unsatisfactory.

313a. Multidisciplinary Research Methods (1)

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. Hoynes

Prerequisite: permission of director.

One 2-hour period.

380a. Art, War and Social Change (1)

(Same as Sociology 380a) Ms. Miringoff.

382a. 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

388b.A Particular Universalism: US Efforts to Remake the Middle East (1)


Why have the majority of Arabs and Muslims resisted the West's civilizational project with its accompanying rhetoric of universalist values for more than two centuries? Why has the United States, especially recently, insisted-at least rhetorically--on bringing liberty, democracy, and peace to the Middle East? To engage these questions, the course approaches U.S.-Arab encounters from the vantage point of the ongoing debate about the meanings of universalism, implied (or exemplified) in the notion of U.S./Western universalist values. This course examines the history of that rhetoric as well as the history of its opposition. Using legal texts, policy documents and media, it explores how the battle over meaning and definition is tied to the realities of the uneven and unequal flows of cultural influence and to politico-economic dependency. Finally, this course reflects on the possibility of a genuine universalism or a multiplicity of universalisms. Khadija Fritsch-El Alaoui

389a. Ideas of History in Contemporary Modern Drama (1)

(same as Drama 389a.)