American Culture Program

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).

Correlate Sequence in Native American Studies

The American Culture Program offers a correlate sequence in Native American Studies, a multi- and interdisciplinary field, in which students examine Indigenous cultures, politics, histories, and literatures, in a primarily North American context.  Students electing the correlate sequence are trained in the methodology of Native American Studies as a means to critically assess western colonial discourses, examine the many ways Native peoples have contributed to and shaped North American culture, and analyze and honor the autonomy and sovereignty of Indigenous nations, peoples, and thought.  Students pursuing a correlate in Native American Studies are required to complete a minimum of 6 units including Introduction to Native American Studies (AMCL 105) and at least one 300-level course. 

Each year, the American Culture Program will provide an updated list of approved courses for the Native American Studies correlate sequence.  From this course list, students define an appropriate course of study, which must be approved by the American Culture Program Director and a Correlate Sequence advisor prior to declaration.  Additional courses may be approved for the Correlate Sequence upon petition to the Program Director. Students are encouraged, but not required, to complete one unit of work outside of the Vassar classroom (fieldwork, summer program, study away).  A maximum of two units of ungraded work may be counted toward the Correlate Sequence.

I. Introductory

101. Sending Smoke Signals (1)

(See English 101-12).

105a. Themes in American Culture (1)

Topic for 2011/12a: 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.

Open to freshmen and sophomores only.

Two 75-minute periods.

160a. Politics of Art/Art of Politics (1)

(Same as Art 160a.) Ms. Collins.

Two 75-minute meetings.

Fulfills the Freshman Writing Seminar Requirement.

Not offered in 2011/12.

II. Intermediate

205b. Arab American Literature (1)

(Same as Africana Studies 205b.) Mr. Mhiri.

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. Ms. Norton-McNulty.

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.

Not offered in 2011/12.

235a. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States (1)

(Same as Africana Studies 235a.)

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 2011/12a: 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. Dunbar, Ms. Hohn.

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.

261. Native American Urban Experience (1)

(Same as Urban Studies 261) Over half of all Native American people living in the United States now live in an urban area. The United States federal policies of the 1950's brought thousands of Indigenous peoples to cities with the promise of jobs and a better life. Like so many compacts made between the United States and Native tribes, these agreements were rarely realized. Despite the cultural, political, and spiritual losses due to Termination and Relocation policies, Native American people have continued to survive and thrive in complex ways. This course examines the experiences of Indigenous peoples living in urban areas since the 1950's. In particular, we look at the pan-tribal movement, AIM, Red Power, education, powwowing, social and cultural centers, two-spiritedness, religious movements, and the arts. We also study the manner in which different Native urban communities have both adopted western ways and recuperated specific cultural and spiritual traditions in order to build and nurture Native continuance. Ms. McGlennen.

Not offered in 2011/12.

262a. Native American Women (1)

(Same as Women's Studies 262a.) 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 gender 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

Two 75-minute meetings

Not offered in 2011/12.

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 NationPulp FictionPleasantville) television ("reality" shows, The West Wing) and the American popular press.

Two 75-minute periods.

Not offered in 2011/12.

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

(Same as Geography 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, Mr. Simpson.

290a or b. Field Work (1/2 or 1)

Permission of the director required

297. Readings in American Culture (1/2)

298a or b. Independent Study (1/2 or 1)

Permission of the director required.

III. Advanced

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 201/12: To be announced. Ms. McGlennen.

Prerequisite: Required of seniors concentrating in the program.

Special Permission.

One 2-hour period.

302a. Senior Thesis or Project (1/2)

Required of students concentrating in the program.

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

Yearlong course 302-303.

303b. Senior Thesis or Project (1/2)

Required of students concentrating in the program.

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

Year long course 302-303.

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. Ms. Brawley.

Prerequisite: permission of director.

One 2-hour period.

331b. Seminar in Archaeological Method and Theory (1)

(Same as Anthropology 331).

366b. Art and Activism (1)

(Same as Africana Studies 366a., Art 366a., Women's Studies 366a., and Urban Studies 366a.). Topic for 2011/12a: Vision and Critique in the Black Arts and Women's Art Movements in the United States. Focusing on the relationships between visual culture and social movements in the U.S., this seminar examines the arts, institutions,and ideas of the Black Arts movement and Women's Art movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Analyzing paintings, photographs, posters, quilts, collages, murals, manifestos, mixed-media works, installations, films, performances, and various systems of creation, collaboration, and display, we explore connections between art, politics, and society. Ms. Collins.

Prerequisite: permission of instructor.

One 2-hour period.

Not offered in 2011/12.

367b. Artists' Books from the Women's Studio Workshop (1)

(Same as Art 367b. and Women's Studies 367b.)

In this interdisciplinary seminar, we explore the limited edition artists' books created through the Women's Studio Workshop in Rosendale, New York. Founded in 1974, the Women's Studio Workshop encourages the voice and vision of individual women artists, and women artists associated with the workshop have, since 1979, created over 180 hand-printed books using a variety of media, including hand-made paper, letterpress, silkscreen, photography, intaglio, and ceramics. Vassar College recently became an official repository for this vibrant collection which, in the words of the workshop's co-founder, documents "the artistic activities of the longest continually operating women's workspace in the country." Working directly with the artists' books, this seminar will meet in Vassar Library's Special Collections and closely investigate the range of media, subject matter, and aesthetic sensibilities of the rare books, as well as their contexts and meanings. We will also travel to the Women's Studio Workshop to experience firsthand the artistic process in an alternative space. Ms. Collins.

One 2-hour period.

Permission of the instructor.

375a. Seminar in Women's Studies:Gender and the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. (1)

(Same as Africana Studies and Women's Studies 375a) Topic for 2011/2012a: Gender and the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. In this interdisciplinary course, we examine the modern civil rights movement in the U.S. by foregrounding the roles and experiences of women, particularly African American women. Attentive to issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality, we study the various constraints on--and possibilities for--women activists during the movement, and theorize the impact of women's activism on

U.S. society. Ms. Collins

Special permission.

One 2-hour session.

380a. Art, War and Social Change (1)

(Same as Sociology 380a) Ms. Miringoff.

382a. Documenting America (1)

The demand for documentation, the hunger for authenticity, the urge to share in the experiences of others were widespread in the first half of the twentieth century. A huge world of documentary expression included movies, novels, photographs, art and non-fiction accounts. This course explores the various ways in which some of these artists, photographers, writers and government agencies attempted to create documents of American life between 1900 and 1945. The course examines how such documents fluctuate between utility and aesthetics, between the social document and the artistic image. 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 and Dorothea Lange,the paintings of Jacob Lawrence, the films of Charlie Chaplin, the novels and stories of Chester Himes, William Carlos Williams and Zora Neale Hurston, the non-fictional collaboration of James Agee and Walker Evans. Ms. Cohen and Ms. Wallace

Twl 75-minute meetings.

383a. Morning in America: American Literature and Art in the 1980s (1)

(Same as English 383a) This seminar considers the literature and art of the 1980s in light of the decade’s most striking ideas: postmodernism and the blurring of tastes high and low; political correctness and multiculturalism; evolving notions of the public and the private; the digital revolution and its ontology; AIDS and gay liberation; the end of the cold war and the dawn of a newly global, post-1989 sensibility. Authors and artists may include: DeLillo, Baker, Barthelme, Kingston, Pynchon, Mamet, Doctorow, Alan Moore (The Watchmen), Didion, Mailer, Christopher Lasch, Greil Marcus, Greg Tate, Spike Lee, Richard Serra, Jeff Koons, Warhol, Haring and Basquiat. Mr. Hsu.

One 2-hour period.

Not offered in 2012/13.

385b. American Higher Education: Policy and Practice (1)

(Same as Education 385) This seminar examines American higher education from historical and contemporary perspectives, paying particular attention to how students themselves experience college preparation, admission and campus life. Particular attention is given to the social, political, economic, and cultural challenges associated with policy and practice in private higher education. The types of questions the course addresses include: What changes in policy, administration, and/or instruction are likely to improve student outcomes in higher education in America? What research tools are available to decision-makers in higher education to help inform policy and practice? Who and what are the “drivers” of reform in higher education and what are their theories of action for improving the college experience? How should consumers of educational research approach the task of interpreting contradictory evidence and information about American higher education? What is an appropriate definition of equality of educational opportunity and how should we apply this definition to American private higher education? What roles do race and socioeconomic status play in American higher education? This semester, our texts and supplementary readings focus on issues pertinent to American higher education in general and highly selective private liberal arts college more specifically. Topics in the course include, but are not limited to: college admissions; student affairs policy and practice; micropolitics within colleges and universities; standards and accountability mechanisms, and efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. Small group case study projects give students the opportunity to develop potential solutions to contemporary problems in American higher education. Mr. Roellke.

Open to juniors and seniors only.

Prerequisite: One course in Education, American Culture, or Political Science.

386. American Modernism (1)

389a. From the Natural History Museum to Ecotourism:The Collection of Nature (1)

(Same as Environmental Studies 389) From the rise of the Natural History Museum, the Bureau of Ethnology, and early endeavors to create a national literature, the appropriation of American Indian lands and Amerian Indians (as natural objects) offered Euro-Americans a means to realize their new national identity. Today, the American consumer-collector goes beyond the boundaries of the museum, national park, and zoo and into ecotourism, which claims to make a low impact on the environment and local culture, while helping to generate money, jobs, and the conservation of wildlife and vegetation. This course investigates historical and current trends in the way North Americans recover, appropriate, and represent non-western cultures, 'exotic' animals, and natural environments from theoretical and ideological perspectives. Course readings draw from the fields of anthropology, archaeology, museology, literature, and environmental studies. Ms. Graham, Ms. Pike-Tay

Two 75-minute meetings.

399. Senior Independent Work (1/2 or 1)

Approved Courses

Approved 1-Unit Courses for Native American Studies (NAS) Correlate

American Culture 105 Introduction to Native American Studies

American Culture 260 Native American Women

American Culture 261 Native American Urban Experience

Anthropology/Latin American and Latino/a Studies 240 Mesoamerican Worlds –or– Andean Worlds (rotates)

Anthropology 266 Indigenous and Oppositional Media

Art 250 Encounter and Exchange: American Art from 1565 to 1865

English 231 Native American Literature

Environmental Studies 283 Native Americans and the Environment

History 274 Colonial America

Political Science 271 Race, Gender, and Class in American Political Thought

Sociology 221 Feminism, Knowledge, Praxis (some years offered as 300-level)

American Culture 290 Fieldwork

American Culture 298 Independent Work

Anthropology/Latin American and Latino/a Studies 351 Indigenous Literatures of the Americas

Anthropology/Latin American and Latino/a Studies 360 Native Religions and Resistance in the Americas

English 356 Contemporary Poetry

History 366 American Encounters

American Culture 399 Senior Independent Work

Approved 1/2-Unit Courses for NAS Correlate (Reading Courses)

American Culture 297.01 Native American Art (½)

Selected readings in Native American art, with emphasis on the Inuit, Haudenosaune (Iroquois), Pueblo and Navajo peoples. Ms. Lucic.

American Culture 297.02 Regional Cultures of Native North America (½)

Directed reading of ethnographies on a particular region of North America to be chosen by the student in consultation with the instructor. Students will write brief reviews and comparative analyses of 3-4 ethnographies written about the same culture group. Ms. Johnson

American Culture 297.03 Regional Prehistory of Native North America (½)

Directed reading of field reports and syntheses of the prehistory of a particular region of North America to be chosen by the student in consultation with the instructor. Students will write brief analyses of the field reports and critique the synthesis based on more recent field reports. Ms. Johnson

American Culture 297.04 Native American Memoir and the Premise of Memoir (½)

Selected readings from Native authors, including Sherman Alexie, Kimberly Blaeser, Forest Carter, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Gordon Henry, Linda Hogan, Ignatia Broker, Janet McAdams, Molly McGlennen, N. Scott Momaday, Nasdijj, Leslie Marmon Silko, Stephanie Sellers, and Gerald Vizenor. Ms. Nichols.

American Culture 297.05 Native American Philosophies and Religions (½)

Directed reading of Indigenous North American philosophical and religious belief systems. Students will write brief reviews of chosen texts and a final research paper on a (related) topic of the student’s choice. Ms. McGlennen

American Culture 297.06 Native American Ethnobotany. (½)

Directed reading on the ways that Native Americans in North America (north of Mexico) perceive and interact with plants. Particular cultural groups and time periods to be chosen by the student in consultation with the instructor. Students will write brief reviews of chose texts and a final research paper on a topic chosen in consultation with the instructor. Mr. Schlessman