American Culture

Director: Harvey K. Flad (Geography); Steering Committee: Harvey K. Flad (Chair), Peter Antelyes (English), Frank Bergon (English), Randolph Cornelius (Psychology), Rebecca Edwards (History), Eileen Leonard (Sociology), Karen Lucic (Art), Adelaide H. Villmoare (Political Science), Patricia B. Wallace (English); Panel of Advisers: Harvey K. Flad (Chair), Barbara Bianco (Anthropology), Wendy Graham (English), Luke Harris (Political Science), Susan Kassouf (German), Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert (Hispanic Studies), Anne Pike-Tay (Anthropology), Paul Russell (English), Robin Trainor (Education); Participating Faculty: Peter Antelyes, Frank Bergon, Barbara Bianco, Lisa Collins (Art), Randolph Cornelius, Margarette Downey, Harvey K. Flad, Lucy Lewis Johnson (Anthropology), Karen Lucic (Art), Deborah Dash Moore, (Religion), Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Anne Pike Tay, Sidney Plotkin (Political Science), Mark Schlessman (Biology), Adelaide Villmoare (Political Science).

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; the Seminar in American Culture (250); and completion and approval of the senior project proposal.

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

I. Introductory

105a. Themes in American Culture (1)

Citizenship, Culture and Conflict is the theme for 1999/00. This course examines the definition of American citizenship and the legal, political and cultural forces which determine who will and will not have access to the rights and benefits of citizenship. What are the processes and struggles that determine the scope of rights and benefits conferred by US citizenship? What rules govern access to citizenship? What are the effects of exclusion from citizenship on the lives of groups and individuals in this country? Mr. McGlinchey, Ms. Villmoare.

Open to freshmen and sophomores.

Two 75-minute periods.

[182a. The Environmental Imagination in Literature and Science] (1)

(Same as Environmental Studies Development Project 182) The troubled relationship between humans and the rest of nature is a problem as urgent as any in our time. But if environmental thinking is timely, it is not new. This course, taught by a biologist and an environmental writer, considers how our thinking about nature has developed and how it shapes our ways of understanding and approaching environmental problems. The readings, which include poetry, fiction, essays, and scientific literature, focus on social and philosophical constructions of nature, on the historical interplay of humans and our environment, and the modes by which we evaluate and attempt to solve environmental problems. Readings and classroom discussions are complemented by trips in the local area, to experience how scientific methods can be used to measure nature and to test ideas from our reading against experience in the field.

Open to freshmen and sophomores.

Two 75-minute periods and one 4-hour laboratory session.

Not offered in 1999/00. 

II. Intermediate

212b. The Contemporary Press (1)

A writing and reading course with a twofold mission: (1) an examination of nonfiction storytelling as it appears in newspapers, magazines and books, and (2) a detailed consideration of how and why the ethics and practices of American journalism have changed over the years, especially since Watergate. Students carry out their own story ideas. Through reading assignments, they are encouraged to take a critical view of contemporary journalism, both print and electronic. Students are also asked to develop their skills as editors by evaluating papers of their peers in class. Students must submit samples of original writing in mid-March. The nature of writing submissions will be specified beforehand in flyers distributed to students. Not open to first-year students. Ms. Downey.

Admission by permission of 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 1999/00: American Modernisms. Approaches to modernism within American society, with an emphasis on artistic achievements in music, architecture, the visual arts, and literature. As an introduction to multidisciplinary study, the course includes an investigation of cultural studies, its methodologies, and its analyses of the particular formations of culture in America. We examine both contemporary theoretical texts and "classic" texts of American Studies. Specific themes may include: the canonization of "high" modernism; the appropriation of, and resistance to, canonical modernism by ethnic artists and artists of color; the conceptualization and appropriation, in turn, of "primitive" aesthetics, such as those associated with Native American crafts and African-American musical forms; and gender differences in modern aesthetic practices and the gendering of modernism itself. Mr. Antelyes, Ms. Lucic.

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. From Melting Pot to Multiculturalism (1)

An exploration of social, literary, and political constructions of ethnicity and race as both integral and opposed to American culture. The course situates changing interpretations of identityits meanings, politics, expressionwithin debates over cultural authenticity. How Americans construe themselves and the historical, personal, economic and institutional contexts of these conflicts during the twentieth century provide a comparative framework for analysis. Ms. Bianco, Ms. Collins.

Special permission.

Two 75-minute periods.

286a. Plants in a Human Environment: The Paleoethnobotany of Eastern North America (1)

(Same as Environmental Studies Development Project 286, Biology 286, and Anthropology 286) This course focuses on Eastern North America, an area of complex and varied human/plant relationships in which exciting research is currently underway, particularly on the processes of domestication. Students are introduced to the biochemical, botanical, archaeological and ethnohistorical methods used in studying past relationships between people and plants. Through learning the principles and processes of ethnobotany as applied to Eastern North America, the students are able to generalize to other areas and times. Ms. L. Johnson, Mr. Schlessman.

Prerequisite: permission of the director.

Two 75-minute periods; plus 4-hour laboratory.

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: Reading Cultures: American Texts and Contexts (1)

A study of particular forms and concepts, versions and visions of American culture 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 cultural studies. Mr. Bergon.

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. Flad.

Prerequisite: permission of director.

One 75-minute period.

380b. American Community in Politics and Film (1)

This course examines the many facets of politics in American culture through the lens of popular film, documentary cinema, biographies of significant political figures in American history, and community studies. Historical and theoretical examination include works by Tocqueville, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Veblen. Community studies may include the Poletown neighborhood in Detroit, the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, and a "gated" community. Films may include John Ford's ­The Searchers, Godfather II, Daughters of the Dust, Do the Right Thing, among others. Mr. Plotkin.

Prerequisite: permission of director.

One 2-hour seminar.

382b. Miami in the American Imagination (1)

An exploration of the socio-political geography of Miami since 1945 as the context for examination of architecture, migration, tourism, religion, and language. Among topics to be discussed are: real and imagined crime, latinization and music, literary representations, popular culture, ethnic communities and the evolution of a Pan American city. Ms. Moore, Ms. Paravisini-Gebert.

An optional field trip to Miami is planned during the spring break.

Special permission. One 2-hour period.

385b. Designing Nature: Landscape Painting, Literature, and Gardens in Antebellum America (1)

(Same as Art 385b) This seminar examines the vital concern for picturesque landscapeboth actual and fictivein American arts of the early nineteenth century. The course investigates the relationship of important innovators in landscape design, such as Downing, to the literary and artistic works of Cole, Durand, Irving, Emerson, Thoreau, and others. We also explore the continuing impact of antebellum landscape traditions at several representative sites in the Hudson River Valley. Ms. Lucic, Mr. Peck.

Prerequisite: permission of director.

One 2-hour seminar.