American Culture Program

Director: William Hoynes (Sociology); Steering Committee: William Hoynes (Chair), Lisa Brawley (Urban Studies), Andrew Bush (Hispanic Studies), Lisa Collins (Art), Randolph Cornelius (Psychology), Wendy Graham (English), Maria Höhn (History), Jennifer Ma (Psychology), Molly McGlennen (American Culture), Marque Miringoff (Sociology), Tyrone Simpson (English), Adelaide H. Villmoare (Political Science), Patricia Wallace (English) Judith Weisenfeld (Religion); Participating Faculty: Peter Antelyes (English), Kristin Carter (Women’s Studies), Dean Crawford (English), Mario Cesareo (Hispanic Studies), Miriam Cohen (History), Lisa Collins, Randolph Cornelius, Elizabeth Donnelly, Eve Dunbar (English), Rebecca Edwards, Carmen Garcia (Education), Wendy Graham, Maria Höhn, Eileen Leonard (Sociology), Peter Leonard (Field Work), Judith Linn (Art), Karen Lucic (Art), Jennifer Ma, Molly McGlennen, Marque Miringoff, Kathleen Norton McNulty, H. Daniel Peck (English), Robert Rebelein (Economics), Tyrone Simpson, Robin Trainor, Linta Varghese (Anthropology), Sam Speers, Adelaide Villmoare, Patricia Wallace, Judith Weisenfeld.

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. (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 (1)

Topic for 2007/08: Introduction to Native American Studies. 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 artistic and cultural traditions of selected groups. Ms. McGlennen, Ms. Wallace.

Open to freshmen and sophomores only.

Two 75-minute periods.

II. Intermediate

[205. Arab American Literature] (1)

(Same as Africana Studies 205) Mr. Mhiri.

Not offered in 2007/08.

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. Norton.

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 2007/08: 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)

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. Construction of Asian Americans (1)

What is Asian American? How and why do Asians come to America? Where is Asia? Who is an American? We explore these and other questions through an exploration of the issues and themes important for understanding the history, experience and theorizing of Asians in the United States. The class examines both moments of cohesion, such as the emergence of panethnicity, the Asian American movement and Asian American Studies; and also moments of contestation and disidentification. We also attend to how the Asian American subject is inflected through sexuality, gender, work, migration and nation. Ms. Varghese.

Two 75-minute periods.

281a. African Americans in the Age of Globalization (1)

(Same as Africana Studies 281) How have the positions of African Americans in the U.S. cultural imaginary changed in the age of globalization? Although Sidney Wilhelm’s assessment of African American irrelevance in the industrialized United States is hyperbolically bleak, it does give us pause to consider the role of globalization, marked by a post-industrial U.S. economy, in the lives of African Americans. Rather than rest easy with Wilhelm’s “outcast” status for black Americans, this course considers their part in contemporary global politics and cultural production. This is especially important as many theorists continue to comment upon globalization’s ability to erase cultural specificity—what Benjamin Barber calls the “McWorld” phenomenon—in favor of an American median. In this course we’ll attempt to make sense of the contradiction between the fact that black youth culture has become increasingly synonymous with American culture internationally (most notable in hip hop’s global presence) and that African Americans continue to be marked as irrelevant at “home” and abroad. We read criticism and novels, listen to music and watch movies to examine what African Americans critique and produce in the age of globalization. Ms Dunbar.

Two 75-minute periods.

286b. Deaf Culture (1)

This course begins with the examination of the various and most common definitions of culture, and the difference between culture and community. Since language and culture are inseparable—culture being revealed in the use of specific language behaviors and specific language reveals cultural values—the course also examine this phenomenon. Students are introduced to the values within the community of Deaf people such as the importance of Deaf clubs, residential schools for Deaf children, preservation of American Sign Language, and code switching within the community as a power tool. Traditions of the Deaf community are discussed from the point of view of an oppressed people who use humor, success stories and the imitation of conflicting behaviors to empower themselves and to build solidarity. Students learn what variables determine membership and non-membership within Deaf culture. Members of the Deaf community are invited as guest speakers for discussions on the different topics covered in this course. Ms. Garcia, instructor to be announced.

288b. American Alienation in Fiction, Film, and Photography (1)

This course traces several peculiarly American forms of cultural alienation and discontent. Questions addressed include whether some degree of estrangement is necessary to artistic vision and motivation, how we can detect when an artist’s alienation is aesthetic or political in origin, whether disaffection is crucial to a comic perspective, when alienation is liberating and when it is shuttering, and under what circumstances artistic isolation tips toward a dangerous psychological state. We read such novels as On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and Angels by Denis Johnson; discuss such films as VertigoThe Big Heat, The Night of the Hunter, Rebel Without a Cause, The Searchers, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Ice Storm, and Factotum; and view the photography of Diane Arbus, Gregory Crewdson, Robert Frank, Nan Goldin, Larry Clark, William Eggleston, Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Dan Weiner. Students are invited to present twenty-minute oral reports on alienation fictions, films and photographers of their choice not otherwise covered in the course. Mr. Crawford, Ms. Linn.

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 2007/08: To be announced. Ms. Höhn.

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.

385a. The Art of Nature: Painting, Literature, and Landscape Design in the Hudson Valley (Same as Art 385a and Environmental Studies 385a) Ms. Lucic, Mr. Peck. (1)

388a. Cartooning and Comic Art in America (1)

This course examines major forms of American cartoon and comic art from 1900 to the present, including newspaper comics, editorial cartoons, single panel cartoons, comic books, and graphic novels, it is organized both historically and thematically, beginning with a look at the origins of comics in political and satirical images, then tracing their development through critical historical periods. We’ll also have classes devoted to the roles played by gender, sexuality, race and class, in the creation, placement, editorial processing, distribution, and marketing of comic art. Among the works considered: Krazy Kat, Superman, Peanuts, Maus, Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, Boondocks, panels by such artists as Jules Feiffer, William Steig, and Roz Chast, and magazines from Mad to the New Yorker. Our look at these works is contextualized though historical, cultural, and theoretical writings on subjects ranging from the role of modernity in the creation of the comics to the politics of popular culture and representation. Mr. Antelyes, Ms. Donnelly.

One Two-hour period.