American Culture Program

Director: William Hoynes (Sociology); Steering Committee: William Hoynes (Chair), Randolph Cornelius (Psychology), Eve Dunbar (English), Khadja Fritsch-El Alaoui (Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow), Wendy Graham (English), Maria Höhn (History), Hua Hsu (English), Eileen Leonard (Sociology), Jennifer Ma (Psychology), Erin McCloskey (Education), Molly McGlennen (English), Marque Miringoff (Sociology), Tyrone Simpson (English), Linta Varghese (Anthropology), Patricia Wallace (English); Participating Faculty: Carlos Alamo (Sociology), 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), Sarita Gregory (Political Science), Maria Höhn (History), Hua Hsu (English), Tim Koechlin (Urban Studies), Kiese Laymon (English), Eileen Leonard (Sociology), Peter Leonard (Field Work), Judith Linn (Art), Karen Lucic (Art), Jennifer Ma (Psychology), Molly McGlennen (English), Marque Miringoff (Sociology), Leonard Nevarez (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 2009/10: Introduction to Native American Studies. This course is a multi-and inter-disciplinary 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 179a) Mr. Peck.

181b. Writing Lives(1)

This course looks at the problem of representing American experience, one's own or someone else's, in the biographical/autobiographical mode. Biographer Richard Holmes writes, "I conclude that no biography is ever definitive, because that is not the nature of such journeys, nor of the human heart which is their territory." We look at the points of departure for writing American lives, whether investigating a writer's own autobiography, or an author's engagement with someone else's narrative of failure or triumph, departure or arrival. What motivates a person to tell his or her life story, or to investigate someone else's? What claims about the significance of that story are made, or taken up by the story's readers?  Students write several short papers for this course; some of the assignments are autobiographical in nature, some more strictly literary-critical. Students are also introduced to basic library and research skills, as they prepare final written and oral presentations on the life of an American figure. Ms. Carter.

II. Intermediate

[ 205. Arab American Literature ](1)

(Same as Africana Studies 205) Mr. Mhiri.

Not offered in 2009/10

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 2009/10: 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 2009/10.

[ 260b. 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.

Not offered in 2009/10

261b. 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.

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.

282b. Malcolm X From the Outside(1)

This course examines the various meanings ascribed to Malcolm X and his legacy outside the U.S. It engages with several political/social movements, scholars and bloggers in different countries that were attentive to, and appreciative of, Malcolm' s linkages between racial oppression, class exploitation, and capitalism. Given the timely relevance of Malcolm's call for transnational and cross-cultural resistance, we explore its significance for contemporary struggles for dignity and justice. This course uses Malcolm's teachings and messages in an attempt to challenge the work performed today by the clash-of-civilization proponents, who manufacture new, or resurrect old, enemies and separate the fate of the poor and disenfranchised in the U.S. from that of the oppressed around the globe. Ms. Fritsch-El Alaoui.

285b. Screening South Asian America(1)

This course uses video, film and other media representations as a lens to explore the South Asian community in America. The objectives of this class are to understand the history and experiences of South Asians in the United States, attend to portrayals — both dominant and oppositional — found in mediated sources, and consider how these may contribute to community formation. Particular topics to be explored and mined include the hegemonic storyline of "culture clash" and assimilation, histories of migration, the constitution of raced, gendered and classed South Asian American subjects, and images of home, among others. Through course readings, screenings and discussions, we pay particular attention to the narrative of experience that emerge and how these may condition or constrain how we think of South Asian American history and experience. Ms. Varghese.

288a. 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 Vertigo, The 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.

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

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 2009/10: To be announced. Ms. Höhn.

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. Hsu.

Prerequisite: permission of director.

One 2-hour period.

366b. Seminar in African American Art and Cultural History(1)

(Same as Afrs 366b, and Art 366b)

Topic for 2009/10: Creativity and Politics During the Jazz Age and the Great Depression. 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 the 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.

One 2-hour period.

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

(Same as Sociology 380a) Ms. Miringoff.

Not offered in 2009/10

381a. Disturbing the Peace: African Americans in the World(1)

In her 1997 Presidential address to the American Studies Association, Mary Helen Washington stated: "I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of an American studies faculty.[...] I am now and will always be, primarily an African Americanist." It's an odd declaration coming from the President of the most prominent academic association dedicated to the study of American culture, but in Washington's vexed statement rests a portion of this course's dilemma: in a world where American hegemony looks increasingly "black" in character, how and why might we continue to delineate the study of American culture from that of African American culture? Is there a difference between the two? How is that difference, if it exists, constituted? Moreover, in light of U.S. imperialism, how have African Americans sought to both distance themselves and embrace the United States at home and abroad? Answering these questions requires our commitment to disturbing the peace, to challenging how we perceive American culture, who creates it and with whom it resides. Centralizing African American experiences, history, and cultural expression, we explore the textual friction produced between Americaness and African Americaness, while also paying attention to the growing globalization of both. Course materials may include writings from James Baldwin, Saidiya Hartman, Zora Neale Hurston, Barack Obama, Paul Gilroy and others. Ms. Dunbar.