Most of you arriving at college will not have encountered American Studies in your high schools—although some will have! So a lot of questions arise when you get your first glimpse of the sign saying "American Civilization" at the Fall Academic Fair or when you are browsing through the course catalog or Banner or Mocha and come across a lot of courses with provocative titles like "Color me Cool" or "Ethnic Eats" or "The Boy Problem" or "American Publics." Questions like: What is this American Studies? How is it different from English and History — the two disciplines from which it originally emerged in the middle of the twentieth century? Why was this Department called "American Civilization" and why is it changing its name to "American Studies" now?
So, let me try to answer some of those questions and invite you to come see me to ask some more.
Who are we?
American Studies, which was founded as American Civilization at Brown in 1945, began as a response to the Eurocentric focus that formed the basis of the curriculum in most humanities departments. These early scholars of the American experience believed that it was a complex and rich topic worthy of their rigorous attention and productive of important insights into the modern social, political and cultural worlds in which we live. American scholars were not alone in this belief, and departments of American Studies have emerged in South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
However, this is only one part of the identity of American Studies. From its inception, American Studies has been characterized by interdisciplinary work because we believe that studying a topic from different perspectives using different methods produces new kinds of knowledge. The process is not simply additive: x plus y plus something else. New understandings come into focus--even come into being!--when studied from various disciplinary standpoints. Interdisciplinary work is exciting because it is creative: it is never the same for two projects or for two people. We each make new answers to a wide range of complex questions about American society, cultures and experiences using various approaches.
American Civilization is changing its name to American Studies to align ourselves with our colleagues worldwide and to call attention to some important new developments in our curriculum. American Studies at Brown and elsewhere has been an important incubator for programs that are now independent, such as women's studies and ethnic and race studies. While these continue to be fundamental interests for American Studies, there are exciting new themes and approaches in our work that merit special attention. These themes and approaches are described in more detail on their own webpages. Here I want to call attention to one particular aspect of the new concentration curriculum in American Studies that distinguishes this department from other concentrations at Brown and other American Studies programs worldwide. This is our interest in publicly engaged scholarship.
By “publicly engaged scholarship” or the “public humanities,” we mean a variety of theories and practices that bring the world of academic scholarship and research into more dynamic relations to the communities large and small in which we live and study. This interest gave rise to the graduate program in Public Humanities and informs our decision to focus the Junior Seminar of the concentration on the question of "the public." Undergraduates can get involved in many ways and may choose “public engagement” as a focus for the concentration.
A good place to start is AMST 1550, Methods in Public Humanities. This course introduces many of the issues faced by professionals working in museums, historical societies, and arts organizations and includes exhibitions and other hands-on projects Undergraduates also have enjoyed courses in oral history, historic site interpretation, public art, cultural policy, and urban cultural heritage. These courses fulfill many of the required themes and approaches for the concentration. Students can request gallery space at the Brown Center for Public Humanities for exhibits of class work and senior projects.
In addition to courses, the Center coordinates workshops that are open to students and professionals and offer opportunities to learn specialized skills and to meet practitioners working at arts and cultural organizations in Providence and beyond. Staff of the Center have served as directors and readers of honors theses in American Studies.
The specific skills that concentrators will use and develop in order to achieve these intellectual goals are:
- Reading texts, objects and spaces critically and historically
- Identifying relations between different scales of experience from the individual to the transnational
- Producing scholarship and creative work in different forms ranging from the traditional research paper to exhibitions to new media
- Integrating knowledge from different disciplines in order to design the focus of their individual concentration plans
- Participating in forms of publicly engaged scholarship
- Creating an eportfolio that serves as part of the capstone experience
How to begin?
There are many ways to become acquainted with American Studies and discover this creative potential in your own study and research. Every year the Department offers seminars especially designed for first and second-year students.
The First-Year seminars (AMCV 0150) are taught by our faculty and are limited to 20 students (most are smaller). The seminars for first and second-year students (AMCV 0190) are taught by our advanced graduate students on topics of their current and cutting-edge research. These classes are limited to 17 students and all seminars are writing-intensive courses (designated by W in the course catalog). Both of these seminar settings are wonderful ways to get to know more about a particular topic that you might not even have dreamed existed and to see close up what it means to do interdisciplinary work.
Another way to enter the field of American Studies is to take AMCV 1010, Introduction to American Studies: War and American Culture. This is a lecture course with small discussion sections that are led by our graduate students.
There are numerous other lecture courses that you can take even as a first-year student and that will open up possibilities for you own exploration of American society and cultures.
My office hours are posted on the Undergraduate Advising page. Please be in touch by email or in person to continue learning about American Studies.