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American Studies

Kate Ratcliff

American studies is an interdisciplinary field concerned with the relationships between historical events, social forces and various forms of cultural expression, past and present. It draws on the materials and methods of disciplines and academic specialties across the humanities and social sciences, making connections between areas of knowledge that are often institutionally separated. Although American studies refers primarily to the geographical region of the United States, recent approaches have emphasized the relationship between the U.S. and other countries and cultures. Because of my background and training, American studies at Marlboro emphasizes U.S. history.

Students taking courses and tutorials in American studies can expect to cultivate the following skills: ability to approach problems and issues from a number of disciplinary perspectives; ability to find, use and critically interrogate a range of primary and secondary sources; ability to revise work as part of an intense and ongoing intellectual process; heightened awareness of how to live in and contribute to an increasingly diverse U.S. society.

Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the field, courses essential to American studies are located across the curriculum. These include courses with U.S. content in various disciplines, courses in the humanities and social sciences that teach methods important to American studies and courses that foster cross-cultural thinking. Courses listed below refer only to those I teach or team-teach on a regular basis and do not exhaust the breadth of American studies–related offerings at Marlboro.

Areas of Interest for Plan-level Work:

  • 19th- & 20th-century U.S. social & cultural history
  • History of gender and sexuality
  • Popular culture
  • History of mass media
  • Urban and suburban history
  • Material culture studies
  • Environmental history
  • Race and ethnicity
  • National identity and commemoration

Starting Points (Basic and Introductory Courses)

This course offers a wide-ranging exploration of the multiple and often conflicting meanings of the democratic tradition in U.S. history. Areas of inquiry include the intellectual and social milieux of the revolutionary generation, the struggle to ratify the constitution, the rise of mass political organizations in the 19th century, and the flowering of democratic expression in popular culture and the arts. Prerequisite: None     Introductory | Credits: 4

How have different social groups, in different historical contexts, struggled to define and organize public life in the United States? In exploring this question, the course offers a thematically organized survey of U.S. history from the latter part of the 19th century to the present. Central issues to be explored include the nature of democracy in an era marked by a centralization of political and economic power, the role of mass culture in shaping ideas of freedom and the good life, the struggle over national identity in the context of multiculturalism, and the history of social protest in affecting change. The course advances a definition of “politics” which links these issues not simply to the laws, structures and operations of a government but to a more inclusive set of institutions and practices and to an understanding of political life which places at the center the ways in which people imagine and represent the social order. Prerequisite: None     Introductory | Credits: 4

This course traces the history of family life in the U.S. from the time of European settlement to the end of the 19th century. Drawing on an interdisciplinary array of sources, from popular literature to material culture, we will explore how the family both affected and was affected by the major historical developments of these centuries. Our study will include Anglo-American nuclear families as well as families and groups that did not fit the norm—slave families, immigrant families and utopian communities. A central focus of the course will be the importance of the family in defining and reproducing gender roles and relationships. Prerequisite: None     Introductory | Credits: 4

The course traces the history of family life in the U.S. from the late 19th century to the present. Drawing on an interdisciplinary range of readings from history, sociology, anthropology and gender studies, we will explore how the family has both affected and been affected by the major historical developments of the past century. Topics to be examined include changing conceptions of motherhood and fatherhood, marriage, child rearing and sexuality, the ongoing debate over family values and how that debate relates to public policy, and the contested and shifting relationship between feminism and the family. The course is designed to highlight how cultural meanings and experiences of family life have varied historically as well as by race, class, ethnicity and gender. Prerequisite: None     Introductory | Credits: 4

Pursuing Interests (Intermediate and Thematic Courses)

The course is designed to introduce students to the field of American studies through a multi-disciplinary exploration of U.S. history in the period after World War II. Topics of investigation include the evolution of political structures, the economy and foreign policy; the expansion of mass culture; changes in gender and race relations; cultural developments in art, film and literature. Prerequisite: None     Introductory | Credits: 4

This course will examine the history of documentary photography in America, from the post-Civil War era through the present, with an emphasis on learning to use photographs as documents for cultural history—that is, as texts that can inform us about the social and cultural history of the period in which they were made and viewed. Photographers to be studied include Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, Jim Goldberg and Eugene Richards. Prerequisite: Background in photography and American studies helpful but not required. Prerequisite: None    Introductory | Credits: 4

This course explores the historical development of U.S. consumer cultures from 1890 to the present. Topics to be covered include the development of the department store and the rise of the advertising industry, the democratization of consumption in the post W.W. II era, and the impact of consumerism on contemporary urban space. Particular emphasis is on the politics of consumption over time and on how consumer cultures shape the social construction of identities. Prerequisite: None     Intermediate | Credits: 4

This course offers an exploration of the multiple and often conflicting feminisms that have shaped U.S. history from the 19th century to the present. Emphasis is on the second and third waves, on the relationship between feminist thought and political organizing, and on generational divisions across time. Opportunity for students to pursue in-depth research on topics of their own choosing. Prerequisite: Permission of instructor     Intermediate | Credits: 4

A junior level seminar that draws on the particular research interests of Plan students to explore a variety of methodological approaches and source materials in American studies. Prerequisite: None     Intermediate | Credits: 2

The seminar is organized around the different research topics of seniors doing Plan work in American studies. Each student will assign and teach selected works in their subject area. Students will also present their own research in progress and read and critique each other’s writing. Prerequisite: Permission of instructor     Advanced | Credits: 2

Good Foundation for Plan

Students in American studies need to study broadly across the curriculum in order to become familiar with the multiple currents that comprise the field. At the same time, they need to identify the field or fields that will offer depth to their interdisciplinary study. The process of curricular planning depends on whether American studies will be a primary or secondary field of Plan study.

Students for whom American studies is the primary field of study need to meet the following learning objectives. Each objective can be addressed by any single course as listed, or by a combination of courses. Individual courses may meet several objectives simultaneously.

Background in the sweep of U.S. history, from the colonial period to the present

  • History of Political Life in the U.S. I and II (HUM723 and HUM741)
  • The Family in U.S. History I and II (HUM643 and HUM661)
  • A combination of courses in American studies and history, which together comprise a program indicating chronological breadth in U.S. history.

Knowledge of the political and constitutional underpinnings of American society

  • History of Political Life I (HUM723)
  • Constitutional Law (SSC340)
  • American Government (SSC223)

Understanding of broad social/economic patterns in U.S. society

  • Consumer Culture in Historical Perspective (HUM1077)
  • The Family in U.S. History I (HUM643)
  • U.S. Capitalism (SSC19)
  • Education and Socialization (SSC3)
  • Contemporary American Society (SSC110)
  • Contemporary Political and Social Thought (SSC63)

Focused study of at least one mode of cultural/artistic expression in the U.S.

  • Topics in Photography and U.S. History (HUM895)
  • Public Art and Public Space (HUM1137)
  • Apocalyptic Hope: The Literature of the American Renaissance (HUM979)
  • For Once, Then, Something: American Literature from Twain to Morrison (HUM1135)
  • Not Somewhere Else, But Here: American Literature from Kesey to Erdrich (HUM1170)
  • 19th-Century American Poetry (HUM882)
  • Modern American Poetry (HUM365)

General knowledge of the history and/or culture of another world area.

Sample Tutorial Topics

  • History as Portrayed in High School History Textbooks
  • Women of the Beat Generation
  • History of Sexuality in the U.S.
  • Jewish Immigration and Identity in History
  • Japanese Internment Camps During WWII
  • The Politics of the Cold War Era
  • Second Wave Feminism
  • Progressive Era Reform