American Studies: Demystified
HCND is taking a look at ND majors in the hopes of dispelling the misguided tendency to major-stereotype.
Allow AMST to introduce itself:
The American Studies major is an Arts and Letters treasure at Notre Dame. Nine core
professors, along with additional visiting professors and professors from other
departments, currently support the department and the existing group of about 100
majors. Notre Dame American Studies majors assume the daily task of addressing the
complex topic that is the United States of America. Erika Doss, professor Department Chair
of the American Studies Department at Notre Dame, and Pamela Butler, Visiting Assistant
Professor of American Studies, and I, a junior American Studies major, weigh in on the
benefits of this interdisciplinary major.
What's at the beating heart of American Studies?
Erika Doss has taught American Studies at Notre Dame since 2007. Her background is
in primarily American Art History, which she describes as “pretty complicated” because
you have to “put [American Art] into the context of a social and political history.” Similar
contextual analyses are what essentially define the nature of the American Studies major.
Pamela Butler, who has taught courses at Notre Dame since 2010, went to graduate
school for American Studies after receiving her B.A. in Women’s Studies. “I wanted an
interdisciplinary subject to combine different approaches to knowledge,” she said. The
classes these professors teach contribute to the ongoing discourse about what it means to
be an American.
Addressing the question of America is taken from many different academic angles.
Students take classes focused on history, political science, film, television, and theatre,
English, education, sociology, anthropology, etc. Doss asserted, “American Studies is an
inter-disciplinary field of study” that serves to answer the following questions: “What is
America? Who counts as an American? What does citizenship mean? What does a nation
want to be?” Her characterization of the major is supported by “American experiences
of the landscape, history, an examination of society, politics, culture, and economics.”
American Studies leaves no aspect of American life unanalyzed. It puts America under
a critical lens, in which the subject can be the Civil Rights Movement or popular media
culture in the form of movies like South Pacific and Sex and the City 2.
Okay, but how is it valuable?
Both Doss and Butler acknowledged the valuable critical thinking skills their students
develop, as they remain engaged and insightful citizens. “I travel a lot for my job,” Doss
recalled, “and when I sit next to a businessperson on the plane I ask them if they prefer
employees with a business or humanities degree. They always prefer humanities because
[they] need folks who can talk and engage in problem solving.” Butler also recognizes
this problem-solving skill in her Notre Dame students. “Notre Dame students are very
service oriented. It makes them incredibly focused on “So now what?” [They want] to find
a way to do something” about a problem they learn about in class – they want to makes
things better. She revealed how inspiring teaching at Notre Dame has been for her as a
scholar and an activist. Her American Studies students demonstrate a willingness to apply
their scholarship to the real world. “Scholarship is the real world,” she said. “There is not
always an answer, and never a clear one, but Notre Dame is unique. If students have these
questions in their minds it means the theoretical discussions stay meaningful.”
Who is an American Studies student?
The interdisciplinary nature of the American Studies major is extremely valuable in
essentially any chosen field of work. American Studies “Is directly applicable to crafting a
citizenship of informed Americans,” Doss said. “It trains students to be well-spoken and
critically engaged citizens who solve problems by recognizing that they exist.” Moreover,
Butler said, “At it’s best [American Studies] teaches students to pursue questions with
intellectual freedom. It expands different kinds of approaches you can take to a question –
you get to follow the question wherever it leads.” Not only do students get to study a wide
variety of subjects and issues as they earn their American Studies degree, but in the major
they are visibly “more connected to the work they are doing,” Butler remarked. “They
understand intellectual work is relevant to their lives. One advantage of the major is that
there are always ways [for students] to connect to American Studies courses.”
Students pursuing an American Studies degree at Notre Dame quickly discover how much
ownership they can have over their major. “[American Studies] is a self-directed major,”
Doss asserted. “Students are really enthusiastic about the major [because] there is leeway
for the student to think creatively – to think outside the box.” American Studies teaches
you how to think critically and analyze the numerous contextual situations that compose
Unfortunately, Doss revealed, “There has been a drop in majors for the humanities,” in
general because of the economy. “The easy slide into our business school” has enticed
many students who, along with their families, are worried about the economic climate and
career opportunities. However, there is no shortage of career options available to American
Studies majors. Doss has had students go on to law and medical school, business, graduate
school, journalism, and even the FBI. Butler also revealed many of her students have found
careers in the non-profit sector, gone to law school, and teach at the middle and high school
What does American Studies accomplish?
“American Studies fosters intellectual curiosity about how the world works,” which is
valuable to any career, Butler said. American Studies might be focused on the workings
of the United States, but it also pays attention to the nation as part of the world. “It is
the study of the United States in relation to the rest of the world,” Butler said. “It’s not
[completely] internal, but [rather] studies how the United States shapes and is shaped by
the rest of the world.” For Butler, “It is very crucial to American Studies [to recognize there
is] a US empire.” American Studies develops a “way of thinking critically about American
power connections…[and] the exporting of American culture,” she asserted.
As an American Studies major I have become critically appreciative of my country. When I
was a freshman taking my university history requirement, my professor told me I wouldn’t
like America after taking American Studies classes. However, I still consider myself a lover
of America, but I know take it for everything that it is – the good, the bad, and the ugly. I
recognize that America is not a flawless country, yet its uniqueness will always warrant my
curiosity. Doss said, “[American Studies is] a major that asks hard and serious questions
about this country. Students are actively engaging in problem-solving.” When told about
my professor’s comment, Doss responded, “American Studies students won’t love America
uncritically…[They] want it to be better. It’s like taking the blinders off and recognizing
America’s not perfect.”
Why is American worth the 30 credits?
In my pursuit of B.A. in American Studies, I have already studied the identity of
American society in literature, gender dynamics in schools, Asian Americans in TV/Film,
Postfeminism in Media Culture, and the evolution of the American prison system, in my
courses. Despite all the different topics of America I have analyzed, I am certainly not
finished exploring all the facets of American Studies – of the American nation. This “long
way to go” is what makes American Studies so special – there’s always something new
to learn or a different way to look at a situation. “America is in a state of flux,” Doss
said. “[There’s always a need] to reform and revise.”
As Butler reported earlier, there is not always a clear answer to the issues we discuss in
class, but our discussions are purposed to bring this issues to the forefront. “Our country
is founded on dissent – argument,” Doss argued. American Studies explores how we
can me a more democratic republic. “America is a fluid concept,” Doss said, so we have
to acknowledge how it changes and why it changes by analyzing the various facets of
American life that contribute to these changes.
“American Studies makes people better people,” Butler said. American Studies majors are
challenged to decide how we can be a more educated and aware nation. Students recognize
issues and are not paralyzed by their anger, but are rather incited to find a better option for
how America can be.
Who is this major for?
The American Studies major complements the interests of a student willing to engage with
cultural and historical texts and mediums to answer questions that are being asked for
the first time. American Studies is for the curious student wants to learn how to interact
with America on a creative and academic level. “America is complicated so it demands
a complexity,” Butler said, in how it is understood. This major is for anyone interested
intersection of ideas about gender, race, class, culture, art, politics, the social sciences,
and history. Students also choose to complement American Studies with a double major.
I also major in English and have classmates who double major in Political Science, FTT,
Sociology, Pre-Med, Business, and Economics. The major also requires that students take
three courses in other departments outside of American Studies. These courses fall into
the three “tracks” that guide the majors’ courses:
1. American Cultures and Societies (literature, art history, music, media studies
(FTT), and material culture)
2. American Identities (history, sociology, theology, gender studies, Africana
studies, Latino/a studies, and anthropology)
3. American Political Cultures (journalism, economics, political science, and
American Studies has allowed me to bridge the gaps between the academic subjects I have
previously explored separate from each other. This interdisciplinary major will help you to
develop an advanced analytical mode of thought that will never accept a simple answer for
a question or issue– because there seldom is one.
Need more info?
Courses for the Spring 2013 semester can be found here: http://americanstudies.nd.edu/
They're excellent. And - many of these courses are cross-listed with other departments and some have unallocated
spaces for non-majors to explore the field of American Studies.