Teaching American Studies: Four Perspectives

Introduction: Simon J. Bronner (Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg)

1. Teaching American Studies and the Problem of Cognitive Style: Jay Mechling (University of California, Davis)

2. Questions of Teaching American Studies: Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Eric Sandeen (University of Wyoming)

3. Teaching American Studies as a Habit of Mind: Adam Golub (California State University, Fullerton)

4. Teaching American Studies Well: Matthias Oppermann (Georgetown University)


Simon J. Bronner, Chair and Distinguished Professor of American Studies, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg and Editor, Encyclopedia of American Studies online

An enterprising as well as provocative promise of American Studies at its early twentieth-century founding was that it would reform instruction, and institutions in which it occurs, by connecting learning across fields and offering a problem or paradigm centered rather than overly specialized or method-driven approach. The first American Studies program at Harvard, according to a member of its first class of 1937, was dedicated to an appreciation in the classroom of things American and a dynamic teaching and learning style unprecedented in the august, but conservative, institution (The Birth of American Studies, 1976; see the entry in the EAS on Dorson). Writing in a section Teaching American Studies for American Studies in Transition edited by Marshall Fishwick at a time of growth and change for American Studies in 1964, Robert Cooke still railed at the specialization and lack of attention to reformist pedagogy that American Studies brings to the general education curriculum in stating that. The accelerated growth of general education is itself evidence of the conviction that instruction must have a philosophical dimension if we are to overcome the cultural parochialism that is considered the residue of specialization (162). Given the opportunities as well as challenges of using digital instructional technology and the widening scope and new directions of American Studies by the end of the twentieth century, initiatives such as the publication Engines of Inquiry (Randall Bass, editor, 1997) and the online American Studies Crossroads Project renewed the conversation on pedagogy.  Fast forward to websites in the twenty-first century, however, and you are likely to read of the potential of American Studies pedagogy in best practices more than in philosophy. With this Forum, we aim to extend the conceptualization of American Studies pedagogy as well as note applications of American Studies ideas in classroom teaching, particularly in higher education. Although American Studies scholars frequently cite their distinctness of working in an interdiscipline or intertextual manner, emphasizing context and culture, and encouraging local research forays, often into ordinary lives, it is fair to say that American Studies pedagogy has hardly been standardized, no less widely intellectualized or interpreted (see the entry on American Studies as a Discipline in the EAS). Participating here are four award-winning scholar-teachers immersed in the American Studies movement who have taught in a variety of settings, to include high school, undergraduate, and graduate, as well as in different countries. I asked them to produce concise, provocative statements that would invite comments on the foundational issue of American Studies pedagogy from readers. As in the active classroom, the exchange of ideas in an open forum should advance our awareness of, and participation in, learning.

1. Teaching American Studies and the Problem of Cognitive Style

Jay Mechling, Professor Emeritus of American Studies, University of California, Davis

Even though I have retired from teaching I continue to have an intense interest in the pedagogical issues of the field. I view American Studies as a way of thinking, as a cognitive style, so that leads me to a few general observations.

First, one must abandon the coverage fallacy in designing a course and curriculum. If American Studies tries to define itself by its subject matter, the game is lost. That, for me, is the difference between Americanists and American Studies types. Americanists (small American studies) privilege the materials and ideas; the American Studies type (big American Studies) seeks the connections between cultural systems and between texts. I have a simple test. I tell students about John Kouwenhoven’s passage in The Arts in Modern American Civilization (1967, revision of Made in America published in 1948; see where he quotes the modernist architect Le Corbusier who, upon first seeing the New York skyscrapers, called them hot jazz in steel and stone).  If, I tell students, Kouwenhoven’s subsequent question—“How is jazz music like a skyscraper?"—makes sense to you and seems like an interesting question to puzzle out, then you have the American Studies cognitive style. If the question seems crazy to you, then move on, nothing to see here. In my experience, many students absolutely love this question. That is the intellectual niche and need American Studies (big S) fills.

Whether you can teach a cognitive style or merely help students hone the style they already have, even in embryo form, is a tough question loaded with implications for teaching American Studies. I have written a fairly long essay on this for folklorists (titled, provocatively, You Can’t Teach Folklore in the second volume of the Working Papers of the Center for Folklore Studies at Ohio State University), which readers here can find on the Ohio State University Knowledge Bank. What I say there about teaching students how to think like a folklorist applies to American Studies more generally. Here are some of my operational definitions of an AST (American Studies Thinker):

  • an AST is able to step outside of his/her taken-for granted-reality, what phenomenologists call the natural attitude, and engage in reflexive analysis. For many years we worked on this by having students take the entire ten-week quarter to read and write about the ideas in Berger & Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (1966). The reflexivity is one sort of connection as in C. Wright Mills’ point in The Sociological Imagination (1959) that the goal of sociology is to connect private troubles with public issues.
  • an AST is comfortable playing with ideas and perspectives. In my essay (above) for the folklorists I use Gregory Bateson’s ideas to address the cognitive style both induced and reinforced by play.
  • an AST is comfortable with the particular form of play we expect in interdisciplinary thinking and practice. An AST knows enough about the disciplines (including the natural sciences) to know what ideas and methods from the disciplines can be brought to bear on a particular question. This has implications for both undergraduate and graduate training in AS.
  • an AST is willing to generalize, understanding that generalizations are always tentative, emergent, and subject to change (this betrays my roots in Jamesian pragmatism). Generalizing is not essentializing. It is an absolute requirement of AS. A willingness to generalize is necessary if AS is really going to engage in transnational studies. When I taught a real-time, internet video course linking my classroom with one in Tokyo, we had to figure out how to generalize meaningfully about two cultures.

All of this is shorthand, of course, for a much longer conversation, which I welcome. My reference to play above (as Bateson understood it) is key to thinking about how to operationalize training in the AS cognitive style in the classroom, despite my lingering doubt that the cognitive style can be taught.

Note on Sources

For further context on what I saw here, see the reprint of Gene Wise’s Paradigm Dramas essay and my accompanying commentary in Lucy Maddox’s collection of AQ essays over 50 years, Locating American Studies: The Evolution of a Discipline (1999, Johns Hopkins University Press), and my article, Some [New] Elementary Axioms for an American Cultur[al] Studies,American Studies 38:2 (Summer 1997): 9-30, which builds on Gene Wise’s Some Elementary Axioms for an American Culture Studies essay of 1979 (Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies, 4: 517-47).

2. Questions of Teaching American Studies: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Eric Sandeen, Director and Professor, American Studies Program, University of Wyoming

American Studies pedagogy cannot be extricated from the practice of teaching, the position of the American Studies classroom within the contemporary university, and the history of our field. I entered graduate school in the mid-1970s at what I thought was a transitional moment in American Studies, only to discover that the field is constantly remaking itself. This upheaval creates space for the kinds of probing inquiries that sustain the American Studies classroom. It gives the practitioner the privilege of being a lifelong autodidact, of adapting a career of teaching and scholarship to new bodies of knowledge and changing cultural analyses. It also requires continued self-consciousness about the positioning of the American Studies classroom within universities that would be unrecognizable to our forebears who met in well-supported Ph.D. seminars sixty years ago.

Jay Mechling and Gene Wise were important voices during the upheaval of the first decade of my career as a teacher and scholar in American Studies. For me, as for Jay, American Studies was a movement, a transformative, interdisciplinary domain then producing the second generation of Ph.D. graduates, of whom I was one. Not tied to a body of knowledge, discipline-bound configuration, the field could concentrate on patterns of learning, what Gregory Bateson, one of Jay’s favorites, would have called an ecology of knowledge (Mechling, 1997). Jay’s co-authored piece, entitled American Culture Studies: The Discipline and the Curriculumbut known more colloquially (at least by generations of Wyoming students) as The Davis Manifesto articulated a model for the functioning of a field that would command commitment and encourage inquiry. It merits re-reading (Meredith, Mechling, Wilson, 1973).

At the same time, American Studies received its paradigms and maxims through the work of Gene Wise. Through his articles in American Quarterly and Prospects (1979a, 1979b), the latter the keynote for a conference I co-organized as a graduate student, Gene encouraged us to look at our own history and position disciplinary bodies of knowledge in a process-oriented field. His maxims liberated both students and teachers: American Studies teachers could not claim to know it all; an unobtainable, holistic view of American culture must inevitably be fractured by perspectives gained from class, race, ethnicity, and gender; learning about American culture was best conducted outside the university where classroom ideas were challenged by the everyday world.

However, the universities to which these seminal essays were addressed no longer exists, supplanted by educational institutions in which issues of quality control and efficiency, wrapped in the language of assessment, have changed the basic means of exchange from teaching and learning to supplying and consuming. We are now a small part of the knowledge economy. How we can extend American Studies pedagogy to today’s multinational, corporate university?

The challenge of co-existing with what a recent conference session called the ass- word(Smith 2012) is as great as the organizational questions and debates over field boundaries that obsessed my generation of young academics. How do assessment regimes permit, accommodate, encourage, or even constructively ignore American Studies, other interdisciplinary fields, or, for that matter, the liberal arts in general?

Another fact of academic life, as Michael Berube has pointed out (Berube, 2004), is the internationalization of the university, in which American Studies is as much enmeshed as it was in the cultural nationalism of 1950s institutions. Now, as before, we are engaged in a kind of pedagogical translation, or, perhaps, an anti-institutional subterfuge. Internationalization has been commodified using national systems of value; the transnational moment in American Studies breaks down these monolithic units. Our conception of Americachallenges the easily assumed, place-centered authority of American Studies. How do we remain true to our scholarship and pedagogy, responsive to opportunities without being co-opted by the deal-making of the entrepreneurial university?

Finally, as James Farrell has written (Farrell, 1992), American Studies teaching exploresThe Moral Ecology of Everyday Life. To what degree, then, can our field translate our time-tested concerns for student-based inquiry with current institutionally-valued domains and techniques—social justice, service-learning, and civic engagement?

One of the hallmarks of American Studies is its ability to adapt to institutional circumstances.  Another is its necessary self-consciousness about its own history and the skill of its practitioners in becoming ethnographers of their local academic cultures.  Equally vital, in our latest moment of turmoil, is establishing an American Studies vocabulary for interdisciplinary inquiry that will continue to speak to contemporary circumstances.


Berube, Michael, 2004. The Loyalties of American StudiesAmerican Quarterly 56: 223-233.

Farrell, James, 1992. Introducing American Studies: The Moral Ecology of Everyday Life.American Studies 31: 83-102.

Mechling, Jay, 1997. Some [New] Elementary Axioms for an American Cultur[al] Studies.American Studies 38: 9-30.

Meredith, Robert, David Wilson, and Jay Mechling. 1973.  American Culture Studies: The Discipline and the CurriculumAmerican Quarterly, 25: 363-389.

Smith, Mitch, 2012.  An Academic Expletive.  www.insidehighered.com.

Wise, Gene. 1979a.  Paradigm Dramas in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement.  American Quarterly 31: 293-337.

Wise, Gene. 1979b. Some Elementary Axioms for an American Culture StudiesProspects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies 4: 517-547.

3. Teaching American Studies as a Habit of Mind

Adam Golub, Assistant Professor of American Studies, California State University, Fullerton

In the fall of 2011 I taught my first undergraduate course in American Studies theories and methods at California State University, Fullerton. My main goal in designing the class was to teach students not just what American Studies is, by way of scholarly examples, but to be as explicit as possible about how to do American Studies. I wanted students to leave the course with a practical, portable approach to analyzing culture that would complement their theoretical reading.

I decided to focus the course on the intellectual skills and behaviors that constitute what I consider good thinking in American Studies.  I identified six habits of mind that American Studies scholars employ when they contemplate culture (the habits of mind approach to American Studies is also the subject of my current research project). A habit of mind is a disposition, a usual way of thinking about things.  It is an intellectual behavior we exhibit when confronted with certain situations. I organized my syllabus around six American Studies habits of mind, and assigned readings and papers that would help students understand and cultivate each habit of mind.  I told students that the habits of mind were not steps; they did not have to happen in a particular order.  Rather, they were more like interpretive moves that you could combine in any sequence.

These are the six habits of mind I used to teach theories and methods:

  • Exploring the relationship between identity and culture
  • Seeking out diverse perspectives
  • Placing culture in relevant contexts
  • Studying change over time
  • Interpreting the work of culture
  • Practicing collaboration and public engagement

And here, briefly, is how I defined each:

American Studies helps you think about how culture shapes identity—, how it shapes our personal identity, our social identity, our national and transnational identity. (identity and culture)

It helps you to unearth multiple points of view, including marginalized points of view, and to deconstruct the taken for granted in our culture. (diverse perspectives)

It helps you to analyze culture in a particular time and place, and in a particular social milieu. (context)
It reminds you that culture—and its meaning—is constantly changing throughout history. (change over time)

It helps you figure out the significance of culture, helps you explain the importance of what is being said and what is being done by that film, or that advertisement, or that Fourth of July parade in your town.  (work of culture)

It compels you to enter into dialogue with others as you try to figure all of this out—with other disciplines and with other people. It further invites you to find some way to clearly communicate the new knowledge you have acquired to a broader public. (collaboration and public engagement)

I explained to my students that there are two occasions, broadly defined, when we would want the American Studies habits of mind to kick into gear.

First occasion: when we are confronted with something new, something different, something challenging in the culture around us. Such as a story we cannot decipher.  Or an image that resonates powerfully for a reason we can’t quite put our finger on. Or a social ritual whose function is not immediately apparent. 

Second occasion: when we confront the commonplace in our culture.  When we reconsider the taken for granted things in our lives.When we find ourselves asking, Why is it this way, and not another way? Why is this the norm? Why is this so popular? What’s missing here?

On both occasions, we would draw on the habits of mind when we want to figure out what something means. When we want to understand the ideas and assumptions that are being communicated (or subverted) by various forms of cultural expression. The habits of mind kick into gear when we contemplate culture—, because culture is where and how meaning happens. The habits of mind help us analyze and pose questions about culture—,both the new and the familiar.

Organizing a theories and methods class around the six habits of mind helped me group together sundry theoretical readings and also gave students a focused way to think about each reading (for example, I taught Benedict Anderson with identity, Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark with diverse perspectives, Jean Howard and New Historicism with context, Dick Hebdige with work of culture, and so on). This approach also helped me stay focused on practical application throughout the semester. For each new habit of mind, I gave students the opportunity to practice using it to analyze cultural documents, both in class and on their own.

Student response so far has been very positive. In course evaluations, one student wrote, I thought the [habits] of mind that the class was structured around helped tremendously to drive the class. Most theory classes are memorizing names and ideas, but this class really allowed you to grasp concepts in an interesting way.Another remarked, The deeper analysis of the habits of mind really got me thinking about the cultural work of various things that I encounter daily.One student wrote in her final paper, These… habits of mind help one to find meaning in not only the obvious information, but also the information that is withheld from the reader.Another stated, These ‘habits of mind’ help to articulate and clarify connections that make for a well-rounded understanding of a given topic.

The habits of mind approach offers teachers a way to integrate American Studies in a variety of classroom settings: in high school, college, or university; in English, History, Ethnic Studies, Gender Studies, Media Studies, and so forth. It also provides an opportunity to redirect the energy American Studies practitioners have expended debating whether or not the field of American Studies has a discrete method or canon, and focus instead on explicating what constitutes good thinkingin American Studies, and discussing how exactly we can teach that. In short, a habit of mind approach encourages us to conceive of American Studies more broadly as a mode of inquiry that can—and should—be taught to students across grade levels and disciplines (see Golub 2008).

My approach to teaching theories and methods is just one approach, and the course is most definitely a work in progress. I appreciate the opportunity to share my ideas in this forum, and I welcome feedback and continued discussion about how we teach American Studies. A copy of my syllabus can be found here.


Golub, Adam. Are What We Teach: American Studies in the K-16 Classroom American Quarterly 60 (2008): 443-54.

4. Teaching American Studies Well

Matthias Oppermann, Senior Research Associate, Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship, Georgetown University

I have thought about the existence of signature pedagogies for American Studies a lot. Much of my thinking has revolved around some basic questions: Are there universal patterns of teaching that are pervasive with the vast majority of American Studies curricula? Are there pedagogies that have become inextricably identifiable with our field?

I cannot think of any. If by teaching American Studies we refer to instruction about the complexities of American cultures, then I do not believe that there is something unique that distinguishes this activity from providing instruction in related interdisciplinary or disciplinary fields, nor do I believe that American Studies is exceptional in its lack of a distinctive pedagogy. I do believe, however, that we should ask ourselves what distinguishes teaching American Studies from teaching it well. Below I hope to offer some partial answers to this question.

What distinguishes teaching American Studies from teaching it well is the degree to which our teaching takes student learning seriously. Teaching well is to value learning (as the creation of intellectual communities) more than instruction (as the transmission of knowledge). Teaching American Studies well means to put students in a position of accountability and visibility and to create authentic assignments that allow them to profess their understanding to an audience beyond the classroom. Teaching American Studies well is to allow both novice and expert learners to work at the edge of their competencies, and to prepare them to make decisions and to act in the face of uncertainty. Teaching American Studies well means to understand that student learning must be as disruptive, conflictual, dialogic and transformative as American cultures themselves. In order to teach American Studies well we must create environments that allow students to approximate expert epistemologies of our field so they can actively confront the multilingual, multicultural, and transnational dynamics of their social realities.

Teaching American Studies well is to understand that the messiness characterizing the historical construction of transnational and multicultural communities of difference must take precedence over the routine instruction in isolated and representative literary works, authors, periods, or events. Teaching American Studies well is to recognize that intersecting flows of people, ideas, and power across national borders demand a teaching situation that is not only increasingly more comparative and transnational in focus but also driven by new modes of cultural production that go beyond the traditional concept of textuality that still dominates much of American Studies scholarship.

We can draw on the work of many colleagues who have, for many years, grappled with the question of how to teach American Studies well. We may find useful John Carlos Rowe’s vision for comparative US cultures courses(12) that are based on a canon of social situations, and we could explore the pedagogical implications of Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of the contact zoneor Günter H. Lenz’s notion of the dialogics of American culture studies qua border discourses. We can build on Sherry Linkon’s latest work on literary learning as well as on her earlier research on making interdisciplinarity visible to students (Interdisciplinarity 449). We can learn from Edward Gallagher who noticed that the ability to enter and sustain a conversation in a disciplinary context was a fundamental learning goal that was never explicitly taught, and who redesigned his American literature course around the use of an electronic discussion board. To teach American Studies well, we can learn more about how Lynne Adrian wondered how digital tools could improve social learning in her American Lives course and eventually discovered different types of open-ended questions that helped her students to develop multiple perspectives and higher-order critical thinking skills. To teach American Studies well, we can draw on the work of Randy Bass whose American Studies Crossroads Project served as a clearinghouse for curricular innovation in our field for more than a decade, and who continues to spearhead research on student learning in the humanities.

Teaching American Studies well is to know how experts in the field are changing what it means to do American Studies, and how our students are changing their learning, and that American studies pedagogy has always been, and continues to be, a site of generative tensions between these two trajectories. Teaching American studies well is to understand that these tensions are not only desirable, but necessary to identify those new modes of learning that will allow tomorrow’s students to deepen their inquiries and to communicate their questions and understandings in multiple languages, beyond borders, and across disciplinary epistemologies.


Adrian, Lynne M. Trace Evidence: How New Media Can Change What We Know About Student Learning. Academic Commons. Wabash College, 2009. Web. 15 Feb. 2012.http://www.academiccommons.org/commons/essay/trace-evidence

Bass, Randy, and Bret Eynon, eds. Engines of Inquiry: Approaches to Teaching, Learning, and Technology in American Culture Studies. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: American Studies Crossroads Project, 2003.

Gallagher, Edward. Improving the Discussion Board. Lehigh University, 2006. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. http://www.lehigh.edu/~indiscus/

Lenz, Guenter H. Towards a Dialogics of International American Culture Studies: Transnationality, Border Discourses, and Public Culture(s).The Futures of American Studies. Ed. Donald Pease and Robyn Wiegman, 461-458. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2002.

Linkon, Sherry. Literary Learning. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2011.

_______. Making Interdisciplinarity Visible.Engines of Inquiry. Approaches to Teaching, Learning, and Technology in American Culture Studies. 2nd ed. Ed. Randy Bass and Bret Eynon, 444-453. Washington, DC: American Studies Crossroads Project, 2003.

Oppermann, Matthias. American Studies in Dialogue. Radical Reconstructions between Curriculum and Cultural Critique. Frankfurt: Campus, 2010.

_______. Writing in ‘That Other Space’: Digital Storytelling and the Scholarship of Teaching in American Studies.Teaching American Studies in the Twenty-First Century. Spec. issue of Amerikastudien/American Studies 52.3 (2007): 321-341.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Arts of the Contact Zone.Profession 91 New York: MLA (1991): 33-40.

Rowe, John Carlos. The New American Studies. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2002.