Learning American Studies: Three Perspectives from High School to Graduate School

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

1. Being an American. By Isabelle Culpepper (The Lovett School, Atlanta, GA)
2. Learning American Studies: An Education Anyone Can Use. By Molly Fay (La Salle University, Philadelphia)
3. Learning What It Means to Be an American. By Brant Ellsworth (Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg)

Introduction

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

Although teaching is a component of learning, there is much more discussion on instructional pedagogy than on how students, particularly those in integrated and interdisciplinary studies such as American Studies with goals of “connected learning,” process and apply knowledge. In the theory behind connected learning is a counter-disciplinary premise that presented with problems, students should be taught to find patterns across subjects. In other words, they thematize knowledge and find correspondences in an assortment of evidence to arrive at conclusions, or rather, interpretations taken from different vantages. For American Studies there is also an implication of relevance to contemporary issues apparent in references within learning objectives and goals of many courses to interpret American culture and society, both past and present.  The EAS Forum previous to this one (no. 3) was devoted to “Teaching American Studies” and with its professorial contributors, it contained suggestions from the instructor’s side of the classroom that such a thematic or cognitive style constituted a distinction of American Studies pedagogy. But if professors or curators encode knowledge in this style, do their audiences decode it as the teachers intend? The question remains as to how and what people learn, or perceive they have gained, when presented with an “American Studies approach,” whether in the lecture hall, exhibition, seminar, essay, or public program. Another aspect of this inquiry are the institutional settings in which learning occurs and the difference across the life course. In the three essays here, representatives speak to these questions from their seats in high school, undergraduate, and graduate school classrooms. My hope is that this inquiry can be expanded to other venues as American Studies scholars contemplate not only what they know but how they know. 

1. Being an American

by Isabelle Culpepper (The Lovett School, Atlanta, GA)

Having completed American Studies coursework in high school the spring before the 2012 presidential election, I learned more than anything else how to be a citizen. Prior to studying America through art, literature, and history, I had a limited grasp of what it means to be a citizen of this amazing country. In fact, I found European history, with all its sordid details, to be infinitely more interesting. However, while taking a special course titled “American Studies,” I was forced to expand both the knowledge of my country and my place in it, something that is impossible while studying solely history.

American Studies is a course that has changed my life because it taught me about our extraordinary history in a way that allowed me to immerse myself in American culture. Before taking this class, I made sure to educate myself about politics in order to be a knowledgeable and active citizen, but I did not really appreciate the sacrifices and achievements that were made to allow me to do this. For example, in the beginning of the American Studies curriculum, I learned about the exclusivity of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in history. The next period I went to English to read the transcript of Anne Hutchison’s trial, and then we discussed her subsequent expulsion from that colony. With the historical aspect of American history, I became aware of exactly what we have attained and what we have failed to do as a nation. In English, I was able to use my understanding of history as a foundation for the study of American culture through art and literature. The fusion of literature and history helped me, as a student, to understand what American culture truly is. Before American Studies, I was rather unaware of what it means to be an American. In fact, I was rather critical of this country in comparison to the “enlightened” Europeans that I had studied in AP European History. However, when I saw John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, for example, I was floored that I had been so remiss in taking the time learn about the rich traditions that America has in its past and will have in its future.

Making these connections in American Studies is in no way an easy task, because it constantly forced me to find pattern across areas that would be divided in the curriculum.  Notably, citizenship is one key pattern or theme that came across to me, but it is not the only one. Not everyone “got it,” but for me I felt able to make mental leaps, to take risks, and to get out of my scholastic comfort zone, otherwise known as the shelter of a confining discipline. Not only does this kind of learning centered on solving problems by finding pattern prepare me for college, it also allows me to come to my own conclusions about the world. I have always been independent, but American Studies has truly allowed me to become more analytical, and I feel more comfortable in making my own mature decisions. In all, taking American Studies has enabled me to grow as a person, but more importantly as an American. 

Note

Established in 1926 by Eva Edwards Lovett, an innovative educator who emphasized the development of the whole child, the Lovett School that bears her name is an independent, coeducational day school in Atlanta serving children from kindergarten through grade 12. The Lovett School's American Studies Institute is devoted to “Connecting Across Disciplines.”

2. Learning American Studies: An Education Anyone Can Use

By Molly Fay 
(La Salle University, Philadelphia)

Following my enrollment as an undergraduate, I was often asked, “What is American Studies?”  Generally, my pre-college response would be something along the lines of “Well, it is sort of a hybrid between history and anthropology, but focused on the United States.”  It was not until the conclusion of my first American Studies class that I could conceptualize the discipline.

Three years into my undergraduate degree, I have found a new, though elementary, answer to that inevitable question, “What is American Studies?”  In the most basic, recognizable language, American Studies is with what you learn a “be whatever you want to be when you grow up” major.  Outside of science-based careers,  in my opinion, a degree in American Studies is applicable to any facet of American life. 

A great pillar in my learning through American Studies has been to make connections, even if instructors did not always describe the class objective this way. If one word describes American Studies, “connections” is the perfect fit.  Unfortunately, my fellow students do not always recognize the links to understanding.  Personally, connecting material was not a priority in my education until college.  I recognize in retrospect how I fell short numerous times in my early learning because I failed to understand how topics were related.  My teachers failed to create environments for me to make connections.  American Studies reversed that trend.

Learning American Studies means laying a foundation to comprehend cultural traits of a complex and significant country in a global context.  A balance of history, literature, philosophy, art, music, religion, and science creates students that are well rounded and well-informed.  In observing my peers, I have noticed that while most are skilled in certain disciplines, they often lack a solid foundation of general knowledge.  American Studies offers an opportunity to fill the gaps of high school curricula and build their wisdom in multiple disciplines and prepare for almost any career on the market.

In a time when heavy emphasis is placed on education for the work place rather than the enhancement of life experience, American Studies bridges the gap to give students a major that they can both use and enjoy.  In the business world, understanding the culture of customers, employees, partners, and stockholders is just as important as understanding financing, forecasting, and marketing.  How can a company develop a product for a market that they do not know?  American Studies provides for any student, regardless of learning style, the opportunity to discover the world around them.

College students around me operate under the presumption, or fallacy, that the college years are the best of your life.  Unfortunately, that view typically takes in one’s social experience rather than enjoyment in one’s collegiate studies.  Pleasure in academia seems to be a distant recollection for today’s college student.  All too often, undergraduate courses are considered “boring,” “dull,” and “tedious.”  One could ascertain that students will probably not recall those classes.  But they will remember, even love, the classes where they connected, laughed, and learned—American Studies.  American Studies is so multidimensional that any one can find a topic they enjoy.  Dare I say it:  A discipline exists that does not polarize utility and happiness. 

Note

Established in 1863, La Salle University is a private, co-educational, Roman Catholic university (Christian Brothers), located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is committed to providing a liberal education of both general and specialized studies. American Studies at the school is an interdisciplinary B.A. program that examines American society and culture, both past and present.

3. Learning What It Means to Be an American.

By Brant Ellsworth (Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg)

I entered college full of confidence and ambition. After years of positive reinforcement from parents, peers, and teachers, I was sure that the path to professional success and financial security was all but guaranteed. However, after switching majors three times during my first three semesters, I appeared to be the noncommittal transient student my parents had warned me not to become. I wandered from department to department, finding momentary shelter but never an academic home.

During my fourth semester at Brigham Young University, I enrolled in American Heritage 100, a general elective course that explored the political founding of America. On the first day of class, I crammed into a cavernous auditorium filled with eight hundred other students. As just a face in the crowd, I doubted that the professor would be able to reach me. I cannot remember specifically what the professor said that day or any day, but I do remember how he taught and that he made the subject relevant to me in ways that other professors had not. Over the course of the semester, this professor sparked my curiosity, leading me to question what it meant to be an American and why American people, institutions, and customs are the way they are. Suddenly, in this early stage of my collegiate experience my footing in the world became less sure and my worldview became topsy-turvy.

I enrolled in more courses within American Studies and found that other teachers approached their subject through a similar pedagogical style where, in the quest for understanding American identities and history, no subject matter was too sacred or too taboo for in-depth examination and questioning. In the American Studies classroom, professors taught that the creators and products of popular culture shaped American culture and customs just as much as those of the high arts did. Bart Simpson and Coney Island were as influential to aspects of America as were the Presidents or Pearl Harbor. The landfill was as viable a location for examining the past as was the National Archives. Such a perspective was more in line with my personal views. Advances in transportation, communication, and technology were pivotal to my understanding of and interactions with the world. In the academic landscape of the university,  American Studies as taught by professors seemed to be a discipline that encouraged unconventional exploration. As a learning experience from the student side, it engaged me in uncovering answers to questions of identity.

Out of engagement with American Studies, the distilled, top-down version of American history that, in my ignorance, I had accepted as fact was replaced with messy histories that examined the perspective of the people from the peripheries. The intersections of multicultural, multilingual, and transnational peoples, ideas, and powers complicated my understanding of and my place in the world. Words like “hegemony” and “counter-hegemony” led me to question assumptions and stereotypes and recognize the complexities of modernity. In the end, in American Studies I found my academic home, my career, and my passion.

Note

The author refers to his undergraduate American Studies experience at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, a private comprehensive university sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The American Studies Program offers the B.A. and a minor in Western American Studies. Its website describes American Studies as a discipline devoted to examination of the sweep of American experience, society, culture, and civilization from a variety of viewpoints.  The author also bases his comments on graduate work toward the Ph.D. in American Studies at the Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg (it also offers the B.A. and M.A. in addition to a certificate program in Heritage and Museum Practice). Its website gives learning goals and objectives for the Program, described as one that “integrates perspectives on United States history, culture, and society, and represents a vibrant academic field with its own theories, methods, and applications.”