Forgoing the obvious (that I was fascinated by the material), I majored in American Studies because my older sister told me it was cool. I would be a cool freshman if I got into American Studies. (She also told me I should DJ at WXYC and to get into the noise scene in town, but those were next-level cool for me. I never got to that level.) And it appeared that she was right. The students in my first American Studies classes were cool. They exuded rebellious self-expression, relaxed self-possession, some sort of innate charisma, all with an academic edge. And on a campus that segregates divisively on the Greek/non-Greek line, American Studies appeared to be able to pull in all sects of people. Political (if not racial) diversity and disagreement were in every classroom. I was seventeen, and I was hooked. Through to my last year in college, I viewed the discipline as the edgier younger sister of History, unafraid to sneak out at night to hang out with Social Activism, to tryst with the Gender Studies department.
These thoughts on American Studies were not taught to me, but delivered via what I believe to be the trustiest method of transportation–vibes. I’m only a week into graduate school now, so I can only guess that graduate school is when the faculty decides you’re committed enough to the discipline to teach you the history of it. And maybe you can guess how satisfied I was to learn that my vibes were not unfounded. To be taught that American Studies is the field created by the unsatisfied–Nay! The insatiable!–where the unhappy meet, find common ground despite disparate disciplines, and create work of present relevance. To find that American Studies isn’t just the defiant younger sibling of History, but of Literature, Sociology, Psychology, and Anthropology. To learn that American Studies has a history of radicalism and of protest. To discover that my superficiality wasn’t totally speculative!
On my second day of TA-ing for an introductory American Studies class, students were asked that question which, as a undergrad, I found to be worthless: Why are you in this class? For the first time, I found myself interested in the hackneyed answers: “I really like American history; I took 101 and wanted more of the same; I’m a History major and I’m looking for a different way to look at history.” And very commonly: “I just found out about this department and I’m just really interested to learn more about it.” All familiar answers, yet still quite revealing. But not revealing enough. How do undergraduate students get into American Studies? Do they, like the scholars of the 20s and 30s, find themselves unsatisfied with the constraints of the History or English departments? Are they attracted to the emphasis placed on academic freedom? Or the practice of reflexiveness and the tendency of American Studies to continually self-evaluate? I want to know. I want to think students are better than I was four years ago, that they’re in an American Studies class for a reason stronger than its cool factor. Although I’ll still be the first to tell you: American Studies is cool.