UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Ask Bobby #12
September 25, 2023

What is American Studies?

texts written and edited by members of the American Studies program flank the space outside the director´s office on the fifth floor of Wheatley Hall
Negar Mortazavi
texts written and edited by members of the American Studies program flank the space outside the director´s office on the fifth floor of Wheatley Hall

What is American Studies? That’s a question that American Studies director Lois Rudnick and the 69 undergraduate majors enrolled in the program hear a lot. But, as Rudnick and others tell skeptics, being involved in a field of study without the finite lines of one discipline can be beneficial. “It’s very rare for someone to come here from a high school and ever have heard of American Studies,” says Rudnick. “What I say is that American Studies uses every single possible discipline: politics, sociology, anthropology, popular culture, media studies, history, literature, to help examine, explain, understand, the society and culture of the United States in its historical context.” The program offers around 40 courses, which are often cross-listed with other departments. The professors teaching within the program are a reflection of the major itself, drawing from other disciplines housed within the university.

Rudnick, who has headed the American Studies program since 1983, also teaches courses for the English department. Professors Shirley Tang and Esther Kingston-Mann, both hold joint-appointments with American Studies as well as Asian American Studies and History respectively.

“We really try to honor the interdisciplinary -the way in which we try to understand the United States without disciplinary boundaries blocking our view so that we can have a rich and full understanding of why things have been the way they are, why they work the way they do,” says Rudnick of the infusion of her faculty into other departments.”We’re not drawing departmental lines around us, we’re keeping ourselves open and collaborative with other departments who teach in fields that are important to understanding US society and culture,” she says.

Rudnick contends that, like any humanities or liberal arts degree, American Studies does not prepare students for any particular profession as graduate and advanced study are necessary to do so. However, she continues that what the major does do is lay the foundation for a number of different career and academic paths.The program has attracted students interested in pursuing careers in teaching, law school, government, and non-profit work. According to Rudnick graduates have parleyed their degree into careers with the peace corps, and have even taught in international settings. “I cant’ say that American Studies is going to put you in a better position than History or Political Science or Sociology or English in terms of getting some undefined job out in the world after you receive your BA,” Rudnick tells students in her introductory courses. However, she continues that, “What it will give you is very rich, very broad, and very critical ways of understanding how this country functions, how its culture has been constructed, how race and gender issues compare with one another across the lines of different aspects of culture, of history, of society.” The introductory course in American Studies, American Identities has spun-off into a text book created for high school and college students tackling American History since 1945. Rudnick, along with contributing editors Judith Smith and Rachel Rubin, has compiled American Identities: An Introductory Reader to be distributed by Blackwell Publishers.

The material for the text includes music, photography, literature, and pop cultural references. The text, due for release next fall, was accumulated through teaching the course not only at UMass Boston, but in a collaboration with a Cambridge Rindge and Latin program that allows high school students to earn college credit while taking the course. “The American Studies Founder’s Award” is now offered for American Studies majors at UMB. The $350 award is sponsored by former English professor and founder of American Studies at UMass Boston, Seymour Katz. It will be given this May to a student who has demonstrated outstanding work within the program and secured the recommendation of at least two of the faculty. Along with the addition of the founder’s award, the program is also in the process of hiring a new faculty member to replace the void left in the African American history and culture realm of the program with the loss of Professor Deborah Whaley two years ago.

Rudnick is excited to welcome the new addition to the American Studies program. She is proud of the intellectual excitement and commitment of the faculty involved with the American Studies program. “We’re very hands on,” she says. “The mentoring here, I think, is very good. I meet almost every student who becomes a major…If you call up, you’ve got a problem, I’ll deal with it.”