Our Department

What is American Studies?

American Studies is a field defined not only by the critical questions it asks but by the interdisciplinary methods it uses to answer those questions. In considering the United States as a cultural, ideological, geographical and historical formation, students of American Studies examine how cultural configurations of and within the nation-state operate as social forces, contested archives of change, loci of power and resistance, and sites historical meaning and memory. How are ideologies and arrangements in the U.S. amplified, altered, challenged or contested? American Studies seeks to address these questions by critically examining how ideas and assumptions about the U.S. have been constituted through a range of competing, corroborating and resistant discourses.

Early years of American Studies at Barnard College

Barnard’s American Studies program is one of the oldest in the country. With roots in pre-World War II military mobilization, the program was initially envisioned as one among many “patriotic efforts,” that, in Gildersleeve’s later words, included “American Studies, […] National Defense Training, […] the WAVES of the Navy and […] the creation of the United Nations Charter at San Francisco in 1945.”

From the outset, the American Studies major was a collaboration between the humanities and the social sciences. Reynard, an English professor, initially proposed the program to a committee of Barnard social scientists that included a historian, an economist, a sociologist, and a political scientist. When the major, which included a year-long course, was ultimately approved in 1939, political scientist Elspeth Davies Rostow delivered the first lecture in American Studies. In an interview with Professor Lisa Gordis, Rostow recalled the lecture’s “self-congratulatory conclusion” and the program’s alignment with U.S. global aspirations. American Studies was “to combine the attitudes of the various social sciences” and to “[trace] the course of 5 major institutions in American life–from colonial beginnings when our continent was an unimportant periphery to the western world to the present, when its POWER IS CAPABLE OF SHIFTING AND EVEN DIRECTING THE COURSE OF WORLD HISTORY.”

By 1942, the major’s signature year-long lecture course included nineteen different speakers drawn from anywhere between five and eight Barnard and Columbia departments. Noted American Studies pioneer and English professor John Kouwenhoven inspired Barnard students like Annette K. Baxter ’47, Linda K. Kerber ‘61 and Estelle Friedman ‘69 to pursue academic careers in the field. Nevertheless, the administrative headaches were many. As Rostow noted in an early report, “It is not, obviously, a simple task to create and run a course in which five departments participate. To avoid a ‘Vaudeville’ program should be, despite difficulty, the main objective of any such course.” Borrowing faculty from established departments put the American Studies Program on unsteady footing. Between 1949 and 1952, the program faltered, and was only revived as the now renamed American Studies Program in 1952 with a $75,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation.

At Barnard, as elsewhere, such cold war funding underwrote the anti-Communist appropriation of American Studies. When the Carnegie Endowment gave what was now called Barnard’s “American Civilization Program” the  grant, it was for an annual series of public lectures that dwelled on themes like “The Search for New Standards in Modern America” and “American Business.” Carnegie’s interest in creating what Inderjeet Parmar calls “an enlightened internationalist citizenry that would back American global leadership” underscores the increasingly imperial aims of American Studies.

Recent History

By the late twentieth century, Barnard’s program was inviting its majors not only to question and critique American exceptionalism, but also to interrogate the nation’s approach to global leadership. College support for the program was nevertheless limited, despite the active role played by noted professors of women’s history, including Annette K. Baxter and Rosalind Rosenberg. Because the program had been folded into the History Department, there was little differentiation between a History major and American Studies major. Former Director Beth Bailey, an Assistant Professor of History who administered the program in the early 90s, recalls that American Studies had only three majors when she took over in 1989. Other than its one-semester junior colloquium and year-long senior thesis, the major could only offer sporadic field-specific courses—often a one-off by a visiting scholar or grant-sponsored initiative.

Between 2008-2009, American Studies entered into a faculty working group on ethnicity and race, a group that coalesced in response to student activism in support of a Race and Ethnic Studies program. The working group, an offshoot of the Ford Foundation Difficult Dialogues seminar, began formulating an interdisciplinary Concentration and Minor in Race and Ethnicity (ICORE/MORE) that would forge institutional connections between interdisciplinary programs committed to ICORE/MORE’s intellectual priorities. The result was the Consortium of Critical Interdisciplinary Studies (CCIS), a collaborative formation that united Africana Studies, American Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) in a tripartite commitment to research and curricular development on questions of power and social difference in a transnational context. CCIS marked American Studies’ shift from its historic moorings in a WWII/cold war vocabulary of U.S. exceptionalism, to an emerging focus on interdisciplinary critiques of power.

In 2019, the College authorized the departmentalization of American Studies, a sign of its singular relevance to the critical challenges facing twenty-first-century Barnard student.