Overview of the Department
One of the first institutions to offer courses in American Studies, the University of Texas began its long association with the emerging field in 1941, when Henry Nash Smith returned to his native Texas. Smith, an early leader in the field and the first to earn a Ph.D. in Harvard’s new American Civilization program, inaugurated a lengthy tradition of interdisciplinary scholarship in Austin. Since then, American Studies at UT has grown steadily over the decades in national reputation, in the number and interdisciplinary breadth of its course offerings, and in the influence of its graduates in a wide range of endeavors.
At its inception during the Great Depression, the field of American Studies investigated concepts such as national identity and national character, in addition to unpacking dominant American archetypes and myths like the frontier, the American dream, and rugged individualism. These concepts proved culturally useful during the volatile years of the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. In the last thirty-five years, the field has expanded beyond this initial focus, to consider race, gender, class, and sexuality as fundamental to any consideration of American culture. Moreover, the field has transcended its initial dependence on the disciplines of history and English, to include virtually all areas of the humanities and social sciences; and it has significantly broadened its scale of analysis to study the United States in its increasingly globalized contexts.
The University's American Studies thirteen core faculty reflect these emerging trends and exhibit considerable breadth in their teaching and scholarly research. With advanced degrees in Geography, Government, History, and Women’s Studies, in addition to American Studies, they have expertise in the following areas: American social and religious thought, cultural geography, political theory, documentary film, women’s and gender studies, American literature, public memory, psychology, history of childhood, beauty culture and consumerism, food studies, photography, technology, design, law, tourism, material culture, animal studies, alcohol and drugs, popular culture, history of education, American radicalism, social movements, transnationalism, and race and ethnicity, especially African American, Asian American, and Mexican American cultures. Beyond the core faculty, the department draws on the expertise of its more than fifty affiliate members, who come from administrative units across the university, including Architecture; Art History; English; Radio, Television, and Film; and Theater and Dance, to name just a few. Regardless of specialization, the American Studies faculty is dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of the myriad historical and contemporary cultures of the United States, in both domestic and transnational settings.
Although the field of American Studies is too small to be included in national surveys that rank large departments or professional schools, the Department of American Studies at Texas is widely regarded as one of the top American Studies programs or departments in the United States, out of a total of about 150 at four-year institutions, of which twenty-eight award the Ph.D. About half of the department's Ph.D. recipients since 1970 have published their dissertations as books. Most have entered college and university teaching, securing tenure-track positions in recent years at such institutions as Miami University of Ohio, New York University, Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers University, Tulane University, University of California, Davis, University of Illinois, University of Virginia, and the University of Wisconsin. Two graduates have served as college presidents, at least three as university deans, and several as department chairs. Many have won awards for their work, including a MacArthur Fellowship (“genius grant”) and a Pulitzer Prize. Others are active as journalists, public servants, and museum curators. Two of its long-time faculty members have served as Presidents of the American Studies Association, William H. Goetzmann (in 1976) and Shelley Fisher Fishkin (in 2004).
While the faculty maintains national visibility as scholars, winning research grants and publishing books, all of them teach undergraduates and graduate students in small courses that encourage free exploration of ideas. Owing to the small size of the department relative to larger traditional departments, undergraduates often do not discover the American Studies major until the junior year when they are looking for a concentration that will allow them to combine a variety of interests in a uniquely personal vision. At the same time, the department has sought ways of introducing its interdisciplinary approach to a wider range of undergraduates. For the past several years, "Introduction to American Studies," a lower-division course with about 200 students, has employed traditional lecture techniques and digital technology to introduce students to the major. This course augments a series of lower-division seminars that introduce small groups of students to interdisciplinary American Studies methodologies applied to topics as varied as architecture, film, Latino/a culture, American education, popular culture, religion, and science fiction. At the upper-division level, the department requires students to take a year-long cultural history survey from the colonial period to the present and three specialized seminars taught by senior faculty in their areas of expertise.
The Department of American Studies attracts graduate applicants from across the United States, and the world, with more than a hundred competing each year for about eight places. Although a few seek only the M.A., returning to positions in such fields as journalism, historic preservation, and museum work, most eventually enroll as doctoral students. Our graduate students display impressive diversity in their personal backgrounds, prior educational tracks, and previous career experiences, with the result that graduate seminars are refreshingly interdisciplinary simply in their enrollment. Given the small faculty and the relatively small number of incoming students each year, faculty and students work together closely, and the department enjoys high morale and a definite esprit de corps. The most promising doctoral candidates are invited to teach carefully supervised lower-division seminars in the areas of their dissertation expertise usually for two years. While giving them a definite advantage in the tight job market faced by new Ph.D.s, these courses also expose undergraduates to the enthusiasm of new scholars and teachers. The department is proud of the fact that its graduate students are required to conceive and write dissertations that are expected to be ready for book publication with only minor revisions.
The department's undergraduate majors have attained success in an even wider array of occupations: teaching, journalism, public service, business, software development, literature, filmmaking, and music performance and recording. We believe that American Studies encourages boundary-jumping interdisciplinary modes of perceiving, thinking, and acting that have enabled our graduates to understand and to negotiate the multicultural diversity of contemporary American life, and to thrive in virtually all areas of cultural work.