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Selected Theses in American Studies, 1966–2007
From kitchen to courtroom and back again: legal reform for married women prior to 1920
Carol Walters Hepburn ’75
The bleachers and the box seats too: a history of the Beavers and Vaughn Street
Dean A. Kertesz ’77
Illegal Mexican immigrants: where would the L.A. garment industry be without them?
Joann Lombardo ’78
Sinners’ prayer: a study of collective improvisation in American jazz
Jordan A. Simmons ’78
Policies and programs: the politics of long term care for the aged
Steven R. Miller ’78
Extinction or evolution?: environmental crisis, Deep Ecology, Earth First! and the choice before us
Phillip Matthew Bender ’91
The jester as historian: Doonesbury and the Nixon years
William B. Swarts, IV ’92
Many of these academics disputed the claim that there was or ever had been a common or shared “American” culture or ideal; different groups were seen to have had their own ideas about key concepts such as democracy and freedom. New queries reflected the question asked by ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the title of his 1852 speech: “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

By the 1980s and 1990s, American Studies scholars increasingly focused on the production, consumption, and influence of twentieth-century American mass culture. Americans and others have both lauded and lamented late capitalist culture and commodities, which have come to symbolize America to the rest of the world. Such analyses often assume that late twentieth-century political and economic structures have fragmented social life, and ask whether (or how) people form a sense of national identity, and/or how they fashion group identities, based on commonalities in their consumption of commodities (including literature), their sex/gender or ethnic/racial identities, or their sense of region or place. American Studies scholars produced historical and literary studies of consumer culture, women’s experience, and African American and immigrant identity. They also looked with new eyes at the American West and its inhabitants, from the perspectives of environmental history, Native American cultures, and Chicano/a conquest and cultural exchange in the borderlands of the Southwest.

Current American Studies scholars have expanded upon many of these traditional concerns, especially the problem of U.S. imperialism, past and present, and America’s role in the cultural and economic phenomena of global capitalism and transnational politics. The question of how a coherent nation has been constructed and reconstructed in the past and present has also received new scrutiny. The heterogeneous composition of peoples, the shifting borders of what constitutes that ever-changing nation and citizenship in it, are objects of study. How do people who describe themselves as “Americans” imagine and reinvent that country and its relation to the rest of the world?

Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, these old questions about American exceptionalism have taken on new meaning. Is America really unique in the world, or is this a widely held delusion that leads to American-centered policy making? As Americans have taken up arms and sides in the war in Iraq, claims about American identity, citizenship, and democracy have been deployed in language and policy. Earlier this year, for instance, a military official described the war in an NPR interview as follows: “The U.S. Army is in Iraq, America is at the mall.” By so doing, he simultaneously linked and divided battlefield and homeland, military and civilian, the economics of war and consumer culture. The renewed debate over immigration policies has also shown how Americans periodically contest and redraw our own national boundaries, both political and geographical, and redefine the conditions for American citizenship. Will this prove to be the Anti-American Century? American Studies scholars don’t have all the answers, but their past and current work on American culture can help put such questions in perspective.

My thesis allowed me to examine whether and how the development of public school choice was enabled by struggles surrounding school desegregation.

Read more about the thesis of Robin Blanc ’07

Forty years of theses by Reed American Studies majors reflect the wider concerns of the national field. Predictably, Reed has sent numbers of students off to do graduate work in American Studies—though with equally predictable Reedie perversity, most of these would-be Ph.D.s did not do undergraduate theses in American Studies. I caught up with two current graduate students (both at Yale) to get their views on the state of the field. What does it mean to them to pursue an advanced degree in American Studies, especially at this historical moment?