The End of the World
as They Knew It
American Studies Seminar
Why the Web?
Back in the 1960s when the American Studies Program was founded at Reed College, the core of the major, required of all majors but open to others as well, was a half-course called "Introduction to American Studies," a survey of American historiography and of selected primary texts from 1600 to the present. In the 1970s when budget cuts took place, "Introduction to American Studies" disappeared from the curriculum, along with Black Studies. Given the college's current financial well being and the rise of Cultural Studies more broadly as a field of interest, we have decided to return a version of Introduction to American Studies to the books, though in an updated format.
Today, introductions to American Studies are generally taught in three ways: (1) a survey of the theory of American Studies; (2) a survey of American texts from the colonial period to the present; or (3) an in depth exploration of a particular period. Since the goal for the American Studies staff was to teach students to read, discuss, and write about texts in a truly interdisciplinary way, we felt that a course that combined an introduction to methodology with an in depth look at a specific period would best allow students to meet these goals. "American Studies Seminar: The End of the World as They Knew It" was born.
"The End of the World as They Knew It" begins with a review of the basic questions facing practitioners of American Studies and the Apocalypse. This question of methodology is in no way solved: American Studies is a field in process, rather than one of strict boundaries. The course then proceeds to examine three aspects of life and culture in colonial New England, 1620-1720: Native Communities, Hope for the Apocalypse, and Despair.
What is Problem-based learning?
Problem-based learning is a new approach for teaching interdisciplinary studies. One of the great problems new researchers face in interdisciplinary studies is how to teach people to reach across disciplines and boundaries in new ways. Problem-based learning argues that the best way to teach people to do this is to give them the hands-on experience of being a researcher, rather than dogmatically telling people how to be creative thinkers.
American Studies and Cultural Studies believe that intellectual problems are often best solved not by ghettoizing texts or demanding that methodologies remain rigidly within boundaries, but by being creative and combining resources. The goal of this course is to teach you to be able to do this with comfort. Rather than just reading about American Studies you will "do" American Studies. How, you will learn, would a researcher go about understanding whether Native American communities in New England "ended" during the colonial period? What primary evidence could you use? To what secondary resources might you turn? What cultural documents and artifacts would enrich your reading? By pooling your ideas and findings, everyone will be able to take their own individual inquires further. Although I will lay out three main "problems" for you, at the end of the first day of each section I will turn to you for the questions you have about the materials. Learning to ask your own questions is important in any research project, but perhaps even more so with colonial New England, a period and place often considered one of the most difficult to penetrate in American life. You will find that the questions that perplex you about the Puritans are often the precise ones the Puritans themselves struggled with as well. I will give you three basic research questions, research skills, and some primary documents. Where we go from there is up to you.
For more information on Problem-based learning, see these WebPages:
Why will be we using a web page for much of our work? First, some resources are available only on the Internet, and some resources are available in a more timely way on the Internet. Next, the Internet allows us to communicate and pool resources not only better amongst each other, but between out community and other practitioners of American Studies. Additionally, computer texts provide a different model of intertextuality from the one supplied by the familiar codex (or bound book). Technology provides us with a way not only to present interdisciplinary analyses more effectively: it is a format that assumes that text, image, sound, and analysis belong together! Finally, only by using the Internet can one learn how to use it, and how to distinguish among its various uses as a source of information, misinformation, and communication; as techno-stimulation, entertainment, and a mode of access to other scholars.
All of the assignments for this course are web-based. (See assignments in the Writing section of the reader.) These assignments are intended to be fun as well as challenging. Each one is designed to help you practice the skills you will need for your final project, a critical edition of one of the texts covered this semester. For some of these assignments you will be asked to work in a group; in the end, however, your work is always your own. That is, I will evaluate the work you post on your own WebPages and how well you make use of the resources posted other members of the class.
Professor Laura Arnold
Reed College, Spring 2001
Department of English