American Studies

Overview | Requirements | Courses | Faculty


American Studies is an interdisciplinary exploration - with an emphasis on history and literature--of the voices and visions that interpret and in turn shape the American experience. The search for a distinctive American culture has a long-standing tradition. How that experience is represented is influenced by the changing dynamics of domestic affairs and the geopolitics of United States foreign policy. The study of what it means to be "American" both at home and abroad is to understand the often conflicting voices and visions of Americans over time. Therefore, we encourage our majors to apply for international and domestic off-campus study.

The field is concerned with questions such as whether or not there is a national culture. Can we, for example, reconcile the tension between traditional narratives of individualism and self-reliance, and the counter-narratives of community and oppression? This discussion is particularly appropriate as we enter a new century of challenges in a post-Cold War world. The strengths of our department include courses offering multiple perspectives on American history, literature, culture, art, and politics.


MAJOR: The American Studies major consists of a minimum of 10 courses (40 units) to include History 101 or 102 (or their equivalent), ENGL 189 or 289 (or their equivalent), AMST 290, 390, and 490, and five other courses selected in consultation with an advisor from the American Studies faculty. Two of the five courses are required to be in American Studies. They include AMST 240, 242, 270, 272, 280, and 295. Courses acceptable from other departments include 289, 356. Education 213, 215. History 206, 277, 307, 312, 395. Politics 208, 209, 362. Religious Studies 240, 245, 347. Sociology 350. Consulting with an American Studies advisor is essential for successful completion of the major.

MINOR: Five courses (20 units) to include AMST 290 or 390, History 101 or 102, ENGL 189 or 289 and two other courses in American Studies. They include AMST 240, 242, 270, 272, 280, and 295.

WRITING REQUIREMENT: Students majoring in American Studies will satisfy the final component of Occidental College's college-wide writing requirement by successfully completing American Studies 290 and 390 (or their equivalent) with a grade of B- or higher. Students should familiarize themselves with the departmental requirement at the time of declaring the major. See the college writing requirement and consult the department chair for additional information.

COMPREHENSIVE REQUIREMENT: Completion of a paper and a presentation on a topic in the student's area of emphasis as partial fulfillment of the requirements for the senior seminar (AMST 490). Research proposals for the senior project are due October 1 of the senior year.

HONORS: Students meeting college requirements for honors may apply for admission to the program by submitting a written proposal for an honors thesis by October 1 of their senior year. Those accepted may register for American Studies 499 during the fall or spring semester of the senior year; the thesis should be completed by the end of the senior year. In general it is expected that honors students will also take American Studies 490. For further information see the Honors Program and the department chair.


101 - Introduction to American Studies

This course introduces the major topics and perspectives of the interdisciplinary field of American Studies. Students will explore the diversity of U.S. culture critically: in its official and unofficial histories, its self-representations in the arts, its complicated intersections of ideals and realities. The class is recommended for potential American Studies majors, or for anyone wanting to understand better the relations between culture and identity in the United States.

197 - Independent Study in American Studies

Prerequisite: permission of instructor.
2 or 4 units

215 - Discipline/Desire: History of Sexuality in the U.S.

This course examines the history of the politics of sexuality in the United States since the American Revolution. It begins with theoretical works on the intersections of sexuality and politics, including writings by Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Daniel Bell, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Michael Warner. It then considers important moments in the history of American sexuality, including the growth of cities and erotic subcultures after the war for independence, the establishment of "republican discipline" and Victorianism in the early 19th century, blackface minstrelsy and the eroticization of slavery, the confinement of prostitution, the creation of domestic and public spheres, the explosion of working-class sexual entertainment during the industrial revolution, feminism and the social hygiene movement, etc.

240 - African American Women Writers

This course examines the constructions of black women's identities as represented in twentieth century fiction by U.S. black women writers whose themes include the impact of slavery, migration, class, and family on sexuality, "sisterhood" and racial solidarity. Typical texts include works by writers as varied as Octavia Butler, Lorraine Hansberry, Andrea Lee, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, and Paula Woods.

242 - Great Migration & Emergence of "New Negroes"

This interdisciplinary course examines the migration and transformation of more than half a million African American southerners who left the south to move to cities in the northeast and midwest in search of greater freedom. We will also discuss the Harlem Renaissance when the art and literature of this era were seen as examples of racial progress. Political leaders and their organizations often clashed with one another and we will discuss those debates in this critical period in African American history.

246 - African American Lit Tradition

A socio-historical analysis of narratives and novels by African American writers. The course will examine the intellectual, political, and cultural influences on writers such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Charles Chesnutt, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Charles Johnson.

260 - U.S. Latino Literature and Cultural Studies

Through analyses of literature, film, music and graphic art we will explore how Latinos have represented their individual and collective experiences in the United States. In order to allow some depth of comparison, primary attention will be given to the creative works of Chicanos in Los Angeles and Puerto Ricans in New York. However, other national origin communities (such as Dominican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Cuban) will be selectively incorporated in the course. Prerequisite: Fall semester CSP course completion

270 - Asian American LIterature

This course analyzes the social experience and cultural heritage of Asian Americans through their writing and places them in a broader comparative context of multi-racial/ethnic American society. We will examine the development of Asian American literature, its social implications and historical context, and the diversity of subject matter which makes up the literary scene of Asian American communities since the mid-19th century.

272 - Asian Immigrants in American Society

This course examines the experiences of Asian immigrants and their descendants in American society since the mid-19th century. Topics include "push" and "pull" factors that have led various Asian groups to the United States, the problems they faced as they adapted to their new homeland, changes in Asian American communities since the 1960s, the influence of U.S. policies toward Asia on Asian immigration, and the impact of globalization and transnational networks on Asian Americans in our rapidly changing era.

280 - The United States and East Asia

This course explores the history of the United States' involvement with and policy toward countries in East Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines, from the early 19th century to the present. Topics include the changing roles of the United States in East Asia, the process of economic development in an international context, cross-cultural misperceptions, and power rivalries in the Pacific Rim.

290 - Rethinking the United States

An introduction to the methods and theories of American Studies. In this course we will consider the myriad ways in which the politics of historical U.S. expansion, conflict, and resistance--across the North American continent and overseas--have shaped American culture. By close reading of literary works, historical documents, films, music, and photographic representations of culture, we will analyze the complexities and creation of the United States.

295 - Topics in American Studies

Latino/a Experience. This course will explore the history and experience of Latino/a immigrants in the United States, paying particular attention to how race, ethnicity, identity, politics, class, and gender influence the lives of Latino/a immigrants. We will also examine how they have influenced historical developments in different regions of the country, especially in terms of U.S. demographics.

Black Literary History and the Archive
Black Literary History and the Archive Description: How do we resurrect the lives of people who were considered unimportant, those whose contributions were dismissed and buried? What does the existing historical archive tell us about what is considered valuable and about what constitutes "memory"? This class examines the lives of two of the most important nineteenth-century Black women writers, Harriet Jacobs and Harriet Wilson, as a means to develop the tools of literary recovery. As we expand the contours of the historical canon, we will also reflect on our own sense of the scope and shape of African American historical memory and the ways in which we organize history. How do we interpret religion, resistance and labor activities that that fall "outside" of the most recognized narratives about African American experience? This class will take on these larger questions as we also engage in archival work in newspapers, census records and beyond.

African American Literature: Race/Gender/Sexuality. AMST 295: African American Literature: Interrogating Race, Gender, and Sexuality. This course is designed as a survey of African American literature. We will examine a multitude of genres including oral forms (spirituals, ballads, work songs), poetry, fiction, drama, and essays by authors such as Phillis Wheatley, David Walker, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Nella Larson, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, Jessie R. Faucet, Claude McKay, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Ann Petry, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Beyond strictly a “greatest hits” or “major authors” course, this class will also consider the ways African American writers interrogate complex categories of personal identity, which requires an in-depth investigation into the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic class. Through lectures, class discussions, and student presentations, we will highlight the critical impact of African American literature on American culture.


310 - The American South

This interdisciplinary seminar examines representations of the American South in literature and film as well as material and popular culture from Aunt Jemima collectibles, D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," to CNN's 2005 coverage of "Hurricane Katrina." We will also discuss the impact of Asian and Latino immigration on a region traditionally characterized as "black and white." Prerequisites: one American Studies or American History course.

320 - Graphic Narratives: From Pulp Fiction to Comix Lit

This course will study the 20th century evolution of word-and-image texts from their origins in early superhero comics to their contemporary emergence as recognized literary works. The texts will be primarily from the United States, but some attention will be given to foreign works in translation. Prerequisite: Any prior American Studies course or permission of instructor.

346 - Beautiful Democracy: 19th Century Af Am Lit

This course thinks through current debates over the relationship between literary aesthetics and harmony in American democracy. Do aesthetics foster a more harmonious or disharmonious national culture? Do aesthetics create more peaceful cities and craft a common culture? Should its subject matter be legal resolutions to conflict and representations of peaceful communities? Or, is disharmony ever important to progress? How does literature represent protests for social change that are often only possible outside the law, like the many freedmen and freedwomen escaping slavery and demanding the destruction of that system? How does this alter our understandings of what it means to be “fugitive”? How can the fugitive fighting for freedom be distinguished from the unprincipled outlaw? From another perspective, we will consider how the complications of American society have altered certain traditional literary forms. While recent scholarship has addressed these questions in regards to early to mid 20th century literature, this course will look back further, starting from the early 19th century to the very beginning of the 20th. will complement the literature by reading relevant historical materials from the abolitionist movement, labor movements, government debates over Emancipation and Reconstruction, etc. The course will include literature from Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Walt Whitman, Ida B Wells, and Charles Chesnutt, among others, and will cover several genres, including oratory, autobiography, political pamphlets and short fiction. Prerequisite: Any 100 or 200-level English course or junior or senior standing. Major requirement met:  Group II. Same as ENGL 346

375 - Sociopolitics of Race: Color-blind/Color-insight

This seminar explores the social politics of race through the lens of color-conscious and color-blind ideologies. Topics focus on the construction of race; racial identity development and socialization for differently positioned group members; psychological impact of race and racial identification for academic achievement, esteem, and health; contemporary research on colorblind and color conscious ideologies and primes; and social policy. Interdisciplinary readings include Psychological theory and research (Steele's Whistling Vivaldi, Sue's Microaggressions, Contemporary journal articles), Critical Theory ( Delgado and Stefanic's Critical Race Theory), and Sociology (Bonilla-Silva's Racism without Racists). Heavily discussion-based. Prerequisites: Any American Studies course at the 200 or 300 level OR any of the following:  Psychology 110, 321, 323, or 333. Same as Psychology 375.

390 - Junior Seminar in American Studies

The 1960s
A close examination of the significant social movements of the 1960s and their ongoing relevance in the 21st century. Prerequisite: American Studies major or permission of instructor.

American Experiments in Communal Living
This interdisciplinary seminar explores American visions of utopia in fact and in fiction. Students will study the proliferation of American "utopian" societies, both religious and secular, from 1780 up to the 1930s before moving to an examination of more contemporary intentional communities, including dystopian separatists, and counter-culture communes. Readings include statements by charismatic founders, personal accounts of members, historical analyses, and utopian novels.

397 - Advanced Independent Study

Prerequisite: permission of instructor.
2 or 4 units

490 - Senior Seminar in American Studies

This course is designed to assist students with the completion of their research papers on topics that reflect their areas of emphasis in American Studies. It will provide an opportunity for seniors to synthesize their area of specialization with an analysis of critical issues in the study of American culture and society.

499 - Honors in American Studies

Prerequisite: permission of instructor.
2 or 4 units

S111 - Power and Identity

This course revolves around the theme of power. This course considers how oppressive structures establish and sustain themselves -- and face opposition -- at local, national, and international levels. We will begin by addressing the question, how does opposition imply alternative forms of power, visions of freedom, self-identification, and belonging? Using historical, literary, theoretical, and social perspectives, we will focus on the tensions between power’s oppressive and liberatory tendencies. For example, we will examine famous African American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois’s sole published biography, John Brown; test historical case studies through academic inquiries into British and Japanese imperialism; and take an intersectional approach to understanding identity, power, and domination. Throughout, students will build and develop their critical and interpretative skills through reading, writing, debate, and presentation. This course is taught by Professor Jaclyn Rodriguez (Psychology), Professor James Ford (English), and Professor Paul Nam (History).

Offered during the Summer as part of the Multicultural Summer Institute.


Regular Faculty

Xiao-huang Yin, chair

Professor, American Studies; Affiliated Faculty, East Asian Languages and Cultures; Affiliated Faculty, History

B.A., Nanjing University; M.A., Ph.D., Harvard University

Courtney Baker

Associate Professor of American Studies

B.A., Harvard University; M.A., Ph.D., Duke University

Erica Ball

Professor of American Studies

B.A., Wesleyan University; M.A., Ph.D., The Graduate Center, City University of New York

John Swift

Professor, English

B.A., Middlebury College M.A., Ph.D., University of Virginia

On Special Appointment

Amy Tahani-Bidmeshki

Mellon Postdoctural Fellow, American Studies

B.A., Occidental College; M.A., CSU Los Angeles; Ph.D., UCLA

Adrienne Tien

Non-Tenure Track Assistant Professor, American Studies

B.A., Wellesley College; M.S., Syracuse University

Advisory Committee

Sharla Fett

Professor, History; Advisory Committee, American Studies

B.A., Carleton College; M.A., Stanford University; Ph.D., Rutgers University

James Ford III

Assistant Professor, English

B.A., Morehouse College; M.A., Ph.D, University of Notre Dame

Eric Newhall

Professor, English; Advisory Committee, American Studies

A.B., Occidental College; M.A., Ph.D., UCLA

Jaclyn Rodríguez

Professor, Latino/a and Latin American Studies

A.B., Occidental College; M.A., Ph.D., University of Michigan

Raul Villa

Professor, English; Advisory Committee, American Studies; Advisory Committee, Latino/a and Latin American Studies

B.A., Yale University; M.A., University of Michigan; Ph.D., UC Santa Cruz