American Studies: Analyzing How the Past Shapes the Way We See America Today

May 14, 2022

When we talk about America, aspects of our backgrounds, upbringing, race, gender, class, religion, and place of origin blend together to form our opinions on the subject. By examining American beliefs and values and how they relate to our country’s past, we can better understand how they have shaped America as we know it.

By pursuing an understanding of historical events and their modern relevance, Introduction to American Studies (AMS 130) is an integrative course that explores the core values of American life and culture.

Introduction to American Studies is a foundational course designed to introduce you to concepts that, partnered with your own experiences and beliefs, will allow you to understand the significance and implications of what we mean when we talk about “America” and “Americans.”

This course familiarizes students with the multi-disciplinary nature of the American studies concentration. Not only will it prepare you for higher-level courses, but AMS 130 will also allow you to study cross-concentration concepts and how they relate to American society as studied in disciplines such as political science, history, and sociology.

As an American studies student, you will learn to take a holistic, interdisciplinary look at American culture. Faculty select readings from a variety of disciplines, including history, law, literature, and pop culture; these offer local, national, and international perspectives. When asked how the course differs from the way he was taught, Associate Professor of English Steve Andrews, who has taught AMS 130, says, “I come to American studies from the subfield of American literature, so the major difference, for me, is in shifting from a tight focus on poetics and techniques of storytelling to expanding our perspective to include the cultural and political contexts that amplify the meanings of the stories we tell.” 

Part of Grinnell’s mission is to equip students to be “prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and abilities to serve the common good.” To that end, Andrews says, “What my students have found in analyzing the texts and contexts of American studies is that what constitutes ‘a common good’ is often contested, especially when that ‘good’ is presented to us as an either/or choice. AMS 130 encourages students to take a multi-faceted view of things about ‘America’ that they hold dear, consider sacred, or take for granted in the hope that decentering a particular value or defamiliarizing a specific myth might persuade them to think differently about themselves in relation to their friends, neighbors, strangers, and foreigners.”

Students who have taken Introduction to American Studies have enjoyed the thought-provoking conversations that happen in the classroom. AMS 130 is not simply a lecture class; it is a free exchange of ideas that helps each individual form an educated and open-minded view of what America is, with all its ideals, values, and societal lessons. Grinnell students gain knowledge and skills relating to American studies that are invaluable. Introduction to American Studies has helped students prepare for graduate school, individual and faculty-advised research, teaching, politics, and more. It is one way that Grinnellians can take their liberal arts education and make it a career.

Because of the necessity of teaching remotely in 2021, Andrews taught the course on a condensed 7 ½-week schedule. Rather than struggling with remote learning, Introduction to American Studies flourished, fostering meaningful conversations about current events.

Andrews says, “The cultural, political, and social circumstances of our current moment affirm, for me, the importance of having a usable foundation in the study of what ‘America’ has meant so that we might envision together what ‘America’ might come to mean.”

Learn more about the American studies concentration at Grinnell

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