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What is an American Studies Degree?
American studies programs, in the simplest of terms, study America. Like every nation, America is an ever-evolving living organism. So, too, in a way, is the broad and fascinating field of American studies, which attempts to articulate the American experience over time.
In their devotion to deeply understanding the unique thing that is the United States of America, American studies scholars and students alike must continually ask what has shaped and what continues to shape its history, culture, personality, economics, politics, and global standing.
To answer those questions, they must consider a multitude of factors and issues in a multitude of spheres, from music, cinema, and sport to ethnicity, race, and religion to social systems and hierarchies, foreign relations, and immigration to technology, architecture, food, and sexuality. American studies, it can be said, is a field whose scope is as wide as the country that is its subject matter.
Bachelor’s Degree in American Studies – Four Year Duration
Bachelor’s programs in American studies are interdisciplinary. They introduce students to a variety of topics concerning American institutions, cultures, and society. Topics span history, literature, music, film, advertising, politics and government policy, science, and religion. Due to its wide scope, the American studies discipline allows students to conduct undergraduate research for a project on a topic of their choosing. Real-world experiences in the form of internships and community engagement are considered critical components of the curriculum.
These are the kinds of courses that are compulsory in an undergrad American studies program:
- Early American Cultural History – the importance of culture in the creation of the United States, in its origins as a colonial outpost and its expansion across the continent; in its hierarchies and expressions of power, especially as organized by race, class, ethnicity, or gender; in the creation of democracy and the valuing of free expression; and in the development of cities and the varied uses of the countryside
- Modern American Cultural History – the effects of culture in the shaping of the US since 1876; the role of the mass media; effects of cultural conceptions of the physical landscape; changing ideas of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality; the political meanings of cultural conflict; and transnational influences on US culture and effects of US culture abroad
- Critiquing Culture – modes of analysis, including the study of individual cultures, applied to examination of the interaction of culture and power structures; debate about mass culture, ideology, and visibility
Because the discipline of American studies is so expansive, elective coursework varies considerably from school to school. The following is a sampling of classes compiled from several bachelor’s programs in the field:
- The American Cinema
- Politics and Film
- American Foreign Relations
- Race, Gender, and Law
- The Sixties in America
- Washington, DC: History, Culture, and Politics
- Introduction to the Arts in America
- Freedom in American Thought and Popular Culture
- Varieties of Feminist Theory
- The African American Experience
- US Media and Cultural History
- US Religion and Politics
- Sexuality in US History
- Sex and Citizenship
- Modern US Immigration
- Capitalism and Culture
- The American City
- Themes in US Cultural History
- American Architecture
- Material Culture in America (material culture is the totality of physical objects made by a people for the satisfaction of their needs)
- US Popular Music and Culture
- Science, Technology, and Politics in Modern America
- Human Mind and Artificial Intelligence
- Social Media and New Media in America
- The United States in the World
- World War II in History and Memory
- Latinos in the United States
- American Art in the Age of Revolution
- American Art in the Era of National Expansion
- US Urban History
- US Social History
- US Women’s History
- African American History
- The American Jewish Experience
- The Native American Experience
- Popular Music and Politics
- Planning Cities
- Historical Archaeology
- Epidemics in American History
- Race, Medicine, and Public Health
- Migrants, Refugees, Citizens, and Exiles: The US on an Immigrant Planet
- American Abroad: Rethinking Travel, Culture, and Empire
- In Pursuit of Equality: Racial and Gender Justice in the American Workplace
- The United States since September 11
- Chasing the American Dream: Economic Opportunity and Inequality in the United States
- The Politics of Pandemics
- Asian Americans and Food
- Sport and Inequality
- Conspiracy Theories
Master’s Degree in American Studies – Two Year Duration
After completing some mandatory classes in areas such as American history, culture, and society and theory and research methods, American studies master’s candidates have considerable freedom to choose courses that reflect their thesis research interests. Courses are often in participating departments including history, political science, English, media studies, religion, journalism, and marketing. At many schools students must meet a foreign language requirement. Some schools offer the option of studying abroad at a European or American university.
These are sample subject areas that courses at the master’s level may cover:
- The American political system, including the presidency, the most important federal institutions, the electoral system, the welfare system, and the like
- Regional identities, including how various regions have emerged, notably the Northeast, the South, the Middle West, and the West, and how these differences are manifested in culture, politics and economic differences
- Ethnic and racial minorities and cultures, including immigration history, the debate over immigration restriction, religious differences, and the literary and cultural expressions of multiculturalism
- Foreign policy, including its historical development, institutional expression, and foreign policy debates
- Economics, including the central economic institutions and organizations, industrial history, comparative corporate culture, the labor market, and the complex relations between technology and culture
- Popular culture, including media, film, literature, and material culture
- Social and cultural history
It is important to note that the evolving nature of American studies means that new courses are always being added, especially at the graduate level, to reflect the contemporary American experience. Here is one example:
- The Deep State: Conspiracy Theories about Power, Evil, and Democracy from JFK to 9/11 and Trump and QAnon
Doctoral Degree in American Studies – Five to Six Year Duration
Admission requirements to an American studies doctoral program vary, depending on whether students enter with a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree. Doctoral students design their own study plan with the help of a faculty advisor. Requirements at this level include a minimal number of compulsory courses – typically, including advanced research methodology – preliminary examinations in various fields, teaching as a teaching assistant and teaching fellow, and a dissertation proposal and defense. American studies doctoral candidates are encouraged to gain, upgrade, or maintain expertise in more than one language. The majority of doctoral graduates pursue a career in college and university teaching.
Here are some core doctoral research areas:
- Cultural History and Cultural Studies
- Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration
- Urban Study
- Gender and Sexuality
- Religion and Politics
- Public Culture and Performance
- Transnational American Studies / The Role of the United States in the World
Degrees Similar to American Studies
African American Studies
This degree program examines the history, politics, culture, and economics of North American people of African descent. Its diverse subject matter spans African civilization, African American literature, the rise and fall of American slavery, the civil rights movement, Blacks and the American political system, and the history of American jazz.
Students of anthropology study the evolutionary history of people, how they interact, how they adapt to various environments, how they communicate and socialize with one another, and how their bodies and cultures have changed over time. The field attempts to answer big questions on many of the fundamentals of human culture, from gender to political systems to violence, religion, race, and economics.
Students of this discipline usually focus on a specific area or region of the world and study its histories, politics, economics, languages, and cultures. Area studies programs have names like African Studies or Asian Studies, while ethnic studies programs have names like African American Studies or Asian American Studies.
In English degree programs, students read, study, and write about the literature and culture of the English-speaking world. Coursework also includes the history, linguistic structure, and use of the English language.
Ethnic studies explores ethnicity and race from the interrelated perspectives of history, politics, economics, religion, and social and cultural realities. The field considers and examines the experiences of underrepresented minorities in the United States. It questions the origin and continuity of racism within the general context of American society and institutions. And ultimately, it seeks to provide its students with a critical understanding of contemporary society and a catalyst for social change and social justice.
Degree programs in gender studies explore gender through the lenses of feminism, racism and antiracism, social justice, privilege and oppression, and popular culture.
History is the study of change over time. Degree programs in the field examine political history, diplomatic / international relations history, cultural/ideological history, social/living standards history, economic history, intellectual/philosophical history, and military/armed conflict history.
Degree programs in international relations are concerned with looking at how states / governments relate to one another. These relations include trade, cooperation, disputes, conflicts, and war. The principles of diplomacy and foreign policy, international law, and organizations like the United Nations are also studied.
Latin American Studies
Latin American studies programs teach Latin American literature, history, politics, geography, and culture. Topics of study include colonial Latin America, modern Latin America, Cuban American literature, the history of Brazil, race in modern Latin America, revolutions in 20th century Latin America, and war and human rights in Latin America. Students of Latin American Studies typically also study the Spanish or Portuguese language.
Native American Studies
The history, culture, politics, issues, spiritual practices, sociology, and contemporary experience of Native peoples in the Americas is the focus of this degree program. Possible areas of study include ancient Mesoamerica (Mesoamerica comprises the modern day countries of northern Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, and central to southern Mexico), art and anthropology of Native North America, Native American literature, Native American women, and contemporary issues of indigenous peoples in North America.
Degree programs in women’s studies focus on feminism and the history, culture, and politics of women. Courses examine the categories of identity – gender, sexuality, race, class, age, ability, and geopolitical affiliation – as well as the social processes and structures that frame them.
Skills You’ll Learn
In addition to an in-depth knowledge of American cultural, historical, societal, and political contexts, students of American Studies come away from their education in the field with the following very transferable skills:
- Ability to communicate evidence and analysis orally
- Ability to integrate knowledge from several disciplinary perspectives
- Ability to synthesize independent research findings in a written format
- Ability to utilize technological resources in research, data analysis, and presentation
- Cultural awareness and sensitivity and avoidance of cultural stereotyping
- Global perspective
- Strong analytical and critical thinking skills
- Understanding of diversity, equity, and justice
- Understanding of the relationship between the present and the future with the past
What Can You Do with an American Studies Degree?
The interdisciplinary nature of American studies leads its graduates to an eclectic mix of careers. With knowledge about the world and strong skills in communication and collaboration, critical thinking, and research methodology, graduates are equipped to enter a diverse array of fields. While advancing in some of those fields may require additional education and/or on-the-job training, a degree in American studies lays a very stable professional foundation.
These are just some of the arenas in which American studies graduates may go on to build careers:
- Advocacy organizations
- Art buying and selling
- Arts administration
- Community organizations
- Consulting firms
- Cultural consulting
- Diplomacy / foreign embassies
- Editing / publishing
- Education / teaching / research
- Event planning
- Foreign business consulting / international branding
- Government ministries / legislative offices
- Historical site management
- Human resources
- Human services
- Import / export firms
- Information officers of public organizations and private companies
- International organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
- Library science
- Museum curation
- Project management
- Public policy
- Public relations
- Travel, tourism, and hospitality
- Unions / labor relations
- Urban planning
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