Learn for America? American Studies in the College Classroom, 194560

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 11:10 AM
Water Tower Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Mario Rewers, Vanderbilt University
This paper examines how undergraduate students responded to the proliferation of American Studies programs between the end of World War II and the beginning of the 1960s. Traditionally, this period has been viewed as one of conformity and consensus, and American Studies has often been interpreted as a tool in the cultural Cold War, meant to sell “the American way” abroad while combating “foreign ideologies” at home. But what did students actually take away from their classes in American Studies? And how did they in turn shape them? Based on extensive research in university and college archives, my paper reconstructs what kinds of courses students took, which books they read, what their examinations consisted of, and what they thought they were supposed to learn. By using documents such as student newspapers, alumni magazines, and course critiques, I create a disciplinary history from below—a history that focuses not on exceptional thinkers and great books but on ordinary students and their ideas. Foregrounding both the critical and playful ways in which students responded to their lecture courses and seminars, my paper makes a case for taking seriously the power of students to appropriate ideas, shape academic programs, and influence disciplinary practice.
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