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Skidmore College
American Studies Department

History of Skidmore's American Studies Department

The American Studies program at Skidmore College was founded in 1956-1957, making it one of the oldest American Studies programs in the country. American Studies began as an interdisciplinary program consisting of American subject courses in various social science and humanities departments, including Art, Economics, English, Government, History, Philosophy, and Sociology. By 1960, student demand for an interdisciplinary major in “American Civilization” led to the appointment of a coordinator of American Studies, Donald Baker, and the creation of core seminars that integrated various American subject courses. In 1964, David Marcell (Ph. D. in American Studies, Yale University) was hired as Director of American Studies, and he oversaw a three-person advisory committee and about twenty-five junior and senior majors. Marcell redesigned the core courses, supplemented other departmental American subject offerings, and registered the Program as an institutional member of the American Studies Association. With approximately forty majors in the Program and many non-majors in American Studies courses, a second faculty program appointment, Stuart Blumin (Ph. D., University of Pennsylvania, American History), was added in 1967, and core offerings were expanded. That same year Marcell delivered a paper on “Courses and Programs in American Studies” at the first national meeting of the American Studies Association in 1967 for a special session devoted to “American Studies in the United States.” That presentation provided the intellectual rationale for a proposal to create a Department of American Studies at Skidmore, which was approved in 1968.

The Department of American Studies has grown steadily over the last five decades. In 1968, the curriculum was centered primarily on two introductory courses—AM 101 and AM 102—which surveyed the development of American society and culture in its historical context, giving special attention “to various kinds of imaginative and intellectual expression especially art, architecture, literature and philosophy and their convergence at different periods throughout American history.” This introductory survey was supplemented by courses on American Documents, a Junior Seminar and several required courses in “European Backgrounds.” Enrollments were healthy, with the team-taught AM 101 and AM 102 attracting between 70-80 students a semester. Mary C. Lynn (Ph. D., University of Rochester, History) transitioned from the History Department to a tenure-track line in American Studies in 1970 (the department’s second along with Marcell’s), and Joanna Zangrando (Ph. D. George Washington University, American Studies) arrived in 1976 to assume a third line. Together (along with Wilma Hall who served the department as a Visiting Assistant Professor for 25 years), they helped establish courses in Women’s Studies, Material Culture, Religion in American Culture, and a wide variety of winter-term courses. Greg Pfitzer (Ph. D., Harvard University, American Studies) joined the department in 1989, occupying the tenure line vacated by Marcell who became Provost for the College. Pfitzer offered new courses on Hudson River Regional Culture, the 1960s, Psychohistory, and The Machine in the Garden. A self-study in 1996 led to a reconfiguration of the curriculum: two new required courses were added, AM 221: Methods and Approaches and AM 374: Senior Seminar. The self-study also yielded a fourth tenure-track line, as the department successfully argued for a more permanent replacement for Wilma Hall when she decided to retire. Dan Nathan (Ph. D., University of Iowa, American Studies) filled that line in 2002, adding courses in sport history, film, and popular culture to the department’s curriculum, in addition to new versions of American Autobiography and AM 102.

The four-person department has retained its basic shape and size since Nathan’s hire, although additional supplemental personnel have helped to deliver the curriculum over the last few decades. In 1998, American Studies inaugurated the New York University Minority Dissertation Fellowship for the purpose of attracting to Skidmore doctoral candidates who aspired to be teachers and scholars at small, liberal arts institutions such as our own and who wished to be mentored by established American Studies faculty members. Fellows had light administrative duties in the fall term in order to allow for dissertation work and course preparation. In the spring, they offered two courses, including a team-taught section of American Studies: Methods and Approaches and a course in the dissertation field or other area of expertise. The fellows—Alondra Nelson, Jerry Philogene, Sujani Reddy, Richard Kim, and andré carrington—offered courses on Civil Rights in 20th Century U.S.; African-American Women in the Visual Arts; Caribbean American Identities; Black Feminist Thoughts; Race, Ethnic, and Migration; Sex, Gender and U.S. Empire; AIDS and the Public Sphere; and Gender and Sexuality. They have all gone on to do important work. Unfortunately, funding for the NYU Minority Dissertation Fellowship evaporated in 2009, and the position has not been restored, despite numerous attempts to convince the administration to do so.

A self-study conducted during the 2005-2006 academic year revealed a department in transition. The curriculum was adjusted to increase the role of diversity in American Studies courses, especially gender, sexuality, class, racial and ethnic diversity. The department redesigned the gateway course to the major and minor, abandoning the coverage model inherent in AM 101/102 in favor of a new topics-centered AM 101: Introduction to American Studies. The specific content of these new courses varied with the instructor, but all sections emphasized reading critically, thinking historically, practicing interdisciplinarity, acknowledging diversity, and making connections. Students were asked to analyze and synthesize multiple kinds of texts (fiction, film, music, art, and other primary sources) and knowledge (sociology, economic, media criticism, etc.) to better appreciate the complexity of American life and culture. Introduction to American Studies courses have included Basketball, 1968, Nature in American Culture, Becoming Americans, A Humorous (Dis)Course, The Wizard of Oz, Myth and Symbol in American Culture, The Civil War in American Memory, Eating in America, American Cultural Geographies, Queering America, and Touring America.

Personnel decisions since the last self-study have reflected these shifting priorities. Joanna Zangrando began a phased retirement in 2005-2006, and Joshua Woodfork (Ph. D., University of Maryland, American Studies) was hired to teach new courses on Diversity in the United States and Critical Whiteness Studies, as well as revamped versions of the African American Experience and American Autobiography. After a hiatus away from Skidmore, Woodfork eventually transitioned to the position of Vice President for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity, giving way to another University of Maryland alum, Beck Krefting (Ph. D., University of Maryland, American Studies), who taught courses such as Disorderly Women, Black Feminist Thoughts, and a new version of Diversity in the United States and Critical Whiteness Studies. Winston Grady-Willis, who was hired in 2007 as the Director of Intercultural Studies, had a shared appointment in American Studies and delivered courses on Civil Rights in the U.S. as well as the African American Experience, and a regional culture seminar on the South. In 2013, Mary Lynn retired after forty-five years of service to the College. Her line was filled for three years by Amber Wiley (Ph. D., George Washington University, American Studies) who provided offerings such as Historical Preservation, Material Culture, and the African American Experience. Wiley has since moved on to Rutgers University, so the department is in the process of hiring her replacement. We are looking for someone with a specialization in race/ethnic studies and material culture; with the ability to teach courses that cover a broad historical range to a diverse student population; and with a Ph.D. in American Studies if possible. Regarding this latter preference, it is important to note that the department has always maintained a strong commitment to hiring faculty with Ph. D.s in American Studies, both in its tenure lines and in its adjunct hires, including short-time appointments of graduates of our own program who went on the advanced degrees in the field, including Bryn
Hollenbeck ’00 (Ph. D., University of Delaware, American Studies), Megan Williams ’03 (Ph. D., University of Kansas, American Studies), and Emma Newcombe ’10 (Ph. D., Boston University, New England and American Studies).

In the decade-plus since the 2006 self-study, the Department has continued to expand its offerings to reflect changing trends within the discipline. Nathan has introduced new courses on the Globalization of American Studies, Reading The Wire, and The Holocaust and American Culture; Krefting has developed offerings on Post-Apocalyptic Film and Literature as well as Eating in America; and Pfitzer added courses on Popular History and Mark Twain’s America. Many of these new offerings contribute to other programs across the campus, including Gender Studies, Religious Studies, Environmental Studies, International Affairs, and Media and Film Studies. As this extensive list of courses suggests, during the first sixty-plus years of its existence, the Department of American Studies has remained committed to its interdisciplinary roots—first established in the 1956-57 inaugural year—by offering a substantial variety of topics and theme-based courses that reflect the diverse training of its faculty and the eclectic interests of its students.