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On Purpose: Portrait of American Studies

August 16, 2018
To commemorate our 150th anniversary in 2018, the College of Liberal Arts commissioned 60 photographs taken by Xavier Tavera. Departments and programs partnered with Tavera to envision their images and to write the narratives that accompany each photograph. View On Purpose: Portrait of the Liberal Arts.

Two women stand beside lake Bde Maka Ska
Pictured L to R Katherine Beane, Rebecca Cohen-Rencountre

The Department of American Studies is one of the oldest and most renowned departments of its kind in the country. Founded over 60 years ago, our early faculty and students found a freedom of expression in interdisciplinary work. Today, our faculty pursue a wide range of scholarly projects as they write award-winning books, receive teaching and public engagement awards, and garner acclaim both nationally and internationally. They also shape conversations in allied disciplines such as American Indian and Indigenous studies, Chicano and Latino studies, and women, gender, and sexuality studies.

We teach remarkable students. Alex Nakerud explains his major: “American studies scholarship is interested in issues of race, ethnicity, class, gender, migration, sexuality, popular culture, and other topics that have had a major influence on how different groups of people have gone about their lives in America. In short, American studies is a field of study that seeks to educate about all the complexities of American life.”

We attract some of the most diverse, skilled, informed, and politically engaged students at the University of Minnesota, who are actively taking charge of their own educations. Grace Erpenbach views her American studies major as one that is “not afraid to discuss the groups of people who are excluded” or marginalized, resulting in “a more honest and inclusive type of American history.” We deeply value transnational fluency and train our students to think beyond the geopolitical and historical parameters of the US nation-state. 

Our graduate program is known for its excellence and attracts students from across the US and beyond. It’s notable that 75 percent of our students come from diverse backgrounds. Our faculty and students study, educate, and write about contentious and controversial topics, including confronting many forms of social injustice.

We are innovative and interdisciplinary, a leader in expanding boundaries of method and content in the academy. This approach allows our faculty and students to generate a departmental climate that—at the undergraduate, graduate, and faculty levels—models a dynamic engagement with the histories and literatures of various fields. As one faculty member mentions, “the point of this interdisciplinary direction is to produce an American studies that is not passive or imitative, but one that is self-initiated.”

Roberto Hall, another American studies major, explains, “When it comes to defining American studies, I usually tell people that it is an interdisciplinary study that combines social, political, historical, and social justice themes to critically analyze American society and the impact of the United States on the rest of the world.” 

What holds American society together? As interdisciplinary scholars and students, we engage in truly public discussions with a wide range of people inside and outside of the academy.