American Studies at 50

The Department of American Studies is delighted to celebrate the fifty year anniversary of American Studies at UC Davis. Over the course of the 2019-2020 academic year, we will host several celebratory and reflective events to mark this important milestone.

Stay tuned for more events and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram. #AMSat50

Chair’s Introduction
In 2020, we had hoped to celebrate a half-century of American Studies, recognizing our alumni,
current students, staff, emeriti faculty, and others. The department had hoped to gather during
the spring of 2020 to celebrate 50 years of innovation in American Studies at UC Davis, the only
American Studies Dept. in the UC system. This celebration, like many other events, had to be
canceled due to the pandemic. 

We offer instead this reflection of American Studies, then and now based on interviews, a
thoughtful look back at our classes, to understand better why and how American Studies at UC
Davis remains relevant, and hopeful, in difficult times.


What is the “American” in American Studies?

In 1996, Professor Emeritus Jay Mechling wrote an essay in which he imagined a frequently described scenario: an American Studies major returns home for Thanksgiving break and must answer a crucial question. “So, what is this thing, your major, uh...American Studies?” Loved ones have asked this question across dinner tables for decades, and after 50+ years, we know it is still a tricky one to answer. Part of what makes it tricky is the complexity of the “American” in American Studies. 

And so, what is the “American” in American Studies?” For Dr. Jemma DeCristo, who is a scholar-artist-activist and writes about Black art and community, America is a “problem space.” This just means it is a metaphorical space to question, analyze, and grapple with real issues. Dr. DeCristo insists that when students in American Studies learn to treat the world around them as “problem spaces,” when they research, question, write, and study that space, they can start to mold their reality and build the world they want. 

Similarly, Dr. Ryan Cartwright refers to the American in American Studies as an “object of critique” and an “object of study.” This idea is reflected in student senior thesis projects. When students can take up “America” as an object of critique or study, they can ask questions and explore topics that they are passionate about. The American Studies faculty have welcomed student thesis projects on so many topics, including wrestling, rodeos, the military, music, water ways--just to name a few!

Dr. Julie Sze similarly claims and centers “America” as an object of critique in the introductory classes, including Introduction to American Studies. “As a field, American Studies engages histories of US nationalism, nativism, empire, neoliberalism, racism, and white supremacy. However, these topics are not what many students typically anticipate our classes—in particular, Introduction to American Studies (“Intro”)—to be about when they first encounter them.” American Studies is a space to ask tough questions, fun questions, complex questions, and questions that do not have clear answers. Each student does this with the support of faculty members and peers.