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American Studies Minor Gives Students 'Interdisciplinary Freedom'

June 26, 2012
SHSU Media Contact: Meredith Mohr

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Assistant professor of history Nancy Baker will incorporate her work on the history of women, providing a feminist slant to the "Introduction to American Studies" class that she will teach next spring as part of SHSU's new American studies minor, an interdisciplinary program that allows students to choose from coursework across the university's departments. —Photos by Brian Blalock

Sitting in his first class of his American studies minor, “Introduction to American Studies,” junior English major John Toland learned that the famous image of George Washington on bended knee in prayer at Valley Forge is just a myth, conjured up for a children’s story by Parson Weems.

Over the course of the semester, he learned other things that surprised, shocked and changed the way he thinks about and connects with America.

The class, AMST 2367, taught last semester by former Sam Houston State University assistant English professor Drew Lopenzina, looked at how America is defined and what truth is in that, Toland said.

“I learned that many of the preconceived notions we have about our American history are unfounded,” Toland said. “Many legends that are perpetuated throughout our history that we hold sacred and are considered part of our foundation as Americans are nothing more than myth. For example, the Texas Rangers are supposed to be heroes of the Texas frontier, but some were tyrants and murderers who terrorized the Mexican residents in Texas.”

The freedom of studying a range of topics from varying departments is all part of the beauty of the American studies minor program offered at SHSU.

According to April Shemak, associate English professor and part of the committee that put together the proposal for the minor, it is a program that encourages students to try different avenues of study, to question and test ideas about America and to formulate well-rounded and informed opinions. It helps prepare students for graduate school, enhances their plans for after graduation, and challenges them to stretch and reexamine their preconceived notions about America.

Ultimately, SHSU’s American studies minor allows interdisciplinary creativity, flexibility and exploration, Shemak said.

Through the minor, students may take classes from three concentrations: regional and borderland studies, ethnicity and race, and gender in America. Current classes are concentrated mostly in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, including “History of the West,” “Texas Crossroads,” and others that encompass the knowledge of English, history, sociology, psychology, foreign language, political science and criminal justice classes.

Each student in the American studies minor program is required to take the introductory course before branching out into other areas of the field.

“The intent is to ground students in the field first, because we don’t have an American studies department on campus, and it’s new to Sam Houston,” Shemak said. “That course gives students a sense of the field, and methods and approaches to it.”

The current director of the program is English professor Julie Hall, but the leadership will eventually rotate to other departments as a way of instituting the interdisciplinary aspect of the program.

Terry Bilhartz, associate dean in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and a professor of history, described the new program as a “a great bridge between many areas of study.”

“The American studies program helps the humanities to be a broad liberal arts program,” Bilhartz said. “The classes that students take as American studies minors further broadens their awareness of the American experience. Instead of studying about the events of 1894 in one class and reading Huck Finn in another, they take a step back and look at it from a wider perspective. And not only do the students benefit from this, but the professors in different departments realize that they have a lot in common with each other by working together in fields other than their own. The program has all-around value.”

Shemak noted that the American studies minor puts an official label on what often happens in the classroom by way of discussion from students about how the classes they are taking often complement and overlap with each other.

“If you think about the ‘Ethnicity and Race’ concentration and think across disciplines how you can look at that, and take a sociology and lit course in ‘Ethnicity and Race,’ how do those things enhance each other?” Shemak said. “What do I learn from that course that I can apply to this course, and vice versa? Sometimes those conversations do happen in my classroom, where someone will say they are taking an African American history course and had learned about this. They are making those connections. The minor facilitates that more and really encourages those conversations.”

Jerry Bruce, associate dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and a professor of psychology, as well as part of the approval committee, noted that the American studies program also produces students who leave Sam Houston as well-rounded citizens.

“Students in the American studies minor will explore aspects of the American experience locally, nationally, and within the global community from various perspectives and disciplines,” Bruce said. “The knowledge and habits of mind thus cultivated contribute significantly to the production of not only broadly educated students but also politically and culturally engaged citizens.”

Shemak said that the American studies minor is one that can enhance students’ future job plans, whatever they may be.

“American studies can offer exposure to different areas that can be useful to students going on to careers in teaching, communications, government, museum work and other fields,” Shemak said. “It can really enhance a variety of different areas, depending on what a student’s major is. If a student is majoring in English and is thinking about teaching, the American studies minor would enrich the approach to literature.

“I think getting a sense of the complexity of the American experience and the complexity of defining America. American studies considers the complexity of defining America culturally, historically, politically, and geographically, while also considering the impact of things like migration and globalization. This is an important part of a student’s education.”

Toland said his decision to declare an American studies minor has allowed him to explore areas of study as he makes a decision about what to do with his degree while still receiving credit towards graduating.

“I would like to be a professor and a writer someday, but I am not really sure what I would like to pursue after I complete my undergraduate degree,” Toland said. “I particularly enjoy the variety of subjects offered with an American studies minor because it allows me to get a taste of every discipline that can help define the broad term that is ‘America.’”

For students like Toland, who hopes to pursue a career as a professor and a writer in the future, another goal of the American studies minor is to encourage interdisciplinary fieldwork on into graduate school or academic research, Shemak explained.

“Increasingly, things are interdisciplinary with graduate programs,” Shemak said. “Even though you may be housed in one department, you may be looking to other scholars to work with or other areas to do your research.

“Women’s studies is a perfect example of an interdisciplinary field. When I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland, I pursued a women’s studies graduate certificate. As part of that, I took courses in the women’s studies department that provided historical, sociological, and other approaches to the study of gender and sexuality. I had professors from different fields that were teaching those courses. I was exposed to a lot more.”

Toland said the American studies minor is doing a lot more than getting him closer to graduation. It is also granting him the freedom to be actively prepared for wherever his plans take him once he has left the campus of SHSU.

“I find it interesting how the culmination of many studies can form a broader understanding of the complexities of America and give you a better understanding of what it means to be an American,” Toland said. “The combination of communications studies, English and American studies gives me a broad spectrum to draw from when trying to achieve any of dreams.”



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