The History of the American Culture Program at Vassar College

by William Hoynes, Professor of Sociology, and Jenna Nackel, class of 2010
January 2011
Program Website

In 1943 the Departments of Economics, Sociology and Anthropology (at the time one department); English; History; and Political Science joined forces in the creation of an interdisciplinary concentration in the Development and Culture of the United States. Before this year, the Course Catalogue contained no mention of interdepartmental or multidisciplinary majors. The appearance of the Development and Culture of the United States Program was accompanied by ten other interdepartmental majors. The 1943-1944 Course Catalogue includes a description of an interdepartmental field as one that is "unified by a well defined objective in the student's plan, with a program of interrelated courses of study directed cooperatively by several departments."

The Program was run under the informal leadership of English professor Helen Lockwood, first chair of the committee of advisers. Student majors elected courses from the cooperating departments and were required to complete coursework in at least three of these departments. Over the next several years, the number of students in the Program ranged from three to fourteen, until the Program disappeared in 1957 in a general movement in academia away from multidisciplinary studies.

In 1973 the Program reemerged as the Changing American Culture Program (shortened to the American Culture Program in 1976), largely revived by English professor John Christie. Unlike its predecessor, the new Program had its own course offerings, separate from those of the participating departments. In its first year, the Program offered a seminar in American Culture, special studies courses ("Documentaries of the American Scene: 1920-1970" and "Ethics of American Wealth")1 , a senior project, and a senior colloquium, all of which remain integral parts of the curriculum today. For many years, the Program offered a series of linked events each year, organized around a selected theme and open to the college community, called "Issues for the Seventies" (which continued in subsequent decades as "Issues for the Eighties," and "Issues for the Nineties"). The new Program drew faculty from various departments, often to teach in teams of two, with each professor contributing his or her disciplinary perspective. The topics of the Program's special studies courses changed regularly, offering students innovative courses and providing valuable professional development opportunities for a diverse range of faculty. Over the years, special studies courses have explored a wide variety of issues from a multidisciplinary perspective, from "Reading the Fights: Boxing and American Values" and "The Southwest: Art, Ethnicity, and Environment" to "The Cultural Meanings of the Viet Nam War" and "New York in Film and Photography" – to name just a few.2

The Program's foundation is its multidisciplinary perspective. Since its reemergence in 1972, the Program has emphasized team-teaching as a centerpiece of the multidisciplinary approach, and faculty members from all of the College's curricular divisions have participated in the Program as classroom instructors and both major and thesis advisers. Faculty members serving as Director of the American Culture Program have come from seven different departments: English, History, Psychology, Education, Religion, Geography, and Sociology.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Program's core courses emphasized the dynamic relationship between individualism and community in American culture and society, with required courses that explored themes associated with individualism and community in the United States. Regular faculty colloquia helped to build and update the evolving course syllabi for these core courses and to bring new faculty members into the American Culture community.

The Program's curriculum has long emphasized the importance of connecting theory and practice, and has encouraged students to take their study of American Culture into the community. American Culture students have pursued fieldwork opportunities since the mid-1970s. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Program's Senior Colloquium often included a community-based student research project. In one particularly memorable Senior Colloquium, American Culture seniors undertook an in-depth study of Poughkeepsie in the Spring 1994 semester, producing a report "Poughkeepsie – The City that Hopes" that was distributed around the city and on campus. Summarizing what they learned, the student authors of the report note that they found a community far different from what they read about in the news.

It is a city alive with education, restaurants, music, voluntary organizations, small shops and vital political action…. Poughkeepsie is a city of hope…. The vitality we document does not eradicate or ignore the serious problems confronting Poughkeepsie. Economic decline, crime, poverty and racism are terrible realities. But hope stares these realities in the face and asserts that the future can be better. It inspires action to insure improvement despite the odds or grim realities. Readily recognized, if difficult to quantify, hope in the hearts and minds of our citizens is, paradoxically, the necessary condition for action and success.3

Extending beyond the local environs, course offerings and senior thesis projects have exploring a wide range of communities – looking, for example, at questions about design, change, memory, and conflict. In this regard, two particularly notable classes included a spring break study trip: "Miami in the American Imagination" (1997 and 2000) and "The U.S.-Mexico Border: Nation, God and Human Rights in AZ-Sonora " (2007 and 2009).

The American Culture Program has had a longstanding interest in the role of media in American culture and society. From the late 1970s through the early 2000s, the Program was home to the Vassar Journalism Forum, which organized a series of media-related speakers and events each year. In Fall 1984, the American Culture Program began offering a journalism-writing course, "The Contemporary Press," initially taught by Professor of English, William Gifford. In 1985, New York Times reporter Richard Severo began teaching the course. For the past 25 years, a working journalist has regularly taught "The Contemporary Press," giving Vassar students an opportunity to study the news media as they hone their own writing and reporting skills.

The American Culture Program has long been a source of curricular innovation. Prior to the development of the Programs in Environmental Studies, Jewish Studies, and Media Studies at Vassar, American Culture hosted courses in all three fields. When the College sought to develop a more robust focus on issues of race and ethnicity in the College curriculum, the Dean of the Faculty encouraged American Culture to integrate course offerings on "minority cultures" in the United States into the Program's curriculum. After several special studies courses on various minority cultures, the Program introduced the course "From Melting Pot to Multiculturalism" (later renamed "Ethnicity and Race in America") in 1994. Since 1994, this rotating topics course has investigated a range of histories, experiences, and identities, with the most recent version focusing on "whiteness." As part of the Program's emphasis on questions of race and ethnicity, American Culture organized a Program retreat on Ethnic Studies in 2001, hosted several Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellows in Ethnic Studies, offered various Ethnic Studies courses, and collaborated with the Asian Studies Program in the development of its new Correlate Sequence in Asian American Studies. In addition, the Program worked closely with the International Studies Program to develop a course that responded to students' questions about the 9/11 attacks. Working quickly in the Fall of 2001, American Culture and International Studies created the multidisciplinary course "Terrorism," which enrolled 143 students in the Spring 2002 semester. The course brought in a range of guest speakers who challenged students to think critically and carefully about political violence and their own responses to September 11.

The Program's curriculum remains dynamic and flexible. Students work with the Program Director and a faculty adviser to define a curricular focus; each student's specific course plan is supported by a set of core courses that provide a common foundation for all American Culture majors. In the mid-1990s, the Program faculty began to rethink the Program's longstanding core course on individualism, experimenting with several different versions of the required American Culture 250, all of which emphasized a multidisciplinary approach. In 2004, Program Director Eileen Leonard initiated what became a two-year faculty seminar to explore a transnational approach to the study of American Culture. In response to this productive and engaging faculty seminar, the Program's Steering Committee redefined American Culture 250 as "America in the World" for the Fall 2005 semester," emphasizing the Program's emerging effort to resituate the study of America in a global context. Since 2005, several different faculty teams have taught "America in the World," as Vassar's American Culture Program has joined with a growing number of American Studies departments and programs in the United States in globalizing its curriculum. In addition, recent versions of the Senior Colloquium have situated the study of community in a global context, looking, for example, at the experience of African American soldiers in post-World War II Europe (2008) and at transnationalism in the city of Poughkeepsie (2009).

The Program's most recent curricular development focused on Native American Studies. During the 2005/06 academic year, the American Culture Program launched an initiative in Native American Studies, partly in response to student concerns about the difficulty of finding guidance from faculty members for senior theses and research projects on Indigenous topics. During the 2006/07 academic year, the American Culture program established a Native American Studies faculty seminar, which included a 15-member group of faculty from across the college. The faculty seminar served as a venue for training Vassar faculty in the field of Native American Studies, building the curriculum for the Introduction to Native American Studies course that has become a staple of the American Culture Program, and organizing a series of campus events featuring Native American scholars, artists, and activists. The Native American Studies faculty seminar met monthly throughout the 2006/07 and 2007/08 academic years, establishing valuable connections with a wide range of Indigenous scholars and community members. In both 2007 and 2008, a group of Vassar faculty attended and presented at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Conference, and was involved in supporting the creation of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.

In 2009, the American Culture Program formally established a new Correlate Sequence in Native American Studies, a multi- and interdisciplinary field, in which students examine Indigenous cultures, politics, histories, and literatures, in a primarily North American context. Students electing the correlate sequence are trained in the methodology of Native American Studies as a means to critically assess western colonial discourses, examine the many ways Native peoples have contributed to and shaped American culture, and analyze and honor the autonomy and sovereignty of Indigenous nations, peoples, and thought. Current debates within American Studies suggest the foundational significance of Native American Studies to the field of American Studies.

The American Culture Program remains a home for innovative teaching and learning. Most recently, the Program hosted a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow in Peace and Justice Studies in 2008/09 and 2009/10, and organized a Faculty Seminar on militarism. In the early 2000s, the American Culture Program solidified a major programmatic change by enlarging the scope of the study of America to include a global dimension. This curricular development is strikingly innovative in American Studies, and the Program's faculty – following in the footsteps of previous generations of American Culture faculty – has shown remarkable dedication in their willingness to engage in serious and sustained reflection on the Program's mission, to ensure that the program maintains its commitment to multidisciplinary teaching, and to implement changes to sustain a Program that is open to seriously addressing contemporary debates within the field.


  • 1. John Christie describes the early 1970s reemergence of the American Culture Program in a 1973 Vassar Quarterly essay. See Christie, John Aldrich. 1973. Changing American Culture Vassar's New Multidisciplinary Concentration. Vassar Quarterly. Summer, pp. 43-45.
  • 2. For a comprehensive list of special studies courses offered in the past 15 years, see "Special Studies Courses, 1995-present," American Culture Program.
  • 3. Excerpts of this report were reprinted in the Poughkeepsie Journal, "Sense of Hope Characterizes Poughkeepsie," August 21, 1994, p. 11A.


  • American Culture Program. Annual Reports, 1973-2009. Vassar College.
  • American Culture Program. Majors' Handbook. Vassar College. 2010.
  • Bulletin of Vassar College, Catalogue Issue 1943-44 (Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, October 1943).
  • Bulletin of Vassar College, Catalogue Issue 1973-74 (Poughkeepsie: Vassar College).
  • Christie, John Aldrich. 1973. Changing American Culture Vassar's New Multidisciplinary Concentration, Vassar Quarterly. Summer 1973, 43-45.
  • "Correlate Sequence in Native American Studies." American Culture Program. Vassar College. September 2009.
  • "Sense of Hope Characterizes Poughkeepsie." Poughkeepsie Journal, August 21, 1994. p. 11A.
  • "Special Studies Courses, 1995-present." American Culture Program. Vassar College.
  • Patkus, R. and E. Daniels, eds., An Administrative History of Vassar College 1861-2003, Poughkeepsie, NY: 2004.