During the spring of my freshman year, I declared a major. For the third time. When I came to Notre Dame, I had my heart set on studying economics. Once I realized a-how much math is involved in economics and b-that my first microeconomics class went til 4:55 pm on Football Fridays, I changed my mind. The next semester, I was fortunate to have a great sociology-based University Seminar, so I decided I wanted to major in Sociology. But then I got a little nervous—I felt that I was pigeonholing myself. So without ever having taken a course in the department, I declared as an American Studies major.
The USEM is a required course for all First Year students Notre Dame’s; it’s part of the unique First Year of Studies program that a professor named Emil T. Hofman designed in the 1970s. A chemistry professor famous for his weekly 7-question quizzes, Hofman helped to create Notre Dame’s first year program so that freshman students take general education courses and university requirements during their first two semesters. Freshmen are closely advised and are encouraged to explore many disciplines and not to become too attached to any particular track. I was one of the many First Year students who benefitted greatly from the flexibility of this program.
When I picked American Studies (AMST) as my intended program, I had no experience with the department whatsoever. All I knew about the major was what I read on the American Studies website. The program explores the question “What does it mean to be an American?”, and classes are divided into three tracks.
1. American Cultures and Societies–How does the production, distribution, and consumption of various expressive practices and forms—including novels, comic books, paintings, toys, ideas, movies, television programs, songs, and other artifacts from both elite and popular culture—reflect the diversity of American experience? How do they reflect and embody American society and social change? Fields often associated with these kinds of questions include literature, art history, music, media studies (Film, Television, and Theater), and material culture.
2. American Identities–How has America’s historic experience as a nation of people of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, sexual, and other identities shaped the varied processes by which Americans forge individual and group identities and claim rights to citizenship, and in turn transform the nation’s collective identity? Disciplines related to these questions include history, sociology, theology, gender studies, Africana studies, Latino/a studies, and anthropology.
3. American Political Cultures and Institutions–How do governmental, economic, journalistic, and civic institutions operate within America’s cultural frameworks, and how do they mediate (and dramatize) relationships and contending claims among groups and individuals in America? Related fields here include journalism, economics, political science, and policy studies.
American Studies covers everything. I’m still not quite sure what I want to do with my life, so American Studies is the perfect major for me. By the time I graduate, I’ll have a good base of knowledge and skills in all sorts of areas.
So far, I’ve taken 4 of the 10 courses I need to take for my major. This semester, I’m taking 3 more major classes. I won’t be able to take any American Studies classes next semester while I’m abroad, since it’s tough to study America when you aren’t actually there, so I’ve got an AMST-heavy course load this fall. For students in other programs, loading up with 3 major classes could be a recipe for disaster, but I’m thrilled to be able to take 3 AMST classes at once. I get to take the coolest courses with the smartest professors.
Because I’ve decided that I really like writing, I wanted to try to get in to one of the AMST courses crosslisted with the Journalism program. Similar to education, Notre Dame doesn’t have a formal journalism major, but the University offers an interesting minor as an alternative. The “Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy” program (JED) is housed in the American Studies department. Some of the seats in the JED classes are reserved for curious American Studies majors like me. I’m enrolled in a course called “Persuasion, Commentary, and Criticism”. A professor who has been a political columnist with the South Bend Tribune for over 30 years teaches the class of 7 students. Six of those students are girls. Two of the girls and the lone boy in the class are editors for The Observer, Notre Dame’s daily newspaper. The course looks to be a great opportunity for me to get experience writing frequently in a journalistic style; we’ll have a writing assignment each week (an opinion piece, a critical review, or the like), and our daily homework is to read the New York Times.
The second American Studies class I’m taking is called “The City in American Culture”. It examines just what you’d think it would, and it meets on the 4th floor of Main Building. On the first day of class, the professor spoke about Notre Dame’s campus as a contained city. “You live in a medieval city, you know. It’s run by priests, and they would erect a 10-foot wall around the place if they could get away with it.” The prof wandered about the room, spouting words of wisdom and encouraging us to dig deeper into the Whitman essay he had assigned for us to read to prepare for the first class meeting. I couldn’t quite get a handle on him—there was something in the cadence of his speech that was, at the same time, completely enthralling and completely disorienting and distracting. Towards the end of class, he mentioned that he is Canadian. Maybe it was the Canuck inflection that made his words sound just so, but everything that came out of this man’s mouth sounded incredibly profound but also pedestrian, approachable.
Also, for that class, one of the texts we’ve been assigned Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City”. My “Introduction to American Studies” professor recommended it, so I read it in December of last year. Then I picked it up again over spring break, just because I had enjoyed it so much. The book is a historical account of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago; it tells the dual stories of Daniel Burnham, the architect who was responsible for designing the Fair, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who masqueraded as a doctor and lured young women into his mysterious block-long mansion. I’d highly recommend the book to anyone who knows Chicago, thinks they know Chicago, or has ever visited Chicago.
Speaking of that wonderful town, the third American Studies course I’m taking is the best of them all. I am taking a class called “Sinatra”. Yes, you read that correctly. I get to spend the semester learning all about the life and work of the Chairman of the Board, the Voice, the great Frank Sinatra. The course has a weekly 2-hour lab component for watching movies and TV specials featuring Frank. Part of the assessment for the course involves keeping a weekly online journal. Follow along with my Sinatra class at www.amysinatra.blogspot.com. (We have been instructed to use Blogger, so the address is different from the address for Amy Unsettled. I use WordPress to host this blog.)
Amy Unsettled has a spin-off!