The American Studies program introduced five “thematic streams” to the major: Race, Ethnicity and Indigeneity; Democracy, Activism and Class; Space and Place; Production and Consumption of Culture; and America in the World (Migration, Borderlands and Empire). Previously, the American Studies major required four mid-level “topical” courses, which had to come from three different “groups,” but these groups were not labeled with particular themes.
“The older categories, which used to be groups one, two, and three, stopped making any sense,” said Director of American Studies Serena Zabin. American Studies Student Departmental Advisor Victor Huerta adds that “the faculty in the department were aware of the somewhat confusing structure of the major prior to the changes.” “People were like, what’s group one? The courses that fit in one or the other category, nobody could figure out even what the method had once been because it was tied to an older site of thinking. So when we realized that nobody knew what was going on, I was like, ‘oh, this is a great opportunity for really much more radical thinking,’” said Zabin.
“Anytime there’s a change in a major or a minor like this, the faculty involved in the program brings their proposal to the ECC where it’s discussed,” said Dean of the College Beverly Nagel. “The proposal that they brought to Education and Curriculum Committee (ECC) [for thematic streams] grew out of their discussions at their workshop this last fall.
As [the American Studies program] presented it to ECC, they were looking for ways to structure the major to give some guidance for students to make coherent sets of electives to pursue their interests and bring some depth to that.” “Thematic streams come out of two sets of thinking,” added Zabin. “One is our own frustration driven in part by some student frustration; they’re like, ‘what is this major? What does it mean to do American Studies?’”
Over the past five years, almost 200 Carleton courses have offered credit towards the American Studies major. “That is ridiculous,” Zabin remarked. “It’s no wonder people have no idea what this major is. American Studies needs a little more structure, which is what the themes offer. It was getting crazy,” Zabin remarked. “We heard those concerns. We started thinking, well, we sometimes see patterns that they don’t, and so maybe if we made those patterns more explicit, that would help. This is a great moment to make a change and this looks like a piece that makes sense to what we know we need here. That’s what we’re hearing from the students and we can see nationally [that] this will help.” Zabin added that “lots of [American Studies] programs do [themes]. Many small liberal arts colleges, [like] Williams, Amherst, Oberlin, Grinnell, and then also some of the bigger ones, including Brown. This is how the undergraduate education is moving.”
Through the thematic streams, “you can tell people ‘this is the stuff I was really interested in.’ So you get out there and you decide you want to work in the State Department, you can say ‘my concentration was thinking about America in the world.’ Or you get out there and you decide you want to work in an art gallery. You’re like, my concentration was on the production and consumption of culture as a thing I think about. I can tell you that and show you that I think that’ll help.” Zabin concludes that these changes “will help keep us part of a bigger, broader conversation so that as people move out into the world that can talk about what it is that they do.”