A visit to American Studies Department

On September 29, we visited American Studies Department at the University of Minneapolis, where we had a pleasure to meet a historian Elaine Tyler May. This meeting was quite different from what we had been accustomed to. Instead of a lecture or a presentation, professor May proposed us to lead an open conversation in a slightly informal manner, on the issues of migration in the US. Firstly, we all introduced ourselves and indicated our areas of interests. Everyone could get some advice on useful sources and materials concerning their fields of studies. Later on, professor May talked a bit about the Department and her own education and specialization.

Elaine Tyler May

Elaine Tyler May

As we found out, University of Minneapolis boasts one of the oldest departments of American Studies. In the beginning, in late 1940s and early 1950s, it was not a single university division, but rather an interdisciplinary programme stemming from two departments – English and History. Although early days of the institution were difficult – academics working in the Department were not treated seriously, and had to earn trust and respect of their colleagues – lack of theoretical basis for American Studies Department resulted in a fresh, open-minded and experimental approach to the subject of American Culture. Gradually, the Department evolved into a more unified, but still diverse institution, embracing e.g. gender studies or racial issues. Nowadays, there are about 50/60 undergraduates and 6 to 10 graduate students every year. The number is not impressive, but the small size of the Department allows for enhanced quality of instruction. Some examples of research conducted by the Department include topics such as “The cultural life of the death penalty”, or “Korean orphans – cultural cross-national problem”. This openness to variety of subjects and interest in migration allowed for changing profile of students, from predominantly white students coming from educated families to first generation students of colour (increasing number of Somali and Asian students). An interesting point to make, as professor May rightly observed, is that students deriving from a specific ethnic background are not necessarily interested in their own migrant group, but rather engage in studies of other ethnicities.

Overall, the visit provided us with a chance to discover how other universities perceive and approach American Studies and explore the beginnings of the discipline in the US.

Aska Borkowska


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