What is American Studies?
“American Studies” is the shorthand name for the scholarly field that studies North America (especially the United States, but stretching to the whole continent) in an interdisciplinary way. Students in American Studies think about issues of racial/ethnic difference, structures of power, literature and the arts, media and politics, sex and gender, social movements, change over time, immigration, regional differences, cultural geography, material culture, and how the US relates to global issues. They do this in a multilayered way, using methods and approaches from several disciplines.
The interpretation of culture, society, and politics in North America goes on all around us in every moment. Journalists report on trends in popular culture, technology, and politics. Critics debate how music and films relate to attitudes towards race, sexuality, class, empire, and war. Historians interpret living legacies of the past. Politicians gamble their careers on the “moods” of various public constituencies, while prospective immigrants, both legal and undocumented, gamble their whole lives on decisions about where to seek a living. Taxpayers reflect on how their hard-earned money pays for roads, schools, wars, prisons, and bank bailouts among many other things. Advertisers and investors throughout the world risk fortunes on their understanding of demographics, economic choices, social structure, and cultural trends within the United States. Preachers discuss whether practices ranging all the way from people’s sexual habits to US military policies are in line with God’s will. Foreign governments try to comprehend and influence US domestic affairs as well as its global activities. And authors provide an unending supply of theories about who “Americans” are, where they are headed, and who has the right to speak for “them.”
Few, however, have the benefit of a systematic and multidisciplinary education in these subjects. This is what American Studies is all about.
Career Opportunities in American Studies
An interdisciplinary major in American Studies can prepare students for careers in the academy, advertising, the arts, cultural heritage organizations, business and marketing, community organizing, government service, journalism, law, publishing, and teaching. Broad interdisciplinary training is excellent preparation for graduate and professional school programs in business, education, law, or public policy.
Many students entering UTK today will earn their livings in more than one different job across their lives—including in jobs that do not yet exist! A concentration in American Studies will help you cultivate the range, perspective, flexibility, and critical thinking skills that will help you thrive within such a changing culture and political economy.
Salary Trends in American Studies
It is difficult to generalize about this matter because students in American Studies move in so many directions. As with any degree, pre-professional experiences (volunteerism, work experience, internships, etc.) enhance the chances of obtaining employment and affect the projected salary.
High School Preparation
Perhaps most important is building a solid foundation in communication skills, especially writing, and in critical thinking. Since history, the social sciences, and arts and literature are all core disciplines for the study of North America, the more knowledge you bring in these areas, the better—whether from AP courses, electives, travel and work experience, or simply your personal bibliography of books, music, and film.
How to Major in American Studies
The current UTK major has no formal progression requirements, so students can declare as majors at any time. It does require two 200-level courses chosen from among six options in American Literature and U.S. History. Since these courses prepare for upper-division classes and most of them count toward lower level distribution requirements in Humanities or Social Science, students should take these early in their careers if possible. In consultation with an advisor, majors choose a set of nine upper-division courses that enable them to achieve breadth and depth in the field. This includes exposure to several disciplines and substantial engagement with the many forms of cultural diversity, social conflict, and artistic creativity that shape the history and contemporary nature of our society. Innovative and creative packages of courses, including those that incorporate internships and/or community engagement, are encouraged and easy to put together.
The American Studies core faculty and curriculum draws from more than a dozen departments. Some courses are explicitly cross-listed with numbers in American Studies and their home departments, but dozens of other courses count toward the major, and each semester the program publishes a list of additional courses that may count by petition. Prospective majors should consult the program’s website and meet with the program chair for additional information.
Requirements for American Studies
The major concentration consists of the two 200-level classes noted above (formerly prerequisites but now simply part of the major) plus 27 upper-division semester hours: (1) American Studies 310, Introduction to American Studies (or you may substitute American Studies 450, the Senior Seminar in American Studies, for this course); (2) At least three approved courses, one each in United States history, American literature, and the social scientific study of North America; (3) An individualized package of five additional courses, chosen in consultation with the American Studies advisor in way that achieves both appropriate breadth (including substantive engagement with North American cultural diversity and conflict) and a coherent focus within the field.
Students have great flexibility to develop areas of concentration such as:
Appalachian Studies: History, Culture, and Environment
Borderlands: the U.S, Mexico, and the Caribbean
Empire from Contact with Native America to Post-9/11
Film, Literature, Music, and the Arts
Race Matters: in Media, Schools, Prisons, Urban Spaces
Religion, Culture, and Politics
Sexuality, Gender, and Queer Theory
Social Movements and Cultural Critique
Special Programs, Co-ops, and Internships
Many of our majors develop an independent study course (American Studies 493) and/or under innovative community-based learning as projects within the structure of the senior capstone seminar (American Studies 450). Such projects may take advantage of special resources at the University of Tennessee, such as the McClung Museum or the Great Smoky Mountains Collection, or be developed around internships or other innovative “hands-on” projects. Organizations that have provided internship opportunities in the recent years include the Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center, Beardsley Farm, Pond Gap Afterschool Program, the Labor Semester at New York University, the East Tennessee History Museum, and Museum of Appalachia. Students are encouraged to propose and develop their own innovative projects.
In 2014 the program instituted the SCOUT award—Service and Community Outreach at UT. SCOUT provides a small monetary scholarship and named award for exemplary students—with preference to majors in American Studies—who use their time at UT to explore forms of learning that include community engagement and social justice commitments.
Highlights of American Studies
In addition to central features of our program already described—such as the Senior Capstone Seminar (AMST 450) and the SCOUT award, each year the Program in American Studies hosts international students who are majoring in American Studies at their home universities. Recently students from Wales, Ulster, Germany, France, and Japan have enriched our classes with their perspectives. The capstone seminar provides an opportunity for UT majors, prepared international students, and American Studies faculty from many departments to exchange ideas and identify mentors for independent study projects.
Ready for the World
“Ready for the World” is part of a long-range plan to transform the UTK campus into a culture of diversity that best prepares students for working and competing in the 21st century. Thus students are encouraged to actively participate in the diverse cultural programs offered on campus. Some of these events include the guest lecture series, cultural nights at the International House, and international film screenings. Visit the Center for International Education website or the Ready for the World website for more information on upcoming cultural programs and activities. Learn more about UT’s Ready for the World initiative to help students gain the international and intercultural knowledge they need to succeed in today’s world.
Students are also encouraged to develop a global perspective within their academic program through study abroad. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, offers study abroad programs in Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, South America, and North America. Program lengths vary from mini-term trips to the entire academic year, and students may choose to fulfill general education requirements, study a foreign language, or take courses within their majors. In addition, UTK offers students opportunities for international internships.
Students are highly encouraged to begin planning early in their academic career and to consult with an academic advisor about the best time to study abroad as well as what courses to take abroad. For more information about program options, the application process, and how to finance study abroad, please visit the Programs Abroad Office website.
Academic Plan and Milestones
Following an academic plan will help students stay on track to graduate in four years. For first-time, first-year, full-time, degree-seeking students, UT has implemented Universal Tracking (uTrack), an academic monitoring system designed to help students stay on track for timely graduation. In order to remain on track, students must complete the minimum requirements for each tracking semester, known as milestones. Milestones may include successful completion of specified courses and/or attainment of a minimum GPA.
To see a sample academic plan and milestones for this major, please visit the undergraduate catalog.
For More Information
The information on this page should be considered general information only. For more specific information on this and other programs refer to the UT catalog or contact the department and/or college directly.