With the United States taking its place as a global power after World War I, scholars began exploring questions that would develop into a discipline known as American studies in the 1930s. Over the next several decades, American studies programs were created across the United States, including in 1969 at UC Davis. The program, a department in the College of Letters and Science since 2016, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
It is the only Department of American Studies in the University of California system.
Since its early years, American studies has been about addressing social, cultural, economic and political issues in ways that long-established disciplines didn’t. Breaking down walls between disciplines, American studies is explicitly interdisciplinary, using tools developed by numerous disciplines including history, sociology, anthropology, literary criticism, ethnic studies, folklore, and science and technology studies.
At UC Davis, themes and topics addressed in courses and research include gender, race, popular culture, sexuality, class, disabilities, foodways, immigration, racial and environmental justice, policing and surveillance.
“The field listens to voices not always listened to and is very much guided by a sense of social justice — although it isn’t always seen as that,” said professor and department chair Grace Wang.
Beyond the historically dominant culture
Wang and others noted that American studies is still often viewed incorrectly by those unfamiliar with the field as the study of the white dominant culture in the United States.
“The name of the major is very misleading,” said Nadia Alves (B.A., American studies, ’18). “It is really about all the cultures of the United States.”
Over the decades, American studies has expanded its exploration of the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world.
“American studies scholars at UC Davis have already shifted our research to better integrate transnational American studies and decenter the U.S. and whiteness,” according to Professor Julie Sze.
Sze and Wang have collaborated on integrating transnationalism into introductory classes and reformulating courses to address the unique perspectives of international students.
A ‘cognitive style’ that fits
American studies is not a field many entering freshmen pick as a major; it’s one that students discover later on as a good fit for their way of thinking.
“I realized during my first American studies class (in the 1960s) that the field appreciated my cognitive style, working on connecting the intellectual disciplines rather than drawing sharp distinctions between them,” said professor emeritus Jay Mechling. “American studies attracts students with that cognitive style, and they are lucky to find the major instead of being stuck in a single disciplinary major.”
Like many American studies students, Erin McClelland (B.A., American studies and anthropology, ‘03) took one class in the program and was hooked. “What I like is that American studies encourages you to look at things from so many angles and to paint a full picture,” said McClelland, an independent museum and interpretation professional.
Tapping into students’ knowledge and passions
The broad areas the program covers allows students to focus on their areas of interest and complete significant research.
“American studies gives you the tools to explore what interests you the most, what you are really passionate about,” Wang said.
If a student knows about or is interested in television comedy, growing up in the suburbs, fast food or video poker they can learn about and research these topics.
“In some areas, the professor says ‘You don’t know anything about this and I’m here to teach you,’” said Mechling, who was in the department from 1971 to 2009. “In American studies, the message is ‘You know a lot.’ What the students know is of great value.”
American Studies "Firsts" at UC Davis
- First women’s studies course.
- First comparative ethnicity course.
- First gay studies classes.
- First American popular culture, folklore and folklife classes.
- First American corporate cultures course.
- First men’s studies course.
- “Animals in American Culture” aimed at pre-veterinary medicine and animal science students.
- Nation’s first joint professorship between American studies and food science.