Pandemic syllabus, Fall 2020


AMST2020E Fall20 S01 Introduction to Interdisciplinary American Studies

Instructor: Matthew Pratt Guterl
Office hours: by Zoom or in person (and at a distance) if permitted
Meeting time: Tuesdays & Thursdays, 9-10:20am
Meeting location: Salomon 202 [Zoom link in Canvas]

This graduate-level course offers an introduction for MA students to the inter-discipline of American Studies. The primary goal of the course is to familiarize students with the history of the field, and with the varieties of American Studies, and to do so through active seminar discussions conducted online and, if/whenever possible, in face-to-face collaborations, and through work with material and visual media as well as secondary texts.

The class is built for a mixed, hybrid model, with collaborative work that can be conducted online or through Zoom, FaceTime, or Skype. As/if the campus allows, we will have face-to-face conversations as a group. At the same time, our assignments and workloads are meant to be flexible enough to work should we have to teach this class remotely.

Finally, this class requires a lot of reading. More than a book a week. It is important that you develop a skillful, laser-like approach to reading for argument, for illustration of that argument, for use of evidence, and for contributions to the scholarly literature. It is more important that you are able to discuss those qualities of any text we discuss than that you have read every single word and can remember each of them. This will save you time and make this class manageable. We will use our first text – by Trouillot – to develop a list of best practices.


1. A general understanding of the field of American Studies, including its history, its current breadth, and current and ongoing debates. Students should be able to confidently express the history of the field and to explain some of its current foci by the end of the semester.

2. A specific understanding about how to write a short essay (>10 pages) critiquing one of the secondary texts assigned for the class.

3. A specific understanding about best practices for collaborative, project-based exercises, as modeled through a co-created digital project. There will be multiple, small collaborative assignments for each student and for each pod. By the end of the semester, students should know how to plan for – and execute equitably – a collaborative research project.

4. A sense of community in the group, a commitment to working together as a cohort moving through the degree.


1. Every student will co-lead a discussion on two of the books we discuss in class.  A short list of discussion questions will be shared beforehand with the class via Canvas. I will be assessing the co-leader’s contribution – the authorship of those questions and the facilitation of discussion – as well as the supportiveness and preparedness of the whole class.

2. The class will work collaboratively on a <10-minute video, to be shared on the last day of class, that will attempt to answer or address this question: "What is the method of American Studies?" The video should draw upon – or at least demonstrate knowledge of – the 50 years of debate on this topic. But it should, most importantly, spotlight the rich complexity of popular material in our current moment that we might consider as "American Studies." There should be close readings, clever narration, and dazzling theory. I expect a high gloss, with a lot of attention to form as well as to content. We will work on this all semester long. Substantial details to follow on collaboration and on assessment. This is due on December 11 by 10pm.

3. Each student will write a 10-page review of a single work NOT assigned for the class.  You choose. In proposing it, make a case for it being an American Studies text. Drafts will be reviewed twice by the class prior to final submission, and in those moments of peer-review, it is the *reviewers* whose contribution will be assessed. My expectations are that comments on drafts will be polished, well-written, and constructive. I have the same expectation of the final essay. Please consult venues renowned for their long review formats, including American Quarterly, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Reviews in American History. This is due on December 11 by 10pm.

4. All conversations are collaborative. By Sunday night at midnight, everyone will need to share to the Canvas thread four takeaways from the book of the week. Define the argument, for instance. Or identify the most unusual piece of evidence in the text. Or take issue with a chapter, where the author illustrates their argument or discusses a key moment or theory. Or lay out for us unanswered questions or missed opportunities. In the classroom/zoom room be sure to participate, attend, amplify, elaborate, and be prepared. Take note of what everyone does. At the end of the semester, you will upload to Canvas a 1-page, single spaced document itemizing the top 10 contributions of your classmates to the Canvas/in-class discussions. This listicle is due on December 11 by 10pm. Assessment of everything else will be continuous.

Each of these is worth 25% of your final grade.

Academic integrity:

Please remember that graduate students are bound to the Academic Code, and that all work – independent or collaborative – must accurately reflect your effort alone. For a reminder, see:


I recognize that many of you use e-mail very infrequently. I do not. I will respond to every email you write – even if it is just with a brief acknowledgement of receipt – within 24 hours, except for weekends and during travel. I hope, as well, that you will return the favor. Remember that whenever face-to-face conversations aren’t possible, email is the medium of official communication for this class; as such, it cannot be replaced by chit-chat as I’m leaving the room, nor is it interchangeable with texting, IM-ing, tweeting, or facebook-ing. So, then, if you have a question about the class, and we cannot meet in person, use email. And check your Brown email every morning to see if I’ve written to you.

I also use the Canvas broadcast announcement feature a lot. Make sure you have it set to go to your email. However, please do not message me through Canvas! Use email!

If you require a substantive conversation about the material in the class or the assignments, please set up a face-to-face/zoom meeting or a phone call. We can also have a walking meeting outside.


This is an inclusive, safe classroom. If Canvas or Banner doesn’t accurately capture your name, your gender, or anything about your sense of personal identity, please just let me know how you’d like to be called. Conversely, I will not ask anyone to do more than share their preferred name with classmates.

Brown University is committed to the full inclusion of all students. Please inform me early in the term if you have a disability or other conditions that might require accommodations or modification of any of these course procedures. You may speak with me after class or during office hours. For more information, please contact Student and Employee Accessibility Services at 401-863-9588 or Students in need of short-term academic advice or support can contact one of the deans in the Dean of the College office. Additionally, to support students whose primary language is not English, an array of English support services are available on campus including language and culture workshops and individual appointments. For more information, contact or (401) 863-5672.

If you need to take this class remotely and asynchronously, please let me know as soon as possible so we can make that happen.

Finally, if you need special consideration for any reason, really, please just talk to me ahead of time. I am eager to find a way to make this work.

Required texts:

Hendler, ed., Keywords for American Cultural Studies (2nd edition)
Trouillot, Silencing the Past
Smith, Virgin Land
Canaday, The Straight State
Douglas, Feminization of American Culture
Peiss, Cheap Amusements
Denning, The Cultural Front
Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue
Blain, Set the World on Fire
Herring, The Hoarders
Miller-Young, A Taste for Brown Sugar
Fleetwood, Marking Time
Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus
Martinez, Injustice Never Leaves You
Lee, Orientals

All are required. And all are available for purchase at the Brown University bookstore.


Unit 1: Introductions

Mixtape/video introduction (more via Canvas in August)
(due September 9)

Trouillot, Silencing the Past
(discussed September 9 &15)

Choose your book to review
Choose your week to lead discussion
(September 15)

Unit 2: Myth & Symbol

Smith, Virgin Land
(discussed September 17 & 22)

Douglas, Feminization of American Culture
(discussed September 22 & 24)

Bruce Kuklick, “Myth and Symbol in American Studies”
(discussed September 17, 22, and 24)

Unit 3: New Social and Cultural Approaches

Peiss, Cheap Amusements
(discussed September 29 & October 1)

Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue
(discussed October 6 & 8)

Lee, Orientals
“Asian,” “Race,” “Racialization,” and “Migration,” Keywords
(discussed October 13 & 15)

First draft of essay due
(October 16 by 10pm)

Unit 4: Centering Race, Class, Sex, and Gender

Blain, Set the World on Fire
“African,” “Liberalism,” “Diaspora,” “Empire,” and “Politics,” Keywords
(discussed October 20 & 22)

Comments due back on first drafts
(October 23 by 10pm)

Martinez, Injustice Never Leaves You
“Nation,” “Racialization,” “Latino,” and “Terror” Keywords
(discussed October 27 & 29)

Denning, Cultural Front
“Culture,” “Class,” “Corporation,” “Democracy,” Keywords
(discussed November 3 & 5)

Miller-Young, A Taste for Brown Sugar
“Black,” “Labor,” “Class,” “Performance,” and “Capitalism,” Keywords
(discussed November 10 & 12)

Second drafts of essays due
(November 13 at 10pm)

Fleetwood, Marking Time
“Prison,” “Freedom,” “Law,” Keywords
(discussed November 17 & 19)

Herring, Hoarders
“America,” “Rural,” and “Normal,” Keywords
(discussed November 24)

Comments on second drafts due
(November 24 by 10pm)


Canaday, The Straight State
“Queer,” “Marriage,” “Liberalism,” and “Subject,” Keywords
(discussed December 1 & 3)

Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus
“Indigenous,” “Indian,” “Border,” Keywords
(discussed December 8 & 10)

Final draft of essay due
Collaborative video project due
Listicle of classroom participation due
(December 11 by 10pm)

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