Wednesday, May 26, 2010

1a Introduction to American Studies 101

Welcome to American Studies 101. This is an introductory online course for students at California State University, Fullerton, and anyone else who stumbles on this website. CSUF students have a separate, private space for writing comments, but all readers are also welcome to leave comments here.

This is a theoretical course, but, because theory makes most sense in practice, we will focus on the subject of the frontier. You may have studied the frontier as "Manifest Destiny," or you may think of it as "the West" or "the Marlboro Man myth." Thase are overlapping yet distinct terms. We'll use all of them, but we'll start with the idea of the frontier -- partly because a lot of interesting American historians have been thinking about the frontier for a while. I believe that if you can understand the last century of scholars' varying approaches to the frontier, then you will understand American Studies theory.

We will begin with a classic speech by Frederick Jackson Turner that crystallized the myths that many people lived by. Then we'll consider alternate views of the frontier, doing theory in practice by circling around “the frontier,” considering issues of race, gender, region, environment, economics, government, popular culture, and the politics of public memory. If you do not already have the syllabus of assigned readings, you can click on this link for an older copy of the syllabus.

In order to consider the frontier from multiple angles, we will be using multiple sources, including photographs, paintings, postcards, amusement parks, advertisements, newspapers, movies, memoirs, music, and more. We will read an ethnography of rodeo queens and culminate with an investigative journalist exploring the fast food industry, because fast food has more to do with the frontier than you might think at first.

This is a course about learning to ask questions and learning critical thinking about ordinary Americans. So here's a taste of what's to come.

When I taught American Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I spent the first day of class showing my students images of diverse Americans, trying to persuade them that not all Americans resemble the Marlboro man. I don’t think I ever persuaded them, really.

As Cal State Fullerton students, you already know that this image is just an image. Still, it’s a powerful portrait of America's myth of itself: a lone man, independent, self-reliant, noble, conquering the great wilderness, and maybe getting throat cancer. I assume this image is familiar to many of you. It is not just an isolated advertisement but actually a pervasive mythic discourse, a collective conversation that frames the story. In this class, we will be examining this mythic discourse in its sources and its consequences.

Here are some questions to begin with.

RACE: why is the Marlboro man always portrayed as white, not Latino, Black, Native American, or Asian? Historically, one-third of American cowboys were actually Black or Latino. Why isn't that diversity part of the remembered myth?

CLASS: Why is the Marlboro Man always portrayed alone, or with  one or two other workers, and never a crowd or a boss? What conditions of labor are implied here? Historically, cowboys were low-paid wage laborers driving cattle to the railroads to Chicago stockyards: why are cities and corporate industries rarely part of the picture?

GENDER: Why are there never (as far as I know) any women in any images of the Marlboro man? What sexuality is implied here? And what would be different if the Marlboro man were female, or even a little less John-Wayne like in his macho handsomeness?

GOVERNMENTAL POLITICS: Historically, the American west was largely undeveloped until there were government subsidies for railroads, irrigation, and other infrastructure. What would an image looked like that included the large role of government?

It is one assumption of this course that the stories we tell about ourselves matter. These stories may come in advertisements or novels or history textbooks or films or other pieces of popular culture, and they may seem trivial, but ideas like the Marlboro Man set up a standard of who is a noble American. The Marlboro-man standard is working-class, white, male, self-sufficient, macho. It leaves out a lot of people, but it affects us all, even if (maybe especially if) you are one of those people who are left out.


  1. maam may I know your email??
    I'm rini from indonesia, I'm still studying in Seebelas Maret University indonesia majoring Amarican studies. I'd like to talk more with you especially about Marlboro man and popular culture..

  2. what a delite to bumble across this rich material. As a pharmacist set to retire in two months I have been looking for subjects of interest to keep me busy and I have developed an interest in the Old West. I found this resource while looking for on and off line classes on the History of the American West--so far I have read the Turner Thesis and the Limerick assignments (on Google Book) and of course the class "lecture" and am incredibly fascinated by the fresh perspective (for me). In fact, as a pacific northwesterner having spent most of my life in Oregon and Washington, when I read the material on Denial and Dependence I sort of wanted to crawl under a rock! Thanks for making this available....

  3. Pam, an American Studies grad student at Purdue from Indonesia. I found that this blog is really helpful. Thanks!

  4. I am a scholar of American studies (PhD Washington State University, 1994) who teaches Pacific Northwest history and American Indian history to adult students at a small private university. I also blog some of my reading of history at Patriot's and People's, a name that reflects a focus upon contrasting the left- and right-wing ideologically driven histories of Howard Zinn, A People's History, and Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, A Patriot's History of the United States. I stumbled across your blog while looking for an essay by Patty Limerick concerning the Modoc War that I cannot find within my personal library at present. Your course looks interesting. I may return another day to explore your teaching ideas, as there's likely some things here that could be useful in my own teaching.

  5. I am glad that so many of you have found this helpful. I hope you will use the class syllabus to explore more readings on the west.

  6. Informative post , Speaking of which , if someone is searching for a HUD-1 , my assistant discovered a sample form here