Methods in American Studies
“Can ‘American studies’ develop a method?” “What happens to American studies if you put African American studies at the center?” “Why perpetuate a specifically ‘American’ studies?” “Who cuts the border?”
In this seminar, we, like Henry Nash Smith, Mary Helen Washington, Janice Radway, and Hortense Spillers before us, ask, How do we “do” American studies? And why? What method––what mode of investigation––do we use to make arguments and form knowledge about that thing we call American culture? This course offers a tour of some of the dominant and emerging methods in American studies, inviting us to slow down and consider our own toolkits as scholars of the field (and other fields) and how we might refashion or finetune them. Through a combination of classic and current American studies research, we break down how to move from text to archive to social or cultural formation to the original idea or argument through which we, one shot at a time, make knowledge in the humanities. Our readings will include material from the diverse fields that converge on American studies, including critical race and ethnic studies, Black studies, Indigenous studies, gender and sexuality studies, visual culture, and critical disability studies. We will discuss the writing of, among others, Lisa Marie Cacho, Raúl Coronado, Jack Halberstam, Saidiya Hartman, Donald Pease, and Alan Trachtenberg.
Race and Sports Culture
“The best I can see for baseball is the same old way,” the narrator of Gloria Naylor’s 1992 novel Bailey’s Café laments, observing that the integration of baseball in the late 1940s left Black owners and managers out in the cold. “The [Branch] Rickeys of the world [are still] calling the shots because a hundred Jackie Robinsons isn’t gonna really integrate baseball and baseball is not going to help integrate America.”
Naylor isn’t alone in turning to sports to investigate the cultural life of race in the United States. The movement to integrate American institutions, including baseball clubhouses, changed a lot. But a lot more remained the same, and she and other writers and artists have often looked to the stories we tell (and don’t tell) about athletes to discover why. This course follows their lead. How have sports, from high school to the big leagues, served as a venue for maintaining old and inventing new racial ideas? How have they defined what it means to be Asian, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and white in the United States (where white team executives’ use of the term owner should, with the slightest historical stocktaking, make us wonder)? How have athletes and fans formed racial and ethnic identities and articulated demands on and through the boxing ring, football field, tennis court, and track? Through the writing of, among others, Ben Carrington, Harry Edwards, Gish Jen, C. E. Morgan, and Colson Whitehead and films, including Hoop Dreams, Rocky, and Sugar, we consider how sports mirror and make race in America.
The Great American Baseball Novel
“Baseball,” Philip Roth wrote in 1973, “with its lore and legends, its cultural power, its seasonal associations, its native authenticity, its simple rules and transparent strategies, its longuers and thrills, its spaciousness, its suspensefulness, its peculiarly hypnotic tedium, its heroics, its nuances, its ‘characters,’ its language, and its mythic sense of itself, was the literature of my boyhood.” Baseball had, he believed, made him a novelist. Gish Jen remembered, in a 2020 interview, how her immigrant parents had “performed being American by going to ballgames” and raised her with a “visceral understanding that baseball was America.” Baseball had, they believed, made them American.
Roth, tongue in cheek, titled his baseball novel The Great American Novel. Jen titled hers The Resisters.
This course investigates the great American game through the great American novel. What does baseball, as the national pastime, tell us about the United States? What did it mean in 1846, when Walt Whitman, then a young editor at the Brooklyn Eagle, observed neighborhood kids engaged in a “certain game of ball”? And what does it mean now? How has it acted as a mechanism of exclusion and inclusion, empire building and independence? What has attracted novelists to it like no other sport? This course reads the nation––with its lore and legends, its characters, its language, and its mythic sense of self––through the baseball fiction of Bernard Malamud, Gloria Naylor, August Wilson, Jen, Don DeLillo, and Chad Harbach.
Introduction to Graduate Studies and the Profession of English
English departments do a lot––rhetoric and composition, literature, creative writing, critical race and ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, digital humanities, cultural studies. And graduate students do it all and more. This seminar is an introduction to the profession of English and the career before the career that is graduate school. Through histories of the profession, conversations about theoretical and methodological shifts and trends, and a cross section of English studies research, including some from scholars in our own department, we situate ourselves and our discipline at TCU and in an evolving profession.
Good research takes time and forethought, so this seminar also offers an overview of some skills and time-management strategies to help you make the most of your first year of graduate school and build toward your professional goals. We consider campus resources, graduate seminars, conferencing, article writing, and the job market, and we discuss some of the exciting research happening at TCU and how you can get involved and get writing.
The Other Fifties
In his 1984 autobiography, Amiri Baraka, the poet and spokesman of the Black Arts Movement, looked back on the mid-1950s as a moment of change. Dwight Eisenhower, born in 1890, had won a second term as president. John F. Kennedy, thirty years younger and soon to succeed him, had just arrived in the Senate. A young Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, new on the national stage, had led a successful movement to desegregate public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. “This was, I think, a time of transition,” Baraka wrote. “From the cooled-out reactionary 50’s, the 50’s of the Cold War and McCarthyism and HUAC, to the late 50’s of the surging civil rights movement.”
This course is about that time of transition. The 1950s, though often remembered as a decade of conformity, also introduced the nation to a cast of rebels and outsiders: Holden Caulfield, James Dean, Alice Childress, the Beats, Nina Simone, and the characters of Mad magazine. The literature we read tells their stories and looks ahead to the tumultuous decade to come. We witness a “slight rebellion” in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, encounter a different kind of sermon in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, catch a con man in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and achieve transcendence, or not, in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. This course asks which decade we’re talking about when we say “the fifties” and how that decade imagined and created the future.
Seminar in Critical Race Theory
“Race is,” Stuart Hall wrote in 1980, “the modality in which class is lived.” It is, Michael Omi and Howard Winant argued in 1986, “an unstable and ‘decentered’ complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle.”
“Racism,” Audre Lorde explained in 1984, is “the belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance.” It is, Ruth Wilson Gilmore wrote two decades later, “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”
What is race? What is racism? This course is about how cultural theorists, sociologists, poets, activists, geographers, and political philosophers have confronted terms that we all think we know––that we all live with and through––but struggle to define. Critical race theory arose, at least in name, in the 1970s as scholars and activists came to recognize the limitations and legal vulnerabilities of the gains of the civil rights era. The theoretical framework they built asks that we interrogate an idea that we hold dear in the United States: racial progress, the belief that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. Some of our readings are difficult, some frustrating, and we consider where theory serves us and where it may confuse and obstruct conversation and action. This course is about theory, but it is also about the uneven distribution of life chances and why we live our lives together and apart.
Introduction to American Studies
In 1842, Charles Dickens landed in Boston Harbor. Twenty-nine years old and the most famous living writer in the English-speaking world, Dickens bound through the Boston streets, thrilled to be in the United States for the first time. “Here we are!” he greeted a throng of well-wishers at the Tremont Hotel. But his warm feelings toward his hosts didn’t last long. He found American slavery abhorrent, American manners crude, and American politics malicious. “This is not the Republic I came to see,” he wrote a friend in Britain. “This is not the Republic of my imagination.”
This course is about the nation that Dickens imagined, the nation that disappointed him, and how Americans, then and now, live with the distance between the America they imagine and the America they know. It is an introduction to American studies, a field that brings together thinkers from all different backgrounds––historians, ethnic studies scholars, activists, political scientists, sociologists, regular Joes, and disillusioned British novelists––to investigate the social and cultural life of the United States. Through fiction, film, political speeches, popular music, and comics, we consider how a diverse cast of Americans have defined and claimed, and redefined and reclaimed, the nation as their own. From the inscrutable diaries of George Washington to the ugly precedent of the Chinese Exclusion Act to Henry Luce’s declaration of an “American century,” this course invites us to, like Dickens, take in the United States anew, bad manners and all.
Institutions of American Literature
In 1946, Flannery O’Connor, twenty-one years old, entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first creative writing program in the United States. “What first stuns the young writer emerging from college is that there is no clear-cut road for him to travel on,” she mused at the time. Graduate school was at least better, she concluded, than “the poor house” or “the mad house.” In 1967, Raymond Carver, then working for a textbook publisher in Palo Alto, met his future editor Gordon Lish, who would cut his manuscripts down to the bone, revealing the “minimalism” for which Carver later became known. In 1987, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, though hailed as an instant classic, did not win the National Book Award, setting off a fight over race and the institutions that confer cultural distinction. In 1998, Dave Eggers founded McSweeney’s, launching a new era of “indie” publishing, as well as his own career.
No writer is an island. Authors write their own books, of course, but they write them in and through institutions: the creative writing program, the editor and publishing house, the book award, the independent press. This course is about the creative, collaborative, and sometimes bureaucratic art of making capital-L literature in the United States. How did the Iowa Writers’ Workshop change O’Connor’s writing? What influence did Carver’s editor have on his? How did not winning the National Book Award (and later winning the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel) alter the course of Morrison’s career? How did independent publishing facilitate Eggers’s? This course asks how literature gets made and read, including in an English department class like this one.
Asian American Literature and the Cold War
In 1968, Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, students at the University of California, Berkeley, founded the Asian American Political Alliance to mobilize students of Asian descent against the Vietnam War. The AAPA was the first national organization to unite Americans of diverse Asian backgrounds under a now-familiar banner: Asian American. “The brutal intervention in Southeast Asia raised disturbing questions about our foreign policy and its relationship to domestic politics permeated by racism,” Gee remembered. “Everyone was lost in the larger rally,” Ichioka added. “We figured if we rallied behind our own banner, behind an Asian American banner, we would have an effect on the larger public.”
This course is about how the “hot” Cold War, including the war in Southeast Asia, gave rise to a panethnic, often anti-imperial Asian American literature. It considers how the American wars in Asia led Gee, Ichioka, and other young Americans of Asian descent to lift a new banner of belonging and resistance. From the Korean War novels of Richard Kim and Susan Choi to the Vietnam War novels of Monique Truong and Viet Nguyen, we explore how first- and second-generation Korean and Vietnamese American writers revisit and reimagine the wars that brought them and their families to the United States, often without a choice. This course is about Asian American literature and the Cold War––how the Korean and Vietnam Wars gave form to Asian American literature and how Asian American literature rewrites the Cold War.
Texas Christian University
English 55863: Methods in American Studies
English 55763: Race and Gender in American Literature (“The Strange Career of Racial Liberalism”)
English 55213: Seminar in American Literature since 1900 (“American Cultural Memory”)
English 55003: Introduction to Graduate Studies and the Profession of English
English 40753: Seminar in American Studies (“Race and Sports Culture”)
English 40683: Studies in Twentieth-Century American Literature (“Institutions of American Literature”)
English 40663: Transnational American Literature (“Imperial America”)
English 30953: Post-1945 American Literature (“Cold War Culture”)
English 30853: Asian American Literature (“Asian American Literature and the Cold War”)
English 30693: US Multiethnic Literature (“Movement Literature”)
English 20553: Introduction to American Studies
English 20523: Sports and American Literature (“The Great American Baseball Novel”)
English 20503: Major American Writers (“The Other Fifties”)
CRES 20003: Seminar in Critical Race Theory
University of California, Irvine
LIT JRN 103: Topics in Literary Journalism (“Reporting the National Security State”)
University of Connecticut
English 2203: American Literature since 1880
English 1011: Seminar in Writing through Literature
English 1010: Seminar in Academic Writing