Center for Community Engagement

How about here? American Studies major foregrounds the local community

September 2013Sojourner Truth's home in Florence, Mass. Photo courtesy of the Sojourner Truth Statue Memorial Committee. Story by Jenny Morgan, CCE staff writer

Founded in 1939, the American Studies department at Amherst is the country’s oldest continuous American Studies department.

Since its creation, faculty and students in the interdisciplinary department have grappled with the questions and problems that have shaped the United States. The department has a long legacy of being at the forefront of many national conversations.

Karen Sánchez-Eppler, the L. Stanton Williams 1941 Professor of American Studies and English, points to classroom debates on the Vietnam War during the 1970s as an example of this history. “There was a real sense of creating the debate on American policy right there in the classroom,” she says. As the American Studies department formalizes its commitment to incorporating the local community into the major, Sánchez-Eppler says the department is “going back to its roots.”

One significant change in the American Studies major requirement is the introduction of American Studies 111, or Global Valley. Offered for the first time last year, it’s a course that uses the Pioneer Valley not only as an introduction to American Studies, but also a way to examine larger, national questions through the lens of the local community. “Any local place lets you understand questions about the world and the forces that create those conditions,” says Sánchez-Eppler. Before landing on the idea of Global Valley, the focus of the introductory course varied widely from one semester to the next. Zooming in on the Pioneer Valley was a moment of revelation. “We suddenly just thought, ‘How about here?’ There’s something that makes sense about that, that doesn’t just feel like you picked one of the many possible American things out of the air,” Sánchez-Eppler says. Off the top of her head, she can cite an impressive list of local histories that have had larger national reverberations. “The Deerfield Raid, Shays’ Rebellion, Sojourner Truth’s time in Northampton. The story of Holyoke is about layers of immigration and each of those immigrations is a global story. It’s all local stuff, but all local stuff always has long tales, much longer stories.”

The other notable change is the requirement that every American Studies major must “not only study, but engage with American society” through enrolling in a community-based learning course. While students have a range of such courses to choose from, American Studies 221, Building Community, is designed for the major and explicitly probes questions of community engagement. Co-taught by Center for Community Engagement Director Molly Mead, Building Community asks students to consider both the “practice and ideal of community” through theoretical and project-based work in the community. Sánchez-Eppler considers this addition to the major as way to “make space where it’s okay to ask questions that come out of community work.”

While it may be too early to tell how these changes will impact the department, students, or the community, for Sánchez-Eppler and the American Studies faculty as a whole, this shift has been “an organic, rooted movement. There’s not been just one person pushing for this. This is a curriculum that is about engaging with the questions and problems at stake in the nation and gaining the historical insight to be wise and active engaged citizens.”