What is American Studies at UMBC?

The mission of UMBC’s Department of American Studies (AMST) is to advance the interdisciplinary study of American cultures through research, teaching, and service to the campus and community.

AMST became an independent major during the campus’ founding years, and its first graduates received their degrees at the institution’s initial commencement in the Spring of 1970. Dr. Joel Jones taught an interdisciplinary seminar on American culture in 1967-68. In 1968, Dr. James Arnquist became the second faculty member appointed to the program, and AMST major was launched. When Jones departed in 1969 to take the position of chairperson at the University of New Mexico, Dr. Ed Orser joined Arnquist on the department’s faculty.

The interdisciplinary nature of the program and the connections it afforded between studying America’s past and present quickly made it a very popular major. Its emphasis on student engagement in the learning process and the development of critical thinking and writing skills became trademarks. The department’s model has always included a core of interdisciplinary courses which provide an engaging shared experience in cultural study, combined with the selection of special curricular emphasis areas and themes, where students may pursue individual interests though a variety of courses and seminars, independent studies, and internships.

From the department’s beginning, community-based research and engagement became one of the signatures of AMST. Senior research seminars focused on such topics as the decline and revival of Ellicott City, the World War II experience of conscientious objectors in the Patapsco Valley State Park camp (the nation’s first), and the Baltimore City urban homesteading program. Community studies continued under a special research seminar directed by Dr. Orser, with projects on such nearby locales as Irvington, Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, Catonsville, Cowdensville, and the Patapsco River Valley. Each resulted in an exhibit, featured both at UMBC and at community sites. The Catonsville project, undertaken together with Dr. Joseph Arnold and students in the history department, culminated in the book, Catonsville, 1880-1920: From Village to Suburb. This tradition is carried on today through the establishment of the Orser Center for the Study of Place, Community, and Culture, under the direction of Dr. Nicole King. Her recent seminars have involved students in the study of the working class and racially mixed communities of Brooklyn and Curtis Bay in South Baltimore, resulting in successful public events which both celebrate their heritage and address their current challenges.

Central to American Studies has always been a focus on issues of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. The department offered the campus’s first course on African American culture, then supported the creation of the independent program in African American Studies, now known as Africana Studies. A distinguished line of AMST faculty pioneered courses in gender and women’s studies, including Drs. Carol Ehrlich, Kathy Peiss, Carol McCann, Patrice McDermott, and Kathy Bryan. The long-time emphasis upon racial and ethnic diversity in the study of American culture has been continued and enhanced in recent years with courses developed by Drs. Kimberly Moffitt, Tamara Bhalla, and Theodore S. Gonzalves.

Critical study of mass media and popular culture had early roots in the department. Dr. Horace Newcomb introduced an innovative course on the critical study of television in the 1970s, and went on to serve as director of the prestigious Peabody Awards for distinction in electronic media. Dr. Jason Loviglio expanded the department’s courses in this fast-growing field with his research and teaching on the history of radio and media. Dr. Warren Belasco pioneered what has become the field of food studies with his popular courses and widely cited publications. AMST is proud to have served as an incubator for interdisciplinary studies. In the Fall of 2013, the Provost announced the formal establishment of Gender + Women’s Studies and Media and Communication Studies as UMBC’s newest academic departments.

AMST’s current partnership with the Maryland Traditions program of the Maryland State Arts Council continues a long-time emphasis upon the study of expressive culture in local settings. Maryland Traditions offers special programs on campus (like the Baltimore documentary film series in Spring, 2011) and provides internship opportunities for UMBC students. Our Folklorist-in-Residence, Dr. Michelle Stefano, extends that partnership with her work in the field of critical heritage studies. In the 1970s, Dr. David Whisnant launched the Traditional Music Concerts, bringing a rich variety of traditional musicians from across the state–and beyond–to campus for local audiences; Dr. Leslie Prosterman taught courses on traditional culture for a number of years; and AMST faculty members frequently offer courses on ethnographic study.

American Studies is firmly committed to the interdisciplinary work of the humanities. If you’re reading this to help decide on what major to choose, one of our colleagues pointed out that

“the humanities can do at least two things… they can help you feel less lost and alienated in this new historical moment, and second, they can help your generation ponder the ethical issues that those who got us into this mess seemed to have all too successfully bypassed.”

Whatever major you eventually decide on, we hope you spend some of your time learning with us in American Studies.