American Studies: A Whole Bunch of 'Ologies'

By Josh Chamberlain '14

I am an American Studies major.

You probably have no idea what that means.

My initial pitch to my parents and subsequent description of the major to anyone who’s asked goes something like this: “It’s basically history, English, philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology and a whole bunch of other ‘ologies’ all rolled into how Americans interact and develop culture.”

While I’m not entirely sure how academic this particular description is, it’s safe to say the classes I’ve taken as part of the American Studies curriculum have been some of the most interesting and influential of my college career. Of all my experiences in the last four years, it’s easy to say that majoring in American Studies has been the most important element in shaping who I am while attending this university.

This is probably the part of the blog post where you wonder, “What does this have to do with art and why is this kid talking about this?” We’re getting there.

American Studies is an interdisciplinary major that focuses on the interpretation of various images and symbols that are present within our society, including music, film, fashion and graphic art. Dr. Todd Uhlman, a lecturer in the History Department and the designer of the new American Studies program said the major is intended to be complimentary. “If a person is in the arts, fine arts, musical arts…then what American Studies does is allow them to focus on artistic creation, which is what dominates the world of images.”

Through my own personal experience, I’ve come to understand how exactly this process of creation works. In my capstone project for the major, I researched and analyzed John Mayer’s use of classical American images in his attempt to attain musical authenticity.

Through his adoption of blues musical style, Mayer sought to perform black racial identity. When called out on this racist behavior, he instead adopted folk style and assumed the image of the American Cowboy in personal appearance, as well as his music and graphic imagery. Four years of classes on reading popular music and American hegemony fed the process of assembling this argument, and ultimately allowed me to critically analyze the media I frequently consumed.

While my own experience has been primarily focused on the analysis of images, American Studies also aids in the skill of using art as a communicative tool. “All images are creations, so the process of creation is absolutely central,” said Uhlman. “American Studies combines that artistic [element], which is so important to our society, with a critical, social science, liberal arts focus on analyzing images for the purposes of making use of them.”

The practice of dissecting films, songs, musical performances, fashion and artwork allows students to understand the process of creating meaning through artistic expression. “Rather than just be a creative act,” Uhlman said, “The student gains skills…in analyzing objects that will translate into the business world, translate into the world of marketing, and numerous other areas of fields of study.”

“Students learn that images are part of cultures,” the official description of the major reads, “and the exchange of images involves an exchange of cultures.”

As this campus pushes to diversify itself and engage in conversation about cultural heritage, the American Studies program proves to be an integral part in making the University of Dayton a 21st century campus that positively projects its students into the future.

Josh Chamberlain is a senior English and American Studies major. He serves on the Studio Theatre Board of Directors and is the managing co-editor of Off Topic, a student-written zine that discusses human rights and campus culture.

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