American Studies Courses

Course Offerings in American Studies:

The University of Chicago does not have a formal American Studies department, but there’s a robust study of American culture, history, literature, music, film, art, and more. The Scherer Center identifies some of these courses with its own cross-listing for American Studies, but this certainly does not reflect all of the American Studies at the University. If you believe that a course should be cross-listed or wish to identity your course with American Studies, please contact Tara Rutledge.

Note the course numbers for all American Studies classes are almost always the same as the parent department, but simply substitute the AMER prefix. 

Autumn 2019

Early America, 1492–1815 

HIST 18703/AMER 18703

This course explores the development of American culture, society, and politics from the first contact between Native Americans and Europeans to the emergence of a stable American nation by the end of the War of 1812. It emphasizes the diverse experiences of the many kinds of Americans and the different meanings that they attached to the events in their lives. Topics include the meeting of Indigenous, African, and European peoples, the diversity of colonial projects, piracy and the Atlantic slave trade, the surprising emergence of a strong British identity, the coming of the American Revolution, the range of Americans’ struggles for independence, and the role of the trans-Appalachian West in shaping the early republic. This lecture course is open to nonmajors and does not presume any previous history coursework.

Winter 2020

Histories of Racial Capitalism

AMER 18202

Instructor: Destin Jenkins

What is the relationship between race and capitalism? This course introduces students to the concept of racial capitalism, which rejects treatments of race as external to a purely economic project and counters the idea that racism is an externality, cultural overflow, or aberration from the so-called real workings of capitalism. Spanning the colonization of North America to the era of mass incarceration, topics include the slave trade, indigenous dispossession, antebellum slavery, the Mexican-American War, “new imperialism,” the welfare state, and civil rights. This class neither presumes a background in economics, nor previous coursework in history.

City Imagined, City Observed

AMER 24191

Instructor: Luke Joyner

This urban design studio course takes two distinct notions of the city as its starting point: grand, imaginative plans — utopian, unbuilt, semi-realized, real… both as aesthetic objects, and as ideas — and how the minute flows of day-to-day life, up from the smallest scale, enter into dialogue with little built and lived details, intended or not. With Chicago as context and canvas, we will dream both big and small, search both present and past, and draw precisely on both what we dream and what we experience… seeking not to dictate what the city will be, but to expand our sense of what a city can be. The studio work will proceed in two stages: individually developing ideal city plans, then breaking each others’ plans, using real observations and factors (and even spontaneous impulse) to complicate and rebuild them into something lovelier.

Introduction to Black Chicago, 1893 to 2010

AMER 27705

Instructor: Adam Green

This course surveys the history of African Americans in Chicago, from before the twentieth century to the near present. In referring to that history, we treat a variety of themes, including migration and its impact, the origins and effects of class stratification, the relation of culture and cultural endeavor to collective consciousness, the rise of institutionalized religions, facts and fictions of political empowerment, and the correspondence of Black lives and living to indices of city wellness (services, schools, safety, general civic feeling). This is a history class that situates itself within a robust interdisciplinary conversation. Students can expect to engage works of autobiography and poetry, sociology, documentary photography, and political science as well as more straightforward historical analysis. By the end of the class, students should have grounding in Black Chicago’s history and an appreciation of how this history outlines and anticipates Black life and racial politics in the modern United States.

Social Reform in the United States 1890-1908

AMER 29505

Instructor: Ben Zdencanovic

This seminar charts organized efforts to transform and reconfigure the social and economic fabric of American life through a focus on five distinct periods of reform: the agrarian Populist movement at the end of the nineteenth century; the Progressive movement in the early twentieth century; the New Deal during the 1930s and early 1940s; the Civil Rights movement and the Great Society in the 1960s; and the rise of the New Right in the postwar period. By looking at continuities, connections, and ruptures within and between these reform movements, we will explore a range of defining topics in twentieth century US history: capitalism and risk; gender and labor; economic citizenship and security; law and the state; immigration and ethnicity; and race and (in)equality.

Spring 2020

American Graphic Art and Commercial Culture: 1850-1960

AMER 17908

Instructor: Neil Harris

This class focuses on widely distributed printed images, most of them with commercial, aesthetic, and/or political significance, along with the graphic design traditions and typography associated with them. While concentrating on American imagery, the context would be international, reflecting the condition of popular graphic arts in this country. Among other things it would treat book illustration, posters, advertising art, magazines and newspapers, cartooning, postcards, children’s literature, commercial paper, and trade catalogs. Necessarily, given this wide scope, it will be episodic in character, but it will also attempt to relate this visual explosion to larger artistic movements, major events, technological changes, and political trends. It would also explore, from time to time, the roles played by collecting, exhibition, and academic commentary in legitimating the subject, as well as the power of ethnic and racial stereotyping and the multiplication of trade and printing journals. The aim, in short, is to examine the flowering of a visual print culture that had its roots in the Gutenberg Revolution of the 15th century. There will be both class discussion and lecturing. This is art in context, emphasizing breadth and the introduction of figures, institutions, and movements nurtured by an expansive production and distribution network. The course will be hosted by the Special Collections Research Center at Regenstein Library, and will feature items drawn from the University of Chicago’s own collections.

American Literature and Photography

MAPH/AMER 40150, 25150

Instructor: Megan Tusler

This class considers how photographic techniques spurred new literary methods. We’ll discuss how visual media impact the development of forms, methods, and genres of literature, and how pictures and novels can be read together. Students will learn how to consider the visual register in novels, and how the drive to make fiction “real,” or “photographic,” helps to shed light on many attendant issues – the question of evidence, the problem of reliability, the terms of objectivity. We will discuss the drive to narrate real events in photographic and literary terms, and the limits of representation. Furthermore, we will think carefully about how discourses of race and poverty are imbricated with the development of photographic technologies and methods, and how racial groups such as American Indians are invented and reinvented in the advent of the mobile camera. Primary texts include fiction by Stephen Crane, Ella Cara Deloria, and Ralph Ellison and secondary texts include works from Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Judith Butler, Susan Sontag, and Gerald Vizenor.

Autumn 2020

American Revolutions

HIST 17606 /AMER 17606/CRES 17606

Instructor: Matthew Kruer

In 1750, “British America” was a diverse and fractious collection of colonies huddled along the eastern seaboard, on the margins of the churning waters of the Atlantic world. Forty years later, thirteen of those remote American settlements had become, through rebellion and war, into a revolutionary nation. The traumatic passage of this transformation established the world’s first modern republic and set in motion an age of democratic revolutions that reverberated in Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America, and western North America. This course explores this remarkable epoch in early American history. Topics include the first global military struggle (the Seven Years War); the transformation from scattered urban riots against taxes into a rebellion against the world’s strongest imperial power; the everyday experience of occupation, insurgency, and civil war; Black and Native American struggles for independence; experiments in women’s rights, radical democracy, and religious freedom; the fragility of the new union and the ragged road toward a federal nation-state; and the revolutionary idealism that inspired revolutions in France, Haiti, and the Americas, with consequences that shaped the early United States and all its diverse peoples. Grades will be based on three short papers and one final paper. This lecture course is open to non-History majors and does not presume any previous history coursework.

Revolutions 

Instructors: Richard Bird and Steven Pincus

HIST 18102/AMER 18102

Revolutions have shaped the modern world. Why have they happened? What have been their consequences? Do they always involve a terror? Do they always generate a period of reaction? When do revolutions end? Are there general patterns which we can observe over space and time? Are there differences between social and political revolutions? These and other questions will be explored by  examining historically a range of revolutions from the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 through late twentieth-century revolutions, including the American, French, Haitian, Russian and Iranian revolutions. Students will examine seminal revolutionary texts as well some important analyses of revolutions from the social sciences and humanities. Social, economic, and intellectual approaches to revolution will all be explored.

African American History, 1865–2016

AMER 27310/37310; HIST 27310/37310

Instructor: Adam Green

This class will introduce students to the key themes, events, problems and advances within African American history, after the end of slavery. Readings will include Reconstruction era documents, Ida B. Wells, Ned Cobb, W. E. B. DuBois, Howard Thurman, Septima Clark, Philip Wamba, and Audre Lorde among others. Assignments will include two papers, and a series of short response pieces.

Inequality, Politics, and Government in US History

HIST 18901/AMER 18901

Instructor: Gabriel Winant

This class explores the relationship between social inequality and political democracy in US history. How have American political institutions dealt with and reflected the contradictions of “all men are created equal”? What is the meaning of political citizenship in a socially stratified society? How have social movements and conflicts shaped the institutions of state and the meaning of citizenship? The class touches on slavery and freedom; land and colonialism; racial discrimination; labor relations; gender and sexuality; social welfare policy; taxation and regulation; urban development; immigration; policing and incarceration.

African American Religion in the 20th Century: Historiography and History

AMER 45600/HCHR 45600

Instructor: Curtis Evans

This graduate seminar examines the history of African American religion alongside the work and social world of interpreters. We explore historical changes in African American life, paying close attention to urbanization, struggles with racial and economic oppression, and scholarly debates about the “function” of black religion in particular black communities and in American society. As we turn to more recent works (since the 1970s), we investigate the extent to which these studies differ from older studies and how they remain indebted to older debates that no longer occupy our attention.

Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in 20th Century America

AMER 46606/RAME 46606

Instructor: Curtis Evans

This seminar begins with George Marsden’s seminal Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980) as the major interpretive paradigm of the relationship of evangelicalism to American culture and the various cultural, political and social factors in the emergence of fundamentalism in the early 20th century. The course looks at the evolution of scholarship on the meaning of fundamentalism, its relationship to evangelicalism, and fundamentalists’ and evangelicals’ changing understandings of America.

The Carceral State in Modern America

HIST 28004/AMER 28004

Instructor: Naama Maor

In this course, we will examine the origins of mass incarceration in the United States: a country that only accounts for five percent of the world’s population but nearly a quarter of its prison population. We will trace the ideologies and state apparatuses that have shaped the American carceral state from the post–Civil War era to the twenty-first century. Central themes will include the criminalization of racialized and marginalized communities; the rise of new policing regimes, along with new methods of surveillance and confinement; and the connection between welfare programs and penal policies. Over the course of this quarter, we will also discuss the emergence of social movements that have advocated for the rights of incarcerated people, as well as the eradication of prison labor and the abolition of prisons altogether.

Capitalism and Revolution in the Atlantic World

HIST 29007/AMER 29007

Instructor: Oliver Cussen

What was the relationship between the “Age of Revolutions” and the rise of capitalism? This course places the social and political upheavals in France, Haiti, and the Americas between 1776 and 1821 in the context of broader developments in the long eighteenth century, including innovations in finance (debt, credit, banks, corporations), the expansion of overseas commerce and colonial slavery, and the emergence of Enlightenment political economy. Above all, we will consider the extent to which the institutional and intellectual structures of the world economy determined both the causes and the outcomes of the revolutions. Readings will cover long-standing debates in the scholarship concerning social class and revolution; the imperial origins of national consciousness; humanitarian reform and the abolition of slavery; colonialism and industry; and the legacy of eighteenth-century revolutions in the twenty-first century.

Winter 2021

America in the Nineteenth Century 

HIST 18804/AMER 18804

Instructor:  Naama Maor

This lecture course will examine major conflicts that shaped American life during the nineteenth century. Focusing on contemporaries’ attempts to seize upon or challenge the nation’s commitment to the ideals of liberty and equality, we will examine pivotal moments of contestation, compromise, and community building. Central questions that will frame the course include: How were notions of freedom negotiated and reshaped? What were the political and socioeconomic conditions that prompted the emergence of reform movements, including antislavery, women’s rights, temperance, and labor? How did individuals mobilize and stake claims on the state? How were the boundaries of American citizenship debated and transformed over the course of the century?

American Epidemics, Past and Present

HIST 25218/AMER 25218

Instructor: Christopher Kindell

This course explores how disease epidemics have shaped watershed periods in US history from the late eighteenth century to the present. Through readings, lectures, and in-class discussions, we will employ different categories of analysis (e.g., race, gender, class, and citizenship) to answer a range of historical questions focused on disease, health, and medicine. For instance, to what extent did smallpox alter the trajectory of the American Revolution? How did cholera and typhoid affect the lived experiences of slaves and soldiers during the Civil War? In what ways did the US government capitalize on fears over yellow fever and bubonic plague to justify continued interventions across the Caribbean and the Pacific? What do these episodes from the American past reveal about contemporary encounters with modern diseases like HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and COVID-19? Course readings will be drawn from book chapters and scholarly articles, as well as primary sources ranging from public-health reports, medical correspondence, and scientific journals to newspapers, political cartoons, maps, and personal diaries. Grades will be based on participation, weekly Canvas posts, peer review, and a series of written assignments (a proposal and an annotated bibliography, primary source analysis, book review, and rough draft) all of which will culminate in a ten-page final research paper.

Schools and Space: A Chicago History

HIST 27307/AMER 27307

Instructor: Nicholas Kryczka
This course fuses urban and educational history into a two-century case study of Chicago. When the Chicago Public Schools closed fifty schoolhouses in 2013, many stressed the links between public education, uneven neighborhood investment, and racial segregation. But this episode was part of a longer regional history of how metropolitan development, labor markets, and anxieties over migration affected educational policy. The course stresses the relationship between educational policy and the politics of urban development, gender, and race. Schools were sites of gendered work, for the women who operated them and for the children who navigated the moral and vocational paths laid for their futures; meanwhile, the rise of racial ghettoes had an enduring impacts on educational inequity and the shape of African American political life. Over the time span covered by the course, the United States became an indisputably “schooled” society, and Chicago was a leading indicator of national trends. Key historic episodes in American education—the rise of the modern high school, the birth of progressive education, the origins of teachers’ unions, the Catholic encounter with race, the fragmentation of suburban school districts, the civil-rights critique of de facto school segregation, the pronounced “failure” of urban education, and the triumph of choice-and-accountability reforms, and the teacher-led resistance that followed—are especially well-illustrated by this course’s focus on Chicago.

The Long 1960s: Religion and Social Change in the US

AMER 46404/HCHR 46404/RLST 26404

Instructor: Curtis Evans

Some of the most wrenching social and cultural changes of the 20th century occurred in the United States in the 1960s. A number of historians describe this decade as the polarized era or a period of “uncivil wars.” However we choose to characterize this period, there is general consensus that the 1960s witnessed profound and lasting changes in American life, especially in race relations, gender roles, sexuality, religious practice, and in politics. This course is an attempt to understand some of these changes, pausing to consider what actually happened and why at this particular historical moment. Primary attention is devoted to efforts to extend religious and moral visions to the social order and to remake the world through political action.

The Christian Right

AMER 35600/AMER 25600/HCHR 35600 / RLST 25666

Instructor: Curtis Evans

This course begins with debates about the historical origins of and definitions of the Christian Right, but the broader and deeper aim of the course is to understand the enduring significance, role, and influence of this changing coalition of white Protestant conservatives in American society in the 20th century. While political visions and projects are given ample attention, especially as the course gets underway, we also seek to interpret the different ways that leaders and members of the Christian Right have actively sought to provide and experience stable beliefs, practices, and communities in a rapidly changing society. Particular attention is paid to gender roles, sexual practices and identities, and conceptions of moral values and the public role of religion in a diverse society. Some emphasis is placed on instructional material and guides to Christian living as illustrative of the practical and everyday dimensions of this self-conscious Christian “project.”

Spring 2021

Childhood and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century

HIST 29313/AMER 29313

Instructor: Naama Maor

How and when did we come to embrace the idea that children are innocent and defenseless? What are the implications of framing children’s rights as human rights? In this course, we will explore key historical transformations in the legal, social, and cultural construction of childhood in modern Western societies. We will examine children’s own experiences and how adults rendered them the subjects of study and state regulation. Topics of discussion will include work, leisure, education, sexuality, criminality, consumerism, and censorship. Throughout, we will discuss how ideas about race, gender, class, and age have shaped the way that the public and the state had defined childhood: who was entitled to a protected period of nurture, care, and play; who was allowed to be disobedient, or even lawless, and still avoid legal consequences. We will explore how and why some children have been and continue to be excluded from this idealized vision.

A list of past course offerings is available upon request.