New England & American Studies Programs - Help Make Me Smart About Them
June 23, 2008 6:40 AM   Subscribe

American Studies scholars, please help me compare 2 programs in New England and American Studies and get some general advice.

I'm at the very beginning of the exploratory phase of choosing a graduate program in American studies. There are two programs in New England & American Studies that I'm seriously considering, and I'm interested in the reactions or comparisons that people familiar with the field, or the schools in question, can give.

They are:
American and New England Studies at Boston University
American and New England Studies at the University of Southern Maine

I don't have a background in American studies, specifically (I have a BA in English, and a lot of coursework and professional training in literature, public history, Museum Studies, history, and folklore, but need to complete a degree-granting program, preferably MA but with the possibility of a PhD). How do these programs compare? Are you aware of their reputations in the field? What sort of person is suited to which program? From my early perusals, it's clear the BU program is much older and has produced more heavy-hitting graduates and more career academics. I'm likely to have a mixed career that includes teaching college and adminstering public history or cultural heritage nonprofits. I'm looking for anything to help me think more clearly about each of these programs. I'm a bit biased toward the USM one, simply because it would be easy for me to live in Portland, not so easy to live in Boston. USM also seems to have a stronger relationship with the field of folklore, which is important to me. But BU seems to have the more established program.

Also, I'd love any general knowledge, links, or resources about American Studies, as a field. Since it's new to me, I don't know the foundations. Please recommend books, associations, etc. And feel free to let me know of the pros and cons of taking a degree in American Studies.

Thanks in advance!
posted by Miko to Education (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
preferably MA but with the possibility of a PhD

Unless American-studies is deeply weird, you will fare much, much better with funding if you instead enter a PhD program with the unstated possibility of leaving after an MA.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:50 AM on June 23, 2008

This is extremely random, and I really know nothing about the American Studies field, but I just read this article in the Yale Alumni Magazine about William S Buckley - it has a passage about how the donor who originally funded the American Studies program there (concurrent with Buckley writing God & Man at Yale)was trying to inculcate conservative values and fight the Communism threat. Of course, that's exactly how the program turned out. It was just a little throwaway reference and I have no idea how it fits into the broader history of American Studies programs, but it seems like there might be an interesting story there.
posted by yarrow at 7:03 AM on June 23, 2008

American Studies as an undergrad doesn't really qualify me, but maybe as a PhD student in the social sciences I can help...

At undergrad, they always pushed us to go into museum work. :)

First, I'd post this to LiveJournal's applyingtograd community.
Second, American Studies, as a newer field, tends to not fund quite as well as other departments. A lot of the topics that American Studies covers are also covered by Sociology, Folklore Studies, etc. Depending on what your end-goal is, maybe one of those departments might be better suited for you.
Third, start reading American Studies academic journals. By hunting around, you might find a professor/program that really suits your needs. For a PhD especially, a good match with a professor overrides location.
posted by k8t at 7:04 AM on June 23, 2008

preferably MA but with the possibility of a PhD

I think that this would be a good thing to clarify, at least in your head. Like ROU_X says, getting accepted to a phd program but leaving after the MA is the cheap way to do it. On the other hand, that's more work and chancier -- you have to convince them that you are serious about your studies and deserve on of the few funded phd positions; if you just want a MA it is easier to get in because you will be paying them and there are a lot more slots.

But it also matters just in terms of where you go and how you approach the studies. Masters programs are short and not very brutal -- you take some classes, sometimes you write a fairly short thesis, and almost everyone passes -- and who you work with is not (usually) critically important. For doctoral programs, however, the "who" and "where" of the program are vitally important; you want not just a program that has a specialization that matches your interests but that has an adviser who will work with you for the next 5-8 years on one project; if that person is not strong in their field, your employability will suffer.

And you approach your classes and studies very differently if the goal is to make it through 2 years, write a good final project, and get back out into the field working than you do if each thing you read and each class you take is a piece of a many-year project. It's like, in the MA program your focus is always just beyond the degree, and on where you will start applying for jobs in the middle of your second year, while in the phd program your focus is on the program itself, and less so (until later in the process) on what happens afterward.
posted by Forktine at 7:21 AM on June 23, 2008

Also, if you're unsure about doing a PhD (and it is a major decision), do an MA, take it seriously, and then make a decision. But, as others have mentioned, getting funding for an MA is very very tough.
posted by k8t at 7:35 AM on June 23, 2008

In my comment above, I meant "not exactly how the program turned out."
posted by yarrow at 9:11 AM on June 23, 2008

Miko, I took a class in USM's ANE program a couple of years ago. I'm an undergrad student who talked her way into a grad-school class, so I didn't get an overview of the department, just some contact with a professor and a small cross section of students.

I'm not sure that my experience would be relevant for you, but drop me a line (MeFi mail or gmail in profile) if you want to hear more about it. I'd prefer to discuss it in email or in person, not online, though I have largely positive things to say.

p.s. - I loved it. I'm now considering staying in Portland for grad school.
posted by Elsa at 9:20 AM on June 23, 2008

Thought-provoking and helpful responses - thank you.
posted by Miko at 10:21 AM on June 23, 2008

I have an MA in American Studies (Iowa, '94). I was actually in the PhD program, but I left when I realized it really wasn't the career track for me.

As a discipline, it does have certain conservative roots, though certainly not all American studies programs are politically conservative. I found, though, that even at my liberal program, I really struggled to do the kind of work I wanted to do -- I was very interested in in the British cultural studies model of the Birmingham school, and thought I would just be able to convert it to an American Studies program... but it wasn't quite that easy. (Of course, that was 15 years ago, so times may have changed -- I think the British cultural studies model is more prevalent now.) I also found that our work wasn't really taken that seriously by other departments where I wound up doing much of my work (I mostly took classes in history and communications, and taught English); because we took an interdisciplinary approach, we were seen as not being quite rigorous/scholarly enough. (Students who worked in newer fields -- like Women's studies and African-American studies -- had less troubles on that score than I did, however.)

As for jobs, academics is a hard market to begin with, but even harder for an American studies degree -- I don't know anyone who went into the field who actually teaches in American studies; the person I know with a PhD in American studies with the best job actually teaches art history (which is what his undergraduate degree was in). I will say that my American studies degree was probably helpful for me in terms of getting my foot in the door for my museum job, but I think my informal art background and general editing experience were probably just as helpful.

Email me if you'd like to chat more! Like I said, I've been out of the field for a long time, though, so the territory may have changed a lot since then. I could try to put you in touch with some other folks who are still in the field, too.
posted by scody at 12:30 PM on June 23, 2008

You've gotten some excellent answers here already, particularly scody's just above, and I'd agree that (a) you will have a much better chance at funding in a Ph.D. program and (b) you should really have a clear plan for yourself about what degree you want before entering a program, probably before applying. Your entire approach to the years you spend in grad school will be very different for a terminal Master's than it would be for a Ph.D. (or a Ph.D. program that you leave after getting a Master's).

American Studies is unusual in one big way: unlike any other interdisciplinary field I can think of, it is old enough to have serious generation-gap problems (scody gives a good heads-up on one such conflict, British-style cultural studies has never really taken hold in the field, but there are other examples), but it still has remained (mostly) an interdisciplinary field, often having an institutional home in the form of certificate-granting "programs" (with faculty appointments shared with other depts.) rather than a discipline unto itself in a full-fledged department of its own. Hence the relative rarity and small size of Ph.D. programs in American Studies. This obviously has good and bad sides; it allows individual scholars to define the methods they use and the field they study in their own ways, which can be enormously intellectually productive, but it also makes academic job-hunting hard – many Am Stud people have to carefully cultivate a record of scholarship in one of the field's core disciplines (usually history or literature, less often art history or architecture or whatever else). And despite the lip service to interdisciplinarity, American Studies can often just be a home for literary critics who do very historicist work and historians who want to study culture.

An interest in public history, folklore, material culture, etc. will either make you a great fit for an American Studies program that wants to go in other directions than this usual kind of interdisciplinary work, or else it will leave you feeling a little like the odd student out. This depends entirely on the individual department/program you end up in and what its intellectual culture emphasizes. I would suggest having some exploratory conversations with people in a bunch of American Studies programs, by email or phone if necessary (but they will be more frank in person), about this question of "fit" – it's important, and you may get useful recommendations about other programs you should be looking at.
posted by RogerB at 2:40 PM on June 23, 2008

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