Spring 2020



Casey N. Blake

Tuesday, 2:10-4:00

This course is an intensive seminar on American cultural criticism since the late 19th century, with particular emphasis on debates over modernist currents in the arts from the 1910s through the 1960s. Readings will consist primarily of works by major interpreters of American culture, including John Dewey, Constance Rourke, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Allan Kaprow, Ralph Ellison, Paul Goodman, and Susan Sontag.  Each student will write a research paper on a major critic or controversy in 20th century culture. No pre-registration; join waitlist and attend first class.


John McWhorter

Wednesday, 12:10-2:00

This course will explore the results of language mixture, as demonstrated on the North American continent as well as beyond. All human languages are hybrids to an extent, but post-Neolithic technological developments have made population movement ever more common, resulting in mixture between peoples and the languages they speak. The result has been a panorama of language mixtures of a kind rare to nonexistent before roughly ten thousand years ago, including what are called creoles, pidgins, koines, vehicular’ languages, and nonstandard dialects that straddle the boundary between these categories. Such languages are usually felt as new and/or illegitimate, such that they have had various fates in the media and education, and also occasion vigorous controversies even as to their origins. This seminar will explore America’s—and the world’s—newest, and in some ways most interesting, languages. No pre-registration; join waitlist and attend first class.


Michael Hindus

Wednesday, 2:10-4:00

The rule of law is the underpinning of our economy (through the enforcement of contracts and the protection of property) and defines and protects our rights. This seminar will explore some of the most important ways in which law and the legal system transformed American society. We will look at the legal status of slaves and of freed people after emancipation, the status of women, both married and single, and how the concept of privacy became enshrined in law. We will explore “second founding,” the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments added to the Constitution after the Civil War. We will also look at how law transformed the economy in the 19th century and conversely how the explosive growth of the American economy disrupted and transformed American law. Other topics will include the history of crime and punishment, leading to mass incarceration, and impeachment in American history. Readings will include secondary works as well as primary sources and legal cases. No pre-registration; join waitlist and attend first class.


Mark Lilla

Monday, 12:10-2:00

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is considered a classic study on the United States. But more fundamentally it is an analysis of the democratic human type (l’homme démocratique) with his or her distinctive passions, fears, aspirations, prejudices, and self-image. In this seminar we will focus on Tocqueville’s psychology and the light it might shed on American culture. No pre-registration; join waitlist and attend first class.


Paul Grimstad

Thursday, 2:10-4:00

The seminar will focus on a group of American films of the 1940s and 1950s, many of them based on novels of the 1930s, in which crime, detection, and cities figure together to produce a distinctive cinema known as noir. Through discussion of character, style, narrative form, mise en scene, cinematography and music the class will consider meanings of “noir” in film and prose fiction. We will read the literary works closely and pay attention to how they are adapted for the screen. Authors include, Hammett, Chandler, Caspary, Cain, Himes, Nabokov and films directed by Huston, Hawks, Welles, Hitchcock, Kubrick and “neo-noir” films by Polanski, Lynch and the Coen brothers. No pre-registration; join waitlist and attend first class.


Lynne Breslin

Tuesday, 12:10-2:00

Using an interdisciplinary approach, this seminar will explore the formation of identity in two great American cities: New York and San Francisco in the 20th and early 21st century. We will focus on the power of the city to appropriate space to produce distinct social, political, economic and cultural landscapes. We will ask: How do we understand a city? How is the city experienced? How is the city imagined and how is that image realized in architecture, fiction, film, music and art? In considering the formation of these urban/ geographical entities, infrastructures and underlying ideologies, we will examine the mechanisms of the developing collective consciousness and individual reconciliations. New York and San Francisco will be situated in the seeming contradiction of global pressures and local formations.  We will identify those official and informal spaces, the spaces of consumption, production, celebration and memory. We will also analyze both the violation and resistance to accepted spatial practices: examining crime, homelessness, and alternative life styles. This seminar will be structured to include both lectures and working sessions. Students will be given mini assignments for class. Readings will include urban histories and literature.  Architecture, art, music and film will be assessed. A final paper will be required. No pre-registration; join waitlist and attend first class.


Cathleen Price

Thursday, 10:10-12:00

This course will examine the influence of race and poverty in the American system of confronting the challenge of crime. Students will explore some history, including the various purposes of having an organized criminal justice system within a community; the principles behind the manner in which crimes are defined; and the utility of punishment. Our focus will be on the social, political and economic effects of the administration of our criminal justice system, with emphatic examination of the role of conscious and unconscious racism, as well as community biases against the poor. Students will examine the larger implications for a community and culture that are presented by these pernicious features. We will reflect on the fairness of our past and present American system of confronting crime, and consider the possibilities of future reform. Readings will include historical texts, analytical reports, some biography, and a few legal materials. We will also watch documentary films which illuminate the issues and problems. No pre-registration; join waitlist and attend first class.


Andrew Delbanco, Roger Lehecka

Monday, 2:10-4:00

In this seminar we examine the roles colleges and universities play in American society; the differential access high school students have to college based on family background and income, ethnicity, and other characteristics; the causes and consequences of this differential access; and some attempts to make access more equitable. Readings and class meetings cover the following subjects historically and in the 21st century: the variety of American institutions of higher education; admission and financial aid policies at selective and less selective, private and public, colleges; affirmative action and race-conscious admissions; what “merit” means in college admissions; and the role of the high school in helping students attend college. Students in the seminar are required to spend at least four hours each week as volunteers at the Double Discovery Center (DDC) in addition to completing assigned reading, participating in seminar discussions, and completing written assignments. DDC is an on-campus program that helps New York City high school students who lack many of the resources needed to succeed in college and to be successful in gaining admission and finding financial aid. The seminar integrates students’ first-hand experiences with readings and class discussions. Interview required. Email Prof. Lehecka ([email protected]) as soon as possible to arrange an interview. Priority will be given to students who email by November 14.


Ross Posnock

Tuesday, 4:10-6:00

The three epigraphs below suggest how the term class is at once elusive and familiar, hard to talk about and ubiquitous, in a democratic society grounded in a presiding myth of classless equality. The contradictions and complexities, comedies and tragedies of class as they play out in the United States will concern us this semester. We will examine a range of fiction, essays, memoir, and monologues as they depict how the abstraction called class impinges on our daily lives in visceral and intimate ways.

“Class is still the category most systematically muted or deleted in our understanding of human relations. Class is a name, I take it, for that complex and determinate place we are given in the social body; it is the name for everything which signifies that a certain history lives us, lends us our individuality.”
T.J. Clark

“The bourgeoisie is defined as the social class which does not wish to be named. ‘Bourgeois,’ ‘petit-bourgeois,’ ‘capitalism,’ ‘proletariat’ are the locus of an unceasing hemorrhage: meaning flows out of them until their very name becomes unnecessary.”
Roland Barthes

“In the mid-1990s Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates published a rich and impressive reader called, simply, Identities (1995). The book consists of some twenty articles covering identities of every sort—racial and ethnic, gender and sexual preference, national and religious, and more. The word ‘class’ appears on page 1 of the introduction, where we are told that the 1980s were a ‘period when race, class and gender became the holy trinity of literary criticism, and now threaten to become the regnant clichés of our critical discourse.’ Yet although race and gender receive a good deal of attention, the reader is hard put to discover much about class. The word never appears again in the book.  Consulting the index, one finds a single listing: ‘class, as cliché,’ page 1.”
Sherry Ortner


Casey N. Blake

A seminar devoted to the research and writing, under the instructor’s supervision, of a substantial paper on a topic in American studies. Required of American Studies students doing Senior Research projects.

Lecture Course


Maura Spiegel, Roosevelt Montás

Tuesday, Thursday, 10:10-11:25

This course is an interdisciplinary exploration of the values and cultural expressions of the people of the United States from the Puritans to our own time. Students will examine a variety of works in literature, history, cultural and social criticism, music, the visual arts and the built environment with an eye to understanding how Americans of different backgrounds, living at different times and in different locations, have understood and argued about the meaning and significance of American national identity. Lectures and readings will give particular attention to the sites—real and imagined—where Americans have identified the promise and perils of American life, including the City on the Hill, the Plantation; the Open Road, Borderlands; the Home and Citizenship. Two lectures each week and a required weekly discussion section. Required of all American Studies majors and concentrators.