Review of the
American Studies M.A. Program
at the University of Virginia
Fall 1999

Description of the Program

The American Studies M.A. program at UVa arose from Alan Howard's frustration at the low employment rate of the English department's graduate alumni, his diagnosis that academic institutions were steadily relinquishing the role of humanities education, and his insight that new technologies held great promise for interdisciplinary fields, especially for American Studies. The impetus to create a new program was further propelled by his perception that non-academic employers wanted people who combined classic results of a liberal education -- particularly clear and imaginative thinking, and effective communicating -- with literacy in the new electronic technologies. Setting out to achieve those qualities in a curriculum that also melded practical experience with theoretical understanding, he developed an American Studies M.A. program for the English department; its first students entered in Fall 1994.

Students in the program go through the regular admissions process for the department and graduate school. In the early years Alan recruited participants from entering students who had indicated an interest in American literature. As the reputation of the program has grown, more and more students (some with undergraduate majors other than English) have applied to the department with this course of study specifically in mind. The number in the program has ranged from six to nine a year (the limit has been set at twelve); in the first five years, thirty-five students have enrolled.

The program requires thirty semester hours (ten courses) of classes, the same as the other M.A. programs in the department. But unlike with the other programs, students are expected to complete their work within a calendar year in two semesters and the following summer. (Students do, however, begin work in the summer before classes, in part by reading half a dozen books that serve as the basis for discussion in the opening weeks of the semester.) The course work includes the Introduction to Literary Research taken by all new graduate students in English; six hours in the year-long American Studies Colloquium; fifteen hours in classes at the 500 level or above (six hours of which are to be taken in a cognate field outside the English department); and six hours of directed research leading to a master's thesis of between twenty five and fifty pages (culminating in a one hour oral examination). The Colloquium is taught primarily by a single faculty member who also serves as Graduate Advisor for the program. The first semester of it consists of an introduction to library research in American Studies; an overview of the field as an approach to knowledge; an exploration of basic texts of American cultural history; and a series of lectures and discussions on the subjects, disciplines, and methods that make up American Studies today, drawing on faculty at the University and experts throughout the Commonwealth. The second semester focuses on a single topic and is organized around student research on an aspect of that subject; themes have included "The National Capitol Building" and "The 1930s. The goal of the program is to provide a multidisciplinary perspective on the culture of the United States and to do so largely through the creation of electronic resources. It thereby also attempts to provide training and develop understanding in the use of these new media. It aims to prepare students for further graduate work or for employment in the professions or in the business or cultural world.

The program is based physically on the fourth floor of Bryan Hall, in a room adjacent to Alan Howard's office. It contains a small library and five electronic work stations (though there is not enough room or equipment to have the same hardware at each position). Students in the program have access to the space twenty-four hours a day (as do English faculty on that floor,whose printer is located in this office). Alan serves as the director of the program, as its primary faculty member, and as its placement officer. He also is responsible for acquiring the necessary hardware and software (through ad hoc application to the department, college, local businesses, and elsewhere) and for maintaining the equipment. By developing faculty contacts in a large number of other departments, he has created a cadre of colleagues sympathetic to the aims of American Studies students who enroll in their courses.

Review Process

In the spring of 1999, English department chair Gordon Braden, acting on the request of Alan Howard, appointed a committee to gather information about the program, to evaluate its success, and to make recommendations about its future. The group consisted of department members Peter Baker and David Vander Meulen (as chair), Joseph Kett (History, UVa) , and Randy Bass (English, Georgetown).

As background for the committee, Alan Howard prepared a self stud y narrative(based in part on the American Studies Association's "Guide for Reviewing American Studies Program,"as was the work of the committee itself). The committee prepared a questionnaire for alumni of the program, emailed it to the twenty eight graduates (out of twenty nine)for which we could locate an address, and received responses from all but four of the people who were contacted. Up to that point the committee conducted its internal work by phone and email and by consulting class members' projects on the Web. On 12 May 1999 we met in person to view the Bryan Hall facilities and to talk with current students, the program director, administrators from the department (the chair and the director of graduate studies) and the college (the associate dean of Arts and Sciences, and the associate dean of the graduate school), and some university faculty who could offer insight into both the technology and the subject matter of the program. In addition, individual members spoke with colleagues in the English department and elsewhere (in Drama, Sociology, and History, and at the Electronic Text Center and Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities) who had some involvement with the program.


The review committee's broad observations are that the program is highly commendable;that it lives up to its promises; that student satisfaction is extraordinarily high; that, in terms of the quality of education it provides, the efficiency with which it does so, and the placement of its graduates, it appears to be the most successful M.A. program in the English department; that Alan Howard's work is heroic; and that the program should be continued -- provided that certain conditions of support are met. Some of the best insight into the functioning of the program comes from the extensive responses of alumni to our questionnaire. We therefore recommend that anyone seriously concerned about the program look at those replies, which are included as an appendix to this report.

The following remarks are organized according to the questions we have been asked to address.

A. Analysis 1. Objectives

As noted above, the goal of the program is to provide a multidisciplinary perspective on American culture, to do so specifically through electronic resources and to provide training in the conceptual and practical use of electronic tools, and to prepare students for employment that utilizes their understanding in humanities and technology. The objectives seem clear to us, and the questionnaires reveal that they do to the students as well, enabling them to report with unusual frequency that "The program surpassed my expectations," "The program far surpassed my expectations,"or "The program met and exceeded my expectations in many ways."

2. Staff.

Alan Howard is the program, a situation that has both strengths and weaknesses. The program exists only because of his vision, energy, and care. His independence is required in part by the need to provide for the program in the absence of whole-hearted institutional support. But a feature of that independence is that the program operates without a sizable group of associates who might share the work or provide ready counsel. The closest circle of colleagues appears to consist of those otherwise involved in the American Studies program, especially at the undergraduate level. The next ring seems to be the other Americanists of the English department, though we found less understanding there of the M.A. program than we would have expected. Among significant supporters are the faculty in other departments who have learned of the program through its students who take their classes; these colleagues often serve on thesis committees in the program.

It may be unwise to base a university program on the activity of a single person, who will not be around forever. And at the moment it is hard to conceive of the American Studies M.A.program without Alan, whose vision has shaped it and energy sustained it. We cannot imagine a senior faculty member adopting the program in its current form, for that would require full-time commitment solely in this direction. Nor can we imagine a junior-level person taking it over, for administrative work seems not to rate sufficiently high in the university"s promotion system. On the other hand, one of the people we interviewed pointed out that programs centered on individuals are not unusual at the university (he cited projects developed around Larry Sabato, James Hunter, and Richard Rorty [who has now left UVa]). In praising Alan's work especially in applying computers and Web technology to American Studies, a former director of the American Studies program at UVa told us that Alan does this work with erudition and commitment, and for the right students the experience is transformative. The program is perhaps idiosyncratic, but university programs are really people programs, and the trick is to get good faculty. Alan is one of the good ones. Many kinds of support that would benefit the American Studies M.A. program, moreover, are not investments that would have been wasted if the program were to disappear suddenly. The benefit of money devoted to computers, for instance, is reaped almost only in the present; because of the machines' rapid obsolescence, a three-year old computer left from a defunct program would not represent squandering.

The people with whom we spoke saw Alan and the program as to some extent isolated '90sometimes out of what is perceived as Alan's occasional preference for working alone, sometimes because he has been abandoned by parts of the institution. The committee thinks that increased connections between the program and the wider university are crucial -- both to develop the program and, in the light of political realities, to maintain its very existence. It seems important first of all to create greater awareness of the program on the part of the Americanists(both students and faculty) in the English department. It might prove useful to talk about the program (with presentations of its accomplishments) at meetings of the American Area Committee. Having more members of the department involved in advising these M.A. students would both provide insight for the program participants and educate the advisors about the program. Successfully inviting faculty to submit projects for work by the American Studies students would give more faculty a vested interest in the success of the program. Periodic consultation by the department's Steering Committee would keep administrators and representative colleagues apprised of the program's activities. A system whereby especially young faculty from English and other departments could contribute to the program without bearing heavy responsibility for it might inject healthy spirit and also spur these colleagues' own work.

The political reality, as we see it, is that as a Media Studies Program now becomes established and as initiatives for a humanities computing degree proceed, it will be harder and harder for the American Studies M.A. not to be expected to interact with such undertakings. What will be necessary is to figure out ways in which the various programs can benefit from each other without forfeiting their unique strengths; despite the empire building tendencies at universities, it seems there ought to be a place even for groups that overlap a bit, as long as their missions are clear and distinct. Thus, although the American Studies work differs in spirit, method, and purpose from Ed Ayers's "Valley of the Shadow" project in the Virginia Center for Digital History, for instance, these undertakings have obvious overlaps and might develop fruitful collaborations. Significant good will exists. Proponents of the humanities computing program, which might have the potential to overwhelm or gobble up the American Studies M.A., noted how any new proposal is likely to rest on ground the current program has prepared, how a planning report cites aspects of the American Studies program as models, and how Alan's wisdom and experience will be critical in planning humanities computing at UVa. As another example of available cooperation, the director of the Etext Center, where American Studies students have worked on their projects extensively from the start, volunteered that there is room for better coordination to add to the help we can offer XML training and search tools for projects come to mind.

3. Facilities and support.

By utilizing existing resources, the program has created little strain on the English department, college, or university. Especially useful to students have been the holdings of the library's Special Collections department, the hardware and software of the library's Electronic Text Center, and the assistance of staff in both. The courses students take outside of the department exist independently, as do most of the English ones in which they enroll. The most direct contributions of the department and college are the office which serves as a work room for the students and the portion of Alan Howard's salary that is allocated to his work in the program.

Many of the people we spoke with were amazed that the program has no funding for equipment, is not on a departmental or university replacement cycle for electronic hardware and software, has no formal technical support from the department, college, or university, and has no fellowship support for its students. The equipment and support that the program has been able to attract have been on an ad hoc basis, dependent on the scavenging and entreaties of Alan Howard to university offices and local businesses (effort that might otherwise have been spent on the core activities of the program). There is some reason to think that the department's and college's attitude toward the program might be charact