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 -- 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 study 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. Input
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 -- sometimes 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 characterized as benign neglect. Both levels of administration are pleased by reports of the program's success, and both have responded to requests for aid when importuned, but the college administrators told us that significant support depends on the department allocating funds from its overall budget, and the department itself has not seen the program as meriting the displacement of competing needs. Because the accomplishments of the program appear to us to be some of the major ones of the department, it surprises us that the department's commitment to the undertaking is tentative and amazes us that under such conditions the successes have been as great as they are. We think that if the program is to continue it must have dependable financial support. We recognize that, given the absence of fellowship support for English M.A. candidates in general, the American Studies program is not being singled out in the lack of financial aid for its students. One application of fellowship assistance that could benefit individual American Studies students at least indirectly and the overall program significantly might be to establish a full graduate fellowship for a capable Ph.D. student who could assist Alan and relieve him of many chores. Such a person could provide intellectual, scholarly, technical, and methodological advice and also help to connect this M.A. and the department's Ph.D. programs.

4. Student caliber.

We have encountered some perception of the American Studies students as different from the other graduate students in the English department. The appearance of a distinction, whether real or not, may be encouraged by the physical segregation that occurs (as the American Studies students take fewer courses in the English department than do their peers and then spend much time together in the Bryan Hall work room) and by some difference in culture (the curriculum requires the American Studies students to be goal-oriented and to conclude the same amount of course work in less time than their compatriots). Some separation may also arise from a prejudice against those who work with material objects and technology (or, in the other direction, against those contemplating theoretical abstractions).

Whatever the social situation, we have not turned up clear evidence of a distinction in intellectual ability. For at least those students drawn to the program from the ranks of people otherwise admitted to study American Literature in the department, that would be expected. The intellectual quality of the participants is directly attested by faculty in other departments who have had these students in class. A colleague teaching film observes their interest in questions wider than the content of the course they were taking; he has found these class members on an academic par with others, but also keenly interdisciplinary and, in cinematic matters, farther-reaching in their questions. A sociology professor has found the students less given to systematic observation than he would have hoped, but he praises their sense of purpose and their belief that something is at stake in understanding; he describes the three American Studies students he has taught as bright and one of them as exceptional.

B. Processes.

1. Curriculum.

The curriculum serves the goals of the program well. With the aim of attaining a multidisciplinary perspective on American culture, students are required to take at least two courses outside their host department (English) and three within that department (though participants have complained of a paucity of suitable offerings in American literature). They also take the mandatory course in research methods and materials required of all new English graduate students (a number singled out this class as particularly important in their development), two courses contemplating the field of American Studies itself (and hence examining the context for and nature of their work), and two courses of directed research toward the thesis in which they tie together their insights. The organization of the program also cultivates teamwork and success in meeting deadlines. (We find it ironic that this program, existing largely in isolation from its host department, is especially successful at developing collaborative projects; we see Alan Howard's provision for these as part of his accomplishment, and we think this feature of the program contributes much to prepare students for the workplace.)

The goal of providing students with understanding and ability in the use of technology is met by instruction throughout the entire course of study, training that culminates in an electronic thesis. It is especially this component (and the accompanying difference in vocational aspirations) that differentiates the local program from, say, the M.A. and Ph.D. programs in American Studies at William and Mary. (The M.A. program at William and Mary, which requires only 24 hours of credit, also assumes a very different cast because of the large staff assembled in conjunction with the Ph.D. program there.) The heavy emphasis on developing technical expertise may suggest that the program is essentially a vocational tech one, but the other required parts of the program, the substance of the theses that result, and the testimony of teachers who have had these people in class all indicate this is not the case. The question then arises whether students are engaged in the discovery of knowledge or are simply involved in finding new ways to present what is already known. Though we agree that a Ph.D. web site might stress interpretation more extensively than does the current system, the present projects are not devoid of it; the underlying research is that of serious scholarship, moreover, and the process of bringing information together as these projects do and of integrating humanities and technology are themselves interpretive and creative acts.

We think that some suspicion of American Studies M.A. theses may arise because in their electronic form they do not look as much like Ph.D. dissertations as printed M.A. theses do. We believe that the American Studies projects nonetheless accomplish at the very least (and, indeed, typically far more than that) what most M.A. theses do in practice and perhaps all that they should be expected to in theory. We also note that some aspects that seem unusual from the point of view of an English department are ordinary when viewed in the context of American Studies programs, where thesis projects have long included exhibitions, public history projects, archival interpretations, and so forth. Likewise, programs that treat employment outside of the academy as an intended goal rather than a consolation prize have tended to be anomalous in English and some other disciplinary work but very much in the tradition of American Studies, which has embraced integrative and applied professional avenues as part of its mission.

We have encountered some sentiment, both in the student questionnaires and in our interviews, that the program might be made more theoretical and that the students might have more time to reflect on what they are doing. Other pressure to extend the period of study comes from the need to learn more and more about technology as new media develop. There is some sense that the program is at a critical juncture in its use of technology. Up to this point Alan has kept up with change and adjusted the program accordingly. It is not clear how the cutting edge can be maintained within the confines of the current set-up.

These concerns arise alongside of the occasional complaint that it is difficult to accomplish even the current goals within the present schedule. Given the present aims and resources, we think the curriculum is appropriate (the size of the program also seems right in terms of those conditions). But we also can see justification for expanding it. Already Alan has voluntarily offered, for a number of summers, a course in hypertext (open to anyone in the department); the suggestion of some students that more technology be taught in advance of the fall semester strikes us as plausible. We can also see increasing the number of semesters in the program. We strongly believe this should occur only with the provision of suitable financial support, however. An internship might be part of the extended session; the internship might also contribute to the financial support. Developing the relationship with the Virginia Center for Digital History might also prove a way of conserving resources (for both programs); it would also deepen and broaden the pool of peers with whom the M.A. students could work.

2. Advising and placement.

Alan Howard has been the chief advisor and placement officer for the program. The graduates praise his help and, pledging assistance themselves, they look forward to the day when enough alumni will have accumulated to build an effective network of support. The students view the college's Office of Career Planning and Placement as unhelpful in their job search. The general reasons may be the same as those that impelled the English department to set up its own credential and placement service; one particular reason is that OCPP is perceived as uninterested in helping to find jobs with non-profit organizations. But students do not have a more favorable view of the department's placement support at the M.A. level, despite the fact that most of the department's graduate students leave with that degree. To add insult to injury, the standard charge the department assesses for mailing a dossier is 50% higher for M.A. candidates than for Ph.D. ones ($3 instead of $2).

One candidate's description of his job search appears to be representative: "My master's work was the hook on my resume that got me the interview [and then a job] at Microsoft." Students' humanities backgrounds and their technical abilities enable them to snag an interview; because they're good, they then get the job. One person suggested that there is in fact some value in the program not being mainstream in the department in that it thereby attracts intellectual risk takers. One way of helping future students in the program might be through a system of internships or externships, experiences that would provide them with additional understanding, a useful credential, and increased contacts.

C. Outcomes.

Our primary method of assessing the outcome of the program is through the questionnaires the graduates returned. These reveal the attitudes of the students themselves at varying distances from their time here, but also, through the employment record these reports document, they provide some indication of how the training and understanding of the graduates is viewed in the wider world. Again, we encourage anyone seriously interested in the matter of this report to read the evaluations that are attached as an appendix.

1. Statistics.

A list of graduates of the program is attached as an appendix to this report. The enrollment by year (of completion) has been as follows: 1995: 6; 1996: 9; 1997: 5; 1998: 9; 1999: 6. In the five years of the program's existence, all but two of the thirty-five students enrolled have graduated (those two both were Ph.D. candidates who chose not to finish the M.A.thesis). Each of the others completed the program within a year.

2. Student satisfaction.

We are daunted by the enthusiasm of former students for the program. Even the rate of return for the questionnaires indicates their excitement. We had addresses for twenty-eight of twenty-nine graduates; twenty-four, or 86%, answered. The only demurral amid the responses came from a student who seemed disappointed not so much with the American Studies program in particular as with English graduate education in general.

The tone of the comments is the same regardless of the year people spent in the program. Elsewhere we have cited the praise they accord Alan Howard. Equally passionate is their appreciation for what they learned. To take a few examples:

"The most profound benefits were improvements of basic skills of reading, thinking, and writing. . . . The technical skills probably helped me more than these others in landing a job after graduation, but the critical thinking, reading, and research skills have contributed much more to my overall success."

"My thinking about the place of scholarship in modern American society certainly grew more sophisticated during my time in the program."

"I became a much more creative person but also a much more analytical person."

"It was a wonderful experience, incredibly useful to me both as a person and for my career."

"I learned more than I had any idea I would, both from the cultural perspective and the technological perspective."

"I'm nostalgic for the American Studies program in a way that I've never been for any educational experience."

"My writing changed forever after going through the American Studies program. I never again wrote like a grad student."

That last comment reflects a widespread spirit among program participants. They tend to see their experience as different from what they perceived was going on in the rest of graduate school: they felt productive, and they enjoyed their work and each other. At a time when M.A. programs nationally have been accused of fraud and of serving only as revenue generators for otherwise depleted graduate programs, this one is striking for the appreciation it generates among its alumni. As they look back, some of these former students have now offered their own help to the program. This reservoir of good will and expanding experience might usefully be tapped,possibly through the establishment of an alumni council, as the program ponders its own future.

3. Placement record.

Students indicate high levels of satisfaction with their jobs and report employment trajectories that often have risen rapidly. They almost invariably trace their current circumstances to their American Studies involvement. Typical in that regard is a 1996 graduate who writes, "Alan Howard is one of the first people I ever met to realize the true interdisciplinary nature of the Internet, and possibly the only person at UVa I ever met to offer a practical solution to the scarcity of employment in Academia at this time. I may not have tenure, but in only three years out of Charlottesville I'm directing all Electronic Media projects at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in DC. The MA I earned under Alan's direction is very much responsible for this.

The directions in which people have traveled are ones that the program was designed to encourage, though the obviousness of their moves is most apparent in hindsight. Two of the graduates are now in English Ph.D. programs. Two others work at universities, one in a Web center and another as supervisor of a Media Center. A number are involved in businesses with educational components: as a producer of educational software, as an associate producer dealing with education issues for the Web site of U.S. News & World Report, and as a writer of promotional copy for Oxford University Press. A 1995 graduate who first went on to develop a Web site for the Chronicle of Higher Education now is now a reporter for the Circuits section of the New York Times. Several former students are employed by non-profit cultural institutions: as Director of Information and Outreach Services for Partners for Sacred Places, in the FIRST program (Fostering Instructional Reform through Service and Technology) of AmeriCorps, as Manager of the Imaging Center in the Information Systems Division of the Smithsonian Institution libraries, and as Education Producer for PBS Online. About ten of the graduates now work for some computer business -- in several cases ones that they started themselves. Often they are in managerial roles; one person writes, "I had never even been on the World Wide Web and now work in a Web Center and have recently been hired by a private company to be their Director of Web Training and Technical Support." Frequently they also serve in communication divisions of companies. A graduate working for a software company in Prague says, "I was hired to be smart and creative and fill in holes in the non-technical side of the company." One former student has drawn on her training in a different way: she is ski guide, wrangler, and Webmaster for a ranch in Colorado.

4. Reputation.

The testimony of knowledgeable computer people we talked to is that the program is highly visible in the Web world. The number of hits on the local American Studies site (which includes both graduate and undergraduate projects) seems to confirm that assessment: in May 1999, for instance, the site averaged over 68,000 hits per day. We have not attempted to analyze those contacts, but it seems apparent that the impact of the student projects that generated them is vastly greater than that of any other M.A. work in the department. Though the American Studies components as such were considered uneven (but sometimes very good) by some of our interviewees, the hypertext work of the students was consistently acknowledged as first-rate. The Web projects appear to have become a popular and effective way of talking to the public about matters dealt with in the university classroom. Aspects of the program were cited for emulation this spring in the proposal put forth by advocates of a New Media Studies program at UVa. According to one alumnus, the program is also very attractive to denizens of the world he now inhabits: "Having recently completed my job search, I can tell you that all the Web professionals with whom I spoke over the course of the past few months were greatly impressed and intrigued by the American Studies program at UVa. They hadn't heard of anything else like it and felt strongly that it would be an excellent training ground for future Web professionals." As the integration of technology becomes a major component of American Studies graduate programs around the country (sometimes as a special track of study), we have learned that the local program is looked to as a prototype (if not the prototype) for directions such programs might go.


Based on our observation that the program is successful and fills an important role, we recommend that it be maintained. We do not think it is our role to design its future, but we have identified some forms of support that seem crucial and a number of issues that must now be addressed.

We recommend that the English department and Graduate Arts and Sciences state clearly their intentions toward the program -- and that they then commit support and resources to it. Such assistance might usefully appear in the following forms:

- equipment, and then inclusion on the university's replacement cycle

- ongoing technical support

- fellowship support for participants

- fellowship support for a Ph.D. student to assist in the program

- increased advising and placement help for students, especially at the departmental level

- formal devotion of a faculty line to the program

- increased awareness of the program in the department and graduate school

We recommend that the director of the program, in conjunction with English department administrators, take the following steps:

- develop a plan for dealing with advances in technology

- define more clearly the relationship of the program with other humanities projects employing technology at the university

- weigh the merits of extending the length of the program

-investigate the creation of internships and externships

-consider the establishment of an alumni council or advisory board


1. Charge to the Review Committee

2. American Studies M.A. Students

3. Alumni Questionnaires and Responses

4. American Studies M.A. Program Description in the Graduate English Handbook:

5. Self Study Narrative (prepared by Alan Howard in conjunction with this review)

6.American Studies Home Page

7. The American Studies Association's Guide for Reviewing American Studies Programs

8. Alan B. Howard, American Studies and the New Technologies

The Review Committee
Peter Baker (English, UVa)
Randy Bass (English, Georgetown)
Joseph F. Kett (History, UVa)
David Vander Meulen (English, UVa), Chair