Program Review: American Studies Masters Program
University of Virginia


Alan B. Howard


The initial impetus for the American Studies M.A.program was threefold. First, I came to believe in 1994 that the English Department had reached a critical juncture in its graduate program: it had passed from an institution unwittingly accumulating the world's largest stock of unemployed Ph.D.s and ABDs and had become a knowing producer of unemployable graduate students in English. Unable to accept what one of my colleagues termed the "recreational Ph.D.," I determined to create a terminal M.A. in English that would re-tool bright and capable students for productive work outside the academy.

Second, I believed I saw a larger trend in which "education" was leaking out of the colleges and universities, being taken up by a mix of traditional (libraries and museums) and non-traditional institutions (centers, proprietary universities, amateur historians). This was happening, I believed, because the new technologies permitted it, because the Humanities had- by their resistance to public accountability and their inability to articulate the social value of their enterprise, by their inability to imagine the undergraduate and graduate curricula as anything more than the means to produce even more unemployable academics, and by their inability to engage in meaningful examination and reform of their own institutions, programs and curricula -- essentially defaulted on its traditional obligations and filed for bankruptcy.

Third, it seemed to me that the new technologies that just coming on line in 1994 held remarkable promise for interdisciplinary fields and especially for American Studies. In their scale/complexity and in their multimedia capacity, they offer a medium in which genuine multi-disciplinary, multimediated work can, at last, be pursued. Their ability to store large amounts of information and to analyze and manipulate that data in complex ways seemed to argue a way out of dead end of postructural theory and identity politics, to provide the tools for costructing the more sophisticated models of cultural process that were already looming as the next step in the evolutoin of American Studies. Their ability to integrate various and dissimilar kinds of "cultural texts," not only the print that is our traditional subject and medium, but also the images, objects, and events about which Americanists often pretend to speak, made them look like a platform in which genuinely sophisticated multidisciplinary work could be done.

Since my objective was to prepare students for work outside the university -- or at at best along its periphery - I looked into what people in higher education, corporations, and the public sector were telling us about their needs. I found a remarkable degree of agreement. They wanted employees who had all the things that a classic liberal arts curriculum claims to provide, the ability to think critically and analytically, the ability to be articulate in writing and in speech, and the ability to make informed and subtle judgments. They also wanted people who could work in groups, who could carry out projects efficiently and on schedule, and who could "think outside the boxes," could bring imagination and intellectual daring to an enterprise. And they wanted people who were literate in the new technologies, who had both practical experience and theoretical understand of the technologies that were transforming the work place and the culture as a whole.


The initial program design, then, was an attempt to create a curriculm that would build on the traditional objectives and methods of the humanities, but add to them the active, collaborative, and reality-based work. The intention was to transform students from passive consumers of information into active producers of information. At the very beginning, I informed the first group of students that they had not actually enrolled in a program - because the program did not yet exist - but had signed on to build that program. They would certainly hear and read about American Studies but more importantly, they were going to "do" American studies. I wanted to collapse the distinctions between teaching and learning, research and teaching. I wanted them to have a sense that their work mattered in the larger public sphere, to challenge them to do work that wouldn't end up in someone's wastebasket at the end of the term but would be pushed out into the street to be tested and used by a wider audience.

On its face, the curriculum does not, I think, seem particularly strange. Students are required to do 30 hours of course work including ENCR 801: Introduction to Literary Research, 6 hours in two American Studies seminars, ENAM 803-804, and 3 hours in the Thesis Course, ENAM 805. In addition, they are expected to take 9 hours in American Literature and another 9 in "related fields" outside the department. They enter as a "class," stay for 12 months - working through vacations -- and then are expected to have completed their work and to go away. To an important degree, the curriculum is customized for each student, agreed upon each term by the program director, me, and the individual. My conversation with them focuses on three simple questions: "Where do you think you're going next? What knowledge and skills do you need to acquire before you get there? What synergies are available, between this course and what you already know, between this course and the courses you're going to take at the same time, between this course and the work you're doing in the American Studies Seminar for that term. They go off into Art History and Architectural History, Sociology and Economics and History, Government and even out to the Schools of Education and Law. What holds this universe of individual choices together is the American Studies seminar sequence and the Thesis seminar. These are designed both to provide students with opportunity and means to weld this variety into some sort of whole, to share their new-found expertise with others in the class - learning by teaching others --, and to apply that expertise to electronic projects that are then published on the web.

The "curriculum," then, aspires to be more than an accumulation of credit hours, to be integrated and integrative educational process. If one looks at the components of AS@UVA, the web site for American Studies at the University of Virginia, I think he can see that each of them is actually a learning site. The Program begins with the ENCR 801, the introduction to research course required of all graduate students by the English Department. This is a crucial course which trains students to work in the library and especially in Special Collections where we spend a lot of our time. It also includes an excellent component on electronic research which, in ENAM 802; I put to work by assigning each student to be the editor of one segment of the Yellow Pages. Next, students are introduced to scanning, optical character recognition systems, and basic HTML tagtagging and are assigned short texts - critical articles, short stories, pieces of longer works that are in production - to internalize those skills by applying them. Over time, this has yielded much of the reading material done in both graduate and undergraduate American Studies courses; at this point, about 40-50% of any syllabi is accessible on-line. Next, students are trained in Photoshop and given instruction on the use of images on the web. Improving visual literacy is a major challenge that is developed gradually through the program. This year's class was then given the task of mounting an exhibit on Fortune magazine covers from the 1930s, an exercise in image manipulation and visual literacy as well as a study of the ways in which the Depression was inflected and refracted by this publication. By the second half of the semester, students are asked to create a small hypertext project that will integrate all that they've learned to that point. Initially, the projects were focused on Smith's Virgin Land and were aimed at elaborating on his argument or arguing with it, on providing extended information and analysis that Smith's publisher could not afford to include in the printed text or providing material Smith did not see or consider important - or just misunderstood. This year's class has begun building a similar site based on Alan Trachtenberg's The Incorporation of America; they've digitized the full text, written a synoptic version for distribution outside the UVA campus, and created the first generation of satellite projects for the core-text.

The second semester seminar, ENAM 803, is given over to designing, constructing, or amplifying a much larger group project. The first of these was The Capital Project begun in 1995; currently we are working in the 1930s, a site begun last, which is being extended by this year's class. The first task last year was to focus the site conceptually, to design its gross architecture, and to create the first generation of projects. The task for this year will be to extend the site, especially by looking at the mass mediation of culture in the period by film, radio, photography, and mass circulation print. To do this, we had to add audio and video to our skills base and acquire some models for interpreting the cultural effects of mass media. Students were asked to select "iconic moments" from comics and cartoons, radio programs, films, and documentary photography from the period and to learn how to create sound and video files for their distribution. The result was an exhibition tentatively called "seescapes/soundscapes," a display space where, over time, we'll try to create a kind of taxonomy of mediated culture in the peirod. At this point in the semester, students are in the initial design phase of their larger projects for the semester. Last semester, the projects included analyses of Hoover Dam, the invention of country music, Vanity Fair magazine, the Chrysler Building, Charlie Chaplin, Gone With the Wind and Absalom, Absalom, a comparison of the Depression in The United States and in Europe, and on two of Pare Lorenz's documentary films, The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River. As part of this year's process, students are being asked to critique last year's projects and to offer re-designs for them. At the same time, they're forming up their own projects which seem to include 'Amos 'n Andy go to Market," "The 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition," "Graphic Design in the 30s," "The National Park Service and the Reconstruction of American Landscape," and "Woody Guthrie and the Folk."

Also in the Spring term, I've organized the students as a virtual web design and development firm and each student has assumed the role and responsibilities of a particular job description: technical support, project manager, professional development, marketing, editor, or placement. They will have that job throughout the semester then assume a different one the next.

Finally, the third semester, ENAM 804, is devoted to the Master's Thesis. This is a summative exercise, a full demonstration of the knowledge and skills acquired in the program. I compare the students' task to that of 18th Century cabinetmakers who built scale models of their work to show around the countryside. Their job is to create in miniature a comprehensive demonstration of actual competencies. After the project has been built, each student will for an examination by two professors, myself and someone from English or another department. I've shamelessly used this as an opportunity to educate my colleagues about humanities computing and to seek out alliances around the University - as well as to provide students the challenge of explaining their work to people who are not exactly computer literate.

Throughout their tenure in the Program, students are encouraged to work part-time at relevant jobs, on campus at places like the Electronic Text Center, The Digital Media Center, The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, or off campus at private firms. Periodically, I use English Department Work-Study funds and ask students to build sites for non-profit organizations (e.g., VAM, the Virginia Association of Museums). I also look for volunteers to work with my colleagues (e.g., Deborah McDowell's site based on her autobiographical book, Leaving Pipeshop). In short, wherever possible, I try to find ways to integrate the mundane business of paying for the bills with experiences that will enhance their training and fatten their portfolios.


Students admitted to the American Studies Program have been, in the main, indistinguishable from the Masters Candidates in the English Department. At the outset, the Department was obviously concerned that I would allow "inferior" students into the program, students who would bog down the courses in which they enrolled or who just wouldn't be able to keep up. Over time, I think its fair to say that the Department has found the American Studies students quite competitive, often bringing unusual backgrounds and perspectives, but in no way inferior to the other graduate students. As it now stands, I think I would still have to make the case for, e.g., the German student from the University of Bonn who was an American Studies and Economics major there, but this seems reasonable to me.


Except for the occasional work-study position, neither the University nor the Department offers financial support for English Masters candidates. I would very much like this to be changed. In so far as this is a "terminal" degree, that the students go on to professional salaries, often with compensation greater than that of a beginning Assistant Professor, certainly above that of an unemployed Assistant Professor, it strikes me as unimaginative and inequitable not to offer support for at least some few students in the Program.

Financial support for the Program itself is modest, even minimal; it has no budget, no faculty lines, no staff, nothing. The Department pays my salary, provides space for the American Studies Lab, and the College of Arts and Sciences is increasingly able to provide technical support, a job which I still do myself in all but extreme emergencies.


From one point of view, I am the faculty. I designed the program and re-design it each year; I teach the core courses, I do the advising, I do the career counseling and placement. From another point of view, I am merely a coordinator and facilitator. A number of colleagues in the Department, especially Stephen Railton and John Unsworth and recently John Sullivan, have worked energetically and sympathetically with the American Studies students. Outside the Department, Ed Ayers in History, Richard Guy Wilson in Architectural History, John Bunch in Educational Technology, Jim Deetz in Anthropology, and Roger B. Stein in Art History have each given invaluable support. Even further outside, Alderman Library, especially David Seaman in the Electronic Text Center and Mike Plunkett and Edward Gaynor and their staff in Special Collections have been invaluable.

This account should, I think, suggest something about the novelty and challenges of this Program. By and large, it is dependent on a single individual and whatever other informal and temporary alliances he can forge. At bottom, it is fueled primarily by faculty and student energy, the largest proportion of it uncompensated if not, one can hope, unrecognized.


As noted, the Department has allowed me to build a computing lab. This is located in what is clearly space the Bryan Hall architect had left over, a kind of architectural appendix. But it is perfect for the program: large enough for us to work and hold classes in, it also provides the students with a "room of their own" which is invaluable in promoting group identity and cohesion. It also serves as a space where learning can happen serendipitously; students gather to talk about their work, to pass on what they've learned in classes or in the way of new skills, in effect, to teach each other.

The library resources are excellent for American Studies, offering first rate holdings in American History and Literature, acceptable holdings in the other component parts of American Studies, and excellent interlibrary loan service for the rest. In addition, the library is itself a major site for the application of the new technologies and is for that reason unusually sophisticated and sympatetic to us.

As to other kinds of resources, this Program is machine dependent, working always on and through the computers. ITC, the University's computer people, have been increasingly understanding and supportive of faculty efforts in integrate the technology with the Humanities. The mechanical infrastructure is excellent; the human infrastructure is good and getting better.

The College of Arts and Science and the English Department itself, however, have been slow to recognize the value of humanities computing, slow and uncertain and at times openly hostile in their responses. I began the Program with equipment donated by a local merchant who was going out of the computer business; I developed the lab with Commonwealth of Virginia Higher Education Equipment Trust (HEET) monies and with funds provided by the University's Teaching and Technology Initiative which provided me with fellowship monies which I have now stretched into three years of hard- and software upgrades and replacements for the lab.


The results produced by the program can, in one sense, be measured by a thoughtful exploration of AS@UVA, the web site for the program. After four years of work, the site presents four major components.

First, The Yellow Pages for American Studies, a selective, annotated directory to the best electronic resources for students and teachers in the field.

Second, The Museum for American Studies, a series of museum-like multimedia exhibitions on topics ranging from the art of Grant Wood to the New York World's Fair of 1939-40 to the nature illustrations of Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology.

Third, the largest and most fully developed section of the site, Hypertexts a collection of some fifty electronic texts in American Studies, either "classics" like DeTocqueville's Democracy in America, D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature or Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land: The West as Symbol and Myth, or "lost" texts, once powerful works like Gilbert Seldes' The Seven Lively Arts or Herman Melville's The Confidence Man or T.G. Steward's (?) A Charleston Love Story, books that, for various reasons, have disappeared from view and consideration.

Fourth, The Capitol, as the introduction to that project says, "an infinitely extensible exploration of the National Capitol as an American icon - the cathedral of our national faith, the map of our public memory, and the monument to our official culture."

And fifth, The 1930s, an effort begun last year to explore and re-present the most academically unfashionable decade - in American Studies circles - and arguably the most important one for an understanding of modern America.

There are two other small projects as well, Cultural Maps and The Classroom, but these are largely undeveloped ideas which we have not been able to develop in any significant way.

All of this is, in a superficial sense, what the American Studies Master's Program has accomplished in its short history. The site has won numerous awards; it is linked to by more than 3,000 other sites; it now attracts about 80,000 hits per day, primarily from teachers and students (this would be the traffic volume, a professional web consultant tells me, of a very profitable, mid-size pornographic site). And all of this at minimal cost to the University. But, as I've already said, this is really no more than the by-product of the more important educational process. To assess the value of that, you will have to speak with the students themselves. In general, they've gone to places they could not otherwise have gone to, taken jobs that are more responsible and interesting - at better pay - than they could have otherwise, and they are moving up in those organizations. Some few have gone on to graduate programs in American Studies or English, here at UVA for example, and at UNC. But the majority have gone to work for public or corporate information providers, to PBS, Microsoft, Educorp, Maryland Public Television, The Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian, Washington and Lee College, The University of Alabama, Teach for America, Sacred Places, NetBeans, etc. As I explain to them, they are their own best work, and they are uniquely qualified to tell you whether or not it proved a job worth doing.


I am taking a year off next year (1999-2000) to recruit my strength, refresh my imagination, and redesign the program. In my view, it is at a critical juncture in a number of ways. Like a shark, the Program must keep moving just to stay alive. Course content can, to some degree, be rolled forward; but in very fundamental ways, it has to be new and different each year. Both the students' work and my own is in plain sight. Neither of us can simply repeat what someone else did last year because its already been done! And this takes a good deal of energy on everyone's part. Also, the technology itself is increasingly subtle, powerful, and complex. In the beginning, the web didn't really exist; by the end of the first semester it did and I was teaching my students html. This year, the technology for audio and video streaming became stable, available, and a necessity for us to learn and use. Basic html is no longer a ticket to employment; dynamic html, sgml, and java are becoming the common tools and standards of competency - and these are more difficult to teach and to learn, especially in a single year. And finally, institutions using the new technologies are beginning to firm up their organizational structures for managing it. They are increasingly using cadres of technical people with high level skills to design and manage their projects. I.e., its going to be harder, not easier, for techno-humanist hybrids like my students to persuade employers they can do the job as those employers are coming to understand it.

I have some ideas about possible solutions: I should continue to accelerate the technical training so that, in the end, the students have more sophisticated skills; I should attempt to set up a series of post graduation internships for my students in .com and .gov and .org institutions; and I should expand my own repetoire of potential projects and kinds of projects. For these to be effective, however, there must be some improvement in the support for the Program by the Department and the College. The upgrading of hard- and software for the Lab needs to be regularized; ITC's Desktop Computing Initiative presents a real opportunity to do this, but the Department and the College will have to convince the Provost that American Studies deserves his serious consideration. In order for the Program to continue to attract good students, some financial support will have to be provided -- not a lot, just enough to do a little real good and a lot of symbolic good. The Departmet must also help me to find ways to better advertise the Program, to attract students with backgrounds in history and art and architecture, as well as those with undergraduate backgrounds in English. If the Program is to continue to operate on the one-year-to-degree model, some means must be found to compensate faculty for work done in the Summer Session. If the program is to continue for another five years, the Department should look for a junior American Studies/New Technology appointment.

Appendix A: Program Description

Appendix B: Cooperating Faculty and Staff

Appendix C: Statistical Data

Appendix D: Alumni

Appendix E: Student Projects