The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Tuesday January 31st

Column: The case for American studies

Students sit on quad in front of Wilson Library on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.
Buy Photos Students sit on quad in front of Wilson Library on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.

When I came to UNC three years ago, I had no idea what I was going to study. I took a class in about every department possible — psychology, history, drama, economics. When asked what I wanted to do, I always responded with a confident, “I have no idea.”

Toward the end of my first year, I found that a deeper understanding of American culture and history was something I had never explored before. Digging through the course catalog and with some lucky enrollment times, I ended up taking several American Studies (AMST) courses. The department intrigued me. 

I had questions: What disciplines make up American studies? Who and what are included in this field? 

The interdisciplinary answers to these questions are at the core of American studies. I find myself thinking critically about history, community and research. These skills are essential to the department and, to me, they're what make American studies one of the most exciting fields of study at UNC. 

For many, AMST is the department to knock out some general education classes and get the coveted Experiential Education requirement. The department, however, is so much more than that. Faculty, instructors, graduate students and researchers in AMST combine all of their skills to think critically and create a greater understanding of this country.

As undergraduates, learning in college can seem arbitrary, or just a transitional period into the workforce. AMST courses constantly remind students to pause and reflect on how much there is to learn and how much can be applied to our daily lives — an essential part of a humanities education.

The department is able to achieve this by providing an interdisciplinary approach to culture and history. American studies isn’t simply an American history degree. Rather, it includes core topics like American Indian and Indigenous studies, settler colonial studies, critical race theory, American imperialism and immigration studies — all on top of providing important historical contexts.

When I reflect on what the AMST major has provided me, what comes to mind is the ability to look at events around me and to start asking questions. American studies is inquisitive by nature. AMST courses are not just about solving problems, but understanding them as completely as possible. 

This extends beyond the classroom as well. Over the last three years, we have witnessed some important historical moments. From the removal of Silent Sam to a pandemic and the storming of the U.S. Capitol, each requires an in-depth knowledge of this country, its practices and its communities to understand how these events came about.

The AMST department is able to do this because American studies professors are not just academics — they also work in the field and are members of the communities they study. That insight is brought into the classroom and enriches the experience. 

I encourage students from all departments to take American studies courses. Each one provides insight and knowledge that will make one a better thinker, a stronger writer and a more empathetic learner. American studies challenges norms and asks hard questions. Anyone can gain something from courses like that.

Learning and understanding the United States and its communities requires more than just nine courses. Early in my college career, I realized it’s impossible to gain everything you need from four years in school. 

Still, the interdisciplinary approach of American studies has given me universal tools and skills I can apply in whichever field I pursue. Whether it's research, writing, critical thinking or general knowledge, coming out of UNC as an AMST major makes me feel as prepared as I could be. 

Starting the AMST major at UNC, I was overwhelmed with the number of injustices and problems at the core of the United States as we know it today. But, having finished the major, I am confident that American Studies provides students with the knowledge and tools necessary to begin addressing these issues.  


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