NU Declassified: American Studies — small cohorts, big opportunities

Laya Neelakandan, Print Managing Editor



Ever wondered about the American Studies program? From the coveted fifth floor lounge to the branded tote bags to the application process, NU Declassified breaks down the American Studies program just ahead of this year’s application deadline.

DORI-TAYLOR CARTER: We’re all such nerds in different ways, but ways that work together. We get really excited about learning together, and so it makes the sometimes long seminar hours seem to go by quickly.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: That was Weinberg junior and American Studies major Dori-Taylor Carter. If you’ve ever wondered about the coveted fifth floor Kresge Hall lounge or the fashionable purple-and-yellow tote bags seen around campus, keep listening. From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Laya Neelakandan. This is NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive at Northwestern.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: When I asked American Studies students about the program, they struggled to sum it up with just one answer. According to Program Director Shana Bernstein, if the topic is about the U.S. in some capacity, it can be considered American Studies.

SHANA BERNSTEIN: It has become, in say the last ten or fifteen, maybe 20 years, really two axes of study. One of which is U.S. and the world: how does the U.S. relate to its neighbors in the Western hemisphere? How does it engage globally? So that’s one big frame. And then the other big frame is comparative American communities, so whether that be race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality. To think about within the borders of the United States, how do different groups fit, how are they positioned?

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: However, those two axes aren’t rigid requirements for the program.

SHANA BERNSTEIN: We have students who study things that are not really about either of those — we just try to encourage students to take one of those two major orientations.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: Dori arrived on campus knowing she wanted to major in American Studies and focus her senior thesis on censuses and racial statistics. But she said she’s a bit of an anomaly among her peers.

DORI-TAYLOR CARTER: It’s been a pretty sure thing for me, which is pretty cool because I think that in the uncertainty or the multiple possibilities and multiple opportunities available to interdisciplinary study, there’s often a feeling of indecisiveness — for me, that was kind of solved by American Studies as a major that I just kind of really dug into.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: Dori said the interdisciplinary aspect of the program was what originally drew her to it.

DORI-TAYLOR CARTER: Some of the more rigid disciplines were not super exciting to me, they weren’t really calling me because I had done an interdisciplinary, humanities-style program in high school that I really liked. I ended up taking pretty much all of the classes that I needed to for American Studies even before I started American Studies.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: Weinberg senior Jack Jordan, on the other hand, said the program wasn’t on his radar when he first got to NU. Jack started out in the McCormick School of Engineering as a civil engineering major. He said he’s always been interested in renewable energy and climate change, and after attending the American Studies info session during his sophomore year, he knew it was the major for him.

JACK JORDAN: So I went to the info session, and we went up to the lounge on the fifth floor of Kresge — we’ve got this nice American Studies lounge, it’s such a nice perk — and we’re in there, there’s free food, and all the majors are sitting around, very just open environment, and just talking about kind of all of the different things they could pursue at NU through American Studies.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: Like Dori, Jack liked the interdisciplinary emphasis in the program.

JACK JORDAN: Depending on how much you buy into the “AND is in our DNA” marketing of NU, honestly, I can say that American Studies is one of the definitions of that idea at NU — or at least what that idea seems to mean to people — where you can really study whatever you want and you can make your own path through your curriculum at NU.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: For Professor Bernstein, the program’s interdisciplinary nature is what drew her to it when she assumed the role of program director.

SHANA BERNSTEIN: I’ve always pictured myself at a liberal arts college, actually, like teaching and for college, neither of which I’ve done. But the American Studies program is very much like a liberal arts college with all the benefits of a research university, so it’s like the best of both worlds. And there’s an intellectual and social community that’s pretty unique, so that’s kind of part of what drew me to it, aside from the intellectual aspects of it.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: Typically, each year’s American Studies cohort is made up of around 10 freshmen and sophomores combined, Professor Bernstein said. During the first year of the program, the students take a sequence of predetermined classes together, ranging from Latino and Latina Studies to English or History. Depending on whether they applied as freshmen or sophomores, majors spend their second year taking electives or completing their senior thesis. But to get into the program in the first place, students must complete a written application and an interview process.

SHANA BERNSTEIN: What we look for is people who are really interested in being engaged academically, because it’s a very small major and it’s a very high-touch major where students know each other well, they know the faculty who teach in the program really well. We also look for people who are academically-inclined, who enjoy challenging themselves and pushing themselves and learning deeply to take advantage of the resources that the program offers.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: And when I asked what their favorite part of the program is, all three gave me similar answers.


SHANA BERNSTEIN: It’s really the students.

JACK JORDAN: The relationships you get out of American Studies. Both with your cohort, I think it’s the most unique experience on campus as far as having that same set of people you’re with throughout your two, three years in the program, but also the professors.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: And those relationships last a lifetime. Professor Bernstein said the American Studies alumni network is extensive and close-knit, with alumni in lots of different professions ranging from activism to politics.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: Those diverse career paths are a result of the program’s open nature, which allows students to pursue lots of different areas of study. Jack, who’s majoring in both American Studies and environmental science, is working on a senior thesis about public participation in Evanston’s climate plans.

JACK JORDAN: Specifically for my interests in climate change planning and, like, adaptation, American Studies has been extremely helpful, because the curriculum kind of grounds you in “What is our idea of America? What are American values, and how does that drive people’s decisions and our policies?” So what American Studies has helped me understand is how did we get to the current moment of America having been so responsible for the systems of colonialism and extraction that have caused climate change, and how do you take this huge vehicle that is the understanding of America and try to pivot it or change it so that we might be able to have a future that’s a little more livable and a little more just?

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: After graduation, Jack hopes to enter local politics or regional planning — either way, he’s confident his American Studies background has prepared him well. For Dori, who’s centering her senior thesis around censuses, the program has shown her that there’s —

DORI-TAYLOR CARTER: So much more to be done.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: And that influenced her decision to pursue a Ph.D.

DORI-TAYLOR CARTER: There’s so much to say on the concept of American identity, belonging and who counts, when they count, for what purposes we take their numbers down, who has agency as to how we categorize different groups. And I think the curriculum has encouraged me to be interdisciplinary and kind of draw from multiple knowledge bases, to not feel limited to just one or two methodologies in terms of analyzing or approaching questions.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: While Dori loves American Studies, she said it’s still a decades-old program centering around the U.S. And that can be complicated for students depending on the identities they hold.

DORI-TAYLOR CARTER: It is a part of the University machine. It started with the desire for the United States to be able to point to its own history in the way that you do French studies and Italian studies and Greek studies and have some sort of national reverence for a mythology of the United States. And that is something that I think can be really complicated and violent for folks for whom the United States represents something that is not as simple as an American dream.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: But Dori said the program at NU is continually self-critiquing and working to add new voices and perspectives. Her advice for students of color?

DORI-TAYLOR CARTER: Students of color applying should be aware of that, but not be deterred.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: Jack said prospective American Studies majors, especially former McCormick students, should know the program involves a lot of writing.

JACK JORDAN: I did a full year of McCormick, so I really wasn’t reading and writing a whole lot for a while, and when I got in the program, I was like, “Oh my gosh, these people could read so fast and can write so well.”

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: But after almost two years in the program, Jack said his reading and writing skills have improved a lot. And for Dori, American Studies has been exactly what she hoped for when she set her sights on the program as a freshman.

DORI-TAYLOR CARTER: I can’t even pinpoint how much I feel like I’ve gotten out of the program — in recognition of the aspects of it that were sometimes complicated — from the cohort to the relationships with the professors to the things that I’m learning and applying and the ways I’m thinking about scholarship now and the doors that it’s opened for me to be able to do my own research and feel like I can confidently start thinking about applying to grad school. Those sorts of things are really cool.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: This year’s application deadline for American Studies is March 29. So if you find yourself wanting to explore the intersections of race and census data, or municipal climate planning, or something else entirely, you might want to check out the American Studies program. Plus, you’ll get access to a really cool lounge in Kresge.

SHANA BERNSTEIN: A view of the lake, even. It’s prime property.

LAYA NEELAKANDAN: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Laya Neelakandan. Thanks for listening to another episode of NU Declassified. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Will Clark, the digital managing editor is Jordan Mangi and the editor in chief is Isabelle Sarraf. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @laya_neel

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