American Studies 100
Exploring American Culture
Roger Williams University
Monday Evenings, 6:45
CAS 126.
Fall, 2002
Michael R. H. Swanson, Ph. D.
Office:  CAS 110
Hours:  9:00-10:00  T, Th, F.
5:45-6:45 M., or by appointment
Phone: 254 3230
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Book List:
Girouard, Mark: Cities and People
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985

Stilgoe, John R.  Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820 - 1939
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988

Jackson, Kenneth T.  Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States
NY: Oxford University Press, 1984

Rybczynski, Witold:  Home : A Short History of an Idea
         New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Viking, 1986

Kidder, Tracy:  House
             Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1985
AMST100: The American Experience
An introduction to American Cultural Studies.  Considers the impact of culture upon individuals in relation to their present, past, and future.  Particular emphasis on the family as cultural agent.  
RWU Catalogue
A few introductory remarks

I've printed the catalogue description for AMST100, just in case you've not read it, or have forgotten what it promises.  The general statement is an accurate description of what I'm going to try to accomplish with you in this course.  The last sentence fragment, particular emphasis... needs to be qualified somewhat.  The particular emphasis in this particular version of The American Experience is going to be upon a cultural artifact which is produced by the family and which shapes the family as well, the house.   The house (actually house and home--a closely related idea) is the stage on which the family drama is enacted.  We know that practically no condition is more tragic, and indeed scary than homelessness is.  Leaving one home and forming another is one of the rites of passage for us.
Cultures express beliefs and customs in the shelters they create.  Simply put, as people travel, they observe differences in the ways that shelters (houses) and groups of shelters and other structures (cities, towns, villages) look.  These differences are not random or matter of chance.  They result from choices people make based on who they are, what they believe about the world, and the forces to which their cultural history has subjected them.
Because these differences are not random people like ourselves can think about them rationally--and explain them.  We can observe them with intelligence and sophistication, rather than bias and ignorance.  We can see that our taste is just as much a product of our experience as others' tastes are products of theirs.  How much this will increase our "freedom of informed choice and judgement" is open to debate.  Our own cultures are not that easy to escape.  Probably more important is that looking at the cultural creations of other people helps us to do the hardest things of all--think rationally about the creations of our own cultures. 
Thinkers have long known that it is far easier to think clearly from a distance.  The things with which we are involved as a matter of daily routine are so familiar to us that we rarely think about them at all.   We just accept them the way they are, and use them as they have been handed down to us.  This is probably true about houses, even though they represent for most people their most significant capital resource investment.  Why this culture places such an emphasis on home-ownership is worthy of consideration, as well
Course Materials:

There is a LOT of reading for this course.  None of it is difficult or technical, but it is going to require a significant time commitment on your part.  Note that this section of American Studies 100 is not the same as the other two sections.  Be careful that you purchase the books for this section and not those for one of the others.  It may be a good idea for you to look the materials for all sections over, just in case you find that your interests really suggest you belong elsewhere.

Girouard, Mark: Cities and People
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985

I've loved this book and teaching from it since I first encountered it.  A very few Americans live entirely isolated lives: hermits, perhaps, or those on remote farmsteads.  Most of us live in communities: villages, towns, cities, and clusters of the these we've come to call metropolitan complexes.  These assemblages of a variety of buildings show a number of patterns of relationships.  Those of you who have traveled no doubt have noticed that even though the materials out of which cities are constructed, streets, houses, commercial buildings, factories, buildings of culture and government, etc. etc., are the same, the resulting cities may be strikingly different from each other.  The differences are not a product of random happenstance.  We'll use Girouard to understand a little about the nature of cities.  We will make good use of the illustrations, and train ourselves to consider them as carefully as we do the text.

Stilgoe, John R.  Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820 - 1939
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988

I think every American knows what a "suburb" is.  A significant number of you, perhaps the majority, most likely live in a suburb now, or have lived in a suburban area at some time in the past.  Stilgoe, like Girouard, is interested in the form or pattern humans impose on a place.  Like Girouard, he understands that suburbs have a visual signature, and that the look of the suburb is a quite deliberate thinga matter of symbol and icon representing an ideal of living to which suburbanites aspire, either consciously or unconsciously.  Again, the illustrations are very important here.

Jackson, Kenneth T.  Crabgrass Frontier:
The Suburbanization of the United States
NY: Oxford University Press, 1984

Jackson is an urban historian and cultural geographer, and his book will make a nice complement to Stilgoe's.  There will be more about the mechanics of suburban living and technological innovations which make the suburban lifestyle a real option for growing numbers of Americans.  We'll see, too, how the suburb moves conceptually from a less desirable environment (a sub - urb) to the object of aspiration it has become.

Rybczynski, Witold:  Home : a Short History of an Idea
       New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Viking, 1986

I'm hoping that this book will prove to be a real "eye-opener."  Most of us think that a common word like "home" represents a fixed thing.  We're going to discover how subtle and changing our understanding of "home" has been.  Our method of work at this time will be historical, and we'll look to see how what we value in a house has been assembled across time, drawing on the experiences brought to this country from a wide variety of largely European cultures.

Kidder, Tracy:   House
             Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1985

If you are at all familiar with Tracy Kidder's work, you'll recognize that his particular talent is the ability to write a factual analysis of something without spoiling the story.  People Magazine called this book "Powerful, rich, enjoyable...a suspenseful, gripping tale!"  The subject of the book is the building of a house.  It is a tribute to the author that such an "ordinary" and commonplace happening could be presented in such a way
Course Work

I've taken an advanced look at my roster for this course and it pleased me to notice a number of familiar names.  Welcome back, and I'm glad you wanted to have another experience with me.  Those of you to whom this applies know one thing already, and that is that I have been moving more and more towards a course with a significant internet component to it.  From my early days at Roger Williams I've provided a course overview at the beginning and then a series of weekly assignment sheets throughout the course, and that practice still obtains here.  Beginning two years ago, I started creating websites for my classes, and that practice continues now.  In fact, I intend not to pass out any paper to you, once the first two weeks of the course have passed.  If things work out as I hope (I'm writing this before Labor Day), I will be introducing this course to you via the web, then passing sheet of paper out following that introduction.  When I end the practice of passing out syllabi, you will be responsible for visiting the class website and keeping current with the work ahead.  If you want to have a printed copy of the course work, you can print one off on your own.

You will also note that I have a special e-mailbox for this class.  The address appears on the header of this handout, and on every page in the class website, as well.  I encourage you to e-mail me when you have a question or comment, and you'll get a speedy reply.  You may also submit all your written work for this course electronically.  I have upgraded my computer over the summer and now I can read documents created in Microsoft Word, Microsoft Word, and Word Perfect. 

The major portion of your written work will be done outside of class. 


There will be a midterm-exam, but it will not be in traditional form.  It will involved your reflections on thoughts about cities and suburbs as you encounter them in Girouard, Stilgoe, and Jackson.  I will frame the questions and post them to the class website in approximately two weeks, well before you get very far into the class reading assignments.  That way, you'll be able to prepare for this exam as you prepare for the classes themselves.

There will be a written report on Kidder's book.  I do not think we will spend much class time discussing Kidder.  Though factual, it reads like a good novel, and I hate to spoil the story and your encounter with the characters in it by analyzing it to death.  I would prefer for you to read it on your own, and aim to have it finished by the middle of October.  I'll ask you how you're getting along by the end of September, and if necessary, I'll apply a few touches of the lash. 

There will also be a research requirement...whether this will result in a paper or not I'm not yet certain in my own mind.  I want to get to know you all a little better before I decide.  If I do decide on a paper, it will be of mid-length.  (c. 10 pp.) I may offer the options of the paper, of giving oral presentations, group projects, or construction of a website, if you feel so led.

I want you to get to know each other and to feel comfortable collaborating with each other and with learning from each other.  To that end, I'm publishing a copy of the class roster, as I have it, to the website now.  I will update it as my data gets "cleaner".  If you would like to share an e-mail address with your classmates let me know in a note to me at, and I'll take care of those housekeeping chores.

We're going to watch a classic movie from the late 1940s, entitled Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.  The film stars Myrna Loy and Cary Grant.  I want you to pay particular attention to the imagery in this film, to the point of taking notes:

1.  What is the image given of City Living?

2.  How does this compare with the image of Country Living?

3.  What are the elements of the "Dream" in this house? 

4.  What are the problems which come with homebuilding and homeownership?

5.  Does the screenplay suggest that the problems are irrelevant in the larger scheme of things?  If so, how?
Click to reach many resources on this film at The Ultimate Cary Grant Pages
I'd like you all to get a start on an ongoing semester-long project which we'll be doing.  American Studies differentiates itself from American History partly on the basis of subject matter and partly on the basis of resources.  American Studies tends to look farther afield for insights into the culture and its character, using a range of literary sources, artifacts, music, art, and popular culture of all sorts.  By the end of the semester, each of you will be preparing an informal annotated bibliography on the topic Houses and Homes in American Culture.  This will include at least:

1.One Novel
2.One Short Story
3.One Poem
4.One Essay
5.One Newspaper or Journal article
6.One Painting (high style)
7.One popular illustration
8.One piece of popular music
9.One Movie, Play, or Television Program

In which houses or homes are the focus. 

I'd like you to have One of these located by next Monday.  Bring the reference (or if it is portable and short enough, the thing itself) to class.  The rest of what I'd like to have you do by next week is found on the Internet.