After nearly 20 years away, the American Studies program is coming back to the Kennedy Center.
The program was founded in 1976 at the Center for International and Area Studies—the forerunner to the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies—and stayed there for nearly thirty years before moving to the College of Humanities, which has housed it ever since. Dr. Jamin Rowan, faculty coordinator of the program, says, “American Studies is returning to the Kennedy Center, rather than moving there—it’s coming back home.”
American Studies at BYU
“American studies,” Dr. Rowan explains, “is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the lives of people who live in—or whose lives intersect with—the United States, both past and present. The American Studies program is committed to situating the lives of these people within broader social, cultural, political, and economic contexts and to explaining how those contexts shape the identities of individuals and their relationships to one another.”
As an interdisciplinary field of study, it brings together scholars from a wide variety of fields. Dr. Rowan’s PhD is in American literary studies, but while he was pursuing his degree, all of his dissertation advisers had PhDs in American studies. “So as a graduate student, I felt like I was being trained in American studies,” he says. “I very much think of myself as an American studies scholar—as much as I think of myself as a literary studies scholar. My own work is very interdisciplinary.”
American studies emerged and coalesced as a field of study nationwide in the 1950s, but the BYU program came to be in 1976, due to the efforts of Jeffrey R. Holland (Religious Education), Richard Jackson (Geography), Neal Lambert (English), and Frank Fox (History). From the beginning, it was interdisciplinary in nature, making it a good fit for the Center for International and Area Studies.
The program was part of the Center—which became the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies in 1985—until the early 2000s, when it moved to the College of Humanities. That was where Dr. Rowan became associated with it when he started at BYU in 2010.
In 2022, he became the coordinator and, with the blessing of the dean of the College of Humanities, Scott Miller, began to consider moving the program back to the Kennedy Center, feeling that it might be a great fit for the program. Dr. Rowan feels grateful to have had the support of both the College of Humanities and the Kennedy Center in making this move happen.
At present, the program offers a BA in American Studies; future plans include moving toward offering a minor as well.
American Studies at the Kennedy Center
“American Studies at BYU is increasingly focused on the United States within a global context,” says Dr. Quinn Mecham, Associate Director for Academics and Research at the Kennedy Center. “It is also becoming more interdisciplinary, including contributions from the humanities, social sciences, and fine arts. The Kennedy Center, as the home for international and area studies, focuses on all parts of the world, including the United States.”
Dr. Stan Benfell, director of the Kennedy Center, points out that the Kennedy Center is the “heart of international engagement” at BYU. “The United States is a part of the world—an extremely important part, of course—and the American Studies program is now interested in examining the United States not as an isolated country unto itself but as part of the larger world. In addition, American Studies is interested in increasing its interdisciplinary reach, looking at the examples of the other area studies majors in the Kennedy Center. And so I think it will fit very well with our area studies programs.”
Dr. Rowan agrees that the interdisciplinary nature of the Kennedy Center will be an excellent fit for the American Studies program. “Students who are interested in an interdisciplinary approach to their education are going to find their way to the Kennedy Center more easily than they would to the College of Humanities. I think that we’ll attract a different set of students—students that haven’t found American Studies in the past—just because the Kennedy Center is the place to look for the kind of interdisciplinary programs that American Studies is.”
While the College of Humanities has been an excellent home for the program for the last twenty years, Dr. Rowan is excited for the benefits that The Kennedy Center will bring to the program. “The College of Humanities has been extremely supportive, but it’s set up to help departments thrive,” he says. “The Kennedy Center is set up to help programs thrive.”
While the program has always been interdisciplinary, Dr. Rowan looks forward to being able to broaden it even further in its new home. “I’m interested in broadening the diversity of faculty affiliates and courses in the program,” he says. “American Studies has been interdisciplinary since its beginning but interdisciplinary in a somewhat narrow way: about 75% of our course offerings have, in the past, come from the History, Political Science, and English departments; and about 75% of our faculty affiliates have been from Comparative Arts and Letters, English, and History. I’m really interested in getting people and courses from a much broader cross section of the university.”
And the move, he says, will help: “I think that’s a lot easier to get done through the Kennedy Center, which is the Switzerland of campus: they’re not in charge of departments and they don’t hire their own faculty. I think it’s a place where faculty are more likely to say ‘Yes, I’ll be part of that program—it’s part of the Kennedy Center.’ Whereas if a program is somewhere else, it can feel like there’s one particular discipline or field that ‘owns’ it.”
He also points out that if a program is in a given college, it can’t have a faculty coordinator from any other college than that one. “Moving to the Kennedy Center gives us a chance in the future to be coordinated by someone who’s not in the College of Humanities.”
Dr. Mecham agrees that the nature of the Kennedy Center makes it a great fit for the program: “The Kennedy Center’s core strengths include providing a deep knowledge of local context and an interdisciplinary approach to understanding that context,” he says. “These strengths are well aligned with the goals of the program in American Studies.”
In conclusion, says Dr. Benfell, “American Studies, like our other area studies programs, offer a nuanced, interdisciplinary look at an important part of the world. Students looking to understand the United States and North America as a whole, and not just one aspect of it, will do well to check out the American Studies program.”
Why Study American Studies?
Dr. Mecham feels that the program will be useful to students, including those with international interests: “We hope that students will better understand the United States in a comparative global context, including the remarkable contributions of the United States to the world.”
The program also helps students understand their world a little closer to home, says Dr. Rowan. For those BYU students who grew up in the United States of America, he thinks the program “gives students an opportunity to make sense of the experience they had growing up in the US, from a different angle. It broadens their understanding of the communities that they belong to.”
It also helps students deepen their understanding of the type of citizen they want to be: “I think American Studies is also great training for students about how to be good citizens as they leave BYU,” he says. “Knowing about the variety of experiences that people other than yourself or people like you have had—both historically and currently—allows you to navigate your community in a more responsible, compassionate, ethical way, if you choose to live in the US.”
The program can also move students to work toward a more equitable society. “In placing individual lives within a larger context,” Dr. Rowan says, “American Studies practitioners often point out the ways in which particular practices and systems have given some individuals greater access to resources and opportunities than others—the kind of contextualization that enables American Studies scholars to articulate insights about how to create a more equitable and just society.”
American Studies graduates find success in a variety of fields, due in large part to the critical thinking skills taught. Dr. Rowan has asked many alumni of the program what aspect of it has been valuable to them in their professional and personal lives. “I’ve been really surprised by how many of them have said that learning to go from a history class to a political science class to an anthropology class has taught them how to quickly get up to speed on different discourses, then figure out how to operate in that new space.”
This is useful, he says, as it’s something we all often have to do as professionals and as citizens: “You have to learn how to walk into a new situation, figure out what’s going on, pick up on the language or discourse, then figure out how you can contribute. I think American Studies is really good at helping students do that: to learn to think interdisciplinarily and to come to recognize that, for most problems, you’re going to have to know how to find information in a variety of different places. You’re going to have to know how to make sense of that information, find patterns across different types of fields or discourses, and then figure out how to creatively offer a solution.”
Want to learn more?
Any students interested in learning more about this program are encouraged to check out the new American Studies website. If you’re ready to dive deeper into American Studies courses, you can set up an appointment with a Kennedy Center academic advisor.
Any faculty who are interested in learning more about becoming a faculty affiliate can reach out to Dr. Jamin Rowan for more information.