By Caitlin Roman
One of the top ten most popular majors on campus two decades ago, American studies is now witnessing a sharp decline in popularity among Yalies.
The number of Yalies choosing to pursue American studies has steadily dropped over the past eight years, from 54 majors graduating in 2000 to less than half that number — 24 — graduating last May, according to data released from Yale’s Office of Institutional Research. Among the explanations that professors and students offered for the decrease were a post-Sept. 11 preference for international studies and insufficient awareness of the program’s distinctive offerings. Others said the major has a reputation — unfounded, according to some — as easy.
Despite the falling numbers, the American Studies Department is not panicking, program chair Matthew Jacobson said. Although fewer students are selecting the major, enrollments in American studies courses have remained relatively constant, he said.
“It’s not that we’re losing students through the door,” Jacobson said. “It’s that we’re losing students choosing the major. We’re not worried about the overall health of the major.”
Increased focus on international affairs and growing skepticism of U.S.-centered programs of study after Sept. 11 may have contributed to the declining number of majors, Jacobson said.
There were 15 international studies graduates in 2007, up from nine in 2000 — a 67 percent increase.
Another possible explanation, Jacobson said, is a gradual, ongoing move away from the humanities and toward policy studies that is not unique to Yale. The English Department, for example, has also lost majors over the past few years, according to figures from OIR.
As other majors become increasingly interdisciplinary, American Studies is fading into the crowd, Jacobson said.
“Being interdisciplinary is the major’s distinguishing feature,” he said. “It doesn’t stand out as much as it used to because all of the disciplines have been stretching out a little bit.”
The major draws from a dozen or so disciplines — including history, literature, film studies, anthropology, political science and sociology — to explore the culture and politics of the United States.
Several current majors also suggested that the major is not as well-publicized as it could be. Since most American studies courses are cross-listed, major Jennifer Ortiz ’08 said, students interested in history or literature might not realize how many American studies courses they have taken.
The eight past, current and prospective majors contacted were all enthusiastic about the degree of choice the major offers.
The ability to craft an individualized concentration appealed to Anthony Lydgate ’10, who said he considered both the music and English majors but found elements that he disliked in both. Lydgate is now leaning toward the American studies major, which he said would allow him to combine his interests in music, literature and popular culture.
“The point of the American studies major for me is to find as much freedom as I can and still legitimately declare a major because I am required to do so,” he said.
Students in the major select one of five concentrations — including “Material Cultures and Built Environments” and “The International United States” — and then choose from dozens of courses in a variety of disciplines that correspond to the concentration.
In addition to the allure of the interdisciplinary approach, some students are attracted to the major because it offers them a way to delve into the history and culture of their hometowns, said Jessica Bian ’08, a double major in American studies and molecular, cellular and developmental biology.
When meeting with other senior American studies majors at the beginning of the school year, she said, Bian noticed that many students focused their senior essays on an issue or event back home.
But the American studies major is not for everyone with an interest in U.S. history, prospective history major Austen Kassinger ’10. She said its emphasis on cultural history may deter American history buffs who would rather focus on political history.
Another factor working against American Studies may be its reputation for classes easier than those in other majors, several students said.
“I have a bunch of senior friends who are American studies majors, and they’re all doing it as a cop-out major,” Nick Albino ’10 said.
But not all undergraduates agreed.
“People call it the easy major, the major that athletes choose,” Ortiz said. “But I haven’t found that at all. … We need to get people to realize that it’s not some easy way out, that it’s just as hard as history or poli sci.”
Over the past decade, the department has widened the range of disciplines in its list of courses available for major credit and restructured the concentrations, Jacobson said. Most recently, the department streamlined its interdisciplinary concentrations into the five now offered to majors.