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This course is an introduction to American Studies through issues and questions of identity. What is identity? How are our identities formed and how do they function? What does it mean to be “American,” and who can and cannot claim that identity, and on what terms? How do American identities shape and how are they shaped by factors such as class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and language? This semester, we will examine diverse American identities, with an emphasis on the social and cultural forces that mold those identities. We will explore both the structural differences that divide individuals and groups, and ways that people challenge or transcend those divisions. To investigate questions of identity and nation, this course employs an interdisciplinary approach, integrating materials from literary studies, history, ethnic studies, sociology, film, and art. We will read some academic theories about identity, but we will spend most of the semester reading what a wide range of Americans (and some non-Americans) have written about their own individual and collective identities. The aim is to help us better understand our own and other people’s identities, the languages and conventions that writers use to imagine identities, and the way that varied perspectives on identity in (and beyond) the United States speak to, and at times against, one another. Rather than settle on a final definition of either “America” or “identity,” we will explore both as products of on-going dialogue, debate, and change, all shaped by aspects of cultural difference and social power. That is, we will pay attention to the way that dynamics of social difference and power – race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nation, and language, in particular – influence the way we experience our identities in the world.

American Identities Gallery