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American Studies Alive and Well at ISU

February 26, 2009
ISU Marketing and Communications

Guest editorial submission by Jennifer Eastman Attebery, American Studies Program Director

In a recent article a local newspaper singled out the American Studies Program at Idaho State University, implying that the program might be subject to cuts related to scenarios being put together in response to the governor’s call for a 10 percent budget cut. The article stated that the program had 13 majors and 39 students in courses during fall 2009, implying that the program is unproductive. I am here to tell you that in spite of the hasty reporting American Studies is alive and well at ISU even in these austere times.

The American Studies Program offers an innovative interdisciplinary B.A. degree that combines courses taken across the humanities, fine arts, and social sciences with a focus on American culture. The major in American Studies can be combined with the College of Arts and Sciences’ interdisciplinary minors in American Indian Studies, Folklore, Latino/a Studies, Linguistics, or Women Studies, or it can be combined with a minor in English or history. Students can also work with me to devise a program directed toward their particular interests.

American Studies graduates can be counted among our most distinguished ISU alumni. The Hon. B. Lynn Winmill, Chief Judge of the United States District Court, Idaho, was a 1974 American Studies graduate who combined American history and political science as preparation for legal studies. The university’s first Truman Scholar, Jessica Sotelo, was a 2001 American Studies graduate who focused her course work on the interdisciplinary study of health issues, going on for an MPA at Syracuse University.

One of our majors who expects to march in the May 2009 commencement ceremonies is Matt Spencer, the current ASISU President. The program is fortunate in having a Founders’ Fund Endowment that was established in 1989 with a gift from Dr. Leedice Kissane, founder and first director of the American Studies Program. When Kissane established the program in 1966 it was among the nation’s first such interdisciplinary undergraduate degrees. Kissane was inspired by her doctoral work in American Studies at University of Minnesota; she went on to teach American Studies in Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar. The current and two former American Studies directors at ISU have followed in Kissane’s footsteps to teach as Fulbright Scholars in Sweden (Jennifer Attebery and Brian Attebery) and Denmark (Eric Sandeen). Because Kissane was a professor of English, the American Studies Program has always had a close and symbiotic relationship with the English department.

The Founders’ Fund’s income is stipulated only for American Studies Program needs, enhancing and sustaining the quality of the program. Every year a part of the income is plowed back into the endowment. A part has been devoted to bringing nationally prominent scholars and writers to campus for public lectures combined with classroom visits: creative writer Molly Gloss, historian Greg Smoak, journalist Landon Y. Jones, folklorist Elliott Oring, historian Peter Boag, and politician Daniel Kemmis.

If there are severe budget cuts at ISU, bringing in lecturers may not be possible. But we do expect to be able to maintain and nurture American Studies at ISU.   To understand the figures cited by the Journal, readers need some context. As of February 10, 2009, 19 students are majoring, pre-majoring, or intend to major in American Studies.  New standards for admission to the American Studies major, put in place in 2007, have created a temporary reduction in the number of majors and an increase in pre-majors. A student currently coming into my office for advice will find that he or she will have to complete goals 1, 2, and 3, and American Studies 200 before becoming an official American Studies major.

Also important context is the fact that American Studies majors take very little of their course work under the AMST prefix. Only 6 AMST credits are required for the B.A. degree in American Studies. The other course work taken by American Studies majors is spread throughout the humanities, fine arts, and social sciences departments. Those departments get to count the roughly 230 credit hours per semester taken by American Studies majors.  

Is the American Studies Program and B.A. degree being eliminated from the curriculum at Idaho State University? No! The program and its degree remain in the ISU undergraduate catalog as one of our important and oldest interdisciplinary offerings. Those interested in a course of study that focuses on the interdisciplinary study of American culture should come check us out.


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