American Studies Receives a Glowing External Review

An External Review Committee visited the Department of American Studies in May 2010. Their assessment of the program was resoundingly strong, noting that the Department has a “coherent and forward-looking intellectual focus” and is “considered a leader in the field of American Studies nationwide.”

During their visit, the external review committee sat in on undergraduate and graduate courses, interviewed faculty and students, and talked with a broad range of people associated with the American Studies community at the University of Maryland. The committee commended the Department’s national reputation, placing “the Maryland department in the top 10 of American Studies departments with Ph.D. programs.” The external reviewers noted that such acclaim has been produced, in part, through the Department’s commitment to the twin themes that have driven research, hiring, and curriculum: the cultures of everyday life and constructions of identity and difference. These themes have been strengthened by the University’s proximity to Washington, DC and the American Studies Department’s utilization of the “cultural and research institutions of the nation’s capital,” as seen in the “research, teaching, and internship opportunities through the National Archives, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress.”

The committee also praised the Department of American Studies’ role as a “major leader in the College and the University in strengthening the diversity mission of the campus.” They concluded: “From its diverse faculty hiring, to its commitment to recruit and graduate minority Ph.D. students, to its unflagging efforts to nurture a welcoming and intellectually challenging environment for undergraduate students from all backgrounds, the Department has lived up to the university’s mission and surpassed the performance of virtually every other unit in this area.”

The undergraduate and graduate programs both brought praise for the strength of its faculty instruction and academic climate. As the committee noted, 91% of the undergraduate students and 90% of the graduate students noted that they were highly or moderately satisfied with the academic climate in the department. In addition to the strong instruction offered by faculty, the committee praised the diverse makeup of the student population in American Studies, which is “significantly more diverse than the college’s population as a whole.” The committee went on to say, “The department’s diverse faculty, and its offerings of courses that directly address issues of race and ethnicity, make it a welcoming environment for students of color at the University of Maryland.”

The external review committee also commended the continuing interdisciplinary research of the faculty. The Department has continue to build on its expanding research agenda with the recent completion of major projects by faculty and three new hires. For example, the tenure of Psyche Williams-Forson followed the recent publication of her book, Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power. In this work, Williams-Forson explored a range of materials to consider the ways black women use food to arrive at degrees of self-definition and self-reliance. Sheri Parks’ recent book, Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture, has also been published with critical acclaim. In this book, Parks argued that the image of the strong black woman has been as much a burden as a tribute. She offered a compelling analysis of the toll of the strong image on women who have had enormous responsibilities but—until recently—little power and control. The research profile of the Department expanded its interdisciplinary focus with three recent hires in the areas of LGBT and queer studies, critical race/gender/sexuality theory, and the digital humanities. As the committee made clear, these recent hires “bring energy, excellence, and new teaching and scholarly resources” to the ranks of the Department of American Studies.

Finally, the committee made several recommendations, including a new faculty hire in the area of transnational Latina/o Studies. This hire would help develop a suggested third theme for the Department’s foci: transnational studies. As the Department moves forward under the “forward-thinking chairmanship” of Nancy Struna, the recommendations of the committee will enable American Studies at the University of Maryland to continue to be a leader in the field nationwide.