Centre for the Study of the United States

AMS Faculty Spotlight: Rick Halpern, Interim Director of the Centre of the Study of the United States

What are your interests in American Studies?

I came to American studies via combined interests in history and literature. I was eager to pursue a course of study that would allow me to analyze culture to understand popular struggles for equality, politics, and institutional structures. I was fortunate to have attended Graduate School at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980s where the History department work closely with the department of American Civilization, and interdisciplinary scholarship was the norm rather than the exception. Later in my career, I found that American studies was an ideal field for comparative and transnational work.

What can students expect from AMS401 “Hellhound on My Trail: Living the Blues in the Mississippi Delta, 1890-1945”?

This is a course that looks at African American life in the Mississippi Delta during the age of segregation through the medium of early recorded Blues music. Students will listen to a weekly podcast that sets up each class and provides the foundation for thinking about songs as historical texts. They also will read some of the most exciting literature that scholars have produced about race in the South and the ways in which black people created cultural forms that allowed them to survive.

Who can take AMS401 course?

Initially places will be reserved for students doing a major or minor in American studies and who have completed, or who are taking concurrently, the core courses in the program. After a certain point, enrollment will be open to all students. HIS271 is an ideal informal pre-requisite, but this is not required.

What’s the teaching style of this course? What activities would upcoming student partake in?

The course is designed as a small seminar in which a premium is placed on student participation. Students have the opportunity to test their ideas in a supportive forum, and to pursue their own interests with regards to assignments. There is a maximum of choice with regard to these assignments, and students will keep a reflective journal. A final project can be either a podcast or a traditional research paper.

What’s your teaching philosophy?

I encourage students to pursue their own interest within the structure of a course that is organized topically. I am available to help them identify and get their hands on relevant reading and to assist with editing and polishing their written work. I want them to learn to think independently and critically, and to express themselves with clarity.

What are two things you would like upcoming students to know about American Studies or about the topics approached in this course?

First, American studies is relentlessly interdisciplinary. Students learn to approach topics from a number of angles using a variety of methods. Second, by looking closely at the Blues as a cultural form, this course allows students to connect themes and materials from the early 20th century to the world around them today.

What are some characteristics of students who are successful in your courses and in this program?

The students who do well are genuinely interested in ideas and have a keen intellectual curiosity about the United States and its historical evolution. They are willing to express themselves in class discussion, respect a diversity of opinion, and are open-minded, especially when confronted with new evidence.

What are some takeaways you’d like students to have from taking this course?

First and foremost, I would like students to leave with a nuanced understanding of the ways in which life carries on and culture is created in the midst of an oppressive system. I also want students to understand a folk culture and commercial culture interact, and how music knows no boundaries of race and class, even though it originates in specific historical contexts.