American studies

Modern America

Module code: T7046
Level 4
15 credits in spring teaching
Teaching method: Seminar, Lecture
Assessment modes: Unseen examination, Coursework

The early years of the twenty-first century have witnessed the United States achieve unsurpassed global economic and cultural power. This module assesses the dramatic developments that have shaped the U.S. during the twentieth century, often described as the 'American century'.

We will explore the transformations in American political and social life as the U.S. achieved economic supremacy, and extended this power on the world stage. As the nation increased its influence abroad, of module, it underwent a parallel series of turbulent changes at home. Hence we will also consider an America seen through the critical (and sometimes not-so-critical) lenses of writers, artists, commentators and filmmakers as they articulate the tensions and anxieties of modern U.S. life.

The module addresses many social contradictions. The `Roaring Twenties, for example, was a period of consumerism and cultural experimentation that also gave rise to religious fundamentalism and Prohibition. Similarly, while the United States government in the 1950s was trying to `keep the world safe for democracy' in the face of communist expansion, it abused the constitutional liberties of its own citizens during the McCarthy witch-hunts. Although the country as a whole attained unprecedented levels of affluence in these years, poverty remained a persistent problem, and Americans continued to struggle with the repression of women, political dissidents and racial minorities. A crisis in American liberalism accompanied this proliferation of social and political protest, primarily due to American involvement in the Vietnam War. We will seek to understand how this war shaped protest politics, altered the relationship between Americans and the liberal state, and led to the Conservative resurgence in the 1980s. These events shattered the consensus belief in a modern America. We will evaluate what it then meant to live in a post-modern America, and how people adapted the conditions of post-modernity to cope with new and recurrent crises of difference, inequality, and insecurity. Through lectures that focus on the historical, literary and more broadly cultural aspects of the modern United States, students will learn to recognise the importance of cross- and inter-disciplinary work as they pursue the dynamic relationship between cultural forms and social, political and economic realities.

Module learning outcomes

  • Students will have acquired a solid understanding of the basic facts, events, ideological trends, and especially the significant questions and major recurring themes of modern US history.
  • They will have learned how to critique primary sources in historical context.
  • They will have engaged with the main areas of contention and debate in the study of the United States and learn to develop their own critical perspectives on the evolving historical scholarship.