Want to make explaining your major a big part of your personality? American Studies just might be the right place for you.

Like everyone with whom I’ve spoken in the last year since declaring my major, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Okay, but what is American Studies?” 

Good question. According to the department’s official description, “the American Studies major aims to teach students to recognize, question and analyze, within an international context, the formation, implementation, and contestation of power in both the nation-state and in other institutions of collective life.” In practice, this means most majors study the Americas through an academic lens (or a variety of lenses)—history, politics, anthropology, literature, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and even fields like environmental science. A lot of students also choose to pair the major with another related field, like English. 

As a program, American Studies is unique because it’s one of the most interdisciplinary programs at Barnard. The major is closely affiliated with Africana Studies, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Anthropology, and English, among others. This means students often take courses from any number of those disciplines to complete their major requirements.

The department itself is relatively small, made up of a few “core faculty” (professors in the American Studies department) and several “affiliated” professors (professors in adjacent humanities departments like English and Anthropology). The current chair is American Studies extraordinaire Jennie Kassanoff, who can be a great resource for any questions you have about the department. She and former chair Severin Fowles are also advisors to most majors. 


  • AMST BC1001: What is American Studies?
    • All American Studies majors are required to take this introductory course, which is designed to do exactly what the title implies: answer the question, “what is American Studies?” This course can be a great way to gauge your interest in the department if you’re not yet sure about the major. It’s perhaps not the most interesting of American Studies courses, but luckily, it’s usually taught by Manu Karuka, a fan-favorite in the Barnard Humanities. That said, since the program itself is so academically diverse, it may be unlike any other course you take for the major!
  • Two Historical Foundations courses focused on the Americas before the Cold War
    • All majors must take at least two history classes (though many take more) focusing on any period in American history before the Cold War (which the department defines as pre-1950). However, these courses don’t necessarily have to come from Barnard or Columbia’s History departments, as long as they have the right geographical and temporal focus. The Anthropology, English, Africana Studies, and Art History departments at both schools can be great places to look for courses that satisfy this requirement.
  • One “Methods” Seminar
    • In their junior year (though some students choose to take it earlier), American Studies majors will complete a seminar that introduces them to a research method (or range of methods) commonly used in American Studies. Usually, these seminars culminate in using the research method to complete your own original research project. For example, my Methods seminar covered conducting and critiquing archival research and culminated in using a local archive to conduct our own American Studies-related research project. This is one of the stricter requirements for the major, so make sure you look out for the department’s pre-approved list of courses that satisfy this requirement.
  • Two Research Seminars
    • This is probably the most difficult requirement to navigate since it’s relatively new to the major, but in general, all American Studies students are required to take two research-oriented seminars, each concerning some topic in American Studies. What does that mean, exactly? Eventually, it will mean taking one of several 3000-level research seminars taught by core or affiliated faculty in the American Studies department, culminating in a research paper or capstone project. However, this year, majors can fulfill the requirement with two 3000- or 4000-level seminars from any department, as long as both cover topics in American Studies and culminate in a research paper or project. It’s recommended that you complete both seminars before your senior spring.
  • Five Electives
    • For this requirement, you really get free reign! Electives can come from any number of departments, as long as they engage with a topic in American Studies (which basically encompasses most humanities fields anyway). You can pull from Africana Studies, Anthropology, Art History, CSER, English, History, Political Science, Religion, Spanish, Sociology, Urban Studies, WGSS, and more!
  • Capstone Seminar 
    • Once you’ve (mostly) completed your major requirements, you’ll complete your senior thesis work in a Capstone Seminar during the spring of your senior year. This is a specially focused (read: tiny) seminar-style course taught by core or affiliated American Studies faculty, where you and a few other seniors will work on refining your research questions, gathering sources, and finally writing your 25-30 page thesis.

Overview of Classes

American Studies can be a little trickier to navigate than some other majors because the requirements are a little bit looser. However, that just means you can really tailor the program to fit exactly your niche, or use it to explore a variety of different fields! As you’ll see from our course recommendations, most students take courses from a variety of adjacent departments depending on their academic interests. 

Class Recommendations 

  • Historical Foundations: 
    • HIST-UN1512: The Battle for North America: An Indigenous History of the Seven Years War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812
    • HIST-UN2484: Revolutionary America 
    • HIST-UN2432: US Era of Civil War and Reconstruction
    • RELI-GU4998: Religion and the Indian Wars
  • Electives: 
    • AHIS-BC2698: American Monument Cultures
    • CSER-UN1040: Critical Approaches to the Study of Ethnicity & Race
    • ENGL-UN3486: Out of Her Mind: American Women Writing, 1630-1930 
      • I took this as an elective, but check with your advisor (or Professor Kassanoff if you don’t have one yet)—it will likely also count as a Historical Foundations course.
    • ENGL-GU4628: US Latino Literature (take this with Frances Negrón-Muntaner if possible!)
    • HIST-UN2533: US Lesbian and Gay History 

Last-Minute Tips 

Navigating registration in an interdisciplinary major like this one might sound daunting, but the good news is that you’re not alone. Every semester ahead of registration, the department sends out its own mini-course catalog to current majors, detailing every course in every department that fills one or more American Studies requirements.

Bold, Beautiful, Barnard Hall via Bwog Archives