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Rethinking American Studies: A User’s Guide (2017) for a Climate Curriculum

Philip J. Deloria

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1In American Studies: A User’s Guide (2017), Alexander Olson and I set out to describe a collection of methodological practices that we thought characterized the field of American Studies. While most teachers and readers have reported finding the book helpful, it is also the case that it generated a collection of critiques. Some don’t like its flip tone. Others think its picture of American Studies method is overly cautious, perhaps even conservative. Still others note that its “classic” American Studies examples—things like dime novels and The Last of the Mohicans—are more dated than classic.

2I’ve felt quite comfortable shrugging my shoulders at these complaints. The book’s tone moves around a fair bit, in my view. The method, as Alex and I emphasized repeatedly, is nonprescriptive, open, and descriptively pragmatic. And if you don’t like the examples, fine; go create your own. There’s nothing particularly difficult about it.

3The one critique I find quite compelling, however, is that the book has little to say about climate change and environmental issues. The validity of the criticism strikes me as doubly ironic. From the beginning of my teaching career, environmental history has been one of my bread-and-butter courses, taught in several variations: as a first-year seminar, as a large lecture course, as a graduate historiography class and, for fourteen summer sessions, as an experiential field course based at the University of Michigan’s Camp Davis, south of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. When I served as president of the American Studies Association (ASA), in 2008-2009, I introduced carbon offsets for travel, and tried to push the association to take our hotel contracting seriously, not only in terms of labor relations, but also environmental footprint. Those things seem quaint today, but I would like to think that they moved the association’s environmental conversations forward in some small ways. So it is perhaps somewhat mystifying—for myself as much as for contemporary readers of the book—to note its inattention to climate issues.

4To be fair, the book had multiple beginnings. My call to serve the ASA was effectively a request to think through the problems surrounding the meeting of American and Ethnic Studies, a mandate handed to me as the chair of Michigan’s Program in American Culture, which had been explicitly restructured to put those fields in institutional dialogue. Unsurprisingly, the book reflects that history. At the same time, and in more than one department, I found myself teaching methods courses, and I developed a number of exercises, strategies, and philosophies. The book reflects that history too.

5Over the course of twenty years, with more than a few potential collaborators, I had tried and failed to craft a cultural studies methods textbook. That changed when I supervised Alexander Olson’s comprehensive exam field in American Studies, for he dug more deeply into the historiography of the field than any student—any scholar—I had ever met. Alex made it possible to craft the User’s Guide as both a description of methodologies and a corrective to a deeply warped sense of the field’s history. These things—Ethnic Studies, methods teaching, and historiography—set up an intense focus that may well have narrowed into a bit of tunnel vision.


6The question posed to me at the “Code Red for American Studies” roundtable, then, was a natural: if you could revisit American Studies: A User’s Guide what might you do differently? What lessons might such a revision hold for thinking more broadly about the ways we practice and teach American Studies? Is it possible to imagine that rethinking the book holds hints to rethinking our curricula? My responses to these questions sort themselves into three clusters.

7First, the book is full of case studies and they must surely be considered low-hanging fruit for such a revision. An initial effort, then, would focus on replacing some significant portion of the book’s examples with cases that illustrate climate issues, both in terms of emerging cultural texts and of the challenges and failures surrounding climate communication. Such a revision would point me in two distinct directions. It might suggest, at a fine-grained level, the utility of a “permeation” strategy in which one sought to avoid finger-wagging didacticism on climate and environmental issues, but instead brought readers into the issues through a rich multiplicity of texts, interpretations, and analyses. A discussion of form, genre, and style, for instance, might be focused around the visible norms and tropes found in climate writing rather than, say, the blues. Out of such cases one might then extract and frame a second possibility, operating at a big conceptual register, an explicit recognition of the greatest cultural challenge of our moment: how to communicate time scale, futurity, and urgency to people both focused intently on present politics and in willful denial about climate disasters unfolding in real time, about the inexcusable climate politics of the present, and about the intensification of climate change in the immediate future.

8A second revision might cluster around the past of American Studies. Not many American Studies scholars seem to appreciate historiography the way that Alex and I do, but it seems to me that there are many resources for considering climate change easily found in our field’s often-admirable history. These might be considered a kind of hidden climate curriculum, or at least a few pieces of one. There is, for example, a legacy of what one might call “progressive” American Studies, which framed not the 1950s-era “History-Literature” interdisciplinarity that continues to limit our imaginations, but rather a problem-centered multidisciplinarity of the early twentieth century. The “problem” sat at the center of inquiry and those early American Studies scholars employed any and all disciplines that might help in reaching a solution. Such a methodological approach seems easily recuperated to a climate-focused way of understanding American Studies as a powerful location for interrogating climate-and-culture issues that might prove of interest to our colleagues in the natural sciences. After all, they have now been driven to recognize that the strategy of simply putting “the facts” out there has failed dismally. They recognize that culture and communications are central. Who better to think through such problems than scholars of American Studies?

9Another critical historiographical resource that comes from our past is that of regionalism, so important to the American Studies of the 1930s and 1940s, and requiring an equally broad disciplinary sweep. In Michigan, Minnesota, and elsewhere, environmental sciences proved to be a critical part of a regionalist approach to culture. Nascent American Studies programs included not only History and Literature, Anthropology and Sociology, Journalism, Music and Economics, but also Forestry, Geology, and Biology. We tend to recall this regionalist interest around folklore and local color, but in fact American Studies has a history of thinking of region as bio-region, arguably one of the more effective ways of coaxing readers to contemplate climate issues.

10A third cluster. It is worth remembering that as American Studies began its most recent engagements with the fields now encompassed under the rubric “Ethnic Studies,” it tended to be driven by institutional concerns—administrative consolidations, friendly umbrella programs, sympathetic locations for joint faculty appointments—and by theoretical issues arising out of the 1980s and 1990s. What many (not all!) of us often missed in those discussions was the possibilities for linking American Studies to environmental justice issues, a connection that is only now being developed in serious and systematic ways.

11In my own experience, students understand the criticality of that work. In my Spring 2022 “Introduction to American Studies” course, for instance, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the class expressed an interest in the intersection between climate justice, Native American and Indigenous Studies, and American Studies. Revisions to the book—and to my own curriculum—cannot but take those interests into account. They would seem to speak to the larger questions of an American Studies climate curriculum as well.


12As a way of extending some specificity into the conversation, let me elaborate on a few of the ways my students seem to want to triangulate climate education, American Studies, and decolonial work in Native American and Indigenous Studies. A central aspect is epistemological. Many of my students want to understand Indigenous epistemological positions as ways of thinking in order to gain some leverage on the Western philosophical box in which they feel trapped. It is not necessarily the case that they want to “play Indian” or appropriate Indigenous epistemologies, but that they wish to engage a distinct positionality in order to create new possibilities for critique. As teachers, we need to be critically engaged with such desires—there are pitfalls in abundance—but I am not ready to reject them out of hand.

13I say that because, at the same time, those students often want to participate in a conversation about decolonization. They do so under a familiar rubric: “Indigenizing” is work Native people take up in institutional power structures; “decolonization” is the obligation of those who have benefited from colonialism. As the Potawatomie environmental philosopher Kyle Whyte once suggested to me, when contemporary ecologists seek to engage Native people, they often want to talk to “the elders” about traditional knowledge. In fact tribes have been managing fisheries and other resources for fifty years and have a lot of experience with environmental management in ways that both decolonizes and Indigenizes. The materiality of that history and practice offers a critical way for American Studies scholars to engage our students and our curriculum.

14It is also worth remembering that Native American and Indigenous tribal governance structures are critical to any discussion of American politics, particularly when we are thinking about state, regional, and local issues related to climate change and environment. In this particular moment of uncertainty and precarity around political formations in the United States, the tribal—an often overlooked collective form of political and social pluralism—offers what we can think of as an emergent political formation critical to a consideration of climate futures. Whether it is the possibilities of land return, the realities of ongoing land loss and extractive colonialism, the tribal locations of lithium and other mineral resources, or any number of other issues, the tribal both points us to new kinds of politics and sits at the center of critical environmental issues of the future.

15All these things, it seems to me, offer possibilities for a rethinking of our curriculum and teaching in American Studies. That rethinking can be internal, within our highly interdisciplinary field. But it also has to be connective, in dialogue with others among the social sciences and the natural sciences. To make that happen, we could do worse than to bring to the table some of these specific points of articulation: problem-based research and teaching, regionalism in the American Studies tradition, environmental justice, and the specificity of communities and locations that I find with Native American and Indigenous Studies, but which is surely not limited to that. I doubt that American Studies: A User’s Guide will go to a second edition—it was meant to be an intervention as much as a textbook so there has been no expectation of a second pass—but if it does, one can see the outlines of a roadmap for revision, one better adapted to teach in and about the world of climate change.

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DELORIA, Philip J., and Alexander I. OLSON. American Studies: A User’s Guide. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017.

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Philip J. Deloria, « Rethinking American Studies: A User’s Guide (2017) for a Climate Curriculum »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 09 décembre 2022, consulté le 24 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Philip J. Deloria

Harvard University

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