Our History

The strands that intertwine in the Effron Center for the Study of America thread through University history, connecting generations of Princetonians’ commitment and varied projects to study America in the world and how the world lives in America. The evolving understandings of what might comprise such study parallel the changes in its ever-evolving object, and reflect and inform conversations on campus and around the world.

Early Years: Inspiration for Discussion

In 1942, the Program in American Studies, the University’s first interdepartmental plan of study, began as the Program in American Civilization, partly in response to a perception among faculty and students that “many educated Americans have in their education been cut off from a clear understanding of the traditions of their country.” A year-long conference — a scholarly collaboration among faculty and students — considered “The Impact of Racial and National Groups on American Civilization from 1800 to the Present.”

From its inception, the program inspired new courses, art exhibits and public discussion responsive to urgent topics of the day. The first symposium, in 1954, examined “The Image of America Abroad.” The first core course, “Individualism in American Life,” was offered in 1956. Early visitors included cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, historian Richard Hofstadter, political theorist Hannah Arendt, and U.S. Representative Eugene McCarthy. In 1959, Cuba’s new leader, Fidel Castro, was a guest speaker in a course on “The United States and Revolutionary Spirit.”

New Research Objects, New Methodologies

In the latter decades of the 20th century, American studies — as an academic field — outgrew the Cold War political imperatives and debates over what became known as American exceptionalism that had shaped it early on. New generations of critical scholars challenged homogenizing impulses, and brought a wider range of research objects, questions and approaches.

At many universities, American studies became the home for ethnic and race studies. Throughout its history, American studies has embodied both unifying and fracturing impulses. It has incorporated celebrations of the local and the particular, at the same time that it has been defined by works of scholarship and pedagogical projects seeking constant themes and commonalities across centuries and cultures and identities.

A Holistic Approach

Princeton’s program reflected ongoing creative ferment in the study of American life and culture, endeavoring to integrate the historical and literary studies traditionally identified as American studies with newer methodologies and approaches, sponsoring public conferences on topics including regionalism, the politics of the 1960s, and the future of food studies.

The program continued to draw visitors prominent in diverse aspects of public life, including poet Allen Ginsberg in 1996; President Bill Clinton in 2000; writer, activist and food innovator Frances Moore Lappé in 2019; and — through the Anschutz Distinguished Fellowship — Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Sheila Curran Bernard in 2005; Academy Award-winning producer Geraldine Wurzburg and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tim Weiner in 2015; and scholar of gender and Africana studies Brittney Cooper in 2019.

The course of study has grown to include, among many others, courses on Native American literature; the politics of food; technology and music; the cultural force of the Walt Disney Company; examining America through the work of Broadway composers; American agrarianism; ethnicity and identity in fiction; and environmental narrative and art.

New Programs

Faculty associated with our programs have been instrumental in bringing a comparative and fuller range of race and ethnicity studies to Princeton, working in parallel and often in dialogue with student and alumni advocates.

The Program in Latino Studies launched in the fall 2009 semester. Responding to the growth of diverse communities often described in terms that suggest a single ethnicity, the program is designed to provide students with a broad understanding of the emergence, transformation and consolidation of Latino/a/x as a pan-ethnic group central to the development of the United States as a nation.

The course of study, in highlighting the transnational connections and contexts of Latino/a/x peoples across the Americas, encompasses dynamics of globalization, migration, colonialism, imperialism, citizenship, and diaspora. Interdisciplinary and comparative work exploring these dynamics bring into conversation the study of art, theater, literature, anthropology, history, sociology, and politics and public policy.

Recent speakers presented or cosponsored by the program include Richard Blanco, inaugural poet for President Barack Obama, and scholars Lorgia García Peña and Yarimar Bonilla. Books by and edited by affiliated faculty have explored Latinx experience and influence in the performing arts, law and religious practice, and the centrality of the Spanish language to the history of the United States.

An undergraduate certificate program in Asian American studies was approved by the University in April 2018, creating an institutional home for developing an interdisciplinary course of study on the diversity of Asian American and Pacific Islander histories, cultures, and contemporary experiences, highlighting transnational connections and contexts, including the dynamics of globalization, migration, imperialism, and post-coloniality.

The program has brought to campus defining figures in Asian American arts, activism, politics and scholarship, including novelist Karen Tei Yamashita, scholars Kandice Chuh, David Eng and Janelle Wong, and writer and activist Helen Zia ’73. In 2018 and 2021 the program hosted public programming celebrating Filipino American History month, bringing to campus contemporary creative voices and highlighting an often-overlooked community.

We have provided support instrumental in building Native American and Indigenous studies at Princeton. We have supported the graduate student Princeton American Indian and Indigenous Studies Working Group since its inception in 2011. In 2020, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Princeton coalesced around the launch of the first virtual hub for Indigenous studies at the University, a project initiated by American studies faculty and developed by Indigenous students and American studies staff. Today, American studies and Latino courses include focuses on the art and literature of diverse Indigenous peoples, and engage with local Indigenous communities, seeking to build meaningful relationships.

An Intersectional Future

We imagine the future study of (the) America(s) at Princeton to be intersectional, internationalized, and collaborative, partnering scholars across disciplines to intertwine with the many strands of intellectual and civic life across campus.

We affirm the commitment to dynamic inquiry, intellectual curiosity and creativity that has changed interdisciplinary study even as interdisciplinary study has catalyzed change on our campus and around the world.