Who Would Want to Study America?

By Paulina Schlosser, student of American Studies at the Johannes Gutenberg-University of Mainz and former intern of the Atlantic Academy

Not too long ago, I was asked by an American what I was studying. When I told him that my major was in American Studies, he started laughing. “No offense,” he wheezed, “but who would wanna study America?”

This was not the first time I had received a reaction like that. I distinctly remember another situation last summer; my friends and I were hanging out at a Kerwe festival – a tradition that especially those who share the pleasure of having grown up in Rhineland-Palatinate are fond of – and I was talking to a German guy my age. Judging by his breath, he’d certainly had more than one beer when he asked me about my studies. His reaction to me majoring in American Studies was one of the ones that stuck with me most. Without getting into too much detail – Americans, in that guy’s admittedly limited understanding, were obese and not particularly smart. (I had to stop one of my friends from getting in a physical fight with him over that, but that’s a story for another day.)

Other people’s reactions to my field of study, though they often left me disappointed, never quite threw me off. I guess, first and foremost, that is because I just love what I do too much, but besides that, I also knew that these people were simply wrong.

Lady Gaga and Languages

My personal motivation for pursuing a degree in American Studies was mainly my love for English, if not to say my fascination with all languages. Though I did not grow up bilingually, I’ve always been surrounded with several languages from a very young age due to my family’s diverse cultural background and history. To me, being able to build a home inside a language that is not my own is one of the most thrilling feelings there is.

I once stumbled across a clip on the internet in which the dazzling pop-star Lady Gaga was asked about her newly acquired role in the movie “House of Gucci,” and how she felt transitioning from singing into acting. Her response was, “The only reason I got into singing was so I could act.” This really resonated with me because, in a way, it had been the same for me: The main reason I entered and engaged with the field of American Studies was so I could speak, write, and read English, and have the language be around me at all times.

So the eagerness I have when it comes to languages was what drove me forward in the first place. Of course, at the time I enrolled in university, I knew that there was more to American Studies that I was interested in than just the language. But the mere fact that I, personally, am interested in a specific thing does not justify why that thing is important for society overall. So who would want to study America? And why?

A Crisis on Infinite Earths (and Americas)

The answer I found might seem obvious and also quite on the nose to people who have worked in the field of American Studies for a long time, but from my experience, there are still too many out there – both Germans and Americans – who do not understand this aspect. In her welcoming speech at an exhibition opening, Prof. Mita Banerjee, who I now have the honor of working for as a student assistant, once said: “What I love so much about American Studies as a discipline is that it focuses on us as humans.” That, to me, is absolutely essential, not only with regard to my field of study, but for everything in life. In many ways, I have experienced American Studies as a positive force; it’s a tool that helps illuminate history from a different angle, focusing on groups of people who have not been the focus of attention for the longest time because of others who assigned a certain meaning to them beyond their mere existence as humans. American Studies works towards removing those meanings and connotations and guides us back to perceiving people as what they are: humans. That is precisely what I think it should do and stand for.

Looking at the United States of America in its current state, one is tempted to look to the future with little hope. But the very knowledge that every person carries the potential to look past status and perceive others as what they are at their core – humans – is what gives me hope. That, to me, is the answer to the question of why anyone would want to study America. In its essence – at least in what I think its essence should be – American Studies gives us tools, ways and means that we can use to work towards a better future. And yes, like so many things, that process starts in the mind, but thoughts become words and words can become actions. With regard to the state that America and even the world as a whole is in, we need this insight more than ever.

Paulina Schlosser is a student at the University of Mainz and has interned with the Atlantic Academy Rheinland-Pfalz. This blogpost shares her personal opinion.