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Major Issues in American History and Culture


Admission requirements

Bachelor’s degree.

This course is part of the MA North American Studies, but students from other MA programs are welcome too if there are places available.


This interdisciplinary course, which is a required course for all students in MA North American Studies, offers an introduction to major issues in, and influential scholarly debates about, American history, culture, and society. Students will discuss a number of topics that are crucial to understanding the contemporary United States such as freedom, empire, equality, (neo)liberalism, security, human rights, environmentalism, visual and digital cultures, and youth politics. Taken together, these varied themes will provide students with a multifaceted perspective into the historical rise, consolidation, and crisis of American exceptionalism. At the same time, the course will expose students to the most important methodological, theoretical, and ideological approaches that have enriched the American Studies field in the last decades, including the cultural, transnational, and intersectional turns as well as the ongoing interdisciplinary cross-fertilization with digital and environmental humanities. The course, which will also make extensive use of the Leiden University MOOC “The Rooseveltian Century,” will introduce and contextualize a number of subjects that will be discussed in more detail and depth in the elective courses of the MA program.

Course objectives

This course aims to:

  • Make students familiar with a number of major issues and key concepts in American history and culture, for example, freedom, security, empire, U.S. exceptionalism, migration, race, and gender, and the scholarly debates about these issues;

  • Stimulate students to think critically about major historical issues and link them to contemporary developments in American society, culture, and politics;

  • Teach students to recognize different theoretical, methodological, and ideological approaches to the study of American history as well as North American Studies as an interdisciplinary field;

  • Develop students’ skills to conduct independent research and to formulate clear research questions and a viable thesis statement, and situate their own research in an academic debate;

  • Develop students’ oral communication skills through in-class discussions and group presentations;

  • Develop students’ ability to cooperate with other students in preparing in-class group presentations;

  • Develop students analytical, critical, and writing skills by writing critical reviews, and a historiographical essay;

  • Develop students’ ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of other students and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Assessment method


Oral presentation (15%)
Participation in class discussions (15%)
Book reviews (20%)
Historiographical essay (50%)


See assessment.


If the essay receives an insufficient grade, it may be rewritten.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

For each seminar, students will be aske to read and review one book per topic
On Freedom:
Greg Grandin, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (New York: Picador, 2014)
Jeffrey A. Engel (ed.), The Four Freedoms: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Evolution of an American Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016)

On Empire:
Daniel Immerwhar, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019)
Stephen Wertheim, Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020)

On Equality:
Charles Postel, Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019)
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012)

On (Neo)Liberalism:
Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018)
Michael Brenes, For Might and Right: Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2020)

On Security:
Robert Vitalis, Oilcraft: The Myths of Scarcity and Security That Haunt U.S. Energy Policy (Stanford: Stanford University Press 2020)
Elaine Tyler May, Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy (New York: Basic Books, 2017)

On Human Rights:
Samuel Moyn, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019)
Margo Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009)

On Environmentalism:
Dorceta Taylor, Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (New York: New York University Press, 2014)
Jacob Darwin Hamblin, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)

On Visual/Digital Cultures:
Charles R. Acland, American Blockbuster: Movies, Technology, and Wonder (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020)
Giles Slade, Big Disconnect: The Story of Technology and Loneliness (New York: Prometheus, 2012)

On Youth Politics:
Susan Eckelmann Berghel, Sara Fieldston, Paul M. Renfro (eds.), Growing Up America: Youth and Politics since 1945 (Athens, University of Georgia Press, 2019)
Jo Napolitano, The School I Deserve: Six Young Refugees and Their Fight for Equality in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2021)

Further readings will be provided via Brightspace.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available on the website.

Registration Studeren à la carte en Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Arsenaal


All other information.