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Elective: The Hegemon of the Western Hemisphere? Imagining the United States, 1933 to the present


Admission requirements

This course is only available for students in the BA International Studies.


“Take a look at our present world. It is manifestly not Adolf Hitler’s world. His Thousand-Year Reich turned out to have a brief and bloody run of a dozen years. It is manifestly not Joseph Stalin’s world. That ghastly world self-destructed before our eyes. Nor is it Winston Churchill’s world. Empire and its glories have long since vanished into history. The world we live in today is Franklin Roosevelt’s world.” This quote, from a famous American historian (Time Magazine, 1998) voices a mainstream perception of recent American history. According to that view, through and since World War II, the quintessentially American cultural paradigm of freedom and democracy has become the global standard and aim. On the other hand, anti-Americanism is rife in today’s world, and the US’s decline as a world power is predicted and even observed by a range of actors.

This course sets out to investigate how the United States is imagined culturally and historically, as the world hegemon, both from the perspective of the US itself, and from the perspective of other nations and cultures it has influenced culturally and politically. To research this, we will close-read and contextualize cultural texts and artifacts representing and negotiating America, American history, and American culture from a range of geographical, social, and cultural locations. Texts and artefacts will mainly be brought in by the students, but may include:

  • Hollywood film, e.g. Hyde Park on Hudson or Pearl Harbor

  • Consumer products such as Mecca Cola

  • Television series, e.g. Homeland or The Americans

  • Anti-capitalist propaganda from the USSR

  • Dorothea Lange’s 1940s photo series of the internment of Japanese American citizens

  • Novels, e.g. The Plot Against America

The first 3-4 meetings we will study a set of core texts about the dynamics of representation, cultural memory, cultural diplomacy and hegemony, which we will flesh out through examples of cultural texts and artefacts. In the following meetings we will discuss, in the form of student-led mini-seminars, texts and artefacts imaging or representing the US brought in by students, from their own geographical areas of specialization. The aim will be to understand what meanings they can take on and have assumed in their cultural trajectory across times and places, in order to arrive at an overarching model of narratives through which the US has been perceived and imagined since 1933.

Course objectives

The elective courses for International Studies are designed to teach students how to deal with state-of-the-art literature and research questions. They are chosen to enhance the students’ learning experience by building on the interdisciplinary perspectives they have developed so far, and to introduce them to the art of academic research. They are characterised by an international or comparative approach.
After this course students will have a theoretical basis and practical skills in researching the needs and ideoglogies that underlie cultural memories and perceptions, and in researching the cultural trajectories of narratives and objects.
Academic skills that are trained include:

Oral presentation skills:
1. to explain clear and substantiated research results;
2. to provide an answer to questions concerning (a subject) in the field covered by the course
a. in the form of a clear and well-structured oral presentation;
b. in agreement with the appropriate disciplinary criteria;
c. using up-to-date presentation techniques;
d. aimed at a specific audience;
3. to actively participate in a discussion following the presentation.

Collaboration skills:
1. to be socio-communicative in collaborative situations;
2. to provide and receive constructive criticism, and incorporate justified criticism by revising one’s own position;
3. adhere to agreed schedules and priorities.
Basic research skills, including heuristic skills:
1. to collect and select academic literature using traditional and digital methods and techniques;
2. to analyze and assess this literature with regard to quality and reliability;
3. to formulate on this basis a sound research question;
4. to design under supervision a research plan of limited scope, and implement it using the methods and techniques that are appropriate within the discipline involved;
5. to formulate a substantiated conclusion.

Written presentation skills:
1. to explain clear and substantiated research results;
2. to provide an answer to questions concerning (a subject) in the field covered by the course
a. in the form of a clear and well-structured written presentation;
b. in agreement with the appropriate disciplinary criteria;
c. using relevant illustration or multimedia techniques;
d. aimed at a specific audience.


The timetable is available on the BA International Studies website.

Mode of instruction

Lectures, seminar-style discussions, based mostly on student research, and moderated in part by the seminar participants.

Course Load

  • Seminar attendance: 2 hours per week x 12 weeks = 24 hours

  • Reading: 40-45 pages per week (7 pages/hour) = 76 hours

  • Research for mini-seminar: 60 hours

  • Mini-seminar outline and preparation: 40 hours

  • Research and writing for final paper (4000 words): 80 hours

Total: 280 hours (10ec)

Assessment method

  • Mini-seminar outline (10%)

  • Mini-seminar presentation and discussion (25%)

  • Participation and contribution to class discussion (15%)

  • Final paper (50%)

The final mark is established by determining the weighted average. Only the mini-seminar outline and the final paper can be re-taken.


Blackboard will be used. For tutorial groups: please enroll in blackboard after your enrolment in uSis

Students are requested to register on Blackboard for this course.

Reading list

All class readings are accessible via the Leiden University Library website. Other material will be available on Blackboard.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

The student administration will register all first year students for the first semester courses in uSis, the registration system of Leiden University.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. S. A. Polak, email:


Not applicable.