In 1933 Norman Foerster, director of the School of Letters, proposed a broad plan for graduate study in American civilization, with cooperation from the fine arts, history, the social sciences, philosophy, religion, and education. Winfred Root, chairman of the Department of History, presented Foerster’s plan to the department on April 27, 1933, and a revised plan was adopted on February 6, 1934. As was the national pattern, American studies developed first at Iowa in the areas of literature and history. (In later correspondence, Foerster noted that the development of American civilization as a distinct area of study at Iowa predates similar claims by Yale, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania, among others.)

What emerged in 1934, and was first printed in the University Catalog of 1934—36, was a seminar in American civilization, History 211-212, taught by Harrison John Thornton. In addition to general work, each student selected a research topic, which could lead to a thesis in the student’s own department. While this seminar could be cross-listed by other departments, only English chose to do so. Actually, the three dissertations of this period were all written by students from the Department of English: Carlton Culmsee, Leola Nelson Bergmann, and Richard Lillard. Culmsee’s 1940 thesis, “The Rise of the Concept of Hostile Nature in Novelists of the American Frontier,” carried on its title page “The Department of American Civilization.”

1947: Official Program Status

In 1947 under the chairmanship of Alexander Kern of the Department of English, the program became more formalized, with specific requirements for the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees. At that time it became possible to gain the degree either in “English (American civilization)” or in “History (American civilization).” Philip Young (1948), David Owen (1950), and Mary E. Smith (1951) in English, and Seymour Lutzky (1951) in history were the first Ph.D.’s under this expanded system. Only Smith’s dissertation, however, carried “Department of American Civilization” on its title page. In this period an interdepartmental committee administered the program.


During the 1960’s, Robert Corrigan, executive secretary and acting director of American Civilization, instituted the Afro-American Studies Program (renamed the African-American World Studies Program in the 1980s) under the aegis of the American Civilization Program, with the aim of attaining high academic standards in this important new area of culture studies at Iowa. Charles T. Davis served as the first director of Afro-American Studies from 1970-72. A program in women’s studies also began in association with the American Civilization Program with Margaret McDowell as first coordinator from 1974 to 1977.

In fall 2010, the undergraduate and graduate faculty and programs in sport studies became a part of the department, with a BA in Sports Studies and a PhD track in Sport Studies added.

History of Department Chairs

Upon Alexander Kern’s retirement in 1975, Chadwick Hansen became chairman of the American Civilization Program. During 1976-77, following Professor Hansen’s resignation, John Raeburn was appointed acting chair. During Professor Raeburn’s tenure, the size of the faculty of the program greatly increased and the name was changed to the American Studies Program. Albert Stone served as chair from 1977 until 1983, when John Raeburn returned to that position. Upon Raeburn’s appointment as chair of the Department of English in 1985, Stone resumed the chair duties. From 1986 to 1990 the program was chaired by Richard Horwitz. Wayne Franklin was chair from 1990 until 1994. John Raeburn resumed the chair duties yet again in 1994 and was chair until 2000.

In 2000, American Studies officially became a department at the University of Iowa. The first department chair and the first woman chair was Lauren Rabinovitz, who became chair in August, 2000. Kim Marra succeeded her from 2008-2011; Susan Birrell served as chair in Fall 2011 and again in Fall 2014. Horace Porter is the current department chair.

— Written in 1993 by Alexander C. Kern, Professor Emeritus, deceased 1997