Faculty Profile

Sharon O'Brien

Professor of English and American Studies, James Hope Caldwell Professor of American Cultures (1975), Department Chair

Contact Information

obrien@dickinson.edu

Denny Hall Room 316
717.245.1497
http://users.dickinson.edu/~obrien/

Bio

Sharon O'Brien teaches interdisciplinary courses in the American Studies and English Departments, looking at the multiplicity of American cultures through the lenses of race, class, gender, and ethnicity. The author of a biography of Willa Cather and of a family memoir, she is now teaching and writing memoir and personal essay. Teaching and research interests include the politics of memory; illness and narrative; and lifewriting.

Education

  • B.A., Radcliffe College, 1967
  • M.A., Harvard University, 1969
  • Ph.D., 1975

2014-2015 Academic Year

Fall 2014

AMST 101 The 1960s in the United States
As part of the Topics in US Diversity, this course is aimed at exploring the 1960s, a decade that is often said to have made this diversity more visible on the national stage. Following a chronological framework, we will study the various strategies used by racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities to make their voices heard in what they thought was a repressive society. Part of the class will also be devoted to the various forms of artistic and media expressions, such as rock’n’roll and New Journalism, that helped define that decade, Based on the idea that the 1960s tried to answer social questions raised in the past, we will see that the decade also opened up new questions that are still debated today. After introducing the general historical context, we will analyze various primary sources (written texts, films, songs) so as to better grasp their arguments. We will be reading works by Martin Luther King, Betty Friedan, Mario Savio, Norman Mailer, and seeing films such as Easy Rider, American Revolution 2, and Gimme Shelter.

AMST 101 The 1960s in the United States
As part of the Topics in US Diversity, this course is aimed at exploring the 1960s, a decade that is often said to have made this diversity more visible on the national stage. Following a chronological framework, we will study the various strategies used by racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities to make their voices heard in what they thought was a repressive society. Part of the class will also be devoted to the various forms of artistic and media expressions, such as rock’n’roll and New Journalism, that helped define that decade, Based on the idea that the 1960s tried to answer social questions raised in the past, we will see that the decade also opened up new questions that are still debated today. After introducing the general historical context, we will analyze various primary sources (written texts, films, songs) so as to better grasp their arguments. We will be reading works by Martin Luther King, Betty Friedan, Mario Savio, Norman Mailer, and seeing films such as Easy Rider, American Revolution 2, and Gimme Shelter.

AMST 200 American Documentary Film
Cross-listed with FLST 210-01. The purpose of this class is to critically engage students in the American documentary film and the theoretical debates its practice and viewing entail. For from being a simple objective representation of a supposedly truthful reality, the documentary is a complex film form that must be deciphered so as to become critical viewers that will not take moving images at face value. The premise of this course is that formal and aesthetic choices made by the director have immediate political consequences in the reception of images by the spectator. Being able to analyze these images becomes, in return, a political strategy in order to become better spectators who can understand their problematic relationship to an image-saturated environment. The course will follow a chronological framework in order to explore the evolution of the documentary form in the United States. We will be seeing films such as Nanook of the North, Primary, Salesman, In the Year of the Pig, and Fahrenheit 9/11.

AMST 200 Sports, Race & Amer Dream
Many have looked to the world of sports as a realization of the “American Dream” of a color-blind meritocracy in which participants succeed or fail on their own merits alone. And yet issues of racial identity have been central to the story of sports in America, echoing and informing social debates regarding equality, racial and gender stereotypes, legalized segregation, and the quest for civil rights. We will explore these issues and others by examining a wide range of subjects from the late nineteenth century through to the present, including: the life and times of Jack Johnson; Jim Thorpe and the experiences of Native American athletes; the Black Athlete Revolt of 1968; Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and corporate America’s influence on black athletes; and much more. Course materials will include historical accounts, sports journalism, theoretical analysis, documentary and feature films, and Internet message boards.

FLST 210 American Documentary Film
Cross-listed with AMST 200-02. The purpose of this class is to critically engage students in the American documentary film and the theoretical debates its practice and viewing entail. For from being a simple objective representation of a supposedly truthful reality, the documentary is a complex film form that must be deciphered so as to become critical viewers that will not take moving images at face value. The premise of this course is that formal and aesthetic choices made by the director have immediate political consequences in the reception of images by the spectator. Being able to analyze these images becomes, in return, a political strategy in order to become better spectators who can understand their problematic relationship to an image-saturated environment. The course will follow a chronological framework in order to explore the evolution of the documentary form in the United States. We will be seeing films such as Nanook of the North, Primary, Salesman, In the Year of the Pig, and Fahrenheit 9/11.

AMST 301 The Political Novel
Cross-listed with ENGL 370-01. This course will explore the politics of narrative: the ways in which stories – both those created by individual authors and cultural “scripts” – relate to structures of power. How do narratives by American writers, ranging from the late 19th century to the present day, challenge dominant social institutions, representations, and ideologies – or reinforce them? We will be particularly interested in structures of gender, race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality. We will explore the ways in which American writers give voice to silenced stories and “re-vision” the past so as to give us a more complex history. Important to our course is the issue of the personal and social impact of literature upon readers: what can stories do? At the same time, we will concern ourselves with aesthetic questions and authorial intentions, asking whether aesthetic goals can be compatible with political ones. We will be reading such texts as Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, Kate Chopin, The Awakening, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Toni Morrison, Beloved, E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime, Louise Erdrich, The Roundhouse and seeing such movies as Thelma and Louise and Twelve Years a Slave.

AMST 303 The America that Race Built
This course examines the origins and histories of the concept of “race” in the United States. Beginning with a discussion of the concept of race and proceeding through the histories of various groups, we will examine how race interacts with other categories of identity—such as ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and nationality—in the everyday life of the nation past and present. Through we will rely on histories and social-scientific work to develop an understanding of how difference and diversity have been lived in America, we will also focus on how popular culture (such as film, television, popular music, and sports) and literature have shaped and continue to shape—rightly or wrongly—the way we see one another. This course fulfills the AMST major theory requirement.

ENGL 370 The Political Novel
Cross-listed with AMST 301-01. This course will explore the politics of narrative: the ways in which stories – both those created by individual authors and cultural “scripts” – relate to structures of power. How do narratives by American writers, ranging from the late 19th century to the present day, challenge dominant social institutions, representations, and ideologies – or reinforce them? We will be particularly interested in structures of gender, race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality. We will explore the ways in which American writers give voice to silenced stories and “re-vision” the past so as to give us a more complex history. Important to our course is the issue of the personal and social impact of literature upon readers: what can stories do? At the same time, we will concern ourselves with aesthetic questions and authorial intentions, asking whether aesthetic goals can be compatible with political ones. We will be reading such texts as Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, Kate Chopin, The Awakening, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Toni Morrison, Beloved, E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime, Louise Erdrich, The Roundhouse and seeing such movies as Thelma and Louise and Twelve Years a Slave.

AMST 401 Research and Methods in Am St
An integrative seminar focusing on the theory and methods of cultural analysis and interdisciplinary study. Students examine the origins, history, and current state of American studies, discuss relevant questions, and, in research projects, apply techniques of interdisciplinary study to a subject related to thematic concentration. Prerequisite: 303, Senior American studies major, or permission of the instructor. This course fulfills the DIV II social sciences distribution requirement.