African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) postgraduate program curriculum development at the University of the Witwatersrand

Extensive work has been done since the formation of ACSUS in establishing the viability of an American Studies program at the University of the Witwatersrand, and now, the ongoing development of the program, the first of its kind on the African continent. United States-based, as well as international American Studies programs have been surveyed to consider models and practices that have proven successful for implementing such a program. A few general observations are apparent. Firstly, the majority of American Studies programs are developed through cross and interdisciplinary exchanges and contributions from various departments, normally in the Faculty of Humanities. It is unusual to encounter a stand-alone American Studies department, though some do exist. Secondly, a large portion of the programs surveyed teach and supervise at the postgraduate level only. In the South African context this would be Honours, Masters and PhD degrees. This postgraduate degree arrangement does not align exactly with the United States, for example, where graduate programs are structured somewhat differently, but there is equivalence.
Essentially the viability and development of an American Studies program at Wits, at the curriculum level, required making two intertwined determinations. Firstly, a comprehensive survey of what courses, listed in the Humanities Faculty Handbook, could contribute to the development of such a program, and conversely the question of potentially developing new courses for the program. Secondly, academic staff were approached across the faculty, to determine their teaching and supervision expertise that would lend themselves to American Studies. Establishing this would also, in turn, raise questions about the future appointment of new academic staff with expertise that could contribute to, and further strengthen and develop the program.
Part of the initial curriculum survey work involved understanding the construction of a Humanities degree program at Wits, from the undergraduate degree to the PhD. This involved considering credits, courses taken and course requirements that would grant the respective degree. While an undergraduate program was considered, both in terms of a major in American Studies as part of a Bachelors of Arts degree, and even the possibility of a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies itself, the decision was made to firmly locate American Studies at the Masters and PhD level at Wits. This would entail, effectively, three possible degree programs; a Masters by dissertation in American Studies, a coursework Masters in American Studies and a PhD thesis in American Studies. While a Masters by dissertation and PhD thesis degree are administratively relatively straightforward, a coursework Masters is more complex, particularly given the interdisciplinary nature of American Studies. In all cases though, the formal creation and implementation of new degree programs at the University of the Witwatersrand requires what is referred to as ‘Major academic development’ (MADS). This is a lengthy process involving the proposal, description, development and ratification of new courses and degrees programs which will eventually be allocated codes and credits and appear in the Humanities Faculty Handbook. While this process is currently ongoing with ACSUS we have already begun to identify and approach Faculty working within areas that would fall within American Studies at Wits, and also begun the process of more deliberately focussing certain aspects of current teaching within the realm of American Studies, for example, in some current postgraduate Media and Journalism courses. Our intention is to already begin now, in 2021, with a ‘progressive launch’, and over the course of the next two years begin to formalise the program. Two years is the time frame for the establishment of new formal academic developments and offerings at Wits.
Based on the detailed survey work that has already been done, what will follow is a brief summation of the some of the pertinent aspects of the program, particularly with regards to the coursework Masters degree in American Studies. A coursework Masters at Wits typically consist of three taught courses, each worth 30 credits and a research report, worth 90 credits. This adds up to the required 180 credits to attain a Masters. In some cases, certain coursework Masters degrees specify one or two compulsory courses, and a selection of options; others do not have compulsory core courses, but offer a selection of possible courses, of which three must be taken. All Masters coursework programs require the research report component, which is compulsory. Students pursuing this option are expected to develop a research proposal and finally generate a research report between 20,000-25,000 words. ACSUS are formally developing a Masters of Arts in the field of American Studies. However, aspects of its formalisation will require major academic development and decisions will be made, based on available course offerings, how this degree will be structured.
Aside from the potential need to develop new course there are numerous courses available already at the Honours and Masters level which could combine to develop an American Studies specialisation at the Masters degree level. The conversion of an Honours course in order for it to be offered at the Masters level is a straightforward minor academic development, requiring the generation of a new Masters specific course code and some content and assessment adjustment. This means that a survey of the courses already on offer in various program at the Honours and Masters level could potentially all form part of course selection options for a coursework Masters in American Studies. Courses available at the Masters level include the following: HIST7026A: Themes in African-American History in the United States; SOCL7048A: Labour in the Global Economy; INTR7070A Empire and the Crisis of Civilization; SOCL7012A Global Institutions and Economic Restructuring; SOCL7010 Economic Sociology: Institutions, Capitalism and Markets. Courses available at the Honours level which could be incorporated into a Masters program include: WSOA4013A: Film Studies IVA: Youth and Hollywood Cinema; SLLS4042A Selected Topic: Journalism and Media Studies.
In terms of Masters coursework research reports, Masters dissertation and PhD thesis supervision expertise in American Studies there are numerous colleagues in departments such as English, Media Studies and Journalism. International Relations, Politics, Sociology, History, and Film Studies who have a wide range of academic expertise in fields that can contribute to this. Part of the current work of ACSUS is determining the available expertise across, and even beyond, the Faculty of Humanities and collating this information.