Recent research has revealed that the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan was the first formal academic program in American studies, and that, from its start in 1935, it looked beyond the confines of history and literature. American Culture at the University of Michigan has since remained at the forefront of the American studies movement , leading it into the study of popular culture, ethnic studies, and digital studies today. With its current strengths in Asian/Pacific Islander American, Latina/o, Native American, and Arab American studies, the Department has established itself as one of the critical sites for the dialogue between American and ethnic studies that has characterized the national American studies movement during the last decades, and it has always sought out new methods and topics for its investigations.
Created as a formal academic program in 1935, American Culture arose from a desire among Michigan students and faculty in the Department of English Language and Literature for a broader grasp of the American experience beyond the study of a single discipline. Its center of interest was defined as the study of values in America, and, American Culture sought to build bridges between the humanities and the social sciences while linking the past with contemporary issues and questions. In the early 1970s, American Culture became interested in augmenting this original orientation by responding to a growing awareness of the diversity and complexity of cultural experience in America. Increasingly, American Culture turned to the study of the many social and cultural groups — defined by national origin, race, religion, gender, sexuality and social status, among others — existing alongside the dominant European-based culture in the United States.
In 1984, American Culture set up a new curricular program in Latino studies to help satisfy the growing national and local interest in the history and culture of Latino peoples in the United States. By the 1990s, Latino Studies was well established at Michigan, and American Culture was building strengths in Asian American Studies, and contemplating a similar program initiative in Native American Studies. American Culture truly entered a new era at the turn of the twenty-first century, with changes in program status, and a hiring initiative in the three ethnic studies fields. American Culture began holding its own tenure lines, which gradually transformed its faculty base from an organizational model dependent upon the donated labor of a pool of generous faculty associates to a more stable model with core budgeted faculty.
At the same time, American Culture was able to hire a cluster of talented faculty who anchored strong and growing programs in Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies, Native American Studies, and Latina/o Studies. In a very few years, for example, Native American Studies went from a single core faculty member to eight budgeted faculty and four faculty associates. Asian American Studies expanded to include faculty members specializing in Pacific history, literature, music, and culture. American Culture also added new faculty in 19th century literature and culture, public and community scholarship, material and visual culture, and Arab American studies.
American Culture's 37 core budgeted faculty members hold joint appointments with a range of disciplinary departments, including History, English, Romance Languages & Literatures, and Screen Arts & Cultures, as well as with interdisciplinary units such as Women's Studies and Afroamerican and African Studies.
With changes from program to department status in 2012, today, American Culture is widely considered an important leader in American studies and a range of ethnic studies fields, with faculty members holding notable positions in a variety of national organizations and graduates going on to successful careers in academia and public scholarship.