The American Experience

  • Students at Dinner Seminar
    Students at Dinner Seminar
  • Student at Stagville Plantation
    Student at Stagville Plantation
  • Prof. Nora Hanagan and Students
    Prof. Nora Hanagan and Students
  • Students at Raleigh Convention Center
    Students at Raleigh Convention Center
  • 2 students at World Fair
    2 students at World Fair


In this FOCUS cluster, we examine the making and remaking of the United States from a variety of perspectives--historical, political, philosophical, religious, legal and literary. What does America profess to value in its institutions, and what realities does it, in fact, institute? How are we to know the differences? Can they be addressed? In each seminar, we examine the interplay between consecrated ideas of what America is—a land of opportunity, a city on a hill, a nation of laws, a society dedicated to the principle that “all men are created equal,” and the lived experience of Americans, including those who have been dispossessed by slavery, nativism, racism and other forms of prejudice and injustice. We continue these reflections at our weekly dinners, where we pay particular attention to the aspirations and historical realities that have shaped Duke and Durham.


History 190FS — Religious Freedom in America: A Legal History (CZ, CCI, EI, W)

Jenette Wood Crowley, Academic Dean, Trinity College; Director of the SPIRE fellows program; Co-coordinator, the Pipeline Initiative

This course explores major themes and moments in American religious history that have shaped the development of the nation. The approach will be chronological, but also topical: we will begin with the continent’s original pluralism in its hundreds of Native American religious traditions, then move to powerful varieties of Protestant Christianity as they interacted with smaller groups, including colonial era Jews, upstart Mormons, African American Christians, newly immigrated Catholics, and more recently arrived immigrants who practice Hinduism and Islam. We will talk about Ghost Dances, spirit rapping, polygamy, holy wars, self-help groups, faith healing and psychedelic religion, as well as more mainstream developments such as Vatican II, conscientious objection, televangelism, the ordination of women, and same sex marriage.

Rather than debating religious truth, the course explores and analyzes the many religious perspectives that have shaped American history. This exploration includes looking at things that many students would not consider “religious” at first glance, and thus thinking deeply about how we define religion with a goal toward understanding and appreciating the richness, complexity, and influence of this country’s contemporary religious landscape.

Political Science 188FS/ Ethics 188FS — American Perspectives on Citizenship  (SS, EI)

Nora Hanagan, Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science

What, if any, responsibilities accompany citizenship in a democratic society? Voting? Active participation in political meetings? Obeying laws? Volunteering in one’s community? This course offers an overview of the different ways in which Americans have answered these questions. We begin by examining the Puritan vision of political society as a community united by Christian fellowship, and conclude by discussing whether citizens in an increasingly global society must accept some responsibility for the wellbeing of people who live in other countries.

By the end of the semester, you will have a better sense of how American conceptions of citizenship and civic duty have evolved over time. You will also be familiar with several controversies about the meaning and purpose of American citizenship, including ongoing debates about whether citizens should be actively involved in making and implementing public policy, whether American society promotes individualism at the expense of civic duty, whether there are certain experiences and values that all citizens should share, and whether contemporary challenges—such as globalization and climate change—require changes in how Americans understand citizenship. Finally, you should have a sense of where you stand on these questions. 

Political Science 172FS: Racial Attitudes and Racial Politics in the United States (CCI, EI, SS)

Kerry Haynie, Associate Professor of Political Science

Course considers the different conceptions and definitions of racial attitudes and racial prejudice in the United States. Compares across the disciplines of social psychology, sociology, and political science, acknowledging debates about both the sources and consequences of these attitudes. Focuses on how in the present day, different theories lead to different understanding of racial conflict and its political consequences. Discusses how racial attitudes, prejudice, and conflict may be mitigated in political world. Open only to students in the Focus Program. 

Faculty Director

Nora Hanagan
Nora Hanagan
  • Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Scince
  • Managing Director of the Duke Program in American Values and Institutions
294B Gross Hall
Campus Box: 
(919) 660-4338