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, Director of the SPIRE fellows program; Faculty Director of the Baldwin Scholars; Academic Dean, Trinity College

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.

English 190FS: The Southern Grotesque (ALP, CZ, EI, WI)

Taylor Black, Assistant Professor of English

This course will reckon with representations of the region of the United States that, as William Faulkner describes in Absalom, Absalom!, has been “dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts.” 

The historical lens of slavery produces a condition of grotesquerie that itself has blossomed into fields of insanity.  Our tour of the South will seek these out, focusing in on the unsavory, haunted and peculiar figures we meet along the way—figures, who, according to O’Connor, are “not images of the man in the street…[but] images of the man forced out to meet the extremes of his own nature…the result of what our social history has bequeathed to us, and what our literary history forces our writers to attempt.”  

So, rather than consider works that romanticize or apologize for the South’s sordid history, our syllabus will be populated by works that offer distorted visions of Southern life, history and culture. 

We will consider depictions of the South in fiction (novels, plays and short stories), music (country, blues, bluegrass, gospel), film and television.  This evolving character analysis of the region will tend toward the fantastic, terrible and estranged. With this in mind, your assignments will help you develop strategies for understanding and writing about forms of representation that are, in and of themselves, uncanny and highly stylized.

African and African American Studies 190FS: R&B: Rhythm and Biography

Mark Anthony Neal, James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African and African American Studies

R&B: Rhythm and Biography will examine the biography and memoirs of prominent artists within the genres of R&B (Rhythm & Blues), Soul Music, Jazz and Hip-Hop. Texts will be used to examine broader issues within Black life and cultures within the realms of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, social justice and entrepreneurship.

Neuroscience 191FS / Psychology 191FS (CCI, STS, CZ, NS)

Minna Ng, Assistant Professor of the Practice, Psychology & Neuroscience; Faculty Fellow, Office of University Scholars & Fellows

We will explore how the human brain and environment interconnect, and how neurophysiological mechanisms respond to a variety of experiences around us.

As a launching pad for studying the brain, we will use classic American experiences to provide context and meaning. These experiences will draw from four areas: music, sports, film, and food. For example, how does rock & roll stimulate our auditory neural pathways? How does a football player learn movement and muscle coordination? How does a superhero blockbuster activate our visual and emotional neural circuits? How does "American food" affect our brain?

We will learn about current methods used to study low-level and high-level brain processes. Students will use this knowledge base of research and neurophysiological mechanisms to form a scientific viewpoint on how the brain and mind can be studied from the perspective of sex or racial identity. Students will develop written and oral communication skills, and collaborate with fellow peers.

Faculty Director

Jenny Wood Crowley
Jenny Wood Crowley
  • Director of the SPIRE Fellow program
  • Faculty Director of the Baldwin Scholars
011 Allen Bldg
Campus Box: 
(919) 684-2130