In Memoriam: American Studies co-founder Paul Groth

It is with great sadness that we bring you news of the passing of Paul Groth, Professor and former Director of American Studies at Berkeley, on January 17. Indeed Groth was one of the three founders of the Program—together with Dell Upton (Architecture) and Margaretta Lovell (Art History), with adroit assistance by then-Dean Don McQuade, in 1990. This core group was quickly joined by Larry Levine (History), Richard Hutson (English), and Kathleen Moran (Political Science). Far more interdisciplinary than American Studies programs established elsewhere, Berkeley’s program was designed around Space and Time rather than Texts and Contexts; it was a truly-interdisciplinary and revolutionary pedagogy from the outset. Paul Groth’s two-semester cross-listed lecture course “American Cultural Landscapes” anchored the program and provided an eye-opening, often life-changing, experience for thousands of Berkeley undergraduates in a broad array of disciplines.

Groth’s gift, as a lecturer and writer, was the ability to make complicated unfamiliar concepts clear and accessible. At the same time he demonstrated that the seemingly-familiar everyday built environment is redolent with history, revealing past economic, social, and aesthetic decisions about land use, a palimpsest decodable by those he trained to really see the world around them. Curious undergraduates emerged from the darkened lecture room with its slides and analysis of maps, diagrams, and photos of homes, factories, farms, highways, city districts, their lives enriched by a new capacity to read inhabited space.  All of his graduate students served as GSIs in those courses and have exported his questions, methods, and extraordinary collegiality to institutions across the country and abroad. We miss his teaching and mourn our loss of his brilliant ideas, his unparalleled field trips, and his unfailing good humor.

An online festschrift has recently been published on Platform:

—Margaretta Lovell