Jeffrey Hyson, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor and Director of American Studies Program
Areas Taught: American Studies, History
Expertise: American Zoos, American Pop Culture, Environmental History, Animal Studies
Studying History Through the Prism of Pop Culture
One of the country's leading experts on American zoos, historian Jeffrey Hyson, Ph.D., became interested in the topic during a trip to California as a graduate student. "When I visited the San Diego Zoo, I was struck by how different it was from the Philadelphia Zoo, which I had frequently visited growing up," he says. "I realized how much zoos had changed over time — as institutions, as landscapes, as symbols — and I wanted to learn more."
Dr. Hyson's interest in zoo studies has led to name recognition in media outlets across the country. He has offered his expertise to USA Today, the Washington Post, Newsday, National Public Radio, and the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, among others. He recently spoke on the numerous scandals at zoos involving suspicious animal deaths. "We should look at what our reactions to these deaths say about our visions of zoos," Dr. Hyson says. "Do we see zoos as 'defenders of wildlife' or do we see the animals as pets or personalities? And might that latter vision undermine a zoo's conservation mission?"
In addition to zoos, Dr. Hyson's areas of expertise include trends in American popular culture, environmental history, public history, and popular memory. "Popular culture is a great way for students to make complicated arguments with familiar and enjoyable subject matter," he explains. "Any popular culture of a society is a window into the beliefs and conflicts of that society." Recently, Dr. Hyson and his class discussed the emergence of jazz in the 1920s and '30s and how its path to acceptance was conditioned by issues of race.
"More mainstream white artists picked up jazz and softened and sweetened it for mass consumption — a pattern that happens over and over in history, from rock 'n' roll to hip-hop," he says. "Contemporary trends in popular culture are often simply variations of trends that happened before."