by Bruce Burgett

About Bruce Burgett

Bruce Burgett is Dean and Professor emeritus in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at University of Washington Bothell. He is author of Sentimental Bodies: Sex, Gender, and Citizenship in the Early Republic, and a co-editor of Keywords for American Cultural Studies.


In common usage, the keyword “sex” names either an identity or a practice, something an individual is or does. It refers to both the material foundation (male or female) of binary gender difference (masculine or feminine) and the real and imagined acts that ground various sexual identities (homosexual, heterosexual, fetishist, sadomasochist, and so on). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the first sense of “sex” as male or female from the fourteenth century, though it also notes a more pluralized (and again relevant today) usage from the sixteenth century (“so are all sexes and sorts of people called upon”), a singular usage from the same period (“I am called The Squire of Dames, or the Servant of the Sex”), and a further revision in the early nineteenth century (“the third sex”). In contrast, the OED dates the second sense of the term from the mid- to late nineteenth century, when “sexual” (“Berlin is outbidding Paris in its sexual immorality”) and “sexuality” (“Precocious sexuality… interferes with normal mental growth”) began to reference a discrete domain of physical and mental acts isolated from other corporeal appetites, imaginative practices, and forms of social relation. Coincident with these developments was the emergence of terms such as “heterosexual” and “homosexual” that name and police specifically “sexual” orientations and preferences as well as the largely medical or scientific usage of the verb “to sex,” meaning to identify a plant or animal as male or female (“The… barbarous phrase ‘collecting a specimen’ and then of ‘sexing’ it”).

Syllabi and Assignments

Since the publication of the first edition in 2007, thousands of students have read Keywords for American Cultural Studies in courses across a wide range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields, and at every level from first-year writing courses to advanced graduate seminars.

Note on Classroom Use

Please be aware that some of the essays that are part of Keywords for American Cultural Studies are available in the print volume and e-book, while others are on the web at If you are reading this note on the web site, please look at the sixty-plus essays in print. If you are reading this in either the paper or electronic version of the book, please know that there are as many provocative and useful keyword essays available on the web site as there are where you are reading now. There are many brand-new essays, and many of the essays in print and in pixels have been newly revised for this 2020 edition. In constructing a syllabus or assignment, a list of recommended readings for your students, a qualifying exam list, or using keyword essays in any other way, please do take into consideration all 120-plus essays that make up Keywords for American Cultural Studies.


A project that spans fourteen years accrues a lot of debts. As we did in previous editions, we want to start out by thanking all of our contributors. We rushed them, then we delayed, then we rushed again, and brought new contributors on board with very little lead time. The intellectual and pedagogical work this volume does is due to their brilliance, but also to their patience with us as we requested revision after revision. Whether you joined the volume in the month before it was completed or have been in it since the 2007 first edition, we thank you.

Introduction to Keywords Now: Critical Race Theory

In the latest skirmish in a decades-long culture war, the right-wing indignation industry in the United States has identified something it calls “Critical Race Theory” as an existential threat to the nation and its youth. Often abbreviating it as “CRT,” legislatures have passed ordinances against teaching various forms of critical race pedagogy, and teachers in universities, colleges, high schools, and even elementary schools have been pressured to commit to banning them from their classrooms. The impact has been, at best, a heightened nervousness among educators about teaching critical theories and histories of race and racism or, at worst, a turning away from critical pedagogy altogether.