MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Thursday, November 27, 2014

November 27, 2014: 21st Century Thanks: FaceTime

[For my annual Thanksgiving series, I thought I’d express my gratitude for some of the best of our 21st century digital age and what it has contributed to my work and life. I’d love to hear your thanks, for anything and everything, as well!]
I’m gonna keep this one short and sweet (something else for you to be thankful for!):
On this Thanksgiving, as on each of the last two, I’m away from my boys; they’re with their Mom and her extended family. I’m happy to think about them spending the holiday with family, fun, and lots of good food, but I also miss them even more than I always do during the times when they’re not with me. And on such occasions, I’m infinitely thankful for a recent part of my 21st century life: FaceTime. (We tried Skype for a while, but it was just a lot less consistently effective.) The ability to see the boys when I’m in Massachusetts and they’re in Connecticut, to have them see me, to share that connection while having our nightly phone conversation? There’s nothing in my current life I’m more thankful for on a day like today.
Last thanks tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other AmericanThanks you’d share?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

November 26, 2014: 21st Century Thanks: Email

[For my annual Thanksgiving series, I thought I’d express my gratitude for some of the best of our 21st century digital age and what it has contributed to my work and life. I’d love to hear your thanks, for anything and everything, as well!]
On what’s not new about 21st century communication, and what is.
First, a confession: I’m an email addict. I think the addiction has served me well in my teaching—a number of students have remarked, in evals and elsewhere, on the speed with which I respond to their email questions and submissions; while I’m well aware of and sympathetic to the concerns about such email conversations, I also believe they’re an inescapable and integral part of 21st century teaching, and represent one of my strengths as an educator. But in my life more generally, I’ve had to find ways to take breaks from email accessibility, to put the iPhone away while spending time and playing with my boys, and so on. In this age of cell phones and smartphones, texts and voicemails, our constant appearance of availability can be a genuine problem, and thus learning to turn off that accessibility is a vital 21st century skill to be sure.
On the other hand, I think the differences between email and prior forms of communication can be and often are overstated. There’s a stereotypical image of hand-written letters, for example, that portrays them as meaningful and personal in a way that emails are not and could never be. While I understand that image as a contemporary contrast to emails, I would argue that anyone who reads letters written by historical and cultural figures will be struck instead by how much the majority of them tend to read like emails: intimate and immediate expressions of perspective and conversation, written not in formal prose but in personal voices, not for posterity (although some letters certainly were) but for their occasion and audience. As always, overly simplistic historical contrasts and comparisons need to be complicated and tempered, and I’d certainly make that case for critiques of emails in comparison to other forms of communication.
There are definite differences that email brings with it, however, and I would highlight one that has been very beneficial for my career: the ability to send messages to large groups of recipients at once. Having planned New England ASA colloquia and conferences, participated in the activites of the Northeast MLA Exec utive Board and the Encyclopedia of American Studies Editorial Board, and taken part in any number of group email conversations—as well as having used email lists to stay in touch with all of my classes at FSU—I can’t emphasize enough the benefits such communal conversations offer for every aspect of this profession. We—I—might have to learn to balance our emailing as part of our 21st century identities, but I’m deeply thankful for what the medium adds to my work and life.
Next thanks tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other AmericanThanks you’d share?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

November 25, 2014: 21st Century Thanks: Facebook

[For my annual Thanksgiving series, I thought I’d express my gratitude for some of the best of our 21st century digital age and what it has contributed to my work and life. I’d love to hear your thanks, for anything and everything, as well!]
On two reasons I’m thankful for a 21st century whipping boy.
It’s easy to hate on the Beast that Zuckerberg Hath Wrought, and I understand many of the critiques: the time-wasting and clickbait, the superficial interactions and clichéd posts, and, most seriously, the potential privacy invasions and life repercussions. All of those are genuine concerns (for all social media and, probably, all the internet, for that matter), but I would say about all of them some of the same things that my colleague Kisha Tracy did in this Guest Post: that the worst and best of Facebook depend in no small measure on what we do with it and how we use it, on the choices we make and don’t make (on the site, online, and in our lives). And in any case, the worst sides of the social media giant are balanced, for me, by a couple very positive effects.
Facebook’s ability to put and keep us in touch with those with whom we might otherwise lose connection is another of the site’s clichés, but I have found it to be remarkably accurate. My high school graduating class is full of truly remarkable folks, including a large number of successful professional musicians, a very talented YA fiction writer, an up-and-coming Portland cider-maker, and, y’know, Taylor Swift’s bass player, among others. I don’t know that I’d know about any of those efforts, and I certainly wouldn’t feel nearly as connected to them, without Facebook. But it’s not just about professional successes and stories, of course—many of my childhood and high school friends have likewise begun families, and being able to connect to and share that side of their lives, and share some of mine with them as well, has amplified my sense of parenting and family quite powerfully.
And then there are the conversations. It’s certainly true that trying to have political or social debates on Facebook can be a fool’s errand, and I’ve gradually learned to post only a tiny percentage of the times when I could do so. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to have meaningful conversations on Facebook, and this blog is living proof: a large number of the voices and ideas that I’ve been able to include in my Crowd-Sourced Posts here have come directly from responses and discussions on Facebook threads featuring my blog. And I have likewise participated in interesting and productive Facebook conversations about any number of topics, from academia and art to parenting and cooking, and, yes, even hot-button political and social issues. If the latter require all participants (including this AmericanStudier) to find ways to express themselves more respectfully and conversationally—well, that’d be just one more Facebook effect to be thankful for.
Next thanks tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other AmericanThanks you’d share? 

Monday, November 24, 2014

November 24, 2014: 21st Century Thanks: Twitter

[For my annual Thanksgiving series, I thought I’d express my gratitude for some of the best of our 21st century digital age and what it has contributed to my work and life. I’d love to hear your thanks, for anything and everything, as well!]
On three things that the popular social media site does exceptionally well.
I’ve already written a post about one thing I think Twitter does very well: inform. I know all the complaints about navel-gazing and posts on people’s breakfasts and so on, and I’m sure it depends in large part on whom you follow; but in my case, I’m fortunate to follow an exceptional community of scholars, writers, artists, and activists, and I learn something interesting and meaningful (about the past, about the present, about works and artists I don’t yet know, and more) every time I’m there. It’s very much a chaotic but multi-vocal, haphazard but highly democratic classroom—I think Paulo Freire would approve.
I also mentioned community and connection in that prior post, but wanted to say a bit more about that side to Twitter. I have wonderful students and colleagues at Fitchburg State, and they represent one of many communities to which I’m very happy to belong. But the truth is that much of academic and scholarly work is solitary and isolating, entails an individual sitting with his or her writing and texts, thoughts and questions. Nothing is going to change those elements to the work, but I have found that Twitter’s virtual but very definite community can complement them—allowing me to share works and works in progress, to hear and read about those of colleagues, to connect with peers who are themselves writing and working, and just in every sense to be feel that I am not alone in what I’m doing and struggling with and hoping for.
Our 21st century struggles go well beyond scholarly endeavors, of course, and Twitter has also proven pretty impressive at responding to them. Perhaps the most famous cases, ones to which my cousin John Scott-Railton has contributed impressively, are various events related to the Arab Spring: the riots in Egypt, elections in Iran, and so on. But here in America, I found Twitter immeasurably helpful and meaningful in response to the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson—in covering the protests and police responses in the immediate aftermath, in sharing the stories and voices of a thread like #BlackLivesMatter, and just in bringing multiple communities (on the ground and elsewhere, activist and political, African American and other allies, and so on) together. In that case, as in every one, Twitter and the digital cannot take the place of other realities and stories—but they can and do contribute to those realities and stories, significantly and potently. One more reason to be thankful for their 21st century existence!
Next thanks tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other AmericanThanks you’d share? 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

November 22-23, 2014: AmericanDrama: Five More

[In this week’s series I AmericanStudied some important and impressive moments and works in the history of American drama. As always, I left out more than I was able to include, so in this weekend post I wanted to highlight five other works/authors that certainly deserve their own posts as well (and hopefully will get them sometime). I’d still love to hear your thoughts and dramatic highlights too!]
1)      Langston Hughes’s Mulatto (1935)
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other works, authors, or moments you’d highlight?

Friday, November 21, 2014

November 21, 2014: AmericanDrama: Depression Drama and Odets

[A series AmericanStudying some important and impressive moments and works in the history of American drama. I’d love to hear your responses to these posts and/or other dramatic works, authors, and trends you’d highlight!]
On activist drama, in- and outside of its approved spaces.
Among the more unique and impressive of the Depression-era New Deal programs was the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). Created in 1935 as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Project included a number of innovative and compelling initiatives: the nation-wide Negro Theatre Project (NTP), including the famous New York Negro Unit that featured plays by Orson Welles, Arna Bontemps, and Countee Cullen (among others); the experimental, political, and controversial Living Newspaper productions; and more. In an era when it would have been easy to withdraw federal support for theatrical and creative works and performances, the FTP, like the WPA more broadly, instead made a compelling case for the communal and social value of such works.
In the same year that the FTP was created, New York’s innovative Group Theatre company staged the first production of Clifford Odets’ play Waiting for Lefty (1935). Set amongst a group of New York cabdrivers taking part in a fictional strike, and featuring multiple moments in which characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, imploring them to take social and political action, Odets’ play is a thoroughly and strikingly activist work, one described in an early negative review as “a very dramatic equivalent of soap-box oratory.” Many of the FTP’s productions, especially the Living Newspaper performances, were without question political and activist—but Odets’ play, with its endorsements of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and other socialist moments, to my mind went further than any FTP productions did or (given the difference between federal and private theatre companies) likely could.
It’d thus be easy, and not inaccurate, to see Odets and the Group Theatre in competition with, or at least offering a distinct alternative to, the FTP productions—and, again, to extend that comparison to make a broader distinction between federally supported and truly outsider theater. But at the same time, it’s pretty amazing to think of all that took place in New York City drama in 1935-6: with Odets’ play opening, the first New York Negro Unit productions (including both Welles’ Voodoo Macbeth and Bontemps and Cullen’s The Conjur Man Dies) mounted, the initial Living Newspaper performances (such as the Dust Bowl drama Triple-A Plowed Under) ongoing, and more. All innovative, all activist, and all artistically challenging and engaging, these works complemented and were in conversation with each other at least as much as they contrasted, and reveal the impressive state of Depression-era American drama.
One more dramatic post this weekend,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other works, authors, or moments you’d highlight?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

November 20, 2014: AmericanDrama: Angels in America and Rent

[A series AmericanStudying some important and impressive moments and works in the history of American drama. I’d love to hear your responses to these posts and/or other dramatic works, authors, and trends you’d highlight!]
On the popular musical that helped change our national conversations.

When it comes to a controversial or difficult social and cultural topic, one of the more interesting lenses through which we can analyze the issue is to consider when and how overtly popular representations of it developed. I’m not talking about explicitly or centrally political or statement-making representations, but rather images of the issue in entertainments intended first and foremost to be popular, to be successful, to attract and affect a broad audience. So with an issue like interracial relationships and marriages, one could point for example to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967); certainly the film has a definite and even in the final scenes a pedantic message, but on the whole it tries to be a successful drama, one that will keep its audience interested and entertained throughout.  Or if Spencer Tracy’s final speech makes the film too political to fit this category, one could look just a few years down the road, at the many episodes of All in the Family (and then its spin-off The Jeffersons) that prominently featured an interracial couple (the Willises) who unsettle both Archie Bunker and George Jefferson; those episodes are, as the show always was, played first and foremost for laughs, without losing any nuance in their representations of the thorny issue itself.

If we turn to one of the most difficult and controversial issues in American society in the 1980s (and beyond), the AIDS epidemic, I’d say it’s pretty tough to pin down when that kind of popular representation really emerges. A case could definitely be made for Tony Kushner’s two-part play Angels in America (1991), which despite calling itself A Gay Fantasia on National Themes and focusing almost entirely on gay characters is in many ways a big-budget blockbuster award-winning (including the Pulitzer Prize) kind of drama, featuring scenery-destroying descending angels, hallucinations of long-dead American historical figures who exchange witty banter with the play’s characters, and some of the foulest and funniest dialogue I’ve ever read (mostly spoken by the play’s fictionalized version of Roy Cohn). Or maybe the answer would be the Academy Award-winning hit film Philadelphia (1993), which starred two of Hollywood’s most prominent actors (Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington), featured musical contributions from legendary rock stars (including a great tune by some dude named Bruce), and relied on one of the oldest thriller plot devices, the courtroom drama, for much of its very effective creation of suspense and entertainment. And certainly both of these works, along with Magic Johnson’s much-publicized 1991 announcement of his own HIV-positive status, contributed to a sea-change in public consciousness about the illness in the early 1990s.

But for my money (and it’s gotten plenty of it over the years), I think the first truly popular entertainment to grapple with AIDS is Jonathan Larsen’s rock musical Rent (1996). It’s hard to argue with any measure of the musical’s popular successes: it was when it closed in 2008 the 9th longest-running Broadway show in history, at 12 years and over 5000 performances; it spun off into dozens of national tours and foreign productions, as well as a 2005 movie version featuring almost all of the original cast members; it grossed almost $300 million and won a Tony for Best Musical; and the list goes on. But in keeping with the show’s mantra, “No Day but Today,” I’d say you don’t need any of those facts or statistics to assess the show’s popular success: all you need to do is go see it somewhere if you get the chance, or watch a video of the production, or even just listen to the soundtrack (which features virtually the whole production, since there’s very little non-sung dialogue). The play pretty much literally has it all—it’s funny and angry, hugely emotionally affecting and cynical and smart-ass, big and sentimental and intimate and realistic, has a perfectly constructed circular structure (it starts and ends on Christmas Eves one year apart and uses New Year’s to bridge the two Acts), includes almost every genre of popular music in one or another of its songs, is based in great detail on a 100 year-old opera (Puccini’s La Boheme) and yet grounded in 1990s New York City and America in every way, and just plain sings, all the way through and by any measure. And at the same time it is deeply engaged at every moment—and politically engaged in many crucial ones—with the issue of AIDS and its many different communities and identities, causes and effects.

Larsen died, unexpectedly and tragically, of a brain aneurysm on the day the play was to make its Off-Broadway premiere, and an entirely different and equally rich analysis could connect to great artists who died too young and the masterworks they left behind. But if Rent is any indication, Larsen would want his legacy to be precisely his achievement in finding that perfect combination of popular and political, successful and social, and thus contributing more (I believe) than any other single work to bringing AIDS out of the shadows and into the mainstream of American culture and consciousness. Last drama tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other works, authors, or moments you’d highlight?