One interesting American thing (a technical term, meaning a moment or event, a text, a controversy, an idea, a figure, or whatevertheheckelse I think of) per day, from Ben Railton, a professor of American literature, culture, history, and, natch, Studies.
November 24: Giving Thanks 4: My Thanksgiving Day post highlights a great Thanksgiving-related essay and then gives thanks for the announcement of a new Bruce and the E Street Band album and tour in 2012.
November 25: Giving Thanks 5: Another great Thanksgiving-related essay, this one authored by a longtime family friend and influence for whom I’m deeply thankful.
There’s a flip side to what I tried to describe in yesterday’s post—something I mostly still love but can also analyze critically—and that’s when our more critical analysis of a once-beloved work makes it impossible for us to feel much affection at all for it. One of my first pop culture loves was The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985)—one of my more vivid memories from pre-age 5 is of settling down in front of the small TV in the room next to my bedroom on a Friday night to watch a new episode—and when I have happened to watch the occasional rerun of the show in recent years, there’s no question that its core ingredients (the car chases and jumps, Tom Wopat and John Schneider’s easy camaraderie, Catherine Bach’s charms, a Southern sheriff nearly as funny as JW Pepper, Waylon Jennings’ great theme song and pitch-perfect cliffhanger narrations), all assembled into a comfortably consistent formula, still function almost exactly as my nostalgic memories of childhood had indicated.
Yet on those occasions my present, adult self has found Dukes almost entirely unwatchable. Partly that’s due to some elements that escaped my three year-old eye, including some of the worst overacting ever captured on film (the Ivy League-trained Sorrell Booke as Boss Hogg being the most egregious repeat offender, although I suppose anybody slumming that thoroughly deserves our sympathy more than our condemnation). But chief among those formerly overlooked elements, and the most overt and central source of my recent distaste for Dukes, is a constellation of Southern themes that I have noticed precisely because of my AmericanStudies, analytical perspective on the show. It’s true that the Duke boys were in some ways a relatively radical rebellious force there in Hazzard County, fighting against the good ol’ boy network of Boss Hogg (he of the full name Jefferson Davis Hogg and the plantation-esque white suit), in trouble with the law since the day they was born, and so on. But Jennings’ theme song opens by calling the Dukes “just good old boys” as well—and on closer examination, the Dukes’ rebellions echo those of the Agrarians, and of other similarly reactionary Southern traditionalists, far too closely for my taste.
It’s not just that the Dukes’ car was named the General Lee, with a Confederate flag on the roof and the tune of “Dixie” for its horn—although those interconnected details were far from innocent in the post-Civil Rights American South. It’s that the Dukes’ central mission, their goal in virtually every episode, was to maintain the status quo in their county-that-time-forgot: the show’s real villains weren’t Boss Hogg and his police force (who managed to coexist happily with the Dukes within that County, each car chase and crash seemingly forgotten by the following week’s episode), but rather the outsiders who would come to Hazzard, seeking to modernize it in one dastardly way or another. Each such plan was, on its specific face, well worth the Dukes’ opposition; none of them had anything explicitly to do with racial integration or Civil Rights or the like. But in an era that would, a year after Dukes premiered, see Ronald Reagan launch his successful 1980 presidential campaign by traveling to Philadelphia, Mississippi and telling its residents “I believe in states’ rights,” the show’s outright and absolute preference for the past over the future, for the way things have been in a place like Hazzard as opposed to how those meddling outsiders would like to reimagine the County, was in and of itself a powerful and, yes, deeply reactionary social statement.
Sorry, Bo and Luke, Daisy and Uncle Jesse and Cooter, Rosco P. Coltrane and Flash, but I’ve got to call it like I see it. More tomorrow, the monthly recap,
PS. Any former loves that haven’t stood up to your analytical responses?
One of the toughest but most valuable skills for any AmericanStudier to learn—or, let me be more exact, that this AmericanStudier has had to learn—is the ability to analyze critically things that we love. Make no mistake, I’ve never had any problem analyzing the things I love: my undergraduate senior thesis centered on extended readings of three of my long-time favorite historical novels (Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, Gore Vidal’s Burr, and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident), I started my second book with a Preface analyzing my favorite song (Bruce’s “American Skin (41 Shots)”), and I’ve taught my three favorite American novels (Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony) in numerous courses. But those analyses have often tended, for obvious reasons, to focus on the things I love in those works, and while that’s not necessarily a problem (and probably inevitable given my general half-full scholarly perspective), it has perhaps exacerbated my difficulties being more critical about works that I love.
My boys have started to get into James Bond films recently—or at least into YouTube clips of the chases from the films; we haven’t watched a full one yet, and I doubt that either spycraft or seduction will interest them as much as vehicular mayhem at this stage—and one of their early favorite sequences, quite rightly at it’s one of the best action-comedy sequences of all time, is the boat chase from Live and Let Die (1973). Live has long been in my top few Bond films, and one reason—along with that boat chase and by far the best Bond theme song—is likely that it’s definitely the most American Bond film: much of it is set in New York City, New Orleans, and the Louisiana bayou, with the rest set on a fictional Caribbean island that is deeply interconnected with those continental locales. (I don’t think Edouard Glissant has written about Live, but maybe he should!) But one corollary effect of that American setting has also made Live the most controversial and critiqued Bond film (even among aficionados who have made their peace with the rampant sexism of the early films and the like): the villains are more or less all African American (or African Caribbean), and at times the film most definitely resorts to racial stereotypes or jokes in its portrayals of those characters.
No matter how much I love (and will always love) Live, I can’t deny those elements: the scene in which Bond shoots a Caribbean/voodoo statue and its eyes roll is only the most extreme of a number of similarly, uncomfortably racist asides. Nor can I entirely explain them away by noting that Bond villains, at least the lower-level ones, are always more or less buffoons, so the buffoonery of this film’s low-level baddies is not connected to race (that’s true, but doesn’t get at the small racist asides like the aforementioned one). I would certainly note that the main villain, as played with serious gravitas by the always great Yaphet Kotto, is no laughing matter, and a more than worthy adversary for James. But ultimately, my argument would have to come back to that boat chase, and to its humorous foil, the one and only Sheriff J.W. Pepper—Pepper is the film’s (and in many ways the series’) definitive comic relief, a character who exists to poke fun at stereotypical Southern good ol’ boys, but also someone who illustrates the more absurd and extreme and funny side to Bond himself and every aspect of his world (a side that Roger Moore was particularly adept at playing up). When Pepper mistakes one of the villain’s African American henchmen for his park ranger brother-in-law, cackling “If one side of the family don’t get him, the other side will!,” we most definitely laugh—but is the laughter racist? Is it at the casually racist Pepper? Is it just at the absurdity of the moment, as it counterbalances the building tension of the chase’s action?
All of the above, I’d say. I’ve gotten better at analyzing critically the things I love, and again I can’t and won’t deny the racism within Live. But it’s also a pitch-perfect Roger Moore Bond film (despite being Moore’s first), and the over-the-top humor (directed in every direction), wedded to local color that is in this case distinctly American in flavor, is a central reason why. More tomorrow,
PS. Links above, so I’ll just ask: any works that you love yet can analyze critically at the same time?
Our Thanksgiving trip to Connecticut ended with a quick sunset exploration of Mystic Seaport with our two little AmericanStudiers. They were suitably taken with it, although it’s fair to say that their AmericanStudier Dad was slightly torn—their central goal was to climb on as many things as possible, including to be sure any and all historic recreations of ships; I would be lying if I didn’t admit to enjoying seeing their curiosity and energy, but on the other hand, y’know, historic recreations. I made my peace with it by hanging right with them and by asking them to be careful a lot, and I think we only once explicitly went under a “Closed” sign and onto a boat; that, and the total absence of any historic destructions, makes for a pretty successful balance of fun and responsible if you ask me. And my older son said “The Seaport is fun!” as we were leaving, which certainly warms the cockles of this AmericanStudier’s heart.
Besides the family fun, and besides the rather un-scholarly but very definite great memories (our wedding reception was at the now-apparently-closed Seamen’s Inne, a restaurant and reception hall directly adjacent to the Seaport; we even got to take some photos on one of the historic ships, although not the one onto which the boys and I illegally snuck!), I took away one other impression from this visit: Mystic is working very hard to preserve its historic recreations, and has likewise made those preservation efforts very central to the story it tells to its visitors. I’m sure that the first part has been the case since the historic site opened, but I don’t remember the preservation efforts being foregrounded nearly as much in past years: there are for example two giant buildings dedicated entirely to the current preservation and renovation work being done on a single ship, the Charles Morgan (that link both details much of that work and illustrates how much the Seaport is working to highlight and talk about it), and the whole preservation section of the site felt open to the public in a way that I didn’t remember (and that my construction-loving boys certainly appreciated).
Seeing this (to my mind) new emphasis on the preservation and recreation work reminded me of a similar, and similarly recent (compared to much of the historic site), space at Plimoth Plantation: the Craft Center. Again, the work done in that space by artisans and craftspeople to recreate historically accurate materials with which to populate the Plimoth Plantation site has been part of the site’s recreation efforts since their origins; but the work of the Crafts Center to make public and accessible those recreation efforts, to turn them into another, meta-site where Plimoth visitors can talk with many of those who have contributed to the nearby historic site from which they have likely just walked (or to which they are about to walk), is a striking addition to the Plimoth Plantation experience. It might seem as if the most significant recent changes to historic sites have been those in the name of greater historical complexity and balance, and there’s no question that both Mystic and Plimoth are working hard to achieve those goals; but they’re also both changing the way they represent their own historic efforts, and some of the most ongoing and critical (and worthy of our support) work on which they depend.
Just another reason to get out to our historic sites, whether you’ve been before (got married there, even) or not. And bring the kids! More next week,
PS. Links above, but any interesting or inspiring historic sites you’d highlight?
[This week I’ve been highlighting American things for which I’m thankful. This is the fifth and final entry in the series.]
This is really a Guest Post of Sorts, but one authored by somebody from whom I definitely also give thanks: Mike Branch. Mike was a graduate student of my Dad's for many years, writing his dissertation on American environmental writing, and has since gone on to become one of the leading scholars and teachers in that evolving field; he's certainly a scholarly role model for me in many ways, not least his commitment to interdisciplinary scholarship and his admirable ability (as this essay illustrates) to connect his scholarly work to real, vital American and human questions and conversations. But Mike was also a close family friend during my transitional teenage years, and likewise served as a profound influence on me as an individual, as a Bruce fan, as a lover of nature (I still remember our overnight camping trip in Shenandoah National Park), and as a man.
So I'm very thankful for Mike on multiple levels, and am doubly thankful to have stumbled on this great Thanksgiving essay of his:
[This week I’ll be highlighting American things for which I’m thankful. Feel free to suggest your own topics in the comments, or send your own guest posts to me by email [firstname.lastname@example.org]. This is the fourth in the series.]
In my inaugural Thanksgiving Day post last year, I wrote about, and tried to push back against and complicate and revise, Rush Limbaugh’s oversimplified version of the holiday and the Pilgrims. Whatever the influence of Rush’s particular version, though, the fact remains that Thanksgiving, like virtually all other American holidays and prominent occasions, exists in our collective consciousness as at best a mythologized narrative dimly connected to any specific historical or cultural details; since the holiday mostly means some combination of good food, family gatherings, and football, those mythologizing tendencies might not seem like such a big deal, but they’re certainly not an ideal way for us to engage with the national stories and communities to which the occasion might connect us. Fortunately, we’ve got historians like one of my Monday subjects, Karl Jacoby, who are willing to write complex and rich but also clear and engaging pieces like this op-ed for the Los Angeles Times on the history of Thanksgiving—just another reason I’m thankful for Jacoby!
So with my fellow AmericanStudier having done that heavy lifting, I’m free to focus this second Thanksgiving Day post on a piece of news from earlier in the week that makes me very thankful on at least three distinct but equally meaningful levels. First, the news: in a brief statement on www.brucespringsteen.net, Bruce and the E Street Band revealed that they’ll be releasing a new album sometime next year and going on a US and world tour shortly thereafter. Now, the three levels of thankfulness:
1)For the Music: In the aftermath of Clarence Clemons’ unexpected and far too premature passing, about which I blogged here and here, I genuinely wondered whether the Band would release any more albums; I didn’t think Bruce could stop writing and making music in other ways, but the thought of no more Band music was still pretty depressing. I’ve grown up with the E Street Band in every conceivable way, and sure am excited to know I’ll be able to keep growing with them into 2012.
2)For the Inspiration: The E Street Band goes way beyond just my own lifetime, of course, both literally and figuratively. The core group has been making music together since 1973, with the only breaks coming when Bruce has worked on other projects, and thus without the “breakup and reunite for a reunion tour” vibe that has affected virtually every other longstanding rock band. But their longevity is about a lot more than just time or consistency—when keyboardist Danny Federici passed away a few years ago, the band responded in the best ways possible: by honoring him at the start of concerts, by recording a song in his honor on their subsequent album Workin’ on a Dream (2009; the song, “The Last Carnival,” includes an accordion played by Federici’s son!), by continuing to carry the torch and do what he and they did and do so well together. Pretty inspiring stuff.
3)For the Boys: As my kids have gotten into Bruce and the Band over the last few months, they’ve both asked me on multiple occasions whether we can see them in concert sometime; one of their early favorite songs is “American Skin (41 Shots),” and a lot of what they love about it connects directly to the live performance details. (The way they say “Clarence!” when he sings the song’s first line and then later during his beautiful concluding solo is about as cute as it gets, and makes me even sadder that they won’t get to see the Big Man in action.) I’m not sure if, at 6 and 5 years old, they’ll really be ready for a rock concert if and when the Band comes to Boston on this tour—but I’m also not willing to pass up the opportunity to find out!
Thanks, Bruce and the Band, for so many great moments and memories and some more on the horizon! And Happy Thanksgiving to all of you and yours! More tomorrow, the last of the series,
PS. Links above, so I’ll repeat a final time this week’s request: any American things you’re thankful for? Ideas, and even guest posts, still very welcome!
[This week I’ll be highlighting American things for which I’m thankful. Feel free to suggest your own topics in the comments, or send your own guest posts to me by email [email@example.com]. This, inspired by the first such comment, is the third in the series.]
I wrote a Tribute Post back in August on some of the many inspiring teachers with whom I was fortunate enough to work during my time in the Charlottesville public schools; it was a sequel of sorts to an earlier Tribute to six exemplary individual teachers, with four of whom I likewise worked in public schools (in Charlottesville, as a grad student at Temple University, and as an adjunct faculty member at UMass Boston). I’ve also written multiple posts, including a couple of Tributes, on the great work being done at their respective public schools by my Mom (a teacher, counselor, and social worker in a Head Start-like preschool and elementary school program) and my Dad (an English professor at the University of Virginia). All of which is to say, long-time readers of this blog know full well how much I owe to, and love, public education in its many vital and inspiring forms.
In a comment on this weekend’s Thanks-Fishing post, though, my colleague (and guest-blogger) Irene Martyniuk made the case for a somewhat more specific example of public education—state colleges and universities, like the one (Fitchburg State University, née College) at which we both teach. She was, as usual, plenty articulate and convincing in her own right, and if she hadn’t already done her duty as a guest-blogger I’d just enlist her to write this third Thanks-Giving post instead. And even though I’ll resist doing that, I will note that the first reason for which I would likewise give thanks for public universities is precisely, as Irene also noted there, the incredible quality of their faculties; I paid Tribute at the start of the semester to some of the many impressive new FSU colleagues with whom I’ve had the chance to work over these six and a half years, and I would argue to my last breath that that group, amazing as it is, is simply representative of many equally amazing public university faculties across the country (including certainly those at Virginia, Temple, and UMass Boston with which I’m familiar). The recent and ongoing political attacks on public university faculty members, as exemplified by those directed this past spring at Professor William Cronin, have thus struck me as particularly ironic and, to use a technical AmericanStudies term, ass-backwards.
But having taught for virtually all of my professional life at public universities (outside of my year as an adjunct at Boston University, which was great for other reasons about which more in a future post), I am even more thankful for the students I’ve worked with there, and for one particular quality that they consistently possess: an awareness of the value of the education they’re getting. As Irene noted in her comment, public universities are of course significantly less expensive than privates (especially for in-state students), yet the irony is that, at least in my experience, public university students are far more likely to be paying a portion (if not the whole) of their tuition, and so to be profoundly aware both of what their education costs and of why it’s worth it. When I think back to my time as a Harvard undergraduate, especially when compared to my Fitchburg State students, I’m ashamed of how little I knew of or thought about what it cost; I did work 10-12 hours a week as a work-study student, which was more than the average Harvard undergrad to be sure, but again, compared to the 30-40 hour weeks that the majority of Fitchburg undergrads work, I had it very, very easy indeed. While that work schedule and many other factors can make it difficult for FSU students to find the time and space to (for example) do all of the reading for a course, I try always to remember that they’re bringing something a lot more important to every class than an ideal textual starting point—they’re bringing themselves, very genuinely and impressively.
Thanks for the Thanks-Giving idea, Irene! More tomorrow, which is set; but you’ve still got time to propose a topic or write a guest post for Friday,
PS. Links above, so I’ll repeat yet again this week’s request: any American things you’re thankful for? Ideas, and even guest posts, very very welcome!
[This week I’ll be highlighting American things for which I’m thankful. Feel free to suggest your own topics in the comments, or send your own guest posts to me by email [firstname.lastname@example.org]. This is the second in the series.]
It might seem hard to find much for which to give thanks in the police brutality that unfolded late last week on the campus of UC Davis, when protesters with the Occupy UC Davis movement were (as the multiple photos and videos of the incident all too clearly demonstrate) dispassionately and unnecessarily pepper-sprayed by riot-gear-clad police, apparently for not moving when asked. But in both the immediate and the longer-term aftermath of the incident, I can in fact find three distinct American things for which I would give thanks:
1)The restraint and nobility of civil disobedience: With its roots in Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849) and its central presence in the Civil Rights era (as emblematized by the iconic images of marchers being attacked with fire hoses and dogs and refusing either to retreat or to respond with violence), civil disobedience, sometimes erroneously called “passive resistance” (I can imagine few things more active), is as American as it gets. All you have to do is watch the Occupy protesters in this video (especially around the 4-5 minute mark), or even more clearly the silent protest against the UC Chancellor captured here, to see how much the protesters in these instances lived up to this legacy.
2)The courage of his convictions: In the aftermath of that Chancellor’s questionable actions (she was the one who had ordered the police to evict the protesters) and thoroughly despicable response to the brutality (including classic passive verb usage and blaming of the victims), an open letter calling for her resignation went viral and became a petition. The letter is very well-written and compelling, which is no surprise as it was written by Dr. Nathan Brown, an English professor at UC Davis. An untenured assistant professor, to be exact—and thus a colleague who is very willing to risk his own career in order to express his clear and important perspective on what had happened on his campus.
3)Great American journalism is alive and well: And, often, available for free on blogs (no, not self-promoting, I promise). As is so often the case when it comes to issues of civil liberties and rights, no journalistic voice has responded more passionately and powerfully to this incident than Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald. As is equally often the case when it comes to framing individual events in larger communal and social contexts, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates is doing great work. And as is just as often the case when it comes to considering the broader historical and ethical sweep of an event and of our current moment, Coates’s colleague James Fallows is a must-read.
In a moment as (frequently) ugly as this one, I give thanks for all those inspirational Americans. More tomorrow,
PS. Links above, so I’ll repeat again this week’s request: any American things you’re thankful for? Ideas, and even guest posts, very very welcome!
[This week I’ll be highlighting American things for which I’m thankful. Feel free to suggest your own topics in the comments, or send your own guest posts to me by email [email@example.com]. This is the first in the series.]
Few works of scholarship have made as much of an impression on me as did John Demos’ The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (1994). Granted, Demos’s book was one of the first I read in college, as part of my introductory History and Literature tutorial (the amazing year-long course with Professors Jay Grossman and John McGreevy about which I blogged here), and the timing certainly contributed to its effects. But what really made Demos’ work stand out for me was its innovative and (somewhat) controversial form of narrative history—the book’s subject is the early 18th century captivity experience of a prominent young Puritan woman, Eunice Williams (the daughter of minister John Williams, who was taken captive with her but later redeemed back to the Puritan community, and who wrote a personal narrative called The Redeemed Captive about that experience); since Eunice ultimately married into and became a lifelong citizen of the Mohawk tribe which had captured her, Demos complements his historical researches and accounts with imagined passages from Eunice’s perspective, sections where he works to fill in the gaps in the historical record with his own, certainly informed but still speculative version of her evolving identity.
By far the most compelling work of historical scholarship I’ve read in the last few years would have to be Karl Jacoby’s Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History (2008; that link is to a complementary and very impressive website Jacoby created for the book). I had the opportunity to read Jacoby’s book as the chair of the 2009-2010 New England ASA’s Lois Rudnick Book Prize Committee, and the committee unanimously agreed on Shadows as the best work of AmericanStudies scholarship pulished by a New England scholar over those two years. But what makes Jacoby’s work particularly unique and compelling (far beyond just New England or that time frame) is its innovative and brave structure—the book’s subject is the brutal and far too unknown 1871 Camp Grant massacre, in which a mixed force of Anglo, Mexican, and Tohono O’Oodham soldiers decimated an Apache camp made up almost entirely of women and children; each of those four communities and cultures had a long and complex history in the region and the southwestern borderlands more generally, and so Jacoby structures his book through two parts (pre- and post-massacre) comprised of four distinct sections, each working to understand, capture, and narrate (including extended, in-depth use of the distinct languages) the experiences and perspective of one of the cultures in order to portray the many specific, complicated, and humanizing factors behind and influences on what might seem to be simply a horrific and inhuman historical event.
On this first day of Thanksgiving Week here at AmericanStudies, I’m very thankful for contemporary, ground-breaking, disciplinary-boundary-and-definition-pushing historians like Demos and Jacoby. There are lots of reasons for my appreciation and gratitude for their work, but I’ll highlight one somewhat selfish one—if we’re going to argue for a cross-cultural American identity, as of course I very much want us to, such arguments will often depend on a couple of key moves: filling in gaps in our historical record, gaps occasioned by the kinds of identity shifts and experiences at the heart of cross-cultural transformation, gaps that require us to imagine lives outside of our expected or traditional categories; and trying to understand not only the perspectives of the multiple cultures and communities that have always constituted America, but also and most significantly the American community that has been comprised out of the intersections and encounters (too often violent, but crucial in any case) between and across and among our cultures and communities. More conventional or traditional historiography can and will continue to contribute to those efforts, as will scholarship in many other disciplines; but ground-breaking, imaginative, multi-vocal histories like those provided by Demos and Jacoby are to my mind entirely necessary if we are to move forward into these new perspectives and narratives.
PS. Links above, so I’ll repeat this week’s request: any American things you’re thankful for? Ideas, and even guest posts, very very welcome!
My plan for the coming week here is to highlight things in American history, culture, identity, community, literature, art, and etc. for which I’m thankful—things that make it easier to bear some of the darker and more frustrating and painful aspects of our nation. Obviously I can come up with topics on my own if need be, but I’m thinking that it would be especially nice to pair this with something else for which I’m thankful—you all, readers from around the country and, often, the world. So I wanted to fish for your thanksgiving topics, in one of two possible ways:
1)Just the topic, something that you’d be interested to see me engage with here—‘cause any friend of my friends is a friend, so if you’re thankful for it, I’m more than happy to learn about it and frame my own thanks as well!
2)Or a guest post, if you’d like to write up your thankfulness yourself. It’s been way too long since I’ve been able to include a guest post here, and I’d love to get back into it—so bring ‘em on! (Even if you get me something post-this week, I’ll certainly include it down the road.)
[The best way I can think of to respond to the Penn State situation is to focus for this week’s blog posts on a few of the many very impressive voices and ideas my students have shared over the years, to exemplify some of the best about what both college and young people have to offer. This is the fifth and final entry in that series.]
Just ‘cause I don’t want to dwell only in the past—historical fiction love notwithstanding—here are five reasons (connected to the five courses I’m teaching in the spring) I’m expecting more impressive student voices in the near future:
1)Another Turn: My grad class this spring will be our department’s required Literary Theory: Practical Applications, which I’ll be teaching for the third time. I start the class with Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), and explicitly ask for them for the first discussion not to read any of the edition’s peripheral materials (biographical, historical, theoretical) and instead only to bring their own ideas about the text. Each of those first two times with the class that discussion has been incredibly fun, and incredibly different in each case, so I’m very excited for the third!
2)I Love the 80s!: The Introduction to AmericanStudies course I helped create here at FSU focuses on the 1980s, as a case study in applying a variety of methodologies, analyzing different kinds of texts and media, working with all sorts of contexts, connecting their own identities (they do a version of the multigenerational family history project I wrote about on Wednesday), and so on. This class is officially team-taught by both English and History faculty, but this semester I didn’t get to team-teach it with my History colleague, so I’m doubly excited to get back in there and hear the many interesting and provocative ways the students respond to our cultural, historical, literary, multimedia, and personal topics.
3)Capping it Off: This semester I’ve had the chance for the first time to teach (two sections of) our departmental Capstone course, which brings together English majors from across our different tracks. There are a variety of purposes: getting them to reflect on their experiences and assemble their senior portfolio; helping model the different sides to our discipline, including texts that represent each track; talking about their future plans and goals and working on material to help them get there. But for me, the best effect has been just to get to know these 33 senior English majors much more fully than I otherwise would have—and I can’t wait to meet and hear from the spring’s group of 16!
4)(and 5) My fourth and fifth classes are two I’ve taught a good bit—the second half American literature survey (1865 to the present) and an upper-level course in the American Novel to 1950. I’ve stocked the syllabi in each case with books and authors that I love, so it’s far from a chore for me to come back to these courses for another go. But even more than that, and even more than hearing new batches of student responses to and ideas about these authors and readings, I’m particularly excited to teach the two classes at the same time, and to see how the overlaps and interconnections and conversations across them (and thus the student voices in each) help me to keep figuring out my own voice and ideas.
Can’t wait! More this weekend,
PS. Any classes or work or experiences to which you’re looking forward right now?
[The best way I can think of to respond to the Penn State situation is to focus for this week’s blog posts on a few of the many very impressive voices and ideas my students have shared over the years, to exemplify some of the best about what both college and young people have to offer. This is the fourth in that series.]
In the early summer of 2006, at the end of my first year here at Fitchburg State, I had the opportunity to teach for the first time a graduate course (as part of our English Department’s Master’s program). As I told the 19 students on the last day of class, I had been thinking for many years about precisely that opportunity, and this course represented one of those very rare times when something about which I’ve thought for years actually lives up to, and even exceeds, my expectations for it (in fact, as I told them, there had only been four other such times—seeing The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time, my first Bruce concert, my wedding day, and the first time my older son smiled at me). Part of the reason for that was undoubtedly the subject matter, both broadly (the course focused on American historical fiction across the last couple centuries) and specifically (the syllabus includes three of my very favorite American novels: The Marrow of Tradition; Absalom, Absalom!; and Ceremony). But, without question, much more central to the course’s success were those students.
Just about every day and conversation and aspect of the class would provide evidence for that statement, but I’ll focus here on two. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was pretty concerned going into the first day with Absalom (each main text got two days, although the second also included an excerpt from a second novel and a couple short scholarly/theoretical pieces)—Faulkner’s novel is, as I wrote in that earlier blog post and as anybody who’s read even the first page knows, one of the most dense and demanding and frustrating works of American literature; by 2006 I had read the novel four separate times and even published an article (my first) on it and still came away with plenty of questions and uncertainties and struggles. The students came to class with plenty of those as well, but also with three other, complementary and equally vital things: determination that had allowed them to get through the whole of the novel in only a handful of days (due to the condensed summer schedule), those ongoing confusions notwithstanding; a willingness to keep doing that kind of hard work in our communal conversation; and a whole range of really interesting and effective starting points, specific moments and details and ideas about the novel. What could have been one of the most frustrating class discussions of my career—understandably, and it wouldn’t have been their fault if it did—turned into one of the very best, both in its specific developments about the text and in its inspiring example.
Then there were the final papers. As I later wrote in the Introduction to our graduate program’s biannual journal (for which we collected about 10 of those papers), I assigned the students an impossible task for those papers: coming up with their own definition of American historical fiction, one connected to at least a few of our primary texts and in conversation with at least a couple of our scholarly voices. Sure, I had come up with my own such definition in my dissertation/first book, but I had done so over years and in many stages and after having read hundreds of primary texts and at least as many scholarly ones and etc.; I was asking them to do the same over a few weeks and with four novels (and pieces of four others) and eight scholarly voices in play. And yet they delivered, on two very key levels: their papers were very effectively and convincingly grounded in the texts, in the use and analysis of specifics from the novels and in response to the scholars; and they advanced unique and striking main arguments and definitions, including at least two (a connection of American historical fiction to the land; a thesis about images of history as either an upward or a downward spiral) that have informed my own ideas and perspective ever since.
More tomorrow, the last in this series,
PS. Any scholarly experiences (whether classes, writing, research, or others) that have met or exceeded your expectations or ideals?
[The best way I can think of to respond to the Penn State situation is to focus for this week’s blog posts on a few of the many very impressive voices and ideas my students have shared over the years, to exemplify some of the best about what both college and young people have to offer. This is the third in that series.]
I wrote yesterday about a moment in my first semester of teaching, during which I utilized a standard course syllabus; for every semester and every course since then, I’ve created my own syllabus, with every choice (from the texts to the daily schedule to the assignments, and every other element along the way) entirely up to me. But it’s one thing to create a new syllabus for an existing course, and certainly another to create an entirely new course—and it wasn’t until six years later, in the fall of 2007, that I had the chance to teach for the first time two such new courses (both of which I had created in the prior year). One, an Introduction to Science Fiction and Fantasy, was the direct result of student interest and inquiries, and so I knew that it’d feature a passionate and involved group of student voices who would insure it would be a successful first semester; but the other, an entirely redesigned course in Ethnic American Literature, was much less of a sure thing.
I was uncertain about a couple of aspects of the Ethnic course—including my decision to have us read pairs of works at a time, so we could put them in conversation with one another across generational, generic, or other boundaries—but my central questions revolved around what I’d be asking of the students. In an effort to get the students to put their own identities and experiences in the same conversations with those of the (often) more overtly “ethnic” Americans about whom we’d be reading—something that I had found largely absent when I had taught the existing FSU ethnic lit course in my first semester, not least to be sure because of my own inexperience and inability to get discussions going—I had decided to assign not conventional analytical papers, but instead a semester-long, multi-part, multigenerational family timeline and analytical history. I had first learned about the project from supplemental materials for American Identities, the AmericanStudies textbook created by faculty in the UMass Boston AmericanStudies department, and had immediately felt it would be a great way to get students to research their own families and identities—but, I wondered, could they analyze those topics? Or would they just end up telling interesting but non-analytical stories about them?
I had nothing to worry about. It’s true that my students had plenty of really interesting stories to tell, and certainly in the first stage or two of the project they did more storytelling than they did analyzing. But that was, it turned out, a great model for how the project can build over the course of the semester—starting to get into the stories and information initially, and then adding in analytical frames and ideas more and more fully as the students move toward the final project’s fully analytical history paper. That process also gave the students a chance to figure out ways to put their own family stories and histories in conversation with those present in our shared readings, leading to a number of surprising, striking, and very impressive final project connections. I can still remember at least a handful of individual examples—no small feat given that I’ve taught two subsequent sections of the course, and that it’s been four years!—but none stands out more than the nursing student who analyzed gender identities and roles across the generations in her own Finnish American family (both of her grandmothers had over twenty children; she herself was already engaged but hoping to complete her nursing degree and enter the profession before starting a decidedly smaller family) in conversation with the multigenerational and multicultural women’s experiences at the heart of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989). I think she learned a good deal through her work on the project—I know I did!
PS. Any multigenerational family stories you’d like to share and perhaps (briefly) analyze?
[The best way I can think of to respond to the Penn State situation is to focus for this week’s blog posts on a few of the many very impressive voices and ideas my students have shared over the years, to exemplify some of the best about what both college and young people have to offer. This is the second in that series.]
Since yesterday’s post focused on a very recent and entirely individual impressive student voice, I thought I’d shift today to a very distant and entirely communal, yet just as impressive and inspiring, set of such voices. I taught my first class, a section of Writing I (called, I believe, Composition 101) at Temple University, in the fall of 2001; I was using a standard syllabus shared by all of us first-time instructors, and after an initial week of introductions, we were scheduled to discuss the first substantive reading of our first unit (a section focused on class, money, success, and related themes), Russell Conwell’s early 20th century, hugely popular motivational speech “Acres of Diamonds” (both the text and the audio available at that link; Conwell was Temple’s founder) on the first day of the second week.
That day was Tuesday, September 11th, 2001; Temple rightly cancelled classes as soon as the details of the morning’s terrorist attacks started to become available, so students could check in with their parents, go home, and otherwise make family and home the priorities that they needed to be on that terrifying and chaotic day. But academic semesters and classes, like everything else of great importance, must go on even in the toughest circumstances, and so on Thursday the 13th we were back in class. Conwell was still on our plate, but I have to admit having no idea whether we should talk about it and carry on with our scheduled work; whether we should discuss our reactions to and thoughts on the attacks (every detail of which was still unclear at that time, including who had ordered them or whether there were soon to be more); or whether there was some other option I wasn’t seeing or didn’t (entirely inexperienced teacher that I was) know. To my credit (I think), I shared my uncertainty with the class right at the outset, and asked them what they wanted to do.
Remember that these were first-semester (first-month, even) first-year students, many of them the first member of their family to attend college, dealing with all of those new experiences at the same time that they were dealing with a once-in-a-lifetime national crisis (and, I’m sure, with some seriously freaked-out parents and families back home). A few understandably reciprocated my uncertainty; a few more just as understandably voted that we cancel another class. But the significant majority voted that we do both of my options—that we share our perspectives on the attacks and situation for a few minutes, and then get back to talking about Conwell and the less timely but equally important issues (the American Dream, opportunity, choice vs. luck, and more) to which his speech connects. I still remember the whole hour fifteen just as clearly as I do the morning of September 11th, and much more happily—both discussions were honest and nuanced, multi-vocal and conversational, passionate but friendly, and just plain exemplary on so many levels. I don’t want to be melodramatic and say that if the day had gone differently my whole teaching career might have, but there’s no question that the semester’s tone could have been set much more negatively or unsuccessfully; and it’s to my mind far from a coincidence that instead the class remains one of my all-time favorites, with dozens of other moments that still stand out at this decade’s distance.
PS. Any surprisingly inspiring conversations or moments you’d highlight?
[The best way I can think of to respond to the Penn State situation is to focus for this week’s blog posts on a few of the many very impressive voices and ideas my students have shared over the years, to exemplify some of the best about what both college and young people have to offer. This, on a very recent example, is the first in that series.]
My first conference paper, delivered in the long-ago summer of 2002 at the close of my second year in graduate school, focused (as did this not-quite-as-long-ago blog post) on Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s historical novel Hope Leslie (1827), and more exactly on Sedgwick’s complex and partial but also impressive and inspiring efforts to serve as a “historian or poet” for Native American peoples. She does so most fully, as I argued in both that paper and that post, through the extended Chapter IV story told by her character Magawisca—Magawisca is the daughter of a Pequot chief who has become an English ward after the brutal massacre of her tribe during the Pequot War, and she narrates “a very different picture” of that massacre to the English family’s young son (and her budding love interest) Everell. While Magawisca and Everell are fictional characters, the massacre was all too well, and Sedgwick both engages throughout the chapter with the existing (Puritan) accounts of the event and provides this powerfully alternative account in a fully realized Pequot voice.
I reiterate all of that to illustrate just how long and in how many different arenas (also including two different grad papers and three different courses I’ve taught) I’ve thought about and responded to Sedgwick’s novel, and to make clear the significance of the following statement: last week a student in my American Literature I course submitted a paper on Chapter IV of Sedgwick’s novel (which we had read by itself, in the Norton Anthology of American Literature) that added an entirely new, convincing, and impressively sophisticated reading to all those with which I’ve engaged (my own and those of other scholars) to date. The paper required them to pair any two of our readings thus far (in three-quarters of the class, from the arrival/exploration and Revolutionary units up to the Early Republic one), and she linked Sedgwick and Magawisca to one of the Cherokee Memorials (about which I blogged here), texts composed by the Cherokee Tribal Council (and especially by one of the Council’s and Early Republic’s most impressive writers, John Rollin Ridge) and sent to Congress in order to protest Jackson’s policy of Indian Removal.
The link might seem to be logical enough, but this is at least the fifth time I’ve used this assignment with this syllabus (meaning at least 130 students have written this paper for me), and she was the first to make the connection. (We discuss the Memorials on the same day as a piece by William Apess, and many students have worked and worked this time with that pairing, often interestingly but thus less strikingly.) But while a unique and compelling pairing is a great place to start, the key is where you go from there—and where she went was an impressively complex thesis and structure, one that moved between the two texts in unexpected and nuanced and entirely successful ways, working closely with moments and elements from both while making broader points about both the Removal period’s issues and questions of Native American self-expression; on the latter topic for example her points, while of course brief, were to my mind more appropriately complex than many expressed by the scholars I referenced in this post. The result was a paper that both exemplified the assignment’s possibilities and yet fully transcended them, which is about the best-case for any academic work and is the reason why I’ve asked the student if she’d be willing to present her ideas as part of FSU’s spring Undergraduate Research Conference (if she agrees an abstract will eventually be online and I’ll link to it here).
PS. Any unique and inspiring ideas you’ve encountered recently?
As I’ve been finishing up the week’s post-conference blogs and the Veteran’s Day one, I’ve simultaneously been struggling quite a bit with the question of whether, and if so what, I should write about the Penn State, the Sandusky, the Paterno, no let’s call it what it is the child rape scandal that’s been exploding over these same days. Despite my increasing willingness in this space to respond to current events (at least compared to the first few months, when I didn’t really do so at all), and despite the many significant AmericanStudies issues to which this scandal undoubtedly connects—none more frustrating to an academic AmericanStudier than the power that college football holds over our national and educational narratives; but certainly also issues related to power and privilege that are not at all outside of the Occupy Wall Street conversation; and many more besides—I have to admit that I have consistently found myself in the same place I do at this moment: without words to do justice to the scandal’s truly horrific and terrible core.
What I’ve instead mostly been doing in response to the scandal is, I’m sure, what many American parents and teachers and coaches and social workers, and uncles and aunts and grandparents and godparents, have been doing over these days—thinking about my boys, the oldest of whom is only a few years younger than some of Sandusky’s victims. I understand that for someone as obviously disturbed as Sandusky young boys represented something entirely different from what they would for any of those other constituencies—but what I remain unable to fathom is how any of the other people involved, all of whom of course knew young boys of their own and many I’m sure have had young sons, managed not to think of the victims in direct relationship to the boys in their own lives. I’ve argued multiple times in this space for how much would change if we could think about multiple issues through the lens of children—the children of illegal immigrants; children in Afghanistan—and had never thought that I might have to make the same case when it comes to the issue of whether to report a serial abuser and rapist of children. Again, I don’t quite have words for the disconnect there.
Ironically, my other most frustrated focus over the last couple days has indeed found words of his own: sportswriter Joe Posnanski, a favorite contemporary writer of mine, about whom I’ve written very enthusiastically in this space. Posnanski is currently living at Penn State, working on a biography of Paterno, and a result has posted a couple of blog entries (one on his main blog, on his Sports Illustratedblog) in response to the scandal. Despite framing both posts through the idea that he doesn’t want to write much of anything yet, he has in fact written quite a bit, and much of it, again, has been deeply frustrating to me; both because he seems determined to defend Paterno quite vociferously (and apparently did so even more passionately while speaking to a classon Joe Paterno at Penn State) and because he has bemoaned the state of his own book project. The latter factor is definitely the strongest source of frustration for me: I suppose it’s understandable that Posnanski is thinking about his book at a time like this, but what I cannot understand, what I once again have no adequate words to register my disgust with, is the idea that he thinks the state of his book is a worthy topic for a public response to the unfolding scandal.
I’ve written about war a good bit in this space, and often to be sure in overtly critical ways. But I’ve also tried on many occasions to engage with some of the more genuinely heroic, and at least more sympathetic, sides to what war is and means for those who serve in it. And to commemorate this Veteran’s Day, here are five such posts:
1)Last Year’s Veteran’s Day Post: For my first Veteran’s Day post, I considered one of the most under-rated and powerful American war films, and one of the very best engagements with the post-war experiences of vets: The Best Years of Their Lives (1946).
2)The Shaw Memorial: The Shaw Memorial, like the Civil War experiences of the 54th Massachusetts, the film Glory (1989), and every other element of that amazing story, certainly has a good deal to do with issues of race and community and history in America. But at the end of the day, both Shaw and the 54th’s troops are also among the most inspiring American soldiers in our long national story.
3)Chamberlain’s Bluff: Joshua Chamberlain would be the first to argue that he wasn’t among the most inspiring soldiers, that in fact his Civil War leadership was defined as much by fear and uncertainty as heroism. Maybe, but Chamberlain’s human qualities and experiences only amplify the amazing heroism of his crucial Gettsyburg moment, about which I wrote in this post.
4)Eisenhower’s Presidency: Dwight Eisenhower was without question an important and impressive military leader—but as I argue in this post, he was also a pretty impressive president and political leader as well, especially in contrast to what us liberals might instinctively believe or argue. Compared especially to the other best-known generals toward presidents—Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant—Eisenhower comes out looking pretty good.
5)Albion Tourgée: Like Eisenhower but even more fully, Tourgée is known much more for his post-war activities and identity than for his military service. But it’s fair to say both that Tourgée would never have moved to the South after the Civil War if it weren’t for his military experiences there and that his profoundly realistic and cynical yet passionate and activist mentality might well have stemmed directly from his time at war.
To all who have served, and all with family members or loved ones who did or are serving, Happy Veteran’s Day! More this weekend,
PS. Any inspirational veterans, moments, or texts you’d add to this conversation?