Thursday, December 22, 2011

December 22, 2011: Making My List 4: Filter Them From Your Self

[This week, as Chanukah begins and Christmas and Kwanzaa get ever closer, I’ll be blogging about my AmericanStudies holiday list: my requests (to the AmericanStudies Elves, of course) for five changes I’d love to see in our national narratives and conversations. This is the fourth in that series.]
AmericanStudies Elves, I would like all Americans to have the chance to interpret the evidence for themselves.
At the end of the second section of “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman captures quite precisely a central role for public AmericanStudies scholars. “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,” he claims, and three lines later adds “You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.” Those two images of the poet’s relationship to his audience might seem contradictory (which would be okay with Walt, since after all he is large and contains multitudes), but I would argue instead that Whitman is describing a two-step process: he will bring you to some new (perhaps spiritual, but also certainly historical, literary, and cultural) focal points and help you develop a new perspective on and through them; but his ultimate goal in doing so is to make it possible for you to have and strengthen that perspective on your own, through your own understanding and interpretation of those subjects and of the world around you.
Those two steps are similarly at the core of my student-centered teaching philosophy: I certainly (and I suppose obviously) think that the texts and voices, the stories and histories, on which my courses focus are worth knowing and engaging with; but my central goal in helping students know about and engage with them is for them to develop their own takes and analyses and voices, not only about those particular focal points but as readers, writers, thinkers, and AmericanStudiers more generally. (See this recent article of mine in a free online journal for a fuller articulation of those two steps in regard to survey courses.) Since a key aim of public scholarship is to make our broader communities and conversations into the best kinds of AmericanStudies classrooms (and more exactly seminars, with all voices equal, valued, and necessary), I would emphasize this same dual role at that level; and so, Elves, I propose that us public AmericanStudies scholars explicitly frame our mission as to give all Americans greater access to, and the kinds of contexts and frames that can help them develop their own perspectives on, our historical, literary, and cultural sources.
I don’t mean to suggest that we public scholars can’t or won’t have our own takes on those sources and the questions and issues to which they connect—if anything, we have to make sure that we’re open and honest about our takes, and I hope I have consistently been those things in this space. Even the choice of sources and texts is, after all, driven in part by our perspectives. But just as I believe Walt when he hopes that his audience will eventually not need him—or, more exactly, will develop perspectives that are the equals of his in every meaningful sense—I hope that you’ll believe that I feel precisely the same way. In fact, I can think of few things more inspiring than (for example) a debate over the causes of the Civil War (and thus over that war’s continuing sectional, governmental, racial, and other communal effects and aftermaths) in which all interested and participating Americans have access to the Confederate states’ “declaration[s] of secession,” Lincoln’s first inaugural address, and other related documents.
A nation of AmericanStudiers with the opportunity to filter it all for themselves? Elves, let’s make it happen. Last, particularly holiday-centric wish list item tomorrow,
PS. Any evidence you think we should all engage with?
12/22 Memory Day nominee: Arthur Mitchell, the first African American Democratic Congressman and a vocal and impassioned activist against Jim Crow segregation, lynching, and the many associated horrors of the post-bellum South in which he had grown up.

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