MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Thursday, January 19, 2012

January 19, 2012: American Studies in the Senior Capstone Course

[As the spring semester gets underway, this week I’ll be blogging about aspects of my spring courses that connect to, have been influenced by, and can help reveal some of my perspectives on American Studies. I’ll leave out Introduction to American Studies, not ‘cause it’s not a fun course—it’s on the 1980s! I get to team-teach with a historian!—but because the connections are a bit obvious. This is the third in the series.]

My recent American Studies experiences have informed, and in turn been informed by, even the most explicitly English-centered course I teach.

Our required senior English Capstone Course is, as you would expect, very much about the discipline of English, on multiple levels. It brings together English Majors from our four departmental tracks (literature, professional writing, theater, and secondary education) to discuss their own experiences and assemble their senior portfolios; it gives us a space to talk about what the different aspects of English entail and analyze some shared readings to that effect; and it allows for practical conversations about and work toward the students’ future goals and possibilities. Having had the chance to teach my first two Capstone sections last semester, and gearing up for another one this spring, I can testify that the course is indeed centrally focused on the discipline of English—yet at the same time, I have brought a core aspect of my recent American Studies efforts into the course, with exciting and surprising results.

As I have written about many times in this space (particularly in the posts captured under the “Meta-Posts” category), and as this blog and the new website themselves hopefully illustrate, I have come to feel more and more strongly over the last few years that public scholarship is a necessary and vital part of what us American Studiers (and scholars period) can and, if and when we’re up for it, should do. There’s perhaps no national issue for which that’s truer, and on which our public scholarly perspectives have more value, than education, and so when it came time to pick a shared reading for the secondary education part of the syllabus, I went with a recent book that both represents and can help elicit nuanced and important public scholarship: Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System. For the two weeks that we discussed Ravitch’s book, I asked the students to imagine themselves public scholars in the making, and to think about what arguments and ideas they’d want to advance in public conversations and debates about education and its many related issues. It made for a really provocative and compelling couple of weeks, and certainly exemplified the interconnections between English and broader, public, American Studies questions.

I’m hopeful that those couple weeks influenced the students as they move forward, since all of them have the potential to be (whatever specific careers and futures they end up in) part of our public conversations in meaningful ways. And in any case, I can already say that the class discussions have influenced my own perspective on public scholarship in at least one very important way. During the final discussion, a debate on what kinds of educational policies and approaches we as a nation should take moving forward, a student asked a very salient question: given the role and power of big money in the world of education, as in every other sector of our society, what difference does it make what we think and say? My answer at the time was that, while we perhaps cannot influence policies or governments or leaders in the way that money can and does, we can most definitely influence narratives, can contribute to and even (particularly as communities) shift the stories and histories and ideas that are part of our conversations and debates. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I believe that that’s maybe the only, but also the most important, thing that public scholars can do—and of course that one of the best things we can do in a classroom (English or otherwise) is to help students become better participants in and shapers of such discussions.

Pretty important goal, at least! Last course tomorrow,

Ben

PS. Any public conversations you’d highlight, and/or stories or ideas you’d want to add into our national conversations?

1/19 Memory Day nominee: Edgar Allan Poe, one of the couple most famous American writers (you get a football team named after you, you’re at the top of the list) but still underappreciated for the breadth and depth of his talent: the guy helped create and popularize not only realistic psychological horror, but also the detective story, science fiction, and modern literary criticism—all before the age of forty! (To say nothing of his innovative, mathematically precise yet still emotionally resonant poetry.)

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