MyAmericanFuture

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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January 31, 2012: January Recap

[The series on sports in American Studies will resume tomorrow; today, here’s where this blog has gone in its first month at this new home!]

What’s Next: On my plans for this blog and website in the year to come, and (some of) what you can do to contribute.

The Contested Election of 1876: How an American Studies approach can help us analyze our most contested presidential election.

Ron Paul and Race: An American Studies approach to one of this campaign’s more controversial questions.

Gaga for American Studies: An American Studies analysis of Lady Gaga.

Mike Mulligan and His America: An American Studies analysis of a children’s classic.

American Studiers Needed: Requesting your own American Studies ideas!

Honoring a Great American: A tribute to Gordon Hirabayashi.

Mentors: Leading off a series on American Studies exemplars with a post on my grad advisors.

Outside the Box: American Studies exemplars outside academia.

New England American Studiers: American Studies exemplars I’ve met through the New England ASA.

International American Studiers: American Studies exemplars around the world.

Transnational American Studiers: Exemplars of our 21st century, transnational American Studies.

The Year Ahead: Four American Studier stories to which I’m looking forward this year.

The Real King: MLK Day post on remembering the real Martin Luther King, Jr.

American Studies in the Literature Classroom: A week of teaching posts starts with my sense of what American Studies can bring to an advanced lit course.

American Studies in the Survey Classroom: What American Studies can bring to an American literature survey.

American Studies in the Senior Capstone Course: What American Studies can bring to an English Capstone.

American Studies in the Grad Lit Theory Course: What American Studies can bring to a lit theory class.

American Studies for Lifelong Learning: American Studies in my newest teaching effort, a course for adult learners.

Mexican American Studies: In support of the Tucson Mexican American Studies program and students.

Mexican American Literature: What Mexican American Studies contributes to contemporary American literature.

Mexican American Wars: What a more accurate understanding of the Mexican American War would mean for American history.

Mexican American Homelands: The complex history of Mexican American land and homes in the Southwest.

Mexican American Migrations: What those histories of war and homelands would mean for our understanding of migrations.

Communal Education: My communal education in Mexican and Latin American Studies, and how you can help it continue to develop!

The Two Naturals: The series on sports and American Studies starts with an analysis of the book and film versions of The Natural.

More tomorrow, as the sports series resumes,

Ben

PS. Anything you’d like to see in this space in February? Any ideas or perspectives of yours to add to the conversations?

1/31 Memory Day nominee: Jackie Robinson, one of the most socially significant American sports figures and a pretty talented baseball player to boot.

Monday, January 30, 2012

January 30, 2012: The Two Naturals

[For this Super Bowl week, I’ll be blogging about interesting American Studies moments, texts, and issues related to the history of sports in America. This is the first in the series.]

What the two very different, even opposed, versions of an American classic can tell us about national histories, narratives, and perspectives on sports.

I’m sure every American Studier has his or her list of particularly egregious film adaptations of literary works—mine is definitely topped by 1995’s so-bad-it’s-hilarious version of The Scarlet Letter—but Barry Levinson’s 1984 adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural (1952) has to be strongly considered for a category all its own. Both the book and the movie are effective and compelling, full of extreme characters and over-the-top moments and shocking plot twists; and for about two-thirds of their respective lengths they’re generally very similar. Yet their final thirds deviate so strikingly, especially in their tones—Malamud’s book ends on a note of dark and cynical tragedy, Levinson’s film with redemption and victory—that it’s almost necessary to consider the film as an entirely different work from the novel. (I don’t want to spoil either any further, so won’t go into too much detail about the differences—but if you want to learn more the book’s ending is described here, and the film’s climax prominently includes this moment.)

The first thing an American Studier might do in analyzing those contrasting tones is to connect them to the two works’ different historical moments: Malamud’s novel was published at the height of McCarthyism, an era in which heroes were being destroyed (or, by testifying against their peers, destroying themselves) on a seemingly nightly basis, and the corruption and fall of his pure protagonist seems of a piece with that trend; while Levinson’s film was released in the same year that Ronald Reagan won a landslide re-election with the feel-good campaign slogan of “It’s Morning in America Again.” Beyond those specific historical contexts, it would also be worth connecting the two works to two very distinct but equally defining American narratives: the novel closely aligns with the jeremiad, a narrative of historic greatness lost due to human sins and failings (just as the novel’s Roy Hobbs loses his own “natural” greatness); while the film flirts with that narrative but ultimately embraces instead the Alger-like story of a self-made man whose perseverance and fundamental goodness bring him everything he has ever wanted.

Yet I would argue that the two Naturals can also reveal two complex and interconnected national perspectives on sports, two sets of images around which much of our 20th century sporting life has revolved. On the one hand, it seems that every generation of sports fans pines for a distant era when athletes were purer, nobler, played the game for its own sake, and so on; scandals from the Black Sox to the steroids revelations have consistently seemed to illustrate how far our athletes—and perhaps our nation—have fallen from those ideals. Yet on the other hand, and despite those scandals and persistent laments, we have continued to idolize our athletic stars, to find in them the kinds of heroic victories and identities that seem to exemplify our ideals. Moreover, the latter seems in many cases directly to follow the former in our narratives—a Babe Ruth rises to dispel the Black Sox aura, an Albert Pujols helps us recover from the steroids scandals—making the ending of the film Natural perhaps an inevitable American sequel to the novel’s cynical (and equally American) conclusion.

More tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Any American Studies sports stories you’d like to see in this space?

1/30 Memory Day nominees: A tie between Thomas Rolfe, the son of Pocahontas and John Rolfe and so the first prominent mixed race American child (and one whose English and Virginian life is full of both the complexities and the promises of cross-cultural American identity); and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, without whose influence (whatever your political perspectives) 20th century American and world history would have been entirely different.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

January 28-29, 2012: Communal Education

My Mexican American Studies knowledge has come from, and will continue to depend on, lots and lots of American voices.

As I was completing this past week’s series of blog posts on Mexican American Studies and the many ways it can contribute to our national narratives and identities, it struck me that it might have seemed as if I was trying to position myself as an expert in the field or on those questions. Obviously that’s a potential (or even unavoidable) danger to public scholarly work in general, and neither do I want to go to the other extreme and pretend that I don’t believe I have perspectives and narratives and ideas to contribute to our national conversations (why else would I be here?). But the truth, and one that it’s just as important to highlight here, is both that I have learned almost all I know about the field from other impressive voices and scholars and that I very much hope to continue learning from lots more (including, quite possibly, you!).

It most definitely has taken a village to help me understand even some of the histories, voices, and stories that comprise Mexican American and Latin American Studies, and I can only highlight a few of the more influential villagers here. My undergraduate courses in Latin American literature (with the amazing Bruno Bosteels) and history (with the equally inspiring John Womack) were absolutely foundational, as were conversations with my roommate, Latin American historian in training, and Womack’s thesis advisee, Chile Hidalgo. More recently, I’ve learned all that I know about contemporary Mexican and Latin American writers from my American Writers Museum colleagues, including Frances Aparicio and Reg Gibbons. And in the past few weeks, my new connections to and conversations on the #Latism Twitter network, as organized by Elianne Ramos, has exponentially expanded my connections to the many different sides of Latin American Studies and communities.

I can’t imagine a worse quality for a public scholar or an American Studier to possess than a certainty that we know enough (or even close to enough) about our fields or topics, though, and I hope that I never come to feel that way. I can and hopefully will continue to learn about Mexican American and Latin American Studies from all of those aforementioned voices, from colleagues and students, and from connections I can’t even imagine right now. But I can most definitely imagine you, blog readers, and so I will ask you explicitly to share your knowledge and perspectives, your ideas and voices, with me and with all of us in this space. Add a comment on this post, add a thread in the Forum, email me (brailton@fitchburgstate.edu) an analytical piece for that page under Resources, send me a Tweet (@AmericanStudier) with your ideas … just, por favor, contribute to my and our continuing communal education in whatever ways you can and want to!

More next week,

Ben

PS. You know what to do!

1/28 Memory Day nominee: José Martí, the Cuban American revolutionary, political and social activist and leader, journalist and translator and essayist and poet, and general transnational Renaissance American whose essay “Our America” makes a perfect case for precisely that transnational American Studies identity and community.

1/29 Memory Day nominee: Edward Abbey, the pioneering environmentalist, naturalist, and activist whose books Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang (among many others) join the works of Thoreau, John Muir, and Rachel Carson at the summit of American naturalist and activist writing.

Friday, January 27, 2012

January 27, 2012: Mexican American Migrations

[This week, I’ll be following up Monday’s post on Arizona’s assaults on the Tucson Mexican American Studies program and arguing for four crucial ways in which American identity and culture are interwoven with Mexican American Studies. This is the fourth and final entry in the series.]

An argument for two of the many ways in which our narratives of Mexican American migration to the United States should be made more complex and accurate.

Anti-immigrant activists, such as those who compose the core of the repulsive Minutemen operation, have long argued that Mexicans immigrating to the United States (and those who have already infiltrated our borders) are planning a “Reconquista,” a reconquest of the Southwest that will take the region back for Mexico. If you’ve been reading this week’s posts, you know how ludicrous the very nature of that idea is, for all sorts of reasons but perhaps especially because it is Mexican Americans whose homes and lives have been the subject of illegal and brutal conquests over the last century and a half; it is for that reason quite fitting that many of the most vociferous supporters of Arizona’s racist laws are apparently themselves new arrivals to the state and region, replicating quite blatantly the invasive arrivals of prior Anglo settlers such as Burton’s “squatter.”

Even if we set aside these “Reconquista” fears as the xenophobic garbage they are, though, the fact remains that it’s not quite sufficient to consider Mexican Americans coming into the United States as “immigrants.” Certainly that’s the overt category for each individual arrival, but the term also serves more generally to elide (or cement existing elisions of) the histories of Mexican American presences and homes about which I wrote yesterday. Fortunately here, as on so many aspects of American history, culture, literature, community, and identity, Gloria Anzaldúa has a better idea: in the opening and closing prose chapters of her Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), she describes both her journeys between Mexico and the United States and the parallel journeys of all Mexican American migrants as “el retorno,” the return. This multi-faceted use of the phrase allows her to recognize that the movement is not simply in one direction, neither historically nor in the contemporary moment; and it likewise captures the multiple homes and homelands that define the Mexican American experience.

Perhaps the other most important correction I would make to our national narratives of Mexican American migration would be in the sense that such movement is a relatively recent phenomenon (or at least that it has exploded in recent years). No scholarly work better challenges that perspective, both in its date of first publication and (even more) in its impressively comprehensive historical sweep and coverage, than Carey McWilliams’ groundbreaking book North From Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking Peoples of the United States (1949, although recent editions have updated its histories through the end of the 20th century). For an even more succinct historical lesson, every American Studier should read Congressman John Box’s 1928 speech arguing for the inclusion of Mexican Americans among the groups restricted by the exclusionary Immigration Act of 1924, in order to “stop at the border the illiterate, unclean, peonized masses moving this way from Mexico” (which is among the least offensive phrases in Box’s speech). Neither Mexican American migration nor xenophobic opposition to it is the slightest bit new or recent in our national history and identity.

The protests and responses in Tucson have continued all week, and my thoughts are with those students and all who support them; a petition to express that support is here. Mexican American Studies and American Studies are entirely and profoundly interconnected, and to reenact the historical attacks on Mexican Americans is to take precisely the wrong lesson from our shared history. More this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think?

1/27 Memory Day nominee: Samuel Gompers, the Anglo-Jewish immigrant and cigar maker who became one of the labor movement’s earliest and most eloquent and committed leaders and advocates.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

January 26, 2012: Mexican American Homelands

[This week, I’ll be following up Monday’s post on Arizona’s assaults on the Tucson Mexican American Studies program and arguing for four crucial ways in which American identity and culture are interwoven with Mexican American Studies. This is the third in the series.]

The treaty that ended the Mexican American War did far more than that—it also displaced, psychologically but also in many cases physically, an entire, foundational American community.

While there remain many significant gaps in our national narratives about and inclusions of Native Americans, I think we’ve gotten a lot better in the last few decades at recognizing a couple core realities of Native American experience: the history of unbalanced and broken treaties that defined the government’s relationship with native tribes; and the removals from and losses of homelands and homes that said history produced. As I wrote in this post on the Trail of Tears, those narratives don’t do anything like full justice to Native American histories, nor do they help us much to engage with contemporary native lives and perspectives; but they’re definitely better than nothing. And when it comes to another community that saw their homes and homelands significantly altered by both federal action and encroaching Anglo settlers, Mexican Americans in the mid to late 19th century, “nothing” is about the extent of what our national narratives include.

As I wrote yesterday, the most significant and troubling aspect of our national misunderstandings of the Mexican American War isn’t related to the war itself—it’s about the longer histories and communities that we fail to recognize and incorporate into our narratives as a result. Without an awareness of the many, longstanding and deeply rooted Mexican American communities and identities in the Southwest and California, homes and homelands that went back in many cases to the first 16th and 17th century arrivals of Spanish explorers and settlers, it’s certainly impossible to understand with any complexity the war itself, and specifically how much it pitted American communities against one another, at least as much as it represented two distinct nations in conflict. But without such awareness it’s even more difficult to recognize how much the war’s conclusion, and the terms and effects of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with which it closed, changed for those longstanding Mexican American communities and individuals.

Far from representing a negotiated peace settlement, the Treaty’s terms were mostly dictated by the US representatives—who were occupying Mexico City at the time—and the imbalance is obvious: the treaty is more exactly a land transfer, one equal to the Louisiana Purchase in its immediate and sweeping addition of an enormous area (comprising more than 500,000 square miles) to the United States. When it came to the many communities of Mexican Americans present within that region, the Treaty was in its terms quite generous, granting citizenship to them and expressing support for their maintaining of their lands and homes. Yet precisely as was the case with the aforementioned treaties with native tribes, the Treaty was immediately and consistently broken: both by arriving Anglo settlers who treated Mexican American land as available for the taking; and by subsequent legal decisions and governmental policies, which tended to side with those Anglo settlers. Much of María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s historical novel The Squatter and the Don (1885) focuses precisely on that history of broken promises and lost homelands; the book’s second chapter, “The Don’s View of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo,” should be required reading for all Americans if we are to understand the perspectives and experiences of Mexican Americans over these dark decades of displacement.

The story doesn’t end there, of course, and in tomorrow’s post I’ll try to bridge some of the gaps between those 19th century histories and our contemporary moment. More then,

Ben

PS. What do you think?

1/26 Memory Day nominees: A tie between Bessie Coleman, the first black woman in the world to earn an aviator’s license and, to my mind, an even more inspiring and pioneering aviator and American than Amelia Earhart (which is no knock on Earhart); and Paul Newman, not for his iconic and impressively long and diverse career in film so much as for his incredibly successful and inspiring work as a philanthropist and activist. So Coleman-Newman Day it is!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

January 25, 2012: Mexican American Wars

[This week, I’ll be following up Monday’s post on Arizona’s assaults on the Tucson Mexican American Studies program and arguing for four crucial ways in which American identity and culture are interwoven with Mexican American Studies. This is the second in the series.]

The most overt historical origin points for Mexican American relationships and identities are far different from, and in many ways precisely opposite to, our most prominent narratives of them.

This is certainly a competitive category, with the Spanish American War being the strongest alternative competitor (and the Civil War creeping up the list, due to the many arguments that it wasn’t about slavery), but I would argue that no American military conflict is more consistently and egregiously misunderstood than the Mexican American War. Perhaps “misunderstood” is the wrong word, since it doesn’t seem to me that there’s much understanding or even specific information at all about the war in our popular narratives; instead, it seems clear to me that the entirety of the war has been reduced to a sense (thanks largely to John Wayne et al) first of a vast army of Mexicans massacring a small, brave band of rugged frontier types at the Alamo, and then of American forces avenging them while rallying behind the (still celebrated) cries of “Remember the Alamo.”

There are so many inaccuracies within those images that it’s difficult to know where to start, but the central problem is this: neither the Alamo nor the subsequent military actions were part of the Mexican American War, nor did they involve the United States of America at all! The battle of the Alamo took place in 1836, after a group of (largely) European American settlers in the Mexican state of Tejas had decided to declare their independence from that nation and establish the separate Texas Republic; Mexico’s president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna led an army to put down the rebellion, and the Alamo was the first battle in that war. (The somewhat less famous massacre of Texas Republic troops at Goliad was the second.) It is indeed the case that Sam Houston led an army that responded to those losses and defeated Santa Anna’s forces at San Jacinto, and perhaps they were shouting “Remember the Alamo” while they did so; but that too took place in 1836, and helped cement the Texas Republic’s status as an independent nation. Ten years later, in 1846, the United States initiated its own hostilities with Mexico, largely in order to complete the annexation of the Texas Republic into the nation (which was one of the two prominent results of the 1848 US victory in the Mexican American War; I’ll discuss the second, the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, tomorrow).

If virtually all of the histories we associate with the Mexican American War are actually from a decade prior to it, it stands to reason that there’s plenty that can and should be added to our understanding of that war, perhaps especially in terms of the almost certainly illegal actions taken by the Polk administration to foment the conflict. But if we do connect, with more nuance and analysis, the 1836 events and the Texas Republic to the later war, our narratives of Mexican American history change even more significantly. After all, the Texas Republic’s secession from Mexico was not at all unlike the Confederacy’s secession from the Union; supporters of the Republic would argue that Santa Anna was a brutal dictator who had forced the Republic’s hand, but of course the Confederacy took much the same position toward the federal government and the Lincoln Administration. Whether the analogy holds or not, it’s at least crucial to note that “Texas” was a Mexican and Mexican American community for centuries, and that even during the period of the Texas Republic and the later Mexican American War it remained as much a part of Mexican American identity as it did European American. Certainly the 1848 US victory led to the temporary expulsion of many Mexican Americans from the state, but that shift in no way elides the long history of Mexican American identity there (nor of course has it remained static in the century and a half that followed).

Over the next two posts, I’ll try to amplify what this kind of shifted understanding of Mexican American history, community, and identity can contribute to our American narratives and histories. More tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think?

1/25 Memory Day nominee: Charles Reed Bishop, the businessman who moved to Hawaii in the mid-19th century and became one of the most inspiring benefactors of the state’s native population, educational system, and cultural heritage and identity: founding with his native Hawaiian wife a school for young natives, working after her tragically early death to preserve the school (in conjunction with his more general support for Hawaii’s land through his founding of the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society), and endowing a trust that has continued to benefit young Hawaiians to this day.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

January 24, 2012: Mexican American Literature

[This week, I’ll be following up Monday’s post on Arizona’s assaults on the Tucson Mexican American Studies program and arguing for four crucial ways in which American identity and culture are interwoven with Mexican American Studies. This is the first in the series.]

The last few decades in American literature and culture reflect just how impossible it is to define those elements without Mexican American writers and artists.

If I had to identify one and only one work of American literature from the 1980s to which we American Studiers can and should continue to turn—a ridiculous hypothetical, of course, but nonetheless the kind of question that can crystallize our analytical preferences—I would go with Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street (1984). I would do so in part for literary reasons: Cisneros uses the complex form of a short story cycle, a group of distinct but interconnected short fictional works, as well as it has ever been used; she likewise creates with stunning ease the evolving narrative voice of a young girl over a period of many years of her life. But the book also engages in profoundly compelling depth with a host of crucial American conversations about identity, nearly all captured in the five-paragraph story “My Name”: multigenerational familial and cultural heritages and influences on an individual; bilingual and multicultural experiences and identities for the child of immigrants; communities of neighborhood and place, peers and education, class and status; gender roles and stereotypes across cultures and generations; and more. And it’s so consistently readable and engaging, funny and moving, that it’s very easy to get students into it and into all those questions as a result.

Cisneros is an individual author who no more represents all of Mexican American literature, in her own moment or more broadly, than any other individual could; so I highlight her central 1980s achievement not to suggest that she can stand in for a larger community, but rather as one part of a larger argument that we cannot understand or define our national literature over the past few decades without including in prominent roles many Mexican American writers. You can’t talk about late 20th and early 21st century American fiction without including Cisneros, Rudolfa Anaya, Ana Castillo, and many others; parallel poetry conversations would have to include Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gary Soto, M. Miriam Herrera, Alfred Arteaga, and more; recent national debates over identity, community, and education have been informed by no works more than the memoir and scholarly non-fiction contributions of Gloria Anzaldúa and Richard Rodriguez; playwrights such as Luis Valdez and Esteia Portillo Trambley helped change the possibilities for 20th century American drama; and the list goes on. And while the community of prominent Mexican American writers has exploded over these decades, an American Studier can and should go back into our literary history to appreciate the contributions of an earlier author like María Amparo Ruíz de Burton.

As the Mexican American student protests in Tucson—and the vibrant existence of the Mexican American Studies program in which they’re enrolled—reflect, however, perhaps the most exciting and important Mexican American influences are those that continue to unfold into our 21st century moment, community, and identity. Once again I could list numerous writers and artists whose voices and works exemplify those influences, but I’ll focus on just one: Luis Alberto Urrea. Urrea’s thirteen books to date span literary genres, time periods, styles, and themes, from his The Devil’s Highway (a Pulitzer Prize-finalist for nonfiction, and one of many Urrea books to narrates the stories and lives of contemporary Mexican American immigrants) to the historical novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter, collections of poetry such as The Fever of Being to his memoir Nobody’s Son: Notes from an American Life. Urrea is no more reducible to a single genre or literary voice as he is solely defined by his Mexican American heritage; instead, what he exemplifies is how much Mexican American writing and culture has become a central part of every aspect of our literary and national conversations and identities. To read his works is to read 21st century America, sin pregunta.

Next Mexican American Studies influence tomorrow,

Ben

PS. Any Mexican American authors or artists you’d highlight?

1/24 Memory Day nominee: Edith Wharton, the novelist and scholar who was the first American woman awarded the Pulitzer prize, who became a self-educated authority on topics as diverse as architecture and travel, and whose best works of fiction engage realistically with both social and psychological identity as well as any American writer.

Monday, January 23, 2012

January 23, 2012: Mexican American Studies

Why American Studiers should be paying particularly close and committed attention to what’s happening with Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program.

There are plenty of reasons for any American, or human, to be upset with what has happened in Arizona (and specifically Tucson) over the last year or so; in fact each subsequent event and story has seemingly amplified the level of ridiculous and upsetting news. Last May the state’s legislature passed and its governor signed into law HB 2281, a law that bans the state’s schools from “teaching classes that are designed for students of a particular ethnic group, promote resentment, or advocate ethnic solidarity over treating pupils as individuals.” Earlier this month, as the law went into effect, the authorities decided to focus its first effects on Tucson’s famous and award-winning Mexican American Studies program, and they’ve done a good deal more than just cut funding for the program or the like—they’ve forced teachers to remove all materials from their classrooms, banned numerous books and authors entirely, and otherwise directly attacked the program and its participants. And last week, when students at Cholla High School marches to the program’s headquarters in protest—an action that would seem worth celebrating whatever one’s stance on the program—they were not only met with anger, but punished for their action by being forced to perform janitorial duties at their school.

I could easily write the rest of this post, and in fact a whole series of posts, on just how un-American, in the most profound sense of the (controversial I know) phrase, those latter two actions—banning books and punishing students for social protest and activism—are. But I hope and believe that no one reading this post would disagree with those sentiments. Moreover, while those actions are inarguably extreme and divisive, it is I would argue in fact the opening salvo in this series of events, the passage of HB 2281, that represents the most fundamentally and troublingly un-American action of all. In the subsequent posts this week, I will make the case for many of the moments, figures, and ways in which Mexican American Studies is inseparable from American Studies, the aspects of our national community, history, story, and identity that cannot be understood or narrated without the inclusion of Mexican American Studies.

Yet even if we leave aside that specific focus and kind of program, as of course the original law did, I would likewise argue that the law’s own language is profoundly disconnected from American identity. That’s true in a cause and effect way, to be sure—the idea that classes “designed for students of a particular ethnic group” will lead, as the sentence’s grammar implies, to “resentment” or the valuing of “ethnic solidarity over” individual identity, is nonsensically disconnected from the long sweep of American history, in which individuals have formed and maintained connections with both their particular groups and cultures and at the same time with the broader nation around them (one composed of course of other individuals doing the same). But it’s even more inaccurate to argue, as the law explicitly does, that programs like Tucson’s are “designed for students of a particular ethnic group”—quite the contrary, I believe that ethnic studies programs are designed for all American students, both those with connections to the groups in question and those outside of them; that’s important if we define America as composed of a set of different ethnic groups and communities, and even more crucial if we define it (as I do) as composed ultimately of the cross-cultural encounters and transformations between and across those communities.

Again, there are all sorts of specific arguments in favor of Tucson’s program, and of course the place of Mexican American Studies in American Studies and identity. I’ll try to make a few of them for the rest of this week. But the law is even more sweeping, and more sweepingly un-American, than that, and should likewise be responded to in those broad terms. More tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think?

1/23 Memory Day nominee: Gertrude Belle Elion, the Nobel Prize-winning medical researcher and chemist who was the daughter of two Jewish immigrants and one of America’s most pioneering female scientists, creating her own career and opportunities as well as much of the field of modern medical research.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

January 21-22, 2012: American Studies for Lifelong Learning

[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 fifth and final entry in the series.]

An exciting new course and opportunity gives me the chance to bring some of my public scholarly American Studies goals to a new and significant community and conversation.

One of the very best things about my nearly seven years teaching at Fitchburg State University has been the opportunity to work with a wide variety of student populations and communities. That includes not only the different undergraduates and the grad students about whom I wrote on Friday (most of whom are already secondary educators or otherwise working in the field), but also particularly exemplary and driven undergraduate students as part of an annual Leadership Day, interested community members and educators from around the state as part of a Teaching American History workshop, and local high school students through an English Department-sponsored writing contest, among other communities. And this year I have the chance to work with another group: senior citizens from more than a dozen local communities, through a five-week course I’ll be teaching in the Adult Learning in the Fitchburg Area (AFLA) program.

When I was offered the chance to do the course, I knew right away that I wanted to do something that lines up with my goals and ideals for public scholarship, for a couple of key reasons: this is a community of students for whom, it seems to me in the abstract at least, the question of how what they’re learning connects to their lives and worlds and perspectives and identities is rightly paramount; and it’s likely to be a community of students whose American experiences will comprise a vast and very significant range of histories and stories, and thus a community with whose voices I’m very eager to put my own perspectives and ideas about America into conversation. Moreover, I was offered the course right after giving a fall graduate colloquium talk, where I shared some histories and stories related to the Chinese Exclusion Act and immigration in America; the audience responses to that talk reinforced for me a sense, one that influenced my creation of this blog in the first place, that there are many vital, complicated, dark and yet often also inspiring American histories and stories that are not widely known or part of our national conversations and narratives.

So my preliminary plan (which will remain very open, as the course doesn’t have outside readings so it really unfolds for those couple of hours on each of five Fridays in February and March—which means that suggestions will be very welcome and appreciated!) is to focus each class on a different moment that is under-represented in our conversations and narratives, to bring in various primary sources and works to help us think about each, and then to get the students talking about their own perspectives and what these different moments and sources might contribute to them. As of right now those five moments are: Competing women’s voices and roles at the 1876 Centennial Exposition; the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the early history of immigration and law in America (links above); the 1898 Wilmington (NC) Massacre, lynching, and race in Jim Crow America; the Bonus Army March, the Depression, and class and protest in America; and the American Indian Movement takeovers and controversies of the 1970s, and Native American presences and voices in late 20th century America.

I’ve got plenty of starting points, but would love your thoughts as always—texts or stories or histories I could use to help frame those different moments? Other moments or histories you’d nominate as alternatives? Perspectives of any kind on this course and working with a community of students like this? Share, please!

Ben

PS. You know what to do!

1/21 Memory Day nominee: Roger Nash Baldwin, the influential social worker and probation officer who, in response to World War I and the need for an organization to support and defend conscientious objectors, helped found and then directed for many years the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), spearheading many of the ACLU’s signature legal and social efforts.

1/22 Memory Day nominee: Noah Phelps, the Revolutionary War officer whose efforts as a spy led directly to one of the war’s earliest and most significant victories (Ethan Allen’s capture of Fort Ticonderoga), and who continued to serve the new nation politically for many years, chairing the meeting that passed Connecticut’s Articles of Confederation and serving as a delegate to the state’s Constitutional Convention.

Friday, January 20, 2012

January 20, 2012: American Studies in the Grad Lit Theory 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 fourth in the series.]

My American Studies training and perspective has helped me to create what is, I hope, an accessible and practical, and most importantly a productive, graduate English course in literary theory.

When I taught our graduate program’s Literary Theory course for the first time, back in the spring of 2008, I began the class with a (somewhat dated) pop culture analogy for how surprised my own grad school peers would be at the thought of me teaching such a course: “Ben and literary theory,” I imagined them arguing, “are like Britney Spears and panties: maybe they’ve been in the same room at some point, but you’ve certainly never seen proof, and it’s quite possible that they haven’t.” That was an overstatement, of course—I took my own intro to theory course at the start of my grad training, for example—but there’s no question that I’ve been, and remain, very resistant to employing theory in my own work. I believe that resistance is directly connected to my American Studies perspective, and that it has helped me create an accessible, practical, and productive kind of lit theory course.

I would never try to argue that American Studies scholarship hasn’t been informed by theory, in both (to my mind) helpful and less helpful ways; Michel Foucault in particular has been utilized by many American Studiers over the last few decades. But I would note that the very nationally-specific focus of American Studies has made, and continues to make, it more difficult to directly apply the ideas of theorists from other countries to American Studies questions; the most exemplary works of American Studies scholarship, after all, are profoundly grounded in broad and deep engagement and analysis of American sources and evidence, across disciplines and media and time periods but always connected by this place and community. So while a theorist might well help provide analytical frames through which an American Studier can engage with his or her subjects—as, for example, I used Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the dialogic to help develop my first book’s analyses of voice in American culture and literature—those frames remain (again to my mind) very much a supplementary focus in such scholarly projects.

I have similarly, if perhaps counter-intuitively, tried to make literary theory supplementary to both primary texts and the students’ own interests and voices in my grad lit theory course. For example, the course is organized around two-week units in which we first read and discuss a work of literature (such as Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw), with no contexts of any kind (theoretical or otherwise) between the students and the text; having developed those analyses, we then add in some theoretical essays and ideas in the second week, allowing the students to make them a part of their evolving conversations rather than a focus in their own right. Even more illustrative of my goals for the course is the final, seminar paper, in which I ask the students to pick a primary text of their own (something they use in their own classrooms and/or scholarship, something they’re passionate about or interested in exploring further, etc), and then to think about how a few of the theorists and essays with which we’ve engaged can supplement and strengthen their own analyses of that work. The first two times I’ve taught the class have yield a very impressive range of subjects for those seminar papers—from Shakespeare to House of Leaves, Milton to In the Lake of the Woods—and I’m very excited to see where this semester’s grad student’s go.

Pretty good semester all the way around, I’d say—and one very much influenced by American Studies. As is the one newest and most unique course I get to teach, on which more in this weekend’s post,

Ben

PS. Any theorists or theoretical ideas that you’d highlight as helpful or important for American Studies?

1/20 Memory Day nominee: Buzz Aldrin, the pioneering astronaut and advocate for space exploration who performed America’s first spacewalk, was one of the first men to walk on the moon, and has continued to make an impassioned case for the values of exploration and science ever since—most especially and inspiringly in his books for and work with schoolchildren.

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.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

January 18, 2012: American Studies in the Survey Classroom

[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 second in the series.]

Beyond the obvious historicisms, it’s really what I ask of my students that illustrates the American Studies influences in my survey courses.

If American Studies is by many definitions grounded in the intersections between History and English—and that’s how we set up our American Studies program at Fitchburg State University, to be jointly housed and operated by those two departments—then a chronologically divided, two-part American lit survey course is, from its very concept, connected to American Studies. Certainly my particular syllabi for American Literature I and II echo that idea, divided as they are into time-period based Units (The Revolutionary Era and The Early Republic, to cite two from Am Lit I; The Late 19th Century and The Turn of the 21st Century, to cite two from Am Lit II) in the details of which I consistently locate for students the particular authors and works we’re reading. Yet I would argue that what is most uniquely American Studies about the American Lit II course I’m about to teach can instead be found in work that I ask of the students.

Throughout the semester, the most consistent place where students in my survey courses add their perspectives into our conversations is in their individual presentations. Each presentation focuses on a particular author and text, and the first two things I ask the students to talk about are par for the course: a biographical detail or two that they’ve discovered and that seem relevant to our reading; a close reading analysis of a passage from the text that stood out for them. But while those two elements unquestionably help frame our discussions throughout the semester, it’s the third presentation subject that most successfully brings in each student’s own American identity and interests: I ask the presenter to make an “outside connection,” to link the author and/or text to some other issue, work of art (from any genre), historical event, contemporary event, personal experience, to which it connected for him or her. When a student compellingly connects a Langston Hughes poem to a Talib Kweli record, and talks about how each have helped her understand race and community in America—well, it doesn’t get much more American Studies than that!

That semester-long American Studies presence in my American Lit II course gets amplified like crazy (technical pedagogical lingo there) in the final couple weeks of the semester. Having reached the 21st century (especially with our last readings, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake and a short story by Junot Díaz), we spend our final two class discussions hearing about the students’ 21st century American identities; I ask each of them to share an artist (in any medium and genre, and from anywhere in the world) who has been an important influence and inspiration, and to highlight a bit of a particular, exemplary work of that artist’s. As I wrote in this blog post, I’ve learned more about contemporary culture (especially music, but also film, photography, graphic art, comics and graphic novels, and, yup, literature) from these student perspectives than any other source (even my trusty Entertainment Weekly). But the conversations also illustrate, informally but unquestionably, the real value of an interdisciplinary American Studies perspective—we’ll move from Eric Carle to Eminem, Jodi Picault to the graffiti artist Banksy, with each additional pair of voices (the artist’s and the student’s) contributing another layer to our sense of 21st century American and world culture and identity.

I’m excited to hear my students’ American Studies perspectives this semester, and will be sure to keep you posted! Next course tomorrow,

Ben

PS. Any influential and inspiring 21st century artists you’d share?

1/18 Memory Day nominee: Daniel Hale Williams, the first African American cardiologist and a physician and surgeon of tremendous talent and influence, but also a pioneering social activist: Williams opened the Provident Hospital and Nursing Training School for young African Americans, served as surgeon-in-chief at Washington’s Freedmen’s Hospital, and, when denied membership in the American Medical Association, founded the National Medical Association.