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Saturday, May 31, 2014

May 31-June 1, 2014: May 2014 Recap

[A recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]

May 5: NeMLA Follow Ups: Reading American Rivers: A series reflecting on the 2014 NeMLA conference begins with the three impressive young scholars who comprised my panel on American rivers.
May 6: NeMLA Follow Ups: The 21st Century Composition Classroom: The series continues with two distinct but complementary visions for how we can bring the classics into our courses.
May 7: NeMLA Follow Ups: Roundtable on Contingent Faculty: Three meaningful ways we can move forward on a crucial issue, as the series rolls on.
May 8: NeMLA Follow Ups: More Inspiring Voices: On three additional, compelling and inspiring panels I attended at the conference.
May 9: NeMLA Follow Ups: George Saunders: The series concludes with the funny and inspiring reading by one of our most talented contemporary writers.
May 10-11: NeMLA Follow Ups: What’s Next: Following up the week’s relfections with a few of the ways in which you can contribute to NeMLA in the months and years to come.
May 12: Spring 2014 Recaps: 21st Century Writing: A series of reflections on the Spring semester opens with a few exemplary papers from my wonderful Writing II course.
May 13: Spring 2014 Recaps: The Post-War Novel: The series continues with two provocative questions raised by the great students in my senior-level seminar.
May 14: Spring 2014 Recaps: Sci Fi/Fantasy: A few ways to parse the definitions of and differences between two imaginative genres, as the series rolls on.
May 15: Spring 2014 Recaps: American Lit: On my evolving thoughts on the balance between my voice and those of my students in a survey course.
May 16: Spring 2014 Recaps: Three Presentations: The series concludes with takeaways from three of my spring talks and presentations.
May 17-18: Summer 2014 Preview: A follow up to the week’s series, on one of my summer research plans and how you can help with and contribute to it.
May 19: AmericanStudying Harvard Movies: With Honors: A series on cultural images of Harvard and higher ed starts with a film that embodies a particularly stereotypical view of the institution.
May 20: AmericanStudying Harvard Movies: Good Will Hunting: The series continues with the film that relies on but also challenges some of our hoariest clichés about Harvard.
May 21: AmericanStudying Harvard Movies: The Social Network: On success, rejection, and the role of social communities in our lives, as the series rolls on.
May 22: AmericanStudying Harvard Movies: Love Story: On fantasy images of love and college, and a tradition that passes them on to each generation of Harvard students.
May 23: AmericanStudying Harvard Movies: How High: The series concludes with the lowbrow stoner comedy that nonetheless both extends and complicates prior images of Harvard.
May 24-25: Crowd-sourced Images of College: Fellow AmericanStudiers share some images of higher ed that stand out to them—add yours in comments, please!
May 26: Memory and Memorials: A series inspired by Memorial Day begins with my annual post on the holiday’s histories and meanings.
May 27: Remembering William Dawes: The series continues with how and why we could better remember Paul Revere’s fellow midnight rider.
May 28: Remembering Benedict Arnold: Reiterating and yet complicating the memories of our most famous traitor, as the series rolls on.
May 29: Remembering the Battle of New Orleans: On a few important reasons to remember one of our least significant military victories.
May 30: Remembering Lee and Longstreet: The series concludes with the general we remember, the one we don’t, and the stakes in shifting that balance.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to write? Share ‘em in comments, please!

Friday, May 30, 2014

May 30, 2014: Remembering Lee and Longstreet

[This is the fifth and final entry in a series of Memorial Day-inspired posts. Check out my similar 2012 series for more!]

On the Civil War general we idolize—and the other one we should.
This blog might make it seem as if I’m immune to the processes of buying into simplifying narratives, of forgetting or ignoring certain complexities and realities in favor of more black and white or appealing histories and stories, that I spend a lot of time writing about here. Well, I’m here today to tell you that the truth is quite the opposite—in many if not most of these cases, I’m aware of the power of the existing narratives precisely because they’ve significantly influenced me in one way or another, and my attempts to push back against them, to highlight the events and figures and texts and stories that they elide or subsume, are thus for my own continuing benefit at least as much as they are for any and all audiences who might find and read this blog. And for no topic does that apply nearly as fully as it does for today’s starting point, the deification of Robert E. Lee.
I grew up in a town that—like many in the South I’m sure—had a park and statue honoring Lee, so maybe my childhood affection for the General began with simple osmosis. But as I started to become a hard-core Civil War buff in my own right, that affection only grew—partly because the guy just plain knew how to win battles (especially compared to those morons and buffoons who led the Union Army right up until Grant; if you can feel any affection for McClellan, you’re a better buff than I), but also because of that sense of a thoughtful and sensitive and impressive personality and character existing alongside the tactical genius. This was the man who, the story goes, in looking over the aftermath of Fredericksburg, a Confederate victory but also one of the bloodier battles in which he participated, famously remarked that “it is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.” And even as I got older and more cognizant of the evils for which the Confederacy stood (and the more subtle but perhaps even more evil forces that had contributed greatly to commemorations of the Confederacy and its leaders after the War), I still for many years fully endorsed the narrative of Lee as a reluctant Confederate, one who disagreed with the cause and hated fighting against his old West Point comrades but who couldn’t turn his back on the Virginia that was his home and homeland in every sense.
There’s some truth to that narrative, without question. But as I researched (for a couple chapters in my dissertation/first book) the late 19th century rise of a Southern version of both the Civil War and American history more generally (what came to be known in part as the Lost Cause narrative and in part as the plantation tradition), I began to learn about just how much that rise coincided with the deification of Lee, with Southern mythmakers figuring out how to frame the man to make him not only palatable for national audiences, but in fact a hero who could help the nation elide the slavery and race-related sides to the Civil War almost entirely. And at the same time, I learned much more about one of Lee’s fellow Confederate generals (and in many ways his second-in-command), James Longstreet, a man whose political and social perspectives and opinions underwent dramatic transformations in the post-bellum years, leading him to embrace not only Reconstruction and the Republican Party of Lincoln but also equal rights for African Americans. All of those changes, along with Longstreet’s explicit criticisms of Lee in conversations and speeches and then published writings during this period, made him an easy target for the Lost Cause chroniclers, a figure whose demonization could parallel Lee’s deification very fully and successfully. And I’ll be the first to admit that the two processes worked, even 100 years after the fact; young devotee of everything Civil War-related that I was, I knew and liked a lot about Lee, and thought of Longstreet mostly as the guy whose mistakes greatly contributed to the Confederacy’s turning-point loss at Gettysburg.
The identities and lives of both men don’t, of course, fit any more perfectly into a flipped hierarchy than they did into the Lost Cause’s one. Lee was indeed thoughtful and did have his issues with secession, although he was also (among other flaws) deeply elitist about class and status; Longstreet was clearly a prickly and difficult person in many ways, although he was also (among other strengths) one of the most well-read and intelligent American military leaders of any era. So the main lesson here is, as always, that we need to look back into the histories and texts and identities ourselves, rather than accepting the narratives that have been created and recreated for so long; and the parallel lesson here is, very clearly I hope, just how much that process impacts and continues for me as well.
May Recap tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

May 29, 2014: Remembering the Battle of New Orleans

[This is the fourth in a series of Memorial Day-inspired posts. Check out my similar 2012 series for more!]

On three striking sides to one of America’s most insignificant victories.
The first thing that stands out about the January 1815 Battle of New Orleans is that it was entirely unnecessary. Not in the “War: what is it good for?” sense, but quite literally unnecessary: the War of 1812 had been ended by the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814, but the various signatories were still in the process of ratifying the treaty and word had not reached the British troops who were trying to take the city and with it the rest of the Louisiana Purchase territory. So the attack continued, the American troops led by Major General Andrew Jackson fought back, and the U.S. won its clearest military victory of the war after that conflict had officially ceased.
If the victory was thus officially meaningless, however, the composition of those American forces was far more significant. I’ve written elsewhere in this space about the uniquely multicultural, -national, and –lingual identify of New Orleans, and the army fighting to protect the city reflected that identity very fully: the relatively small force (it numbered around 8000, noticeably fewer than the British forces) included French Creole troops from New Orleans (some commanded by the former pirate Jean Lafitte), both free African American residents of the city (colloquially known as fmcs, “free men of color”) and slaves who had been freed specifically to aid in the battle, and Choctaw Native Americans, among other communities.
Moreover, one particular such community is even more striking and unremembered in our national narratives. Since the mid-18th century, a group of Filipino immigrants had settled in a Louisiana town known as Manila Village, comprising what seems likely to be the oldest (and certainly the most enduring) Asian American community. Men from the village joined Lafitte’s forces for the battle, helping to create the truly multicultural fighting unit known as the “Batarians.” It’s difficult for me to overstate how much would change in our understanding of American history and community if we acknowledged at all, much less engaged at length with, this fact: that in one of our earliest military efforts, our forces included French Creole and Filipino Americans, fighting side by side to defend the city and nation that were and remain their home.
The week’s final remembering tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

May 28, 2014: Remembering Benedict Arnold

[This is the third in a series of Memorial Day-inspired posts. Check out my similar 2012 series for more!]

On the benefits and the limitations to remembering our most infamous traitor the way we do.
I’m not going to argue that we shouldn’t remember Benedict Arnold as one of our first, and one of our most enduring, national traitors, because, well, he was. Compared to the contested and still controversial treason accusations leveled at his contemporary Aaron Burr, Arnold’s traitorous acts were far more overt and undisputed—when Major Andre was caught and Arnold’s plan to hand over the fort at West Point to British forces discovered, Arnold immediately went over to the British side and helped lead their war effort for the war’s remaining two years; after the Revolution he settled in England and lived out his remaining two decades of life in that adopted homeland.
So Arnold was a traitor to the Revolutionary army and cause, and remembering him as such is certainly accurate to the specific histories and events. Doing so is also beneficial on a broader level, as it forces us to recognize the Founding Fathers and their iconic Revolutionary peers as no less human and flawed than any other leaders or people. Arnold was one of the Revolution’s first war heroes, playing a decisive role in the early victory at Saratoga and other conflicts; yet just two short years later, politics and preferences within the Continental Army, coupled with financial difficulties (perhaps due to lending money to the Continental Army, which would be a textbook definition of irony), led Arnold to cast his lot with the same forces he had helped defeat at Saratoga. 
Yet there’s at least one significant downside to remembering Arnold as a traitor, or more exactly to the collective blind spot that such memories reveal. After all, the most simple yet most commonly ignored fact of the Revolution is this: it represented an act of treason against the colonists’ Royal government, and each and every American involved in it was thus a traitor. (There was a reason why Ben Franklin worried, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, about everyone hanging separately if they did not hang together.) Awareness of that fact might not change our collective perspective on the Revolution and its leaders—but might it not at least shift our understanding of the loyalists, of those who sided (lawfully) with England during the war? As a soldier who sold out his comrades, Arnold was of course something more than just a loyalist—but the point here is that treason, during the Revolution, was a loaded and complex concept however we look at it.
Next remembering tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

May 27, 2014: Remembering William Dawes

[This is the second in a series of Memorial Day-inspired posts. Check out my similar 2012 series for more!]

On the vagaries of collective memory, and whether they matter.
Is it just as simple as the need for rhymes? That’s long been the predominant theory for why Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his poetic ballad about “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” instead of Revere’s fellow rider William Dawes. There seems to be some truth to that, but it’s also true that by 1860, when Longfellow composed his poem, Revere was already significantly better remembered in our Revolutionary histories than Dawes. Longfellow’s easily memorized bit of verse certainly cemented that status and permanently relegated Dawes to a distant second fiddle; but somehow, Revere seems to have been the front-runner from the very first lighting of those lanterns.
Whatever the timeline and reasons, clearly our collective memories feature Paul Revere far more fully than they do William Dawes. But does it matter? After all, few American actions have been as much about shaping the present, impacting the immediate moment and its vital needs, as the two men’s rides—had they not succeeded in warning the colonists of the Redcoats’ imminent arrival, it’s entirely possible that there would be no America, or at least that its Revolution would have gotten off to a significantly different and less victorious start. Which is to say, what William Dawes did in his life echoes in eternity precisely as much as does Revere’s ride, and no disparity in memory can change that shared influence.
And yet. Obviously I believe that remembering our histories with more accuracy and complexity matters, and Dawes presents a case in point. For one thing, I’d say it’s pretty significant that the midnight ride was a joint endeavor—we love our rugged individuals here in America, but so much of the time it really takes a village, or at least a couple of guys coordinating their efforts, to get the job done. And for another thing, better remembering Dawes would help us to recognize how constructed and over-simplified and mythic our national narratives tend to be—which might be fine for a ballad about a larger-than-life hero, but is woefully inadequate when it comes to the dynamic messiness that is history. It might be a lot harder to fit “The midnight rides of Paul Revere and William Dawes” into a rhyme scheme and rhythm, that is, but we most definitely need to fit them into our collective memories.
Next remembering tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Monday, May 26, 2014

May 26, 2014: Memory and Memorials

[This special post is the first of a series inspired by Memorial Day. Check out my similar 2012 series for more!]

On what we don’t remember about Memorial Day, and why we should.
In a long-ago post on the Statue of Liberty, I made a case for remembering, and engaging much more fully, with what the Statue was originally intended, by its French abolitionist creator, to symbolize: the legacy of slavery and abolitionism in both America and France, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the memories of what he had done to advance that cause, and so on. I tried there, hopefully with some success, to leave ample room for what the Statue has come to mean, both for America as a whole and, more significantly still, for generation upon generation of immigrant arrivals to the nation: I think those meanings, especially when tied to Emma Lazarus’ poem and its radically democratic and inclusive vision of our national identity, are beautiful and important in their own right. But how much more profound and meaningful, if certainly more complicated, would they be if they were linked to our nation’s own troubled but also inspiring histories of slavery and abolitionism, of sectional strife and Civil War, of racial divisions and those who have worked for centuries to transcend and bridge them?
I would say almost exactly the same thing when it comes to the history of Memorial Day. For the last century or so, at least since the end of World War I, the holiday has meant something broadly national and communal, an opportunity to remember and celebrate those Americans who have given their lives as members of our armed forces. While I certainly feel that some of the narratives associated with that idea are as simplifying and mythologizing and meaningless as many others I’ve analyzed here—“they died for our freedom” chief among them; the world would be a vastly different, and almost certainly less free, place had the Axis powers won World War II (for example), but I have yet to hear any convincing case that the world would be even the slightest bit worse off were it not for the quarter of a million American troops who lives were wasted in the Vietnam War (for another)—those narratives are much more about politics and propaganda, and don’t change at all the absolutely real and tragic and profound meaning of service and loss for those who have done so and all those who know and love them. One of the most pitch-perfect statements of my position on such losses can be found in a song by (surprisingly) Bruce Springsteen; his “Gypsy Biker,” from Magic (2007), certainly includes a strident critique of the Bush Administration and Iraq War, as seen in lines like “To those who threw you away / You ain’t nothing but gone,” but mostly reflects a brother’s and family’s range of emotions and responses to the death of a young soldier in that war.
Yet as with the Statue, Memorial Day’s original meanings and narratives are significantly different from, and would add a great deal of complexity and power to, these contemporary images. The holiday was first known as Decoration Day, and was (at least per the thorough histories of it by scholars like David Blight) originated in 1865 by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina; the slaves visited a cemetery for Union soldiers on May 1st of that year and decorated their graves, a quiet but very sincere tribute to what those soldiers have given and what it had meant to the lives of these freedmen and –women. The holiday quickly spread to many other communities, and just as quickly came to focus more on the less potentially divisive, or at least less complex as reminders of slavery and division and the ongoing controversies of Reconstruction and so on, perspectives of former soldiers—first fellow Union ones, but by the 1870s veterans from both sides. Yet former slaves continued to honor the holiday in their own way, as evidenced by a powerful scene from Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “Rodman the Keeper” (1880), in which the protagonist observes a group of ex-slaves leaving their decorations on the graves of the Union dead at the cemetery where he works. On the one hand, these ex-slave memorials are parallel to the family memories that now dominate Memorial Day, and serve as a beautiful reminder that the American family extends to blood relations of very different and perhaps even more genuine kinds. But on the other hand, the ex-slave memorials represent far more complex and in many ways (I believe) significant American stories and perspectives than a simple familial memory; these acts were a continuing acknowledgment both of some of our darkest moments and of the ways in which we had, at great but necessary cost, defeated them.
Again, I’m not trying to suggest that any current aspects or celebrations of Memorial Day are anything other than genuine and powerful; having heard some eloquent words about what my Granddad’s experiences with his fellow soldiers had meant to him (he even commandeered an abandoned bunker and hand-wrote a history of the Company after the war!), I share those perspectives. But as with the Statue and with so many of our national histories, what we’ve forgotten is just as genuine and powerful, and a lot more telling about who we’ve been and thus who and where we are. The more we can remember those histories too, the more complex and meaningful our holidays, our celebrations, our memories, and our futures will be. Next Memorial Day post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

May 24-25, 2014: Crowd-sourced Images of College

[My alma mater has seen more than its fair share of cultural representations, including a number of film portrayals of the university. Those films have a lot to tell us, not only about images of Harvard but also about educational, social, and cultural issues through that lens. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied five such Harvard Movies and their meanings. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the ideas of a couple fellow AmericanStudiers about cultural images of higher ed—share yours in comments, please!]
My colleague Frank Mabee highlights Richard Russo’s funny and pointed academic novel Straight Man (1997).
Irene Martyniuk shares a trio of films from the past few decades that offer their own versions of the real world vs. college dynamic I highlighted in Monday’s With Honors post: Animal House (1978), Back to School (1986), and Old School (2003), the last of which comes with the motto, “All the fun of college. None of the education.”
Memorial Day series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other images of higher ed you’d highlight?

Friday, May 23, 2014

May 23, 2014: AmericanStudying Harvard Movies: How High

[My alma mater has seen more than its fair share of cultural representations, including a number of film portrayals of the university. Those films have a lot to tell us, not only about images of Harvard but also about educational, social, and cultural issues through that lens. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five such Harvard Movies and their meanings. Share your own thoughts on images of Harvard, college and higher ed, or related issues for an Ivy League-worthy weekend post, please!]
On what’s ridiculous, and what’s not, about our most hip hop image of Harvard.
I can’t decide if I should be proud or ashamed of the fact that I’m about to dedicate a blog post to How High (2001), the college comedy starring rappers Method Man and Redman as two smart but unmotivated stoners who end up (thanks to some super-weed and a ghostly intervention during their admissions testing) at Harvard. How High, which for some reason I can’t remember (not involving banned substances, I swear) I happened to watch from start to finish at some point, is definitely on the short list of the most crude and lowbrow works I’ve ever referenced in this space, an equal opportunity offender full of sexism, racism, every imaginable kind of stereotype about Harvard/education/society/humanity, and a fair amount of bodily fluid humor to boot.
So How High isn’t going to win any awards, and I highly doubt it’ll be remembered among the other cultural images of Harvard I’ve discussed this week. But one interesting thing to note is that, its specific stoner focus notwithstanding, the film’s overall narrative utilizes many of the same stories and stereotypes I’ve analyzed in those other films: Method Man and Redman’s working class underdogs are contrasted with Harvard elitists, including a crew-team legacy snob and a staid dean; and their triumph involves uniting the rest of the more diverse and democratic Harvard community (including the elite women who become their significant others) around them and their cause and against those traditional but fraudalent Ivy League types. Across more than 40 years and a striking range of genres and themes, those dual and dueling Harvard stereotypes seem to have held an enduring power in our film representations of the university and its meanings.
Despite those similarities, however, How High is different from any other film I’ve analyzed this week, and not just because of all the weed. While it certainly makes use of ethnic and racial humor, the film also portrays a far more multi-racial and –cultural Harvard community than any of the others, including its African American protagonists and their girlfriends, their Asian American roommate, the African American dean against whom they are contrasted, and multiple other characters. And, perhaps not coincidentally, the protagonists triumph not by rejecting Harvard in favor of a more diverse and authentic world (as does Brendan Fraser’s character in With Honors), but instead by helping make the Harvard community more diverse and authentic, and even converting that staid dean to their cause by the film’s conclusion. Am I saying that How High has the potential to change our communal narratives of Harvard, and through it of American higher ed and society more broadly? C’mon, man, what are you smoking?!
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So last chance: other images of Harvard or higher ed you’d highlight? Related texts or works you’d share? Add ‘em for that weekend post!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

May 22, 2014: AmericanStudying Harvard Movies: Love Story

[My alma mater has seen more than its fair share of cultural representations, including a number of film portrayals of the university. Those films have a lot to tell us, not only about images of Harvard but also about educational, social, and cultural issues through that lens. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five such Harvard Movies and their meanings. Share your own thoughts on images of Harvard, college and higher ed, or related issues for an Ivy League-worthy weekend post, please!]
On the enduring appeal of fantasies, romantic and communal.
Every September, as part of the first-year orientation activities, Harvard screens Love Story (1970) for its entire freshman class. The screening is partly self-referential, as the production was one of the last allowed to film on the university’s grounds (it caused sufficient damage to contribute toward a change in university policy that now prohibits such filming) and so offers a rare opportunity to see actual Harvard buildings and settings on the big screen; and it’s partly tongue-in-cheek, as orientation leaders and administrators dress up in ‘60s/’70s apparel as part of the experience. But however ironic our young American filmgoers might tend to be, there’s still something quite striking about an annual Harvard screening of a film designated one of the most romantic of all time.
It’s not just that Love Story is self-consciously and thoroughly romantic, though—it’s that it creates its romance through a combination of just about every relevant cliché and stereotype, of both Harvard and love stories, possible. Its star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the tracks (he an elite Harvard legacy and hockey player, she a working-class student supporting herself through school) fall in love at first sight and pursue their romance despite opposition from his snobby Harvard father, supporting each other through the darkest of times and coming out on top, only to meet a tragic fate through an unnamed terminal illness. Indeed, Love Story is such a collection of romantic clichés that it even coined its own, in the enduring catchphrase “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” (which is ironically perhaps the least accurate cliché in human history, as anyone who’s ever tried to make a long-term relationship work can attest).
The film’s romantic fantasies are generally universal and longstanding, more connected to Romeo and Juliet than Harvard. But they certainly utilize two distinct but perhaps interconnected stereotypical images of Harvard and higher education in America—the elitist, legacy side embodied by Ryan O’Neal’s path to the school and romance; and the upward mobility, American Dream side exemplified by Ali McGraw’s. (In that sense and only that sense, perhaps McGraw’s untimely demise could be read as more cynical or socially critical than clichéd.) Just as the film’s lovers do, our current narratives of higher ed embrace the democratic, upward mobility image and reject the elitist, legacy one—and of course, the former is indeed a far more positive goal, one deployed in direct response to the latter’s historical and ongoing prevalence. But it’s worth recognizing that both are fantasies, simplified and romanticized images of identity and community that must be analyzed rather than taken for granted. I’d apologize for saying so, but blogging means never having to say you’re sorry.
Last Harvard movie tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other images of Harvard or higher ed you’d highlight?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

May 21, 2014: AmericanStudying Harvard Movies: The Social Network

[My alma mater has seen more than its fair share of cultural representations, including a number of film portrayals of the university. Those films have a lot to tell us, not only about images of Harvard but also about educational, social, and cultural issues through that lens. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five such Harvard Movies and their meanings. Share your own thoughts on images of Harvard, college and higher ed, or related issues for an Ivy League-worthy weekend post, please!]
On success, rejection, and the roles of social communities in our lives.
From the opening scene of David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), the film (scripted by Aaron Sorkin) links two distinct narratives to one another: Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)’s pursuit of admission to one of Harvard’s elite Finals Clubs and his relationship with his girlfriend Erica. When both of these quests end in failure—Erica has dumped him by the end of the opening scene, and not long after he is denied by his chosen Finals Club (while his roomate and co-Facebook founder Eduardo is “punched”)—the joint rejections provide the direct impetus for Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook, which the film depicts from its earliest iteration as, at one and the same time, a misogynist “ranking of girls” and an alternative, more democratic kind of Harvard community than the elitist clubs.
Whatever its grounding in the realities of Zuckerberg’s and Facebook’s stories, this narrative origin point provides a powerful duality for the film’s overall arc and themes: an image of “the social network” as based on both personal grievance and communal appeal, the worst and best sides of human identity and relationships. Moreover, these dual narratives nicely construct two sides to Zuckerberg himself: he benefits from the contrast with the Finals Clubs, which are portrayed (with some accuracy, as I also noted in Monday’s post) as elitist and cut-off from the rest of the community; but comes off looking far worse in his relationship with and payback toward Erica. That duality also informs Zuckerberg’s two most lasting professional relationships in the film: with the elite and snobby Winklevoss twins, in relation to whom Zuckerberg is mostly portrayed as a hero; and with the sympathetic and eventually aggrieved Eduardo, toward whom the film’s Zuckerberg behaves much more like a villain.
I think these dualities also have a great deal of resonance with our broader narratives of higher education. After all, every experience of higher ed—an experience that more Americans now share than at any prior point in our history—begins with a moment defined by acceptance and rejection, by whether these communities welcome us into them or deny us entrance. On one level, that moment and process are distinct from, or at least more overt than, any other such decisions in our lives. But on another, they parallel many of our other social relationships—not only with dating and significant others, relationships which inevitably lead (as Zuckerberg came to realize) to either acceptance or rejection; but also with possible jobs and careers, with professional and social organizations, indeed with any community of voluntary affiliation. We’re all part of social networks, and that membership is almost always contingent and fragile—a fact captured concisely in the world of higher education.
Next Harvard movie tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other images of Harvard or higher ed you’d highlight?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

May 20, 2014: AmericanStudying Harvard Movies: Good Will Hunting

[My alma mater has seen more than its fair share of cultural representations, including a number of film portrayals of the university. Those films have a lot to tell us, not only about images of Harvard but also about educational, social, and cultural issues through that lens. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five such Harvard Movies and their meanings. Share your own thoughts on images of Harvard, college and higher ed, or related issues for an Ivy League-worthy weekend post, please!]
On the character who reflects communal stereotypes—and the one who transcends them.
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a community that—like any college town, of course, but I would argue with a particular intensity in this case—has a conflicted relationship with the prominent universities (Harvard and MIT) which it hosts. And when the two childhood friends wrote their first (and to date only) screenplay, for the film that became Good Will Hunting (1997; the two won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for their work), they created a character who embodies the worst possible images of Harvard and Ivy League elitism: the long-haired, snobby, arrogant, academic fraud of a grad student with whom Will gets into a debate (standing up for his townie friend Chuckie, whose lack of intelligence the grad student has insulted) in a “Harvard bar.”
The grad student’s ugliness could be read as just another version of the kind of elitism about which I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I believe that Damon and Affleck have taken the stereotypes even further in this case: the student admits to his own intellectual fraudalence and plagiarism, relishing the fact that he will achieve success and high status in any case thanks to his “degree” (in direct contrast to Will’s genuine but, as the student frames it, socially unsuccessful intelligence). Leaving aside the ironic reality that a graduate degree in History is no longer a guarantee of even a job, much less elite social or financial status, the real problem with this character is that, in a film full of impressively three-dimensional human beings (especially the two central adult characters played by Robin Williams and Stellan Skarsgard), he’s a cartoon, and a particularly unbelievable one at that.
The character whom Will meets (and is at least partly trying to impress) during this same scene, Minnie Driver’s Harvard undergraduate Skylar, seems in some ways like another such stereotype, on the fantasy side this time: a British trust fund baby who’s both pre-med and beautiful. But after Will’s friends hang out with Skylar for a night, Chuckie notes that she has changed his perspective on Harvard students, and I would argue that the character has a similar effect on us as viewers—particularly in the scene when she fills Will in on her backstory, including the early death of her father that left her with that trust fund but with a hole in her heart as well. There are multiple characters and events that contribute to Will’s evolution in the course of the film, but Skylar has to be located at the top of that list, and I would argue that it’s precisely the way in which she challenges Will’s preconceived notions of class, elitism, institutions like Harvard, and his own future that produce such effects.
Next Harvard movie tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other images of Harvard or higher ed you’d highlight?

Monday, May 19, 2014

May 19, 2014: AmericanStudying Harvard Movies: With Honors

[My alma mater has seen more than its fair share of cultural representations, including a number of film portrayals of the university. Those films have a lot to tell us, not only about images of Harvard but also about educational, social, and cultural issues through that lens. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five such Harvard Movies and their meanings. Share your own thoughts on images of Harvard, college and higher ed, or related issues for an Ivy League-worthy weekend post, please!]
On stereotypes, realities, and elitism.
In the most famous scene in the largely forgettable Harvard dramedy With Honors (1994), Joe Pesci’s homeless philosopher schools Gore Vidal’s snobby political science professor in the histories and ideals that comprise “the genius of the Constitution.” The scene nicely contrasts the Vidal character’s cynical pragmatism with Pesci’s eloquent idealism, a debate that the film frames overall through the way in which the two men serve as potential mentors and even father figures for Brendan Fraser’s about-to-graduate student. And the scene includes, on both sides of the debate, more complex truths about our founding era and document than you’re likely to find in most Hollywood productions. But it also relies, as does the film overall, on a reductive vision of Ivy League elitism.
The film positions the Fraser character’s choice, metaphorically for much of its story and then very literally in its culminating events, as between Harvard itself (as embodied in his thesis work with Vidal’s professor) and the more messy but far more authentic world and life represented by Pesci’s character. What Harvard becomes in this narrative, then, is not simply an elitist set of attitudes about the world, but an overt, unflattering contrast to that world, one that must be rejected in order for real life to begin. To be clear, I certainly did encounter such sides to Harvard in my own time there—from the exclusive and exclusionary communities of the Final Clubs to an Economics professor who argued, as part of a lecture, that homelessness is a necessary process through which society weeds out those who cannot succeed in it (similarly, a roommate of mine was in a History class where the professor noted in passing that Africa’s nations were far better off under colonialism and would have been fortunate to remain in that state permanently). So the film’s stereotypes are not without validity.
But on the other hand, my own experience of Harvard—which began one year after the film was released—was of a community that was incredibly diverse, not only in ethnic or cultural terms but also in regard to many other elements of identity (including class, political perspectives, religion, and numerous other life experiences). Such diversity, to be sure, is a relatively new phenomenon and emphasis, throughout higher education and at Harvard in particular. But it is and should be very much a central goal, and one that can only benefit from visions of higher education in which the university community is defined precisely by its reflection of the real world all around it, rather than by stereotypes of its contrasts with that world. Which is to say, as extreme or exaggerated as both characters are, Harvard and all universities are defined by both the Pescis and the Vidals, and are all the better for it.
Next Harvard movie tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other images of Harvard or higher ed you’d highlight?

Saturday, May 17, 2014

May 17-18, 2014: Summer 2014 Preview

[It’s exam week, the final act of the Spring 2014 semester! So in this week’s series, I’ve recapped some of the best of my semester’s courses and conversations, leading up to this weekend post on my summer plans. One more chance to add your semester recaps, summer plans, or whatever else you want to share in comments!]
On one summer plan with which I need your help.
I’ve got a lot of big plans for the summer: swimming pool visits with the boys; beach visits with the boys; museum and historic site visits with the boys; and, well, I’m sure you get the idea. I also have my annual summertime hopes for all that pleasure reading I don’t get to do during the academic year, and will share some of the books on that beach reading list (and hopefully get some of your own beach reading recommendations) as part of that annual series in a few weeks. But as always, I’ll also be continuing to pursue various parts of my public scholarly work, including this blog of course but also my next writing project, which will hopefully entail both a book and a website. And for that project, I could use some input from you all.
The project will be entitled The Hall of American Inspiration, and I’ve already created a first, trial version of the website that will accompany the book version here. The main premise is two-part: that one important reason to better remember our histories is that we can find in them stories of inspiring lives and identities; and that many of the most inspiring such stories came about in the context of, and even in response to, particularly dark or difficult historical events and issues. I’ve written in this space about many of the figures I hope to include in the book and site, from Ida B. Wells and Ely Parker to Yung Wing, Jane Addams, and the figure with whose page I hope to start the site, W.E.B. Du Bois. I plan to use my written text and multimedia resources to highlight both the historical contexts and the lives of these impressive, inspiring individuals.
But if this is going to be a legitimate Hall, it needs nominees and inductees provided by more voices than just my own. I’ve become a very big fan of crowd-sourcing through all the times I’ve done it in this space, and think that’ll be a crucial way for me to build up a broader list of figures for the Hall. And I don’t just mean public or historical ones, although any and all of those will be welcome—I’m very interested in more personal, familial, local inspiring figures and lives as well. So as I move into this summer’s more in-depth work on the Hall, I’d love to hear your nominees—feel free to share in comments or to email them to me, and add your voice and ideas to this work in progress, please!
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. How was your spring semester? Plans for the summer you want to share?

Friday, May 16, 2014

May 16, 2014: Spring 2014 Recaps: Three Presentations

[It’s exam week, the final act of the Spring 2014 semester! So in this week’s series, I’ll recap some of the best of my semester’s courses and conversations, leading up to a weekend post on my summer plans. Add your semester recaps, summer plans, or whatever else you want to share in comments, please!]
On one takeaway each from three opportunities to share my work and ideas.
1)      VA Festival of the Book: I followed up on my amazing experience back in Charlottesville in this post. So here I’ll add one more thought: that presenting on a panel on “hot-button issues” (my co-presenters’ books focus on abortion and health care) helped me continue to think not only about how my public scholarly work can engage with such contemporary debates, but also and just as importantly how I can do so without (I hope) being antagonistic  to any audiences or perspectives. That doesn’t mean that everyone will agree with my ideas and arguments, of course—but that I can, and have to, find ways to present them in a voice and tone that everyone can engage with, that feel in conversation with every reasonable perspective.
2)      Leominster Public Library: As part of a series on race and Civil Rights, the Leominster (MA) Public Library screened part of the amazing documentary The Loving Story (2011), and I had the chance to follow up the screening with both some thoughts of mine and participation in a communal conversation. It was an inspiring experience for lots of reasons, but one definite takeaway for me was a renewed sense of how important stories are to our understandings of the past, of complex social and cultural issues, of America. The Lovings were no more representative of all (or any) American communities than Yung Wing and his students were—but both impressive stories can nevertheless help open up those communal histories and issues in provocative and productive ways.
3)      FSU Center for Conflict Studies: As part of a year-long series of events sponsored by Fitchburg State’s Center for Conflict Studies, I took part in a panel discussion of the complex question: “Genocide and Mass Killings: Is the U.S. Different?” I learned a lot from my colleagues and co-presenters: Ben Lieberman on Native American genocides; and René Reeves on U.S. involvement in Latin America. And the panel overall, as well as the subsequent Q&A, reminded me that I need to continue working to put my ideas about America in trans- and international contexts, both because of how inseparable the U.S. and the rest of the world have always been and because such comparative analyses can open up perspectives on American history, culture, and identity that are not possible otherwise. I’ll keep trying to add that lens to my work!
Summer preview tomorrow,
Ben
PS. How was your spring semester?