Monday, December 11, 2017

December 11, 2017: Fall 2017 Reflections: America in the Gilded Age

[As another semester comes to a close, I wanted to spend the week reflecting on some complex moments and questions related to Teaching under Trump (trademark AmericanStudier!). I’d love to hear your thoughts, on these or any of your own teaching or semester reflections, in comments!]
On the limits and possibilities of unspoken contemporary contexts for a historical course.
Prior to this semester, I had last taught my Honors Literature Seminar on America in the Gilded Age one year ago, in the Fall 2016 semester. That fact alone should probably be sufficient to explain why I ended that previous course with a blog post thinking about texts from the class syllabus that have a great deal to offer us in 21st century America. I believe it was literally impossible for any civically engaged professor (or American, or person) not to make those kinds of connections in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, and I’ll freely admit that I likewise brought them into my Honors Seminar classroom more fully than I otherwise would have. For example, when we read Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901) as the central text in a final unit on race and culture in the Gilded Age, just a couple weeks after the election, how could I not ask us to engage as well with the resurgence of white supremacist voices, forces, and violence in late 2016? I hope and believe that we kept our central focus on our Gilded Age texts and topics, but there’s no doubt that we made those contemporary contexts and connections more visible and more a part of our discussions than had been the case the first time I taught the course (in Fall 2015).
For this third iteration of the class (and perhaps the final one, as I’m not scheduled to teach it for at least the next couple academic years), those contemporary contexts and connections remained far more consistently unspoken. That is, I don’t think they were absent by any means—I don’t know that it would ever be possible to talk about such topics as Mexican American histories and communities, women’s rights and activisms, class and wealth inequalities, racism and white supremacy, and many others without echoes and resonances with our own moment and society—but neither did we talk about them much (other than in a few instances where students nicely brought up particular contemporary links). And because we didn’t do so, I think it would be fair (and important) to say that we couldn’t engage with them with the kind of collective discussion and analysis that would be necessary to turn such historical connections into truly meaningful ways to help understand our moment and world. That wasn’t and isn’t the point of this class, so I was and am okay with it; but it’s nonetheless a limit produced by leaving unspoken contexts largely at that level.
At the same time, I’m a big believer in education as part of a long game of contributing to and strengthening collective memories and conversations (I’ve also described public scholarly writing as a public parallel to such educational efforts), and one of the main ways education (at least in Humanities fields like mine) can achieve those goals is by highlighting texts and stories, contexts and histories that are not only worth knowing for their own sakes, but are also meaningful to our moment and its debates and issues, identities and communities, society and culture. Which is to say, the fact that there were clear contemporary contexts for our Gilded Age texts and topics itself directly contributes to such educational goals, whether we overtly discuss those contexts or not. Indeed, I might argue that not discussing them overtly at first allows the texts and topics to become part of our voices and ideas on their own initial terms, and that then (at least in the ideal version of this process) we all could continue thinking as we move forward about whether and how we can connect those various conversations to aspects of our own moment. That is, now more than ever, here amidst the Age of Trump, knowledge and understanding themselves as radical contributions to the resistance.
Next reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fall reflections you’d share?

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