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,
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.