My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Thursday, January 31, 2013

January 31, 2013: January 2013 Recap

[The football-inspired series concludes tomorrow, but today, here’s a recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
January 1: AmericanStudying Our Biggest Issues: Climate Change: A series for the new year starts with how AmericanStudies can help us respond to our most serious ongoing issue.
January 2: AmericanStudying Our Biggest Issues: The Debt: The series continues with a post on the histories and narratives of debt in America.
January 3: AmericanStudying Our Biggest Issues: Education Reform: A post on how inspiring American figures and stories can help us emphasize what’s most important in education reform.
January 4: AmericanStudying Our Biggest Issues: Poverty and Inequality: The series concludes with a post on issues we AmericanStudiers (and Americans) don’t like to talk about—but need to.
January 5-6: Crowd-sourcing Our Biggest Issues: A space where you can share your own thoughts on AmericanStudying our biggest issues.
January 7: American Homes, Part One: A series on American homes kicks off with Cooper and promise and perils of returning home after years away.
January 8: American Homes, Part Two: On Stephen Foster’s fake and troubling yet nostalgic and compelling musical images of home.
January 9: American Homes, Part Three: The series continues with a post on the dark, cynical, and human portrayals of home in two Robert Frost poems.
January 10: American Homes, Part Four: The layers of American meaning to Home Alone, as the series rolls on.
January 11: American Homes, Part Five: The series concludes with a Guest Post from a colleague and one of the best scholars of American homes, Elif Armbruster.
January 12: Crowd-sourcing American Homes: A couple responses to the week’s series and posts—add yours, please!
January 13: Lincoln Redux: Having finally seen Spielberg’s historical film, I share a few AmericanStudier responses to its limitations and achievements.
January 14: Back to School Hopes, Part One: Three ways I hope digital resources can contribute to my American Lit surveys, as a series on spring hopes kicks off.
January 15: Back to School Hopes, Part Two: The series continues with a post on the inspirations I’ve received, and hope to receive again, from my Ethnic American Literature student projects.
January 16: Back to School Hopes, Part Three: On my expectations for my own work with graduating English Majors in our senior Capstone course.
January 17: Back to School Hopes, Part Four: Recent and ongoing changes to our profession and how our department continues to evolve as well, as the series rolls on.
January 18: Back to School Hopes, Part Five: The series concludes with my longer-term hopes and ideals for adjunct faculty members, in our department and around the world of academia.
January 19-20: Crowd-sourcing Back to School Hopes: A couple responses and Retweets of the week’s posts and themes—add your spring hopes please!
January 21: The Real King: My annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Day post!
January 22: Second Terms: George Washington: An Inauguration week series on second terms begins with the precedents set by our first president and first second term.
January 23: Second Terms: Abraham Lincoln: Some of the best and worst elements of our most tragically abbreviated second term.
January 24: Second Terms: Woodrow Wilson: The series continues with a post on some of the worst sides (in my opinion!) to Wilson’s controversial second term.
January 25: Second Terms: The Runner Ups: A handful of briefer takes on other interesting American second terms.
January 26-27: Crowd-sourcing Second Terms: An important response to my Wilson post. Add your takes on presidential second terms, present and past, won’t you?
January 28: Football in America, Part One: A Super Bowl-inspired series begins with a post on Rob Parker, RGIII, and race in America!
January 29: Football in America, Part Two: The series continues with a post on PEDs, cheating to win, and the American way.
January 30: Football in America, Part Three: The American resonances of Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, as the series rolls on.
Football series concludes tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on American stories, histories, or connections related to football (or other sports)? You can still share ‘em for the weekend post!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

January 30, 2013: Football in America, Part Three

[In this week leading up to Super Bowl 47—that’s XLVII if you prefer how long-dead Romans would have referred to it—I’ll be highlighting some AmericanStudies issues and questions related to football in our past and present. Your Super responses, thoughts, and perspectives very welcome for a weekend post that’s sure to be a touchdown!]
On the parallel yet very distinct ways in which two of all-time greats left the game—and the American resonances of each.
When Jim Brown unexpectedly retired in the summer of 1966, after nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns, he left football as the undisputed greatest running back in the league’s history, with numerous league records (including the career yardage mark) under his belt. Thirty-three years later, in the summer of 1999, Barry Sanders announcement his just as unexpected retirement; in his ten seasons with the Detroit Lions, Sanders had threatened numerous records of his own (he retired less than 1500 yards behind the all-time mark), and had struck many observers as the greatest running back since Brown. Yet despite these similarities, the circumstances of the players’ retirements were also hugely different: Brown retired due to conflicts with his burgeoning acting career, which he would pursue for the next few decades, remaining in the public eye throughout; Sanders refused to discuss the reasons for his retirement, and largely disappeared from the spotlight thereafter.
It’s impossible, and probably irresponsible, to speculate at length about the reasons why anyone makes the choices in his or her life, and I don’t pretend to have any special knowledge about either of these particular men or cases. But given the particular circumstances and details that we do know of each, I would say that Brown came to feel that he was bigger or more multi-faceted than the sport, and no longer wanted to be contained by its limits (such as the training camp restrictions from Browns owner Art Modell that specifically precipitated his retirement); and that Sanders, on the other hand, seems to have felt that the sport and its various attendant effects and issues were bigger or more draining than he was willing to deal with. I’m sure that there were multiple factors in each case, and I don’t mean to critique either man in any way; instead, I highlight these particular frames as they have interesting resonances with other talented American figures.
When it comes to Sanders, I can think of various famous Americans who seem to have suddenly decided (while still at their prime) that the demands of their respective worlds were intolerable and to have withdrawn from those worlds; perhaps the most extreme example would have to be J.D. Salinger. After the mega-success of The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Salinger withdrew entirely from public life and mostly from publishing; his last published story appeared in 1965, 45 years before his 2010 death. Brown, on the other hand, reminds me of those talented but fickle Americans who abandon established success in one field to pursue an entirely different one, perhaps to prove to the world or themselves that they can do so; the most common contemporary moves seem to be between the worlds of acting and music, but perhaps even more complicatedly and compellingly American are those celebrities who decide to pursue a career in politics and public service, particularly those who do so at the height of success. If Ben Affleck had chosen to run for John Kerry’s Massachusetts Senate seat, he’d have been simply the latest in that long and interesting American line.
Next gridiron-inspired topic tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on Brown, Sanders, or these broader themes? Other football and America stories or themes you’d highlight?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

January 29, 2013: Football in America, Part Two

[In this week leading up to Super Bowl 47—that’s XLVII if you prefer how long-dead Romans would have referred to it—I’ll be highlighting some AmericanStudies issues and questions related to football in our past and present. Your Super responses, thoughts, and perspectives very welcome for a weekend post that’s sure to be a touchdown!]
On cheating, winning and losing, and the American way.
If one narrative has dominated the last decade in American (and international) sports, it’s been our righteous indignation about performance-enhancing drugs. From the outrage over McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Clemens, and the Mitchell Report in baseball to the numerous suspensions in football (for everything from steroids and HGH to the current spate of Adderall suspensions), from the many stages of the Lance Armstrong saga to the seemingly constant announcements of Olympians suspended for PEDs, very few of our signature sporting events or prominent figures have been exempted from our suspicions. Given the apparently rampant PED use among college and high school athletes, I certainly understand why we’re so collectively worried about the problem, and concerned with catching and punishing professional athletes who contribute to it.
As is so often the case, however, when you start to historicize the problem things get a good bit more complicated. The most common such comparison is to baseball in the 1970s, when it seems a sizeable percentage of players were on “greenies” (amphetamines) and neither the sport nor the fanbase apparently cared for many years. But beyond such specific and certainly complicating comparisons, I would also argue that the culture of American sports has long (if not always) been defined by the mentality of doing whatever it takes to win. Outraged 21st century fans like to nostalgically contrast the PED era with a golden age of sportsmanship and fair play and the like, but I’m not sure there’s ever been a moment when winning wasn’t everything, just the only thing. Pitchers, including some of the most prominent and successful in every era, have been doctoring the baseball for as long as there’s been baseball. College football’s history of cheating—from recruiting to eligibility, and of course on the field as well—has long been a part of the sport’s dominant narratives. As this article notes, the concept of basketball plays evolved directly alongside ways to get away with cheating. And the list goes on and on.
Even more broadly and historically, I think it’s far from a coincidence that American professional and organized sports mostly began during and just after the late 19th century era known as the Gilded Age. After all, the self-made men and/or robber barons (depending on your perspective) who came to define that era’s successes and/or excesses (ditto) did so by taking advantage of every opportunity and/or cheating the system (likewise). As reflected in the recent debate over whether multi-millionaires like Mitt Romney who maximize their income tax deductions and loopholes embody or undermine the American Way, we haven’t moved too far away from those Gilded Age models. So is cheating to win a defining American choice, in and outside of our sports worlds? It would seem to be—but debates over and outraged responses to such choices also go way back. The more things change…
Next gridiron-inspired topic tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on PEDs or these other issues? Other football and America stories or themes you’d highlight?

Monday, January 28, 2013

January 28, 2013: Football in America, Part One

[In this week leading up to Super Bowl 47—that’s XLVII if you prefer how long-dead Romans would have referred to it—I’ll be highlighting some AmericanStudies issues and questions related to football in our past and present. Your Super responses, thoughts, and perspectives very welcome for a weekend post that’s sure to be a touchdown!]
On the longstanding historical debates that provide some important contexts for Rob Parker’s controversial recent critique of Robert Griffin III.
It’s easy, in our era of 24-hour news cycles and instant internet tempests in tea pots and the like, to get over-excited about the latest shocking or scandalous comments. But even in a quieter age, sports journalist Rob Parker’s December 13th remarks about Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III would likely have raised quite a stir. Appearing on ESPN’s “First Take” morning talk show, Parker called into question Griffin’s authentic blackness, asking whether he’s “one of us” (Parker is also African American) or instead a “cornball brother,” and pointing to (among other things) his  white fiance, his rumored affiliation with the Republican Party, and his general attitude toward the idea of the “black quarterback.” The comments were unsurprisingly greeted by an uproar, and have led to Parker’s 30-day suspension from all ESPN programming. Just another silly ESPN controversy over race and quarterbacking, right Rush?
Certainly it is that; but Parker’s critique also relates to a long and complex set of narratives and debates in the African American community. In his 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth,” W.E.B. Du Bois argued that a cadre of impressive African American leaders would play a vital role in uplifting the community and race as a whole; that, as his striking first sentence put it most succinctly (in the gendered language of the day), “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” Du Bois was referring specifically to the need for higher education, an idea he would further develop in the same year in “Of the Training of Black Men” (a chapter from the seminal The Souls of Black Folk). But he was also making a broader and more complex case: that a subset of highly successful, and highly visible, members of a particular community can improve, if not the conditions for all others members of that community (and certainly the ideal is that they will work to do so in one way or another), at least the external society’s narratives and perceptions of that group.
Each part of that case, or at least of my framing of it within that sentence (as always with Du Bois, his dense and layered ideas deserve their own reading), is fraught with potential controversy and debate. Do successful members of a community in fact owe it to their community to work for its general well-being? (This is what Parker was implying, for example, when he said of Griffin that he might not be “down with the cause.”) Regardless, does their success change society’s views of their community? Can it? Should it? If it should and yet doesn’t, is that their fault, the society’s, nobody’s, everybody’s? These questions, as applied specifically to African Americans, were debated in Du Bois’s era, continued to be throughout the 20th century (with Du Bois himself revising his position in a 1948 speech), and are no less—and perhaps even more—significant in the age of Obama. They are also relevant, if distinct and worth separate analysis to be sure, to arguments over whether Asian Americans are a “model minority,” what that status would entail, what effects such narratives have on young Asian Americans, and so on. Which is to say, Rob Parker might have created a tempest in a teapot, but there’s a lot of historical and contemporary value to continuing to talk after the storm dies down.
Next gridiron-inspired topic tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on Parker, Griffin, or these other issues? Other football and America stories or themes you’d highlight?

Saturday, January 26, 2013

January 26-27, 2013: Crowd-Sourcing Second Terms

[With Monday’s Inauguration Day, Barack Obama begins his second term as President. So this week I’ve highlighted some interesting second term moments and issues from American history. As always, this crowd-sourced post on all things second terms and presidencies is drawn from the responses and thoughts of fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours, please!]
Following up the Woodrow Wilson post, Maggi Smith-Dalton writes, “Ok. Woodrow Wilson DOES get a bad rap. Disclaimer up front: he is one of my favorite Presidents, because of his complexity and yet...because of a certain attractive simplicity in his worldview--which envisioned a world of justice and peace. One must always take into account his personal AND historical context vis a vis being the first Southern president elected since the end of the Civil War, and the fact his formative memories included the landscape of southern devastation. That he was a prisoner of his personal and historical time in terms of race relations (or with ferreting out the "Reds") is of course not laudable, but it is also not unusual nor is it beyond understanding. Civil liberties of US citizens have been violated repeatedly by governing bodies and Presidents great and mediocre since the establishment of government. As for the war involvement...well...that is far too complex a subject to address here in nuanced argument but my bottom line is that I respectfully object to the argument that hypocrisy entered into his decision to go to war. Furthermore.... Faults or not, mistakes or not, in my opinion he waged a heartbreaking, admirable, and difficult subsequent campaign to bring people to the table with words rather than swords, and his very failure to bring the US into the League of Nations nevertheless laid the seeds which saw fruition later in the establishment of the UN.  Such is often the case in human a garden plant, death must occur to nourish the soil for new plants to thrive. I have way more to say here but suffice to say I do not see Wilson's second term as a failure. And as an addendum, I truly believe his illness had much to do with the sorrows of this term, more than a failure of character or political will.”
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Interesting second term and/or presidential highlights you’d share?

Friday, January 25, 2013

January 25, 2013: Second Terms: The Runner-Ups

[With Monday’s Inauguration Day, Barack Obama begins his second term as President. So this week I’ll be highlighting some interesting second term moments and issues from American history. As always, your responses, thoughts, and other ideas, on Obama’s second term or any other one, will be appreciated for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
Briefer thoughts on the second terms that almost made the cut for a full post in this week’s series.
1)      The Virginians: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, the Virginia triumvirate who held the presidency from 1801 through 1825, each served two terms. The two biggest events of the period happened in their first terms—the Louisiana Purchase and the opening of the War of 1812—but there’s plenty of interest in the second terms: Aaron Burr’s 1807 treason trial; the Battle of New Orleans in 1814-1815; the Missouri Compromise of 1820. All worth their own posts—maybe next time, Virginians!
2)      Andrew Jackson: Jackson’s second term was full of high-stakes showdowns, from the Nullification Crisis that foreshadowed the Civil War and the unfolding battle between Jackson and Nicholas Biddle’s National Bank to the conflict over Indian Removal that led to the Trail of Tears. Really seems like there’s a full post in there—my bad, Old Hickory!
3)      Ulysses S. Grant: You might have thought that no presidential administration could top Grant’s first term for corruption, nepotism, and scandal. Then there was Grant’s second term, which proved you mistaken. Yikes, Hero of Appomattox. Yikes.
4)      Late 19th/Early 20th Century Pseudo-Second-Termers: Grover Cleveland was the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms, so does he count? Then there’s William McKinley, who served less than 5 months of his second term before he was assassinated. Finally, there’s Teddy Roosevelt, who took over for McKinley, finished that term, and then was elected to another—his second? His first? I dunno. Sorry, guys, but not quite clear enough to make the cut.
5)      Everybody Else: Calvin Coolidge and Harry Truman are the same as TR—took over when Warren Harding and Franklin Roosevelt died, were only elected once, missed the cut. FDR himself was elected to four terms—does he still have a second term in that case? As for Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush—you all were close competitors, lots of interesting late 20th and early 21st century trends and issues, plenty to AmericanStudy there. Sorry, dudes. Just didn’t happen.
But of course there’s a great way to focus more on these second terms—add your thoughts on any or all of them for the weekend post! See you then,
PS. You know what to do!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

January 24, 2013: Second Terms: Woodrow Wilson

[With Monday’s Inauguration Day, Barack Obama begins his second term as President. So this week I’ll be highlighting some interesting second term moments and issues from American history. As always, your responses, thoughts, and other ideas, on Obama’s second term or any other one, will be appreciated for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On what made Wilson’s second term pretty bad—and why that’s not even close to the worst part.
I nominated Woodrow Wilson for a Memory Day because, as I wrote there, I think he’s gotten a bit of a bad rap. Granted, I’m primed to defend anybody whom Glenn Beck describes as a “President You Should Hate,” and it’s true that much of what bothers Beck about Wilson—his academic background and temperament, his connections to the Progressive movement and its goals for making the federal government bigger and more responsive to Americans’ needs, his anti-war and internationalist efforts with the League of Nations—are to my mind among his best qualities and efforts instead. But I also think Wilson stands out, and looks even better, in direct contrast to his most explicit political adversaries: Teddy Roosevelt, with his uber-masculine ethos and often racist worldview; and the Republican Party of Calvin Coolidge, with its extreme laissez faire and pro-industry policies. For national political leaders of his era, Wilson was probably as good as it gets.
On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that Wilson’s second term as president included two of the more troubling and even shameful elements of any presidential administration. The more famous of the two is also one of the most quick and hypocritical changes in policy in our history: having run for reeelection on a platform of neutrality with respect to World War I, and with the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war,” Wilson then decided to, well, go to war; he severed diplomatic relations with Germany less than two weeks after his inauguration, and then, addressing Congress about two months later, asked for and received a War Resolution. I’m not arguing that there wasn’t cause to go to war, nor that it was the wrong decision, necessarily; as with any international conflict, things were complicated and evolving and the U.S. may well have had little choice by 1917 but to join the war. But the simple fact is that Wilson had to know, at least by the end of the campaign, that the situation was changing and that his second term policy likely would have to follow, and so to continue running on the neutrality slogan was, at least, a deceptive and hypocritical choice (and at worst a betrayal of any and all pacifists or opponents of the war who voted for him for that reason).
If his World War I policy represented a sudden and (in at least those ways) shameful shift at the start of his second term, however, the moment within that term that I’d call Wilson’s low point was unfortunately more consistent with his administration’s policies. Despite having run for office as a Progressive on race relations, Wilson had instead become the first president to segregate the federal civil service, and his record on issues and questions of race did not improve from there. But to my mind the low point came in 1919, and directly relates to the racist “race riots” that swept the nation in what came to be called the “Red Summer.”  Those riots were precipitated not only by the usual racial tensions and problems, but also by a combination of racist worries about returning African American soldiers and anti-communist fears (which would lead to the Red Scare soon afterward). And Wilson played into all of those racist and xenophobic fears, noting in a White House conversation that “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying bolshevism to America.” One of the least presidential moments I know of, and part of a pretty bad second term all the way around.
Final second term tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on Wilson, on Obama, or on any other president’s second term?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

January 23, 2013: Second Terms: Abraham Lincoln

[With Monday’s Inauguration Day, Barack Obama begins his second term as President. So this week I’ll be highlighting some interesting second term moments and issues from American history. As always, your responses, thoughts, and other ideas, on Obama’s second term or any other one, will be appreciated for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
One two things I love about how Lincoln’s second term started, and one I especially hate about how it ended.
It’s not quite the Gettysburg Address, but Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865) offers its own pretty remarkable combination of brevity and power. “Little that is new could be presented,” Lincoln noted at the outset in justifying his conciseness; after four years of brutal civil war and all the public coverage, response, and damage it had brought with it, he had a point, but of course a lack of cause has never kept many American politicians from rambling on. Moreover, just as he did at Gettysburg, Lincoln packed a number of striking phrases and ideas into this 700-word speech, such as his invocation of Scripture and Christian faith to at once link and yet contrast the North and South: “Each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.” And I don’t know that the conclusion of any American speech begins more strongly than “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”
Just over a month later, on April 9th, Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant and the Union at Appomattox Court House. Two days later, Lincoln delivered an impromptu speech from the White House’s front window on the prospects and his hopes for Reconstruction. The speech certainly extended the idea of charity for all, expressing Lincoln’s clear desire for a relatively magnanimous set of policies toward the former Confederate states. But it ended with one of Lincoln’s most overt and impassioned statements on behalf of African Americans, in this case an overt argument for extending the vote to African American men as quickly as possible. “The colored man,” Lincoln argued, “in seeing all united for him, is inspired with vigilance, and energy, and daring, to the same end.” For a president whose racial perspectives and politics had been complex, if consistently evolving, this moment can be seen as a high point, and in any case represented an impressively strong stand on what would become one of Reconstruction’s most contested questions.
Unfortunately, Lincoln would not live to play a role in that debate or any other aspect of Reconstruction; in the audience for his April 11th speech was actor and Southern partisan John Wilkes Booth, who three days later would assassinate Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. There is of course no shortage of reasons to mourn Lincoln’s untimely death, and to echo every word of Walt Whitman’s poetic eulogy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” But what I especially hate is that America was denied the chance to see a second Lincoln term, to witness the continuing evolution and (if history is any indication) growth of this unique and impressive leader. It’s easy to say that that’s partly hindsight, given the kind of leader that Andrew Johnson turned out to be, and all the other things that went wrong in the subsequent years. But honestly, even if none of that were the case, I don’t know that any AmericanStudies “What If?” would be more painful to contemplate than a full second term for Abraham Lincoln. Damn you, Booth!
Next second term tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on Lincoln, on Obama, or on any other president’s second term?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

January 22, 2013: Second Terms: George Washington

[With Monday’s Inauguration Day, Barack Obama begins his second term as President. So this week I’ll be highlighting some interesting second term moments and issues from American history. As always, your responses, thoughts, and other ideas, on Obama’s second term or any other one, will be appreciated for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On three ways in which our first president’s second term set precedents for his successors.
George Washington was reeelected unanimously (and unopposed) in 1792, the last time a president ran uncontested, but much of his second term was dominated by unexpected crises and scandals. That included the unfolding effects of the French Revolution and the related European wars, about which I’ll write more below; but no event was more striking and significant than the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. Tensions had been boiling over since Washington and his Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton instituted a new whiskey excise in 1791, and came to a head three years later when a group of Pennsylvania farmers destroyed a tax inspector’s home and began armed resistance against the federal government. When diplomatic resolutions failed and Hamilton led a military force (of 13,000 militia men) against American citizens, it became clear that Washington’s honeymoon period was over; the presidency and government had become the controversial and debated entities that they have remained ever since.
Striking as the Whiskey Rebellion was, it paled in comparison to the domestic rebellion across the pond, the event that dominated the world’s headlines throughout the decade: the French Revolution. That event, and the war between France and England that followed it, threw a number of unexpected twists into Washington’s presidency, including the seditious efforts of French ambassador Edmond-Charles “Citizen” GenĂȘt, who attempted to gain popular support for the French government in direct opposition to Washington’s neutrality. But these international threats allow led Washington to strive for the kinds of ambitious successes toward which many subsequent second-term presidents have worked; in this case, that meant treaties which would strengthen America’s international relationships and make the new nation more formidable on the world stage. As would always be the case, the popular responses to those ambitious efforts were mixed: the 1795 Jay Treaty with Britain was widely condemned by the opposing Democrat-Republican Party, while the same year’s Treaty of San Lorenzo (known here as Pinckney’s Treaty) with Spain was seen as a coup for Washington.
Despite these ambitious treaties, or perhaps because of the wars and threats which necessitated them, Washington was very worried about international affairs, and dwelt at length on their dangers in another precedent-setting event: his 1796 farewell address to the nation. In that lengthy text, which he did not deliver but had published in newspapers, Washington reflected on what he had learned in his eight years in office, praised the best of American life and society and warned of its worst tendencies (particularly in the form of political parties, above which the no-longer-running-for-office Washington could now safely stand), and departed the national scene with a few final words of wisdom. Given that term limits had not been established, and that Washington could have run for a third term had he chosen, this farewell address reflects a clear choice on the first president’s part, a decision to end his administration on his own terms and to do so while seeking to influence the subsequent administrations and centuries of American life. It’s fair to say that every departing president since has tried to do the same, one more way in which Washington got our traditions started.
Next second term tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on Washington, or any other president’s second term?

Monday, January 21, 2013

January 21, 2013: The Real King

[I wrote this post back in December 2010 and have re-posted it for each MLK Day since. Still seems relevant, and of course I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses and perspectives. So here ‘tis, and the week’s series will begin tomorrow.]

It probably puts me at significant risk of losing my AmericanStudies Card to say this—and you have no idea how hard it is to get a second one of those if you lose the first—but I think the “I Have a Dream” speech is kind of overrated. I’m sort of saying that for effect, since I don’t really mean that the speech itself isn’t as eloquent and powerful and pitch-perfect in every way as the narrative goes—it most definitely is, and while that’s true enough if you read the words, it becomes infinitely more true when you see video and thus hear audio of the speech and moment. But what is overrated, I think, is the weight that has been placed on the speech, the cultural work that it has been asked to do. Partly that has to do with contemporary politics, and especially with those voices who have tried to argue that King’s “content of their character” rather than “color of their skin” distinction means that he would oppose any and all forms of identity politics or affirmative action or the like; such readings tend to forget that King was speaking in that culminating section of the speech about what he dreams might happen “one day”—if, among other things, we give all racial groups the same treatment and opportunities—rather than what he thought was possible in America in the present.
But the more significant overemphasis on the speech, I would argue, has occurred in the process by which it (and not even all of it, so much as just those final images of “one day”) has been made to symbolize all of—or at least represent in miniature—King’s philosophies and ideas and arguments. There’s no question that the speech’s liberal univeralism, its embrace (if in that hoped-for way) of an equality that knows no racial identifications, was a central thread within King’s work; and, perhaps more tellingly, was the thread by which he could most clearly be defined in opposition to a more stridently and wholly Black Nationalist voice like Malcolm X’s. Yet the simple and crucial fact is that King’s rich and complex perspective and philosophy, as they existed throughout his life but especially as they developed over the decade and a half between his real emergence onto the national scene with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and his assassination in 1968, contained a number of similarly central and crucial threads. There were for example his radical perspectives on class, wealth, and the focuses of government spending, a set of arguments which culminated in the last years of his life in both the “Poor People’s Campaign” and in increasingly vocal critiques of the military-industrial complex; and his strong belief not only in nonviolent resistance (as informed by figures as diverse as Thoreau and Gandhi) but also in pacifism in every sense, which likewise developed into his very public opposition to the Vietnam Year in his final years. While both of those perspectives were certainly not focused on one racial identity or community, neither were they broadly safe or moderate stances; indeed, they symbolized direct connections to some of the most radical social movements and philosophies of the era.
To my mind, though, the most significant undernarrated thread—and perhaps the most central one in King’s perspective period—has to be his absolutely clear belief in the need to oppose racial segregation and discrimination, of every kind, in every way, as soon and as thoroughly as possible. Again, the contrast to Malcolm has tended to make King out to be the more patient or cautious voice, but I defy anyone to read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”—the short piece that King wrote in April 1963 to a group of white Southern clergyman, while he was serving a brief jail sentence for his protest activities—and come away thinking that either patience or caution are in the top twenty adjectives that best describe the man and his beliefs. King would later expand the letter into a book, Why We Can’t Wait, the very title of which makes the urgency of his arguments more explicit still; but when it comes to raw passion and power, I don’t think any American text can top the “Letter” itself. Not raw in the sense of ineloquent—I tend to imagine that King’s first words, at the age of 1 or whenever, were probably more eloquent than any I’ll ever speak—but raw as in their absolute rejection, in the letter’s opening sentence, of his audience’s description of his protest activities as “unwise and untimely.” And raw as well in the razor sharp turn in tone in the two sentences that comprise one of the letter’s closing paragraphs: “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”
I guess what it boils down to for me is this: to remember King for one section of “I Have a Dream” is like remembering Shakespeare for the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy in Hamlet. Yeah, that’s a great bit, but what about the humor? The ghost? The political plotting and play within the play? The twenty-seven other great speeches? And then there’s, y’know, all those other pretty good, and very distinct, plays. And some poetry that wasn’t bad either. It’s about time we remembered the whole King, and thus got a bit closer to the real King and what he can really help us see about our national history, identity, and future.
PS. What do you think?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

January 19-20, 2013: Crowd-sourcing Back to School Hopes

[Every new semester brings with it lots of promise and possibilities; since I was on sabbatical in the fall, this will be my first time back in the classroom and the department in seven months, making it that much more of a new start. So this week I’ve highlighted some of those hopes and goals for my Spring 2013 semester. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the responses, and other spring hopes, of my fellow AmericanStudiers—add your hopes and thoughts, please!]

Responding to Wednesday’s post on the Capstone course, Max writes, “I do rather wish we'd had capstone when I was there... It's extremely scary going out into the world with an English degree. From all sides you get that question of ‘What are you going to do with that?’ It can be very disheartening.
How to fix that problem is a whole different barrel of fish of course. Emphasizing that it’s possible to be perfectly successful with an English degree is certainly important. Maybe point to all the people you know who have humanities degrees who are successful? Definitely pointing to people outside of academia who use their degrees. I always felt a little pigeon holed as far as job opportunities. Because seriously people love hiring English majors since we can write well.”
Responding to Friday’s post, Max adds, “Speaking as some one who was in that first year writing program it would be monumental to actual see some change/growth there. Writing 1 is to this day probably the worst class I ever took and if that could be changed and/or better teacher/teacher communication could be brought about it would be amazing in my mind. Good luck!”
Friday’s post was also Re-Tweeted by Monica Jacobe, Les Harrison, and Frank Mabee, reminding us of how many colleagues are committed to this kind of departmental and institutional change.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. So what do you think? Hopes of yours for the spring you’d share?

Friday, January 18, 2013

January 18, 2013: Back to School Hopes, Part Five

[Every new semester brings with it lots of promise and possibilities; since I was on sabbatical in the fall, this will be my first time back in the classroom and the department in seven months, making it that much more of a new start. So this week I’ll be highlighting some of those hopes and goals for my Spring 2013 semester. I’d love to hear some of yours for a crowd-sourced weekend post on our collective springs to come!]
On a much more complicated but pretty crucial long-term hope for my department and university.
I wrote at length in this post, part of a series on summer jobs I’ve worked and their AmericanStudies connections, about the issue of adjunct labor in higher education, and more exactly the issues of how adjunct faculty are treated by the departments and institutions at which they work. I’ll reiterate here my final point from that post, since it raises one of the two main issues that I would identfy with the relationship between my department’s community and its own adjunct faculty members: that our adjuncts and our full-time faculty members have almost no contact of any kind, whether physically in our respective spaces, at meetings or in conversation, or in any other way. And the other problem, while very different, is also entirely connected to that reality: almost all of our sections of first-year writing, a core, required, two-semester course for all Fitchburg State students, are taught by adjuncts, thus making that course largely separate from the rest of the department.
I also wrote at length in that post about many of the reasons why I believe it’s so important to address the first problem, the separation of adjunct faculty from the rest of their departments and institutions. But first-year writing presents another compelling reason: these courses comprise an opportunity for English departments to work with all students, and thus to consider what we particularly want these courses to be and do; and yet in many cases, such as ours, most of us English faculty members have very little connection to those courses, to the folks who are teaching them, to the students they’re impacting, to any aspect of this significant part of our departmental mission. At Fitchburg State, we’ve begun to address that issue in the last few years, working to create departmental objectives for our first-year writing courses, and to make sure that such conversations including adjunct as well as full-time faculty members at every stage. But there’s a lot more to do, and one of my longest-term hopes for the spring and beyond is that we can begin to design a First-Year Writing Program, a community where such conversations and connections can be consistently located and formalized, across any particular semesters and administrations.
Creating such a program and space would also provide numerous and equally consistent opportunities for adjunct and full-time faculty members to meet, talk, and share our perspectives and goals for our courses and students. But whether or not we end up with a writing program, I believe, again, that it’s vital to find ways to make those connections more a part of our departments, institutions, and identities as we move forward. I know that’s a huge and nation-wide (or even international) problem, and I’m not pretending to have any easy answers. But I also know that the more of us who are aware of and engaging with these issues, the better—and so I hope to help move my department forward in that way in the spring and for many years thereafter.
Crowd-soucred spring hopes tomorrow,
PS. So what do you think? Thoughts on these questions? Hopes of yours for the spring you’d share for that weekend post?