My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

August 31, 2021: Fall Semester Previews: Honors Lit Seminar

[I tried to wait to write this Fall semester series until I felt certain about what the Fall would hold—but I don’t know if I ever will, not even as it unfolds. So I decided to share one thing I’m cautiously but definitely excited for with each of my Fall courses, because what can we do but hope—and work—for the best?]

On two reasons why I keep going back to one of my earliest scholarly subjects.

If the First Year Experience seminar about which I wrote yesterday represents a brand-new course in my rotation, my Honors Lit Seminar on America in the Gilded Age is by contrast one of my most familiar classes. Not only because I’ve taught this particular course four prior times over the last half-dozen years, but also because (as I wrote in that hyperlinked post) the very first new class I ever created at FSU was an English Studies Senior Seminar on the same subject. That original Gilded Age seminar was based closely on my dissertation/first book on the time period, and while the class has of course evolved a bit over the 15 years since, it nonetheless remains in some central ways quite similar to where I began these investigations as a grad student and young teacher (including the four thematic units, on the West, women, work, and race/ethnicity, that parallel chapters in that project).

There are many reasons why I keep returning to the Gilded Age as a subject for these in-depth, literature seminar explorations, but there are two in particular that I’m especially excited about as I gear up for the next such exploration. One is the contemporary connections about which I wrote in this post, and which have only become more and more pronounced the last couple times I’ve taught this course. Indeed, while I called those contemporary contexts “unspoken” in that Fall 2017 reflection, it’s become impossible not to speak of them, and I’m okay with that—doesn’t mean I’m telling the students what to make of such echoes or parallels (no more than I ever tell them what to make of anything we read or discuss in a class of mine), but rather that I’m very open to us engaging and exploring together what we can learn from links between the Gilded Age and our own moment (as well as distinctions or changes between the periods, of course). Such connections help us recognize the true stakes of why we learn about our histories, and teaching this class offers so many potent cases in point.

At the same time, there’s equal value in discovering and engaging with voices and texts, figures and stories from our past that are unique, distinctive, and surprising, and another reason why I keep coming back to the Gilded Age is that so many of my favorite American authors and texts (nearly all of them profoundly under-read and –remembered) are from this period. From Sarah Piatt to Sarah Winnemucca, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton to Sui Sin Far, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps to Charles Chesnutt, and so many more, this syllabus is just littered with voices and works that embody the best of American literature, culture, and identity at any moment and in any context. Getting to share these folks and readings with students, and then to talk about them together, is one of the best parts of what I do, and even in the toughest of times and semesters—indeed, especially in those moments—I’m so excited for another chance to do so.

Next Fall preview tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Fall courses or work you’re (cautiously) excited for?

Monday, August 30, 2021

August 30, 2021: Fall Semester Previews: First Year Experience Seminar

[I tried to wait to write this Fall semester series until I felt certain about what the Fall would hold—but I don’t know if I ever will, not even as it unfolds. So I decided to share one thing I’m cautiously but definitely excited for with each of my Fall courses, because what can we do but hope—and work—for the best?]

On the many things I’m looking forward to with a new course, and the one I’m most excited about.

I start my 17th year at Fitchburg State this Fall—that’s 17 years of teaching a 4-4 load (often in reality a 5-5 load with an overload grad and/or online course each semester)—which means (among many other things about the last nearly two decades of my work and life) that there aren’t a lot of types of classes I haven’t had the chance to teach. Indeed, the last time I taught an entirely new type of class—not just a new course, but one within a category I hadn’t taught before—was seven years ago, with my Fall 2014 section of Intro to Speech. So it’s been quite something to spend a good bit of the summer thinking—both on my own and in a series of required professional development trainings—about such an entirely new type of class: our FSU First Year Experience seminar. We’ve piloted this course and program for at least two academic years now, but an English Studies colleague taught our department’s first couple sections of the seminar, so this Fall will be my first opportunity to do so.

The reason for all that summer PD is that our FYE program uses a specific pedagogical and learning model: the reading apprenticeship framework. It hasn’t been easy to wrap my head around an entirely new way to approach my teaching—you know what they say about old dogs, and this one is quite fond of his particular version of a student-centered approach—but the more we’ve talked about this framework, the more I’ve come to look forward to using it to help my class of first-year students strengthen many different skills and habits that will be crucial to their success throughout their time at Fitchburg State. I’m a particularly big fan of the varied, multi-layered approaches to reading that the framework provides, not just because I teach predominantly literature courses (although yes) but also because I’ve long wanted to teach reading more overtly but hadn’t quite had the language or tools to do so. Strategies like think aloud and talk-to-the-text will be great resources, not just for this class but for many others of mine as well.

I’m most excited for the specific theme on which my FYE section will focus, however. That’s a complicated thing to say, because this is a course where the content is significantly less important than the skills and methods—and moreover, that’s always been the case in my student-centered pedagogy (which doesn’t mean the content isn’t important, just that there’s always a hierarchy). I’m certainly on board with that emphasis, but I’m nonetheless very excited to talk with these first-year students about our section’s theme: cultural representations of Black Lives Matter and identity. After all, an intro to college can’t just be about skills and habits for individual success—it also has to be about introducing the kinds of challenging communal conversations and concepts that students will be learning, engaging, analyzing, and sharing across their time in college. I can’t think of any such conversations that are more challenging nor more crucial in September 2021 than ones around race and identity in America, and I’m really excited to talk and work with these incoming FSU students on those questions and ideas, and to see how their voices, perspectives, and ideas keep developing.

Next Fall preview tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Fall courses or work you’re (cautiously) excited for?

Saturday, August 28, 2021

August 28-29, 2021: August 2021 Recap

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

July 31-August 1: Hettie Williams’ Guest Post on Black Women in America: The month started with my most recent Guest Post and another awesome one—share your ideas for Guest Posts and add your voice to that mix!

August 2: AmericanStudies Websites: Steve Railton’s Trio: On the web’s 30th anniversary, a series on AMST websites kicks off with the three created by my favorite digital AmericanStudier!

August 3: AmericanStudies Websites: The Valley of the Shadow: The series continues with a few things we can still learn from a groundbreaking early site.

August 4: AmericanStudies Websites: Crossroads: The frustrating fragility of the internet and the need for collective memory, as the series links on.

August 5: AmericanStudies Websites: The Octo: The series concludes with the vital role of community and solidarity in navigating the scholarly web.

August 6: Crowd-sourced AmericanStudies Websites: Crowd-sourced AMST websites, including a couple more from me as well—add your nominees in comments, please!

August 7: Birthday Bests: 2010-2011: My annual series of bday highlights kicks off (I won’t say any more about the rest, but here are the links if you want to check them out)!

August 8: Birthday Bests: 2011-2012:

August 9: Birthday Bests: 2012-2013:

August 10: Birthday Bests: 2013-2014:

August 11: Birthday Bests: 2014-2015:

August 12: Birthday Bests: 2015-2016:

August 13: Birthday Bests: 2016-2017:

August 14: Birthday Bests: 2017-2018:

August 15: Birthday Bests: 2018-2019:

August 16: Birthday Bests: 2019-2020:

August 17: Birthday Bests: 2020-2021:

August 18: Cville Updates: Those Statues: My annual post-bday Virginia series kicks off with a few options for what to do now that those damn statues have finally come down.

August 19: Cville Updates: UVa Memorials to Enslaved Laborers: The series continues with a couple awesome things about a wonderful new Cville memorial.

August 20: Cville Updates: Proal Heartwell: Three great books by my favorite Charlottesville High School teacher, as the series updates on.

August 21-22: Mark Lorenzoni: The series concludes with a tribute post to an awesome Cville leader who made sure my youthful long-distance running was never lonely.

August 23: American Teens: “Summertime Blues” and the 26th Amendment: In honor of my two (!) high schoolers (!!!), a TeenStudying series kicks off with a classic song and a generation-shifting amendment.

August 24: American Teens: Lost Boys: The series continues with contextualizing and challenging 80s pop cultural texts that feature boys who are adrift and endangered.

August 25: American Teens: Good Will Hunting and Ordinary People: How two films use therapy to tell the stories of two troubled, telling teens, as the series rolls on.

August 26: American Teens: “All Summer Long” and Nostalgia: Classic rock, pseud-nostalgia, and the role of pop culture in all of our 21st century lives.

August 27: American Teens: John Hughes Films: The series concludes with AmericanStudies takeaways from three of the director’s classic teen flicks!

Fall semester previews start Monday,

Ben

PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, August 27, 2021

August 27, 2021: American Teens: John Hughes Films

[With pre-season sports practices beginning this week, I’ve officially got two sons in high school (!!!!). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy pop culture representations of American teens—share the teen texts & contexts that stand out to you in comments, fellow kids!]

On AmericanStudies takeaways from three of the legendary director’s many teen hits (all three released within less than two years!).

1)      The Breakfast Club (1985): It’s hard to find too much that’s new to say about perhaps the single most iconic teen movie in American pop culture history. For a long time, I’ve found the concluding makeover scene so off-putting, so seemingly out of character of the movie’s whole emphasis on embracing our identities/selves, that it honestly turned me off to the whole film. I’m still not a fan, but in thinking about it more for this post, I’d say that the duality—and really the dichotomy—between that film-long message of self-acceptance and that cringetastic makeover moment says an awful lot about the challenges for all teens of navigating their societies and communities, from the smallest (like a potential significant other) to the most overarching (like how society views us).

2)      Weird Science (1985): I said much of what I’d want to say about this lesser-known (and really lesser overall) Hughes film in that Stranger Things-related post. But it’s important to add that the emphasis on teen boy horniness and on their scientific creation as quite literally an object of their attraction (if one who has a mind and will of her own to be sure) is not unrelated to the Breakfast Club makeover scene and its frustrating emphasis on physical attractiveness. Given the female protagonists of two other iconic Hughes teen films from this era, Sixteen Candles (1984) and Pretty in Pink (1986) [both played by Molly Ringwald, who has had interesting things to say about Hughes and gender in recent years], I’m not suggesting that Hughes was only able to envision teenage identity through the eyes of stereotypically horny young men. But, well, that seems to have occupied a central place in his vision!

3)      Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986): Ferris (Matthew Broderick) is not unrelated to those other Hughes teen male characters, not least because his girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) seems largely defined by her physical beauty and desirability (and her final line in the film, one that expresses a quite stereotypical marriage-centered goal). But in at least one way Ferris is quite different from those other characters, and really all of the teen characters in these ‘80s Hughes films: he overtly criticizes and in many ways rejects the expectations of his communities and society, and urges all his youthful viewers (in those consistent 4th-wall breaking moments) to do the same. It’s interesting that Ferris was Hughes’ last teen-focused film (as director and as writer) before he began to move onto more adult main characters and stories, reflecting perhaps his own recognition that his teen emphases were limited or at least had run their course.

August Recap this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other teen texts & contexts you’d share?

Thursday, August 26, 2021

August 26, 2021: American Teens: “All Summer Long” and Nostalgia

[With pre-season sports practices beginning this week, I’ve officially got two sons in high school (!!!!). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy pop culture representations of American teens—share the teen texts & contexts that stand out to you in comments, fellow kids!]

On classic rock, pseudo-nostalgia, and the undeniable role of pop culture in our lives.

Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” (2008) features—repeats as the opening two lines of its chorus, no less—one of the worst “rhyming” couplets in recent years, if not indeed in all of American pop music: “And we were trying different things/And we were smoking funny things.” So it’s fair to say that I shouldn’t necessarily subject the song’s lyrics, or any Kid Rock-penned words, to the most rigorous AmericanStudier analyses (Kid Rock’s political preferences, on the other hand…). But while “All Summer Long” doesn’t quite rise to Dylan-like lyrical complexity, the song does comprise a particularly striking example of what I would call the pseudo-nostalgia often found in the very concept of “classic rock”: in its title line, “Singing ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ all summer long”; in its concurrent, repeated evocation of the vital role of “our favorite song” and “play[ing] some rock and roll” in creating its idyllic teenage memories; and even musically, in its samples of both the Skynyrd song and (very, very randomly) an infinitely better song, Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.”

So why does a song about, as the opening verse locates us, “1989” and “summertime in Northern Michigan” make such defining use of a 1974 song by a Jacksonville, Florida band while sampling a 1978 one by a Chicago singer/songwriter? To my mind, these classic rock references link Kid Rock’s song to one by his fellow Michigander (and oft-cited musical influence) Bob Seger, “Old Time Rock and Roll”; Seger’s song is perhaps the clearest single expression of classic rock pseudo-nostalgia, the attitude that music used to be great and has sadly fallen off, and thus that the best we can do in the present is play that old time rock and roll. I call this attitude pseudo-nostalgia in part because of the blatant irony and even hypocrisy involved in denigrating contemporary music and pop culture while contributing to them; and in part because it seems to me less interested in the past itself in any specific or meaningful ways, and far more in the seeming authenticity or coolness that such an attitude grants its holder in the present.

On the other hand, I can’t claim to know what songs or artists Kid Rock and his teenage girlfriend and friends played on the beaches of Northern Michigan in 1989—and in any case it would be hypocritical of me to critique their classic rock affinities, given how much classic songs and albums by artists like Skynyrd, Seger, Tom Petty, Pink Floyd, and, of course, Bruce Springsteen meant to my own youthful life and identity. Indeed, I would argue that my generation was the first for whom the popular culture of our parents’ generation was at least as meaningful and constitutive of our perspectives and identities as that of our own—a phenomenon that has only been amplified since, thanks in large part to the ways in which YouTube and the rest of the digital world have preserved so much of 20th century pop culture into the early 21st century. Our 21st century summer playlists are indeed as likely to feature “Sweet Home Alabama” as “All Summer Long,” not just in a nostalgic way but also and more importantly as a vital part of our present culture and world. Works for me!

Last teen texts tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other teen texts & contexts you’d share?

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

August 25, 2021: American Teens: Good Will Hunting and Ordinary People

[With pre-season sports practices beginning this week, I’ve officially got two sons in high school (!!!!). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy pop culture representations of American teens—share the teen texts & contexts that stand out to you in comments, fellow kids!]

On the use of therapy to help tell the stories of two troubled, telling teens.

There’s a lot to like about Good Will Hunting, and much of it is deeply engaged with American identities and communities: first and foremost there’s Robin Williams’ career-best performance as Sean Maguire, a South Boston child genius turned Vietnam vet turned therapist for fellow Vietnam vets turned mourning widower seeking to rediscover the spark that he has lost along with his wife; but there’s also, among other things, a pretty incisive if quick set of portraits of different Boston communities, from the Southie of Will (Matt Damon) and his friends to the Cambridge of Harvard and MIT; and a really interesting multi-generational American narrative, with Williams and his college roommate (Stellan Skarsgard) representing in this analysis two very different paths that the nation took after the 60s and Will and his British immigrant and fellow orphan girlfriend (Minnie Driver) a new generation coming to grips with its past and making its hesitant way forward. But to my mind, the one scene that the film—and its wunderkind young screenwriters Damon and Ben Affleck—didn’t quite nail is also perhaps the most important: Will and Sean’s breakthrough in therapy. Damon’s performance in the scene is phenomenally good, but I just don’t buy that Sean’s repetition of “It’s not your fault” in relation to Will’s history of abuse is enough to shatter decades of repression and avoidance.

Therapy in general and breakthroughs in particular are, it seems to me, particularly difficult to capture on film, as they require the kinds of patient and gradual and multi-part conversations that can drag the pace of a film to a virtual halt. Similarly, much of what defines teenage identity and experience (and Will is either a teenager or a very early twenty-something, I would say) is in a lot of ways quieter and more inward-looking than can be easily captured in a film; it’s no coincidence that many of the most acclaimed movies about teenage life are, like those made by John Hughes, all about putting teenagers together in places and sequences where they have charged and impassioned conversations, drawing out those introverted identities. For a single film to capture both what it means to be an individual teenager and what therapy can ideally accomplish is thus an extremely tall order. But I would argue that there is such a film in our history, one that is known to many film buffs mainly as the movie that (in this view) robbed Raging Bull of its Best Picture Oscar: Robert Redford’s directorial debut, Ordinary People (1980). I’m not going to debate the Best Picture question here—Bull, like most of Martin Scorcese’s films, doesn’t work for me nearly as well as it seems to for most viewers, but in any case the two films are so different as to reveal just how subjective and inconclusive the idea of choosing one as the year’s Best Picture really is. But I most definitely will stand up for Redford’s film on its own terms.

There are lots of ways to make that argument, including those that have little to do with teenagers or therapy: the perfect pairing of Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland; the best use of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” in any movie; the cinematography and especially how well the film captures the textures and details of its suburban settings in fall and winter; the moments of humor that provide just enough balance to keep the film from being dominated by its darker tones. But what makes Ordinary People truly great, and truly revelatory about its core themes and experiences, are two central performances: the unbelievably impressive film debut of a 20 year old Timothy Hutton as the movie’s protagonist, Conrad Jared, to my mind the most rich and realistic teenager in any American film; and Judd Hirsch as Conrad’s unusual, sarcastic, and very committed therapist, Dr. Berger. The therapy sessions between the two of them form the movie’s core and heart in every sense, and are allowed to develop with precisely the kind of patient, gradual, quiet, multi-part pace about which I wrote above; by the time they, and we, come to the breakthrough, aided by a new tragedy in Conrad’s life and one of the most judicious and best uses of flashback I’ve ever seen, it feels entirely believable and convincing, not least because it’s partial and painful and represents, without question, only a step (if a crucial and literally life-saving one) on Conrad’s continuing journey toward health, happiness, and a more balanced and realized sense of himself and his identity and future.

Interestingly enough, Good Will Hunting gives its great last line to Williams’ therapist (whose own rich character trajectory will definitely continue beyond that ending), while Hirsch’s character is absent from Ordinary People’s final scenes (which are devoted instead to the culminating conversations between first Moore and Sutherland and then Hutton and Sutherland). But perhaps that’s part of my point about Redford’s film—therapy, like teenage life, is ideally a stage of experience, and while Conrad Jared has not left either entirely behind by the end of the film, his time with Dr. Berger nonetheless feels as if it has reached a satisfying conclusion. Next teen texts tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other teen texts & contexts you’d share?

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

August 24, 2021: American Teens: Lost Boys

[With pre-season sports practices beginning this week, I’ve officially got two sons in high school (!!!!). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy pop culture representations of American teens—share the teen texts & contexts that stand out to you in comments, fellow kids!]

On contextualizing and challenging 80s texts that feature boys who are adrift and endangered.

An interesting aspect that links many of the youthful protagonists about whom I wrote in this post is that they are the children of divorce and single parents. That detail is particularly overt when it comes to E.T.’s Elliott, both because his storyline opens with a discussion of where his absent father is and because the film’s threatening scientist character (played by Peter Coyote) is also a potential romantic interest for Elliott’s single mother (played by Dee Wallace). But I would argue that it’s even more central to the film that gives today’s post its title, The Lost Boys (1987): not only are protagonists Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) the sons of a recently single mother Lucy (Dianne Wiest) who finds herself in a relationship with a threatening new man (Edward Herrmann), but that man turns out to be the leader of the same group of vampires with which Michael and Sam find themselves entangled. This clan of vampires represent one version of the title’s “lost boys,” a misfit clan of teenage outcasts for whom Herrmann’s dangerous father figure is looking for a mother; but Michael and Sam are clearly positioned as another pair of potentially lots boys, an overt parallel to the vampire clan that inspires its youthful leader (Kiefer Sutherland) to pursue Michael as a new member of the group.

Will Byers, the character whose disappearance sets off the events of Stranger Things, is likewise the child of a divorced single mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) with a social outcast older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) who is explicitly linked to 80s counter-culture (represented in short-hand through his love for the British punk rock band The Clash). As with the 80s film characters, I think both of those social and cultural contexts offer valuable and interconnected ways to understand these character types and their meanings. That is, the more obvious and clearly salient social context would be the significant late 20th century uptick in divorce, a trend that has been at times overstated (at least in our collective inability to recognize the longstanding presence of divorce in American culture and society) but that nonetheless both occurred historically and became and remains to this day a key part of our cultural narratives. Yet just as relevant to these lost youthful characters and their experiences and communities are the voices and lives on which Donna Gaines focuses in her vital sociological oral history Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids (1991). Like Jonathan Byers, Gaines’s 1980s teenagers were social outcasts who found solace in the counter-culture community of punk rock, yet whose future remained as uncertain and threatened as those of an overtly lost boy like Will.

There’s one important difference between Gaines’s focal individuals and those in most of the cultural texts on which I’m focusing here, though: gender. That is, Gaines features both boys and girls in her sociological purview, whereas in most of the 1980s films the protagonists were overtly and importantly boys, with young women generally present only as (as in The Lost Boys) romantic interests or (as in E.T.) cute younger sisters. Stranger Things certainly does include a number of complex and interesting female characters, as I analyzed in this post; yet nonetheless, the show’s originating character remains a lost boy, one pursued by a quartet of fellow outcast boys (his older brother and his three best friends). As a result, it’d be important to link these texts to one additional cultural context: our longstanding narratives of boys and men who depart civilization, stories that lead them toward dangers (Rip’s 20-year nap, the White Whale, the violence of the river world Huck encounters) yet also allow them to escape for a time a society that is often overtly linked to mother figures (Rip’s wife, Huck’s pair of maternal influences). Recognizing that connection could help us not only contextualize but also challenge the emphasis on lost boys in these cultural texts.

Next teen texts tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other teen texts & contexts you’d share?

Monday, August 23, 2021

August 23, 2021: American Teens: “Summertime Blues” and the 26th Amendment

[With pre-season sports practices beginning this week, I’ve officially got two sons in high school (!!!!). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy pop culture representations of American teens—share the teen texts & contexts that stand out to you in comments, fellow kids!]

On how a classic summer song connects to a generation-shifting amendment.

I listened to a lot of early rock and roll growing up (something about having a couple baby boomers for parents during the era that first defined the concept of “classic rock” and produced countless “Best of the 1950s” type collections, I suppose), and few songs stood out to me more than Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” (1958). I don’t know that any single song better expresses the clash of youthful dreams and adult realities on which so much of rock and roll and popular music more generally have been built, and I definitely believe that Cochran and his co-writer (and manager) Jerry Capeheart hit upon the perfect way to literally give voice to those dueling perspectives: in the repeated device through which the speaker’s teenage desires are responded to and shot down by the deep voices of authority figures, from his boss to his father to his senator.

Coincidentally, Cochran himself died very young, at the age of 21, in an April 1960 car accident while on tour in England. Cochran’s death came just over a year after the tragic plane crash that took the lives of three other prominent young rock and rollers, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. There’s obviously no direct relationship between these two accidents, nor would I argue that these artists’ youthful deaths were the cause of their popularity (all four were already popular prior to the accidents). But on the other hand, I think there’s something iconic, mythic even, about rock and rollers dying young—or about, more exactly, our narratives and images of such figures—and I believe it’d be difficult to separate those myths from the idealistic and anti-authoritarian attitudes captured in Cochran’s biggest hit. That is, it feels throughout “Summertime Blues” as if the speaker’s youthful enthusiasm is consistently being destroyed by those cold adult responses—and melodramatic as it might sound, the loss of childhood dreams can certainly be allegorized through the deaths of the kinds of pop icons who so often symbolize youth.

Yet of course most young people continue to live in, and thus impact, the world far after their youthful dreams have ended (“Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone,” to quote another youthful anthem), and in a subtle, unexpected way Cochran’s song  reflects that human and historical reality as well. When Cochran’s speaker tries to take his problem to more official authorities, he is rejected by his senator for a political reason: “I’d like to help you, son, but you’re too young to vote” is the reply. In 1958, when “Summertime Blues” was released, the national legal voting age was 21, and so the 20 year old Cochran could not vote; but over the next decade a potent social and legal movement to lower the voting age would emerge, in conjunction with the decade’s many other youth and activist movements, and in 1971 Congress passed and the states ratified the 26th Amendment, which did indeed lower the eligible age for voting to 18. Being able to vote certainly doesn’t eliminate all the other problems of teenage life and its conflicts with adult authority—but it does remind us that neither the gap nor the border between youth and adulthood are quite as fixed or as absolute as our myths might suggest.

Next teen texts tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other teen texts & contexts you’d share?

Saturday, August 21, 2021

August 21-22, 2021: Mark Lorenzoni

[For this brief series, I’ve shared updates on a few topics from my hometown of Charlottesville about which I’ve blogged previously. Leading up to this special weekend tribute to an influential Cville figure I got to see again earlier this summer!]

On a childhood influence who exemplifies the best of community.

Of the handful of experiences that have been genuinely defining across the course of my 44 years, I think long-distance running is likely the one about which I’ve written the least in this space. There’s a reason for that: the last consistent running I did (outside of on treadmills at various gyms, anyway, which really is an entirely different animal from running outside) was my senior year in high school, more than 25 years ago (he typed with a gasp). But for the seven years before that, starting in 6th grade when my Mom and I trained for our first Charlottesville 10-Miler together (a race we would run almost every year between that one and my senior year), and including my three years on the CHS cross-country team (about which I did write, in a very different context, in this post on my experiences of hazing during my freshman year), long-distance running was as consistent a part of my pre-teen and teenage life as anything.

I will always associate running first and foremost with a community of two: my Mom and I, out there on early mornings, often with our dog Tiah. These days, I’m also coming to associate it with a community of three, as my sons have become part of their high school cross-country (my older son) and track (both of them) teams. But in the broader community of Charlottesville runners, of which we became part through those Ten Milers and many other road races over the years, there was another figure who absolutely and beautifully came to symbolize running to me: Mark Lorenzoni. Along with his wife Cynthia, a seriously successful long-distance runner in her own right, Mark started and operated Ragged Mountain Running Shop, a store that became and remains a Charlottesville institution (we just got my younger son some new running shoes there while we were in town in June). But he also and especially became the most vocal and dedicated supporter of all things running in Cville, and most especially of young runners.

“The loneliness of the long-distance runner” is a clich├ęd but in many ways accurate phrase, not just because of the short story and film of that name, but because compared to many sports running is a profoundly individual endeavor, one where the battle is most fully against the voices in our own heads. Nothing and no one can entirely change that fundamental nature, not a running partner, not a team of fellow high school runners, and not cheering crowds as the Ten Miler (for example) always drew. But at the same time, given how much of teenage life can already feel isolated and lonely, it’s pretty important that we find ways to make sure young runners (and all runners, but in some particular ways young runners especially) also feel solidarity and support, the best kinds of community and comradery. Mark did that amazingly well, not just through formal events but through his very presence and voice, before races, after races, during races, and at so many other moments along the way. I can only hope that my sons find similar influences in their burgeoning running careers—and am determined to do whatever I can to carry Mark’s legacies forward.

Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Influences you’d pay tribute to?

Friday, August 20, 2021

August 20, 2021: Cville Updates: Proal Heartwell

[For the rest of this week, I’ll be providing updates on a few topics from my hometown of Charlottesville about which I’ve blogged previously. Leading up to a special weekend tribute to an influential Cville figure I got to see again earlier this summer!]

I first wrote about the wonderfully-named Proal Heartwell in a tribute post that I’ve re-posted a few times over the years. But while his influences on me, as my favorite teacher and a truly inspiring educator in every sense, were the starting points for my own experiences with Proal, in the years since I wrote that post he has published multiple phenomenal books that deserve attention (and readers) in their own right. Here are three:

1)      A Game of Catch (2014): Intimate yet sweeping, funny and moving historical fiction about baseball and race in America—do I need to say any more?

2)      Goronwy and Me (2012): You might not think you need to know about 18th century Welsh poet Goronwy Owen, his time in Virginia, and his links to Proal’s own life and story. Let me assure you, for once in your impressive life you are very, very wrong.

3)      In Beauty It Is Finished (2021): Both of those books are excellent and well worth your time, but Proal’s newest is his best yet, combining many of the topics of those prior works but pulling them together into a combination of biography, literary analysis, historical and cultural commentary, and autobiography that is truly unique and never anything short of compelling. Yes, the conclusion features some thoughtful and generous shout-outs to me and my work (along with my Dad), but I assure you that this wonderful book would get my most enthusiastic recommendation if every bit of that (again, thoughtful and meaningful) section were cut. Get and read this book, the latest part of Proal Heartwell’s inspiring career!

Special post this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Authors or books you’d highlight?

Thursday, August 19, 2021

August 19, 2021: Cville Updates: UVa Memorials to Enslaved Laborers

[For the rest of this week, I’ll be providing updates on a few topics from my hometown of Charlottesville about which I’ve blogged previously. Leading up to a special weekend tribute to an influential Cville figure I got to see again earlier this summer!]

Two core things I love about a new University of Virginia memorial.

In one of the posts in my annual Virginia/Cville series six years ago (but who’s counting?!), I wrote about the in-progress efforts to uncover and commemorate a forgotten burial ground for enslaved workers. Check out that post if you would, and then come on back for more.

Welcome back! As far as I can tell those efforts remain in-progress at that particular site (although they definitely are ongoing, thanks to the work of awesome folks like Kirt von Daacke), but that’s at least in part because in the meantime the university has completed and dedicated a memorial to those enslaved laborers elsewhere on the Grounds. And indeed, one of the things I really love about that memorial, which I had the chance to visit with the boys and my Mom when we were down in Cville in June, is precisely is location, just down the hill from the Rotunda and Thomas Jefferson’s original Lawn. After all, there would be no such places without the work of the enslaved laborers memorialized, and going forward it will be very difficult for any tourist, visitor, prospective student and family, etc. to walk through the Grounds without seeing this memorial. The memorial’s design, the way it is dug into and (I would argue) deeply rooted in the ground of those Grounds, means that such walkers can be almost upon it before they see its full, deeply moving scale, but that too feels fitting to me for the lives and histories it commemorates.

Those aspects of location and design would make this memorial one of my favorites regardless of the content, but I very much love the balance presented by the latter as well. The main outer wall of the memorial features the names of (or, in the many cases where names are tragically unknown, other identifiers for) all of the enslaved laborers historians have been able to locate. It would have been easy and understandable for the memorial to stop there, or perhaps to feature one plaque at the entrance with contextual information. But instead, along the wall of its inner fountain the memorial presents an extended chronology of those laborers and numerous historical contexts for their lives and work (in language that consistently engages with the harshest and most horrific realities of enslavement, racism, white supremacy, and more). Commemoration and education are not identical purposes, and of course too much information can take away from the emotion and potency of a memorial; but I believe this one achieves a perfect balance, commemorating these too-long overlooked figures and lives while also providing visitors with a great deal of vital detail about them and their (and our) world. I love this memorial, and I look forward to visiting it on many more Cville trips.

Last update tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Favorite memorials or public art you’d highlight?

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

August 18, 2021: Cville Updates: Those Statues

[For the rest of this week, I’ll be providing updates on a few topics from my hometown of Charlottesville about which I’ve blogged previously. Leading up to a special weekend tribute to an influential Cville figure I got to see again earlier this summer!]

Now that the infamous Lee and Jackson statues will finally be coming down, thoughts on a few of the possible next steps for them:

1)      Museums: This would seem to be the obvious choice, as a way to preserve the statues (I would always put it that way, rather than preserve “history”; the statues are a commemoration of the past, or rather a mythologized version of it) while removing them from the central and prominent civic space they’ve so long occupied. But as Kevin Levin and others have argued, a great deal would depend on what museum we’re talking about. If they went to one of the many propagandistic spaces that commemorate the Confederacy, I think their pernicious presence and influence could very well continue. That might even be the case at a more neutral history museum, since they in and of themselves are anything but neutral. I would be okay with the thought of moving them, however, to an exhibition on (for example) white supremacy and public spaces in the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

2)      Melting: At the other end of the spectrum from preserving the statues would be melting them down. I’ll admit that this one has a great deal of appeal to me, particularly as a symbolic statement of dismantling these dominant white supremacist narratives; I also think it could be striking and powerful if statues were melted down and then the materials were used to create new memorials to the countless forgotten or under-remembered figures who embody an inspiring inclusive America. But at the same time, it’s impossible to dispute that the imagery of burning and destroying public art conjures up authoritarian and fascist regimes and histories; and even though I believe of course that these efforts would be in service of far different causes, if I’m arguing for symbolic value I certainly have to recognize other possible and far worse symbolisms.

3)      More Voices: So far, the debate over Charlottesville’s statues, like that over Confederate statues and memorials throughout the nation, seems to have been dominated by two communities: racist white supremacists like those who marched in Cville in August 2017; and (I would of course argue) more well-informed and –intentioned white people like myself. As my Cville friend Sally Duncan argues so thoughtfully at the end of this Cville Weekly article, however, it is Black Americans who should ultimately have the central say in what’s next: not only because they were the target of these rhetorically and actually violent histories; but also because in so many cases, including these downtown Cville parks, the spaces were constructed by displacing African American homes and communities. Which is to say, on this issue, as much as I might have to say, it’s time for me to shut up and listen.

Next update tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

August 17, 2021: Birthday Bests: 2020-2021

[On August 15th, this AmericanStudier celebrates his 44th birthday. So as I do each year, here’s a series sharing some of my favorite posts from each year on the blog, leading up to a new post with 44 favorites from the last year. And as ever, you couldn’t give me a better present than to say hi and tell me a bit about what brings you to the blog, what you’ve found or enjoyed here, your own AmericanStudies thoughts, or anything else!]

Here they are, 44 favorite posts from the past year of AmericanStudying:

1)      August 24: Katrina at 15: Nature or Nuture?: I always enjoy posts that get me way out of my comfort zone, and writing about meteorology to kick off this anniversary series definitely did the trick.

2)      August 31: Fall Semester Previews: A Policy of Care: I sure wasn’t happy with much about how the last academic year went—but I stand by everything I wrote in this post, and am so glad I made this my priority for each and every student.

3)      Special Post: The Rock Springs Massacre and Working-Class White Supremacist Violence: Think this is the only time I’ve ever shared a piece outside the blog’s daily operations; it didn’t end up running for my Saturday Evening Post column, so you got it here!

4)      September 9: History through Games: Careers: Every piece in this series was a ton of fun to write, but none more so than this trip through American history and culture via the board game Careers.

5)      September 19-20: Nazis in America: Project Paperclip and Hunters: I learned a whole lot while researching and writing this series, all inspired by watching the problematic but compelling Amazon original show Hunters.

6)      September 26-27: Crowd-sourced AutumnStudying: I won’t include every crowd-sourced post from the last year in this list—but I could, because I love love love every one of them.

7)      October 5: Recent Reads: How Much of These Hills is Gold: Gotta highlight two posts from this series of book recommendations: this one, on the best novel I read last year…

8)      October 9: Recent Reads: Susie King Taylor’s Memoir: And this one, on a favorite historical source I found (and about which I ended up recording a whole podcast episode as well!).

9)      October 15: Confederate Memory: The Shaaras: Revisiting childhood favorites through an analytical lens is never easy, but it sure is important, especially when it comes to topics like Civil War memory.

10)   October 24-25: The World in 2020: If you look back through these bday lists, you’ll see that I hardly ever directly engaged current events in the blog’s early years. That’s been one main thread of my public scholarly evolution, as this post illustrates.

11)   October 31-November 1: Robin Field’s Guest Post on Toni Morrison & the Rape Novel: Also might not highlight every Guest Post in this list, which is a sign of the very nice fact that I had more than ever before in this past year. (If you want to write one, you know what to do!)

12)   November 9-13: AmericanStudies’ 10th Anniversary and Online Public Scholarship: Once again gotta highlight a couple interconnected posts, these anniversary reflections…

13)   November 14-15: Anniversary Acknowledgments: And these anniversary, heartfelt thanks!

14)   November 21-22: Laura E. Franey’s Guest Post on The Keepers: I do have to highlight this Guest Post as well, since they rarely line up so perfectly and thoughtfully with the whole week’s series as Laura’s great post did!

15)   November 27: Book Thanksgivings: Y’all: Having a book coming out is a chance to thank so many folks, and I hope you’ll read every post in this series. But if you read just one, make it the one dedicated to you!

16)   December 5-6: AIDS and COVID: I could have written many more posts about COVID than I did, and I think that was the right call. But this series concluder made sense, and helped me think through some historical contexts and contrasts.

17)   December 19-20: Crowd-sourced Fall 2020 Reflections: I value all my semester reflections, and I hope you’ll check them out. But this was a year for community and solidarity, so here’s a small expression of those more vital than ever goals.

18)   December 26-27: AmericanWishing: My Sons: Do I really need to say any more than that title?

19)   December 28: Year in Review: Race, Memory, and Justice: 2021 has shaped up to be even more defined by those themes as 2020 was.

20)   January 4: Hope-full Texts: “A Long December”: Not sure I ever would have predicted that I’d get to write about my favorite Counting Crows song in this space. Very glad I was wrong!

21)   January 17: Emily Hamilton-Honey’s Hope-full Guest Post: I think this is a first for the blog—an online friend and fellow AmericanStudier read a series and crowd-sourced post and had so many thoughts that it turned into a Guest Post!

22)   January 21: MLK Histories: Where Do We Go from Here?: We all have a lot more to learn about and from MLK; for me, this final book of his was a striking case in point.

23)   February 6-7: Sports in 2021: Revolutionary Change: I think it’s fair to say sports have and haven’t lived up to this potential over the last six months—but there’s still time!

24)   February 13-14: Short Stories I Love: Ilene Railton’s Stories: If you thought I wouldn’t share this Valentine’s series post, well, you were sorely mistaken.

25)   February 20-21: Crowd-sourced Non-Favorites: The annual crowd-sourced airing of grievances didn’t disappoint!

26)   February 27-28: Adam Golub’s Guest Post on Creativity and American Studies: Adam was one of my first online AMST colleagues (and Twitter follows), and it was a joy to finally get to share a bit of his work in this Guest Post.

27)   March 8: Spring Break Films: Spring Break: Like most universities, we didn’t get a Spring Break this year—but I took us all down to sunnier climes through this fun series, starting with this (rightfully) forgotten 80s film.

28)   March 13-14: Of Thee I Sing Update!: Of Thee I Sing was published on March 15, so I kicked off a series on its central concepts and my book talk plans with this special post (I hope you’ll check out the whole series, as well as this page with talks, podcasts, etc.!).

29)   March 29: Key & Peele Studying: Negrotown: Dedicating my annual April Fool’s series to my favorite sketch comedy duo was a very good and very fun idea.

30)   April 6: NeMLA Recaps: Grace Sanders Johnson’s Talk: I enjoyed everything about this year’s virtual NeMLA conference, and hope you’ll check out the whole recaps series—but Grace’s talk was one of the most inspiring I’ve ever heard.

31)   April 21: RadioStudying: Alan Freed: If you’re like me, you know the name Alan Freed largely if not solely through the payola scandal. Suffice to say, there’s a lot more to the man and his legacies than that!

32)   April 24-25: Kate Jewell’s Guest Post: A Love Letter to College Radio: I’ve team-taught numerous AmericanStudies with Kate, which means I was super excited to finally feature a Guest Post from her and just as excited to share it with you again here!

33)   May 8-9: Victoria Scavo’s Guest Post on Gender Roles in Italian American Culture & Literature: Fine, maybe I am gonna share most of the year’s Guest Posts. They’re just all unique and meaningful—like this one, from an undergraduate student of my friend and her fellow Guest Poster Robin Field!

34)   May 10: Spring 2021 Moments: Jericho Brown and the Power of Poetry: This Spring was the toughest semester of my teaching career, but even amidst all that there were moments of grace and inspiration. This one really stood out.

35)   May 18: Small Axe and America: Remembering Reggae: It was fun thinking about how to apply Steve McQueen’s wonderful film series about West Indian English communities to AmericanStudying. This was my favorite in the series.

36)   May 29-30: Sarah Satkowsi’s Guest Post on T.C. Boyle: You knew I couldn’t share one Guest Post from a student of Robin Field’s and not the other!

37)   June 5-6: A Memorial Day Tribute: War and patriotism are two topics it’s easy to caricature—but both, individually and especially together, can and should be commemorated, just not in the ways we far too often have and do.

38)   June 11: Basketball Stories: WNBA Stars: The ad campaign for the new WNBA season was about how we should all be ashamed we haven’t been watching. Not sure about it as a marketing strategy, but, well, it’s damn accurate.

39)   June 14: American Whistleblowers: Daniel Ellsberg: For the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers, this post got Twitter engagement from none other than Ellsberg himself!

40)   June 28: Talking Of Thee I Sing: GCE Lab School: It’s been a great Spring of book talks and conversations about my new book, and I’d love for you to check out this whole series and then suggest some more such opportunities, please!

41)   July 10-11: Pop Culture Workers: Another very fun post to plan and write, from John Sayles to Hustlers and a lot of work and works in between.

42)   July 20: Expanding Histories: United States v. Burr: I’ve long professed my love for Burr, so this was a tough but important look at the seedier sides of US history to which he so fully connects.

43)   July 26-August 1: AmericanStudiers to Highlight: Gonna cheat and make this whole series one highlight, as you should really check out all these great folks & voices (including Hettie Williams’ Guest Post on the weekend, natch)!

44)   August 2: AmericanStudies Websites: Steve Railton’s Trio: I could say the same about all the websites in this series; but I can’t help but single out this filial focus.

Brief Cville series starts tomorrow,

Ben

PS. You know what to do!