Next week, in History and Practices of American Studies, we’re thinking broadly about pedagogy in American Studies, which as a teaching assistant I am already required to do. Usually I think generally about my practice as an instructor–what kind of instructor am I? What’s my teaching style? Do students respond better through lecture or discussion? In trying to engage students, do I want them to laugh with me or at me or both? But before this week, I don’t think I had ever thought explicitly about curriculum and course design in American Studies. Of course I’ve had ideas on both having recently been an undergraduate in the department, but without the language to describe what changes I was interested in seeing, I was never able to share those ideas to a professor in any consequential way.
Today in my undergraduate class we tackled two monumental texts: Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech and Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past. We walked through King’s use of rhetoric, how much it is mirrored in North Carolina’s own civil rights movement, the inherent problems that come with creating a static narrative of the CRM, in what ways Hall challenges that narrative, what issues are at stake as the LCRM continues, what students feel is the civil rights issue of our time, and how we, as students, can act upon those very issues. They’re tremendous questions that beg for more than fifty minutes of consideration, and I left the class feeling a little defeated that there wasn’t time to ask more students to publicly reflect and that I hadn’t gotten to talk civil rights in Chapel Hill (which always serves as such an eye-opener). But when I frame this frustration in the terms of what curriculum students in American Studies should be exposed to, I’m on my way to feeling better, which brings me back to this week’s theme of pedagogy.
The question we were asked to consider is this: What are the most necessary topics and themes with which American Studies should/must engage students at UNC in the 21st century? It is, for anyone who know me or reads this blog, my ideal question, surpassing by far “Would you please tell me more about your dog?” and “Team Dean or Team Jess?,” and I’m happy and smug enough to share my (much edited and perhaps difficult to understand taken out of context of our required readings) answer not just with my professor but here as well.
The multifaceted answer to this question stems from the understanding that before the University is anything else–a renowned center for research or a haven for esteemed teaching–it is a public university. As such, there is a duty implicit in the creation of both curriculum and course design to build classes that speak to the most vital of the three pillars of UNC’s mission to provide teaching, research, and public service to the state and beyond. American studies, positioned as it is as an interdisciplinary field, crossing boundaries across the humanities and social sciences, has a critical role to play in the dissemination of the message of public service. Thus, it should be the goal of every American studies instructor to have students engage with American culture and history in both an intimate and communal way, ensuring that as students graduate, they become alumni and citizens who carry a personal sensitivity and public mindfulness to all acts of public engagement. All questions of how curricula are selected, work is assigned, and technology implemented should be answered with that goal in mind.
Because the University is theoretically a microcosm for the state, as well as a training ground for its future leaders, it seems obvious that courses should be designed to attract a wide swath of students rather than specific group. However, I think it still remains a difficult task to design a course that is both intellectually stimulating for an instructor (and hell, students as well) and attracts a variety of students across majors, years, and backgrounds; many courses that would appear to be designed just for the purpose of attracting a wide assembly of diverse students are often historical or cultural survey courses. And while I believe that survey classes unquestionably have merit and lay the foundation for much undergraduate knowledge, I think it is easy for survey courses to fall into the monotony of chronology and fact memorization. So how to design a course that brings student diversity without falling into the (sometimes) tedium of survey? Courses that ask students to identify themselves with and in contrast to their peers can bring about a diverse classroom that promises compelling conversation. For example, an American studies course that I have seen attract many different students is “Introduction to South.” There are those who enroll in the course expecting sweet tea, those who expect the Civil War battle by battle, and those who expect a month of Robert Johnson. And although the course touches on all of these aspects of southern culture, it introduces students to the variety of Souths that exist. A course that allows students to identify as community member (e.g. southerner) and as a distinct part of that community (e.g. southern musician), has a lot of value in teaching students how to engage personally with material while also viewing themselves as part of a larger public.
Instructors should seek to share curriculum in which students can find their place in the trajectory of a certain historical context. Instructors should carry with them the belief that good history should give you the facts, but it should also elevate your mind (and ideally your spirit), carrying you out of the past, into the present and onto the future. Thus, it is the place of history to first teach what happened, then once given this fact, have the student realize that he knows and will carry this fact, able now to apply it to his own life and times. Teaching American studies can and should tread the line between Northrop’s practical and imaginative languages, between “The civil war began in 1860 over the issue of slavery,” and “Here is the legacy of slavery in our own times and what we should do about it.” It should again be the goal of the American studies professor to share curriculum that students can find current relevance in and then guide them towards avenues and agencies to change or contradict the direction of history or their understanding of culture through public engagement.
Reading through the syllabi from American studies course I took as an undergrad, it becomes obvious that it is necessary to provide texts that reflect an interdisciplinary perspective. In Marr’s “Birth and Death in the United States,” he pulls from Margaret Atwood for a perspective from popular literature (and Canada), Atul Gawande from both public health and the literary world of The New Yorker, William Faulkner and Eudora Welty for the southern literary perspective, and our own Della Pollock, allowing the freshman taking the course to experience excellent and accessible academic writing. Having texts that come from more than academic journals and works not only expands student interest in completing assigned readings, but also can provide an introduction into many literary canons (though the southern literary canon usually carries students the furthest). Reading works by other professors who students may not know yet can be instrumental in simply introducing them to research that happens in a variety of departments.
There have been (and really I should say, there still are) service-learning classes in American Studies in which students have worked in concert with a local community group. Service-learning work, especially that which involves working with a community you may not be part of, requires continual self-reflexive practice as you evaluate your work in the context of public service and personal gain. How obvious again, that American studies, as a discipline that advocates for self-reflexivity as much as it practices it should be a home for service-learning initiatives at the University. However, while service-learning is the obvious method for involving students in public life, the self-reflexivity that should accompany the consideration of how one will serve the public can be done through other assignments. Having students thoughtfully evaluate how themes from a course can be used as they consider their lives as graduates can be just as meaningful as requiring reflection after a service-learning project. A nascent kind of public engagement can be taught by requiring students to attend performances and talks as they relate to the themes of the course; sometimes there needs to be a forced realization that conversations that happen for fifty-minutes on Monday morning actually happen continually all over campus.
While it is obvious that technology has an enormous impact on teaching, it is maybe less obvious that the duty of the professor to teach in collaboration with technology, using it strategically. In “Mashing Up the Institution: Teacher as Bricoleur,” Larry Hanley suggests that “faculty within institutions of higher education” should begin to think of themselves as “bricoleurs rather than the users and clients inscribed within the Content Management Systems” To this point, Hanley suggests that first, “the bricoleur…gathers, arranges, and modifies technologies to meet his or her circumstances: course and unit goals, student needs and aptitudes, disciplinary issues and concepts.” The instructor as bricoleur also “draws on and engages students in the expanding new literacies fostered by Web 2.0’s [i.e. Twitter, WordPress, Flickr, Reddit] new openness,” “requires new kinds of support and new forms of ‘faculty development,’” and “sees technology as a tool to increase self-reflexivity, to think explicitly about the relation between teaching and learning.”
All of Hanley’s points are well taken, and at UNC, again using the University as a function of public engagement, can be taken a step further. Open-source CMSs and what Hanley calls “Web 2.0’s” have been praised for their dedication to public service by simple virtue that they are freely accessible. Isn’t there a lesson for the University there? While we praise tools and platforms that are open-source, by nature inclusive and egalitarian, are instructors missing a key connection to the public nature of the University, which, translated into tech-speak, could be classified as “open-source”? It should be the duty of professors making use of technology, whether that is requiring students to engage professionally with Twitter or create content and publish their own blog, to not allow technology to become a black-box without context. By drawing the connection between open-source “Web 2.0’s” and the nature of a public university, professors can draw students again into a self-reflexive process in which they evaluate their own technology use. This could lead to conversations with how different technologies further the tenets of public service that every American Studies course should be working through.
I’ve laid out what I think should be the goals of American studies instructors at the University, but I would like to lay out one final goal that should sum up what I was trying to get at in the ones I have listed above. The goal of teaching at North Carolina’s flagship university is to make good citizens for North Carolina and good alumni for the University. Students who can “learn to see” as Maria Popova suggests, with “the mindfulness of Sherlock Holmes” and “the expansive sensitivity of Thoreau,” will be able to engage in public life as strong-willed and thoughtful citizens who will continue to carry that same mindfulness and sensitivity. As alumni-in-training, students should gain not only reverence for the University but an understanding of how they will serve their alma mater and their state after they have begun their professional lives.