American Studies Road Trip

Tags: Teaching the anti-survey, not that Oz, why Ken Kesey is like Increase Mather.

It’s that time of year, as excellent posts by Caleb McDaniel and Kevin Levin remind us, and I too have been (re)designing the courses I’ll be teaching next fall. I have one new course to prep (20th Century U.S. History) and one course I’ll be repeating (American Studies).

Some people asked me to describe my American Studies course after I mentioned it in a post-Katrina post nearly a year ago, but I got so busy teaching it that only now have I had much of a chance to reflect on the class and how it went. It was a learning experience, as any first-year professor’s courses are going to be, but it really was a joy to teach. Our undergraduate program in American Studies is brand new, and the faculty very generously gave me a free hand to do almost anything I wanted with this seminar. In a lot of ways I got to teach my dream course.

One of the few design specs they gave me was that I should not reproduce the perfectly good U.S. history survey we already have, so I designed American Studies 200 as a kind of anti-survey. I tried to think of the course as an anthology instead of a narrative, a road trip rather than a bird’s-eye-view. Rather than stepping back to survey the nation as a whole, we zoomed in on very specific times and locales. Rather than a sweeping chronological narrative, I offered several staccato portraits. Of course, I hoped and planned for larger themes to emerge, but I banished any pretensions of completeness, any illusions that we would somehow cover it all. Most of my students were planning to concentrate on American Studies so I was not forced to wrestle with the potentially paralyzing fear that this was the only course on the subject they were ever going to take.

Instead, I had the luxury to take up a really rather narrow question–what has “America” meant to different people in different times, and what consequences have those meanings had? Each week we examined a different place and a different historical moment where America and what it meant was constructed, contested, or otherwise up for grabs. (Don’t tell anyone, but I got the idea for the course while outlining a “secret Americana” book I wanted to write for the late lamented role-playing game Unknown Armies.)

When we were talking about transnational history at Cliopatria, I think just about everybody had problems with the idea of the nation as an unmarked category, a “container” that frames the history we tell but never gets questioned itself. I flatter myself that my course did the reverse: here the nation and what it meant was the subject of analysis, but not the frame. I did this not by widening the lens to study the globe but by narrowing it to look at individual locales.

I think it’s easy to underestimate the extent to which American politics, identity, and life remained locally and regionally oriented and distinct, right up to the Second World War or so. Canadian students, and a lot of Canadians who aren’t students too, are prone to do this. I expect my students know more about the U.S. than most American students know about Canada, but they are still given to making very broad generalizations about Americans, and inclined to see the United States as a single monoculture. This view is officially endorsed by the mantra of every civics class they’ve ever taken: “the U.S. is a melting pot, Canada is a mosaic.”

Anyway, here are the places and times we visited in the course this past year. I took a few classes to introduce the field (what is American Studies, anyway?–but that’s another post) and then we got down to it:

* Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1630-1693
* Virginia, 1676-1776
* Boston, 1773-1776
* New Orleans, 1814-1860
* The Burned-Over District, 1830-1848
* Philadelphia, 1844-1865
* Gettysburg, 1863 and after
* Chicago, 1871-1894
* Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, 1883-1916
* Oz, 1892-1907
* Cuba & The Philippines, 1898
* New York, 1920-1929
* The Dust Bowl, 1931-1939
* Hawaii, 1941-1945
* Suburbia, 1950-1963
* The Mississippi Delta, 1955-1966
* San Francisco, 1966-1969
* Orange, Cobb, & Johnson Counties, 1971-1994
* Los Angeles, 1991-2001
* Tokyo, Moscow, and Baghdad, 2001-present

Since somebody always asks, “Oz” has nothing to do with HBO–that’s Oz as in Dorothy and her little dog Toto too. That’s the week we talked about Populism and bimetallism, the great merger movement and the rise of big business in America. We considered the old Henry Littlefield theory that The Wizard of Oz was a “parable on Populism” but we also discussed William Leach’s (to me) more convincing argument that Oz is an ad man’s fairy tale, a guilt-exorcising celebration of the dawning consumer culture.

There were a few hiccups with the way I’d set up the course. “Places in time” are all very well, but I can see now that I need to provide some connective tissue. My students had varying levels of experience in American history, and some were prepared to be discussing Puritan jeremiads right off the bat while others were not. This year I’ll have an additional hour each week, and I think I’ll use it to do a little more scene-setting and framing. What I hope to do is to use the last third of each class to talk about the place and time we’ll be discussing the following week, so that my lecture precedes the readings and orients students to them.

But the big themes did emerge–some planned, some unplanned. And the students got very good at making their own connections across time. I’ve never been more proud of my students than I was on the day it occurred to them–a day one of my senior colleagues was observing the class, no less–that The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is both about a jeremiad and a kind of jeremiad itself. “Ken Kesey is Increase Mather!” said one student. “You just blew my mind,” said another.

I won’t change the course too much next year, but I think I will swap out a few of the units, just to keep it fresh. I’d really like a unit that let us do some traditional political history–a key Supreme Court decision or a moment in constitutional history that still fits into the “place in time” paradigm. I won’t agitate KC Johnson by even pretending this is a political history course, but classic political history topics–checks and balances, the Constitution, the various two party systems–came up in our discussions again and again. My students were particularly struck (as other Canadians studying the U.S. have been) by American reverence for the Constitution and its relevance to all manner of contemporary debates. Appealing to the intentions of long ago founding fathers is a rhetorical move that few modern Canadians would think to make. I’d like a little more emphasis on women’s history too. There were a number of weeks where women’s experiences were at the center of our discussions, but we could have done more to make this a thread running through the course rather than a topic we visited a couple of times a term before moving on.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, I’d love to hear your suggestions for other places and times that would be interesting to study. Or if you study other parts of the world, I’d love to hear the places you might visit or the topics you might cover in an anthology-style course.

(Cross-posted to Cliopatria.)


  1. how about the American southwest, especially the Mexican/American border? You could draw material from Vanderwood’s Juan Soldado, and Helen Delpar’s The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican, both of which address the 20s and 30s. It would fit well near the dust bowl, and could address migrant labor and how attitudes toward the border change.

  2. Since you’re getting into regionalism, how about pre-annexation Texas? Don’t know if there’s anything interesting there. Oh, Dave beat me to that comment. Because of your blog software I thought I was the first one posting.

    For keeping the nation from being the frame, it helped me to understand how most people in the “countries” of Iran and France didn’t speak a common form of Persian or French until state policy made it so.

  3. Consider the pre-stigmatic communism of Woody Guthrie and the rise of unions. A lot of strong feelings about the meaning of America arose in those days.

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