Engagement: Part IV. Building a History

The class project (The Genealogy of the American Present) for our imaginary US History I course of 320 undergraduate students will be a publicly readable (but not publicly editable) wiki that comprises multiple–often overlapping, sometimes contradictory–views of themes, events, individuals, groups, movements, and so forth, that constitute the warp and weft of the fabric of American society. The overlaps and the contradictions are there by design, reflective as they are of the consonance and dissonance (to use another metaphor) one hears when listening to what an experiment in democracy sounds like. The heteroglossia and the occasional dissonance are reminiscent of syncopated jazz [nod to the Beats], in which each “voice” (instrument) may appear to be going its own way—sometimes in turns, sometimes with others—to an underlying harmony that might not be apparent throughout the entire composition, but pops up here and there and eventually emerges to affirm to the listener that it was there all along, the structure to which all that diversity was anchored. This idea of citizenship in a democratic society is not a chorus; therefore, a history of that society should not sound like a chorus.

The time has come to address the matter of matter–of the content that our 320-researcher-strong team of historians will be dealing with. For starters, since I am in love with the title, conventional wisdom would dictate that I throw it out. As this is to be an unconventional course, however, I’m challenging all assumptions that I recognize as such. The challenge with the title, of course, is that we’re studying US History I–that is, not the American present. Also, the “genealogy” part is problematic in that genealogies typically are “uncovered” in backward fashion, from the person doing the research back to his or her parents, back to their parents, and so on.

Let us instead view this problem as an asset. In presenting the assignment to the class, we will encourage them to consider their own daily lives as a starting point for their research. Food, shelter, and clothing are as relevant today as they were in colonial America, and there is plenty of continuity and change to be uncovered by researchers dealing with these as historical topics. The student working on “Breakfast in America,” for instance, will learn much from her classmates whose work is tangential to–but can inform and be informed by–her own work. How did breakfast look among different classes of different peoples during the period of the American Revolution? What did different tribes of Native Americans have for breakfast? Was it different from lunch or dinner, as it often is now in contemporary America (for many people)? Who did the cooking? Was it delivered to soldiers or workers in the fields, was it eaten at home with the family, was it a communal or perfunctory experience?

For those already concerned that this is going to be all social history, I can assure you now that there will be as much “drum and trumpet” as “rum and strumpet” in this project. I chose the “Breakfast in America” example (a) because of the title and (b) because, as an almost universal phenomenon, “breakfast” and a thoroughly researched examination of it can tell us a lot about the history of the United States. When the US History II students get a hold of this wiki, some lucky student will further develop the genealogy of “Breakfast in America,” incorporating “official” historical stuff, like the evolution of the Free and Reduced Lunch Program in US schools from its humble beginnings as a program to provide milk to students. Reference, of course, will be made to the Supertramp album titled, “Breakfast in America.” Supertramp was a British band, and the title track of that album was sampled by American rap/rockers Gym Class Heroes in their song “Cupid’s Chokehold.”

Why is this history? We want our students to recognize patterns in history, don’t we? Just as Gym Class Heroes (Americans) appropriated something of British provenance for their own style of music, so too did Americans appropriate British jurisprudence, language, customs, and so on. The United States has been “sampling” bits and pieces of the rest of the world’s cultures for centuries and selling it back to them–in itself, a form of cultural mercantilism.

Of course, since there will be students researching and exchanging ideas (during the many “consultations” that are part of the design of the course), such patterns will–after we have modeled how to look for them–be apparent to those students who (a) master the learning objective and (b) pay attention. The pattern that arises might not be “sampling” or lead to anything like a conception of “cultural mercantilism,” but might instead be constructed in the head of the individual student from the interactions/collisions/collusions of content and meaning derived during the course. Thus, though we may contrive a number of patterns we will teach, address, and hope to see discovered in novel situations that we provide to the students, we must be prepared to have our students teach us something. That is, we must not be surprised when a student appropriates an idea (we’ve introduced) for their own view of America and sells it back to us. In that model, we all profit!

As suggested by Professors Karl Miller and Penne Restad, we will turn our attention to those specific topics that will facilitate our objectives; and in doing so, we will identify a time period or range of years that is compact enough to produce a cohesive and coherent context for the individual (weft) studies. This will be taken up in the next segment.

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