Title: Becoming American. Timing: Impeccable (with what proves to be a contentious election approaching). Description: What is America? What does it mean to be "American"? How does (or can) one "become" American? These questions are at the heart of some of the most provocative debates in the United States, past and present. This fall the two of us, along with our intrepid students, will engage these questions from the vantage point of three communities: African Americans, Catholics, and Jews. At times each have been characterized as incompatible with (if not inimical to) the very idea of America. And yet, in other instances, each have been heralded as epitomizing the endless possibilities afforded by the American Dream. Is America a nation premised on equal opportunity, mutual coexistence, and pluralism? Or on slavery and genocide, violence, and exclusion? We're gonna jump right into the deep end on these kinds of questions. In other words, the course will be a mash-up of American studies and religious studies (and Jewish studies and African American studies and Catholic studies).
So, with nothing set in stone just yet, we have two questions: How would you construct this course? And what would you just have to teach?
We have some ideas of our own, obvs. (Spoiler Alert for any of our future HONS 381 students!) We're hoping to open by breaking down some of our key terms - like What is a "nation" (and its corollary, "religion")? And we'll tie these theoretical conversations to primary sources. You know, must-reads like the Declaration of Independence and de Tocqueville paired with must-listens like Hamilton, a musical that manages to be subversive and so American mythos all at the same time.
Once we've set this sort of framework, we're thinking we'll organize our engagement with African Americans, Catholics, and Jews into units oriented around who (or what) has the power to define what it means to be/come American. Right now that translates to I. Law (and the State), II. Culture (and Cultural Critics), III. Society (and Lived Experience). Each week will match keyword/s in American studies with primary and secondary sources. So, for instance, we can talk immigration restriction as constitutive of American identity and discuss keywords like "naturalization" and "white" as we dive into laws restricting Jewish and Catholic immigration in the 1920s.
Much of the syllabus (most, let's be honest) remains up in the air. But there are three things I'm already especially amped for. First, we'll be reading James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time in tandem with Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, all in preparation for Coates's visit to the College on October 18 (as part of our incredible Race and Social Justice Initiative). Second, we're planning on teaching The Jazz Singer (1927) alongside Superman, two stories of (Jewish) strangers in a strange land seeking to embark on their American way (with some truth and justice too). Third, each week will bring us closer to Election Day and, if the primary season has been any indication, the class will be more relevant by the millisecond.
Okay, but that's enough from me - can you tell I'm excited?! We'd love to hear any thoughts you might have about how to tackle these huge historical (and historiographical and theoretical) questions. Any advice you might have on co-teaching courses would be welcome as well.