Becoming American - a class under construction

Matthew J. Cressler

The semester is careening to a what better time to think about our forthcoming courses?! This fall I get to co-teach what is sure to be a rad honors seminar with my friend and colleague Shari Rabin (assistant professor of Jewish studies and associate director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture here at the College of Charleston).

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.


Very cool, I'm jealous and wish I could teach this course in the coming year. My own point in the semester makes it impossible to give a hypothetical syllabus sustained thought right now, but an immediate first thought is that I'd want to include Josh Paddison's "American Heathens." It's right in line with what you're doing, but also brings attention to Native Americans and the Chinese.
esclark said…
This sounds awesome! It sounds like you've focused in on three really illuminating demographic groups, but if you want to bring in Native Americans, Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony is great for this. For something shorter, consider Vine Deloria's "Is Religion Possible?" a short article in Wicazo Sa Review (1992). It provides a criticism of the appropriation of Native American religions in the 80s and 90s. White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men is a half-hour documentary that also gets at this. I think it relates to your course topic via who has ownership of religious practices, how that relates to colonialism/power, and, in a way, it gets at the idea of the American spirit.

I love teaching The Fire Next Time, which seems like it is a fantastic choice for this class topic. I would also encourage you to bring in the Moorish Science Temple - the concerns the FBI had about them, the FBI files themselves, and the group's ideas about Moorish-American identity provide an interesting take on this topic. It also seems like the APA Oath of 1892 and an excerpt or two from Maria Monk are in order to provide a look at how nativists saw Catholics as not compatible with Americans. If appropriate, you could also watch Gangs of New York. I've also had good luck teaching about Cold War-era Catholicism. I've assigned It This Tomorrow?, which is a comic book from 1947 published by a Catholic educational group (I can send it to you). The comic book makes an argument similar to Herberg's Catholic, Protestant, Jew but in comic book form. Richard Rodriguez's “Credo” brings in Mexican-American Catholicism, as do a host of recent books that you could pull from (such as Elaine Pena's work). Or I would imagine Roberto Trevino's chapter in Catholicism in the American West ("Faith and Justice: The Catholic Church and the Chicano Movement in Houston") would work well in the classroom. I haven't taught that reading, but I think it would work well and bring up a number of questions about American Catholicism.

You must share the syllabus with us when you're done. :)
So great! I'll repeat my concern from Facebook: do (religious) women become American? Perhaps something from Kathy Cummings' work either on sainthood and women saints in the US context or even the argument she makes in 'New Women of the Old Faith' about Catholic women not supporting suffrage at the turn of the century would do well here. When we focus on nation and nationhood, women often fall out of the frame.

I hope you'll blog about teaching the course this Fall!
Anthony Petro said…
So jealous of you two! This is amazing. A couple ideas. I wonder how we could think about religion, not just as an organizing principle for communities but also as a set of rhetoric that polices and disciplines the boundaries of American citizenship as well. Along these lines, my mind goes to Tisa Winger's *We Have a Religion* for instance. Also thinking about "nonreligious" groups that are cast out of American citizenship through the mobilization of religious (and often Christian secular) languages -- this list would include LGBT people (and thinking about how "religious freedom" claims are so often constructed over and against LGBT rights in today's political battles; also how so many gays and lesbians moved closer toward the center of American citizenship once they took on the vows of marriage), atheists, feminists, socialists, etc).

Can't wait to see what you all come up with (and to poach accordingly). ;)
Lauren Turek said…
This sounds like an amazing course! Are you planning to cover American exceptionalism at all, in the context of identity formation, national ideology, and/or its entanglement with certain American religious beliefs?
Shari Rabin said…
Hi everyone! Thanks for your enthusiastic comments and great suggestions! A few things in response to your questions/comments:
1) We're definitely doing some Baldwin. I really like the idea of using FBI files in the Law/State section, which for now skews mostly nineteenth century, in part because it is early in the semester. One of the challenges of taking a thematic approach is figuring out how much to actually ignore all chronology.
2) We are going to have several weeks at the beginning of the semester focused on founding documents and theoretical orientations, and during that period we plan to talk about gender and American identity, the category of religion and issues of religious freedom, and questions of American exceptionalism. A tall order, but hopefully we can do it!
3) On women: these questions have largely been decided by men, but we are using examples in which women were important (and are looking for more), like public schooling debates and forms of immigrant religion (we are thinking about teaching part of The Virgin of El Barrio, for instance)
4) On exceptionalism: The last week is currently about globalization and the question: Has the whole world become American?
5) We are trying to stay pretty focused on our three groups, but of course a different version of this course could include other groups and possibly even a different group each week! That's what is most exciting to me about it: the framework is robust and very relevant, and we see these groups as providing one interesting - but certainly not exclusive - genealogical possibility.
jodi said…
This sounds AMAZING! I hope y'all will share the syllabus. I am obsessed with these questions, especially in a comparative context. There's a book edited by Henry Goldschmidt and Elizabeth McAlister called "Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas" (or, I'm close there!) that might be of interest, and, on citizenship and being American.... Caroline Levandar's _Cradle of Liberty: Race, the Child, and National Belonging from Thomas Jefferson to WEB Du Bois (Duke UP 2006)_ work would be super interesting (either for you guys as background or for the students, too), and so would Sylvester Johnson's work (perhaps obviously). He gave a great talk on some FBI issues at the AAR media workshop in November.

Have you thought about doing something with Angels in America? That gives you some interesting Jewish _and_ African American material (and the Cold War and SO much more.... even if you just showed the opening rabbi speech, about the generations who came here and how "such voyages in this world no longer exist"-- which connects to a contemporary global world and the question of if everything is American-- plus, you get Mormons. Even if they are not your focus, they give you SO much with which to work.

I am going to live vicariously through you. So exciting!
This sounds like a lot of fun! It appears that you can show your students counter-narratives of American religion, shifting the focus away from an exclusive focus on Protestant Christianity. I think that Judaism is a topic of great relevance. Have you considered incorporating media into the class? You could show the film "Hester Street" (or have students watch it on reserve at the library, outside of course times) and have a discussion about assimilation & Jewish immigration. Alternatively, you could read the novel "Yekl" on which the film is based.

Mormonism with its combination of American values and 1800s separatism is also relevant to this course. Many LDS academic histories are dense affairs, potentially too much so for freshmen or sophomores, but Joanna Brooks's memoir "The Book of Mormon Girl" might be a good introduction to Mormon identities in the late 20th century. If you want a textbook, I recommend Matthew Bowman's "The Mormon People," which is scholarly in its research, but is written for a popular audience. The PBS documentary "The Mormons" is a useful resource should you want a visual component.

Finally, I'm no expert on the introduction of Asian ideas to America, but perhaps something on the introduction of yoga/popular Hindu-based spirituality or Buddhism could round out the course, and shift the narrative away from the East Coast.
This sounds like it will be a great class! One of the themes I've noticed in comments, besides everyone wanting to add a demographic group, is the language through which "American" is constructed. I'm curious if the concepts of civil religion and patriotism will be discussed, as I've often found it's such languages (same with exceptionalism and the rhetoric Anthony Petro mentioned) that delineates the boundaries. Another add on may be the media that express "American" identity -- news, pop culture, political cartoons, music, etc.

Source-wise -- have you added Conrad Cherry's "God's New Israel" for primary sources? You also mentioned looking at globalization near the end of the course. Ian Tyrrell's "Reforming the World" may be of interest for that section of class.

Ditto what Monica said -- I hope you two update us about the course!

Erica Andrus said…
I would like to echo everyone's comments here: this sounds like a fantastic course. I'm not sure if it would be too unwieldy, but a part of me believes every American or visitor to America should read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. It gives such a vivid portrait of its times and places, and personally, as a White gen-Xer, it was a book that strongly informed my understanding of race in America. And the trajectory of alternative African American religions in the 20th century. Please do keep us informed as you shape your syllabus, and as students respond to the readings.
Thank you (everyone!) for the enthusiasm and suggestions - they are all incredibly helpful, especially since we've got all summer to continue our work on the course. Just to touch on a few of the comments above:

1) We will definitely share the syllabus once it's constructed and there may or may not be a course blog where we can not just share the syllabus but where we (and our students) can keep y'all appraised of the course as it moves forward.
2) I love your invocation of "religion" as a rhetoric or discourse that polices the boundaries of American citizenship and national belonging, Anthony and Ashley. This is definitely very much what I had in mind and, as a result, we're going to *have* to talk about American exceptionalism, probably touch on civil religion, and Tisa Wenger's work will need to make an appearance. Tracy Fessenden will undoubtedly be crucial for this as well.
3) Erica, I share your sense that every American should read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (and I'm striving to achieve that lofty dream, one unsuspecting student at a time). Pretty sure we won't have room for the whole book (especially since we're teaching Baldwin and Coates), but Malcolm X will definitely be present with us.

If one thing is clear from the comments, it is that this class has a lot of potential. If one more thing is clear, it's that there are lots of us who'd love to teach it (all in our own ways). We look forward to continuing the conversation in the fall!