Teaching Hamilton: A Wrap Up

Over the past week PALS hosted a fantastic series of posts on teaching Hamilton in various classroom contexts. Laura Miller shared approaches to using Hamilton as a way to help students find entry into the 18th century as part of a project that incorporated the City Readers site from the New York Society Library. Sunny Stalter-Pace helped us consider ways to teach Hamilton within the context of contemporary American drama. Finally, Caitlin Kelly showcased what Hamilton and its draft iterations can teach students about the vibrant process of revision. We hope that these perspectives highlight ways of approaching Hamilton and serve as an inspiration to teachers looking to incorporate this dynamic and rich texts in the classroom. We are also hopeful that this week-long series of posts provides a way to continue an evolving discussion on teaching Hamilton.

When I first wrote about the musical Hamilton for PALS, I tried to capture the possible critical conversations about the musical that could be leveraged for the classroom. While I am unsure how much the original post still holds up, I can say that one of the attractive aspects of incorporating Hamilton in the classroom is its flexibility. The musical speaks to a variety of contemporary concerns about the United States, race, history, and many other topics. The posts featured this week show us that Hamilton has seemingly infinite applications for the classroom. The musical speaks to many issues (while also being silent on many others) and this multifaceted nature of the musical shows the versatility of incorporating it in the classroom. Such versatility benefits the classroom by providing a source of rich engagement for the students but presents drawbacks because not every single topic raised or ignored by the musical can be addressed during a few weeks of the semester.

In closing our week long feature on Hamilton, I hope I can be forgiven for speaking about teaching the musical in a personal way, specifically within the context of the precarious nature of the academic job market and the musical’s emphasis on the bootstrapping narrative of hard work. In preparing for the roundtable (and to once more teach the musical in the fall term), I began listening to the musical again. I had not listened to the music since the close of the fall semester. Revisiting the musical highlighted the ethos of hard work and bootstrapping. The musical’s emphasis on hard work isn’t something new; it has been pointed out often. I realized, as I listened to the musical with fresh ears, that pushing back against that hard work narrative is something that I did not consider in the context of my fall classroom experience.

I’ve struggled with writing this post because I find—in the context of academic labor— myself at odds with Hamilton and its emphasis on the ethic of working hard, perseverance, and rising above one’s station. I find it difficult to grapple with the ethic of working hard within the context of academia and the academic job market. I also know that I’m looking at the final year of limited-term position. This coming year is one last chance to work hard and make it through the academic job market. (Full disclosure: I’ve been applying for jobs in other fields and have had much more success with that than I did with the most recent job season, which seemed peppered with all Early American Lit jobs.) All of this personal background noise colors how I think about teaching the musical. The lack of success on the job market is familiar to many of us. Hamilton tell us that we can write (or work ourselves) out of our situation. The writing one’s way out sentiment resonates in academia. However, the old wisdom that one can write their way into a job isn’t the case anymore. Many of us know people with articles and books(!) that cannot find full time tenure-track jobs.

I’ve been grappling with all of these ideas for weeks. I’ve been struggling with them as I write and revise this post. Even with the uncertainty in this post, I do know that I want to make the point of the bootstrap narrative a central theme of my unit on Hamilton in the fall. This is partly because I’ll be teaching the musical in a class on the founders and the books that they read. Starting with the musical is a potent way to introduce students to the material for the semester, but it also can further send them down the road of romanticizing the founders.

In light of all of these thoughts, here is one thing I plan to do: be honest with students about my own situation. I think that’s one of the most important things that I can do. While the lives of students’ college professors might be mysterious, much of that mystery is largely built on popular culture. I think being honest with students helps. It does not mean to be an open book, and I recognize that for a variety of reasons it is not an approach for all of us. However, in those moments where we can be honest with students about our professional lives, I think we should.

I want to close this post by inviting our readers to read this week’s series on Hamilton. There is so much more that can be done with the musical. I hope that these posts serve as an inspiration for you and your classroom. We’d also love to hear your ideas about teaching Hamilton, too. Reach out to us on Twitter, leave a comment on our site, or send us an email.

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