What the Founders Read: A Problematic Class
This semester I’m teaching What the Founders Read. The class is a 200-level literature course and it is cross-listed with Political Science. I had one goal when I began designing the course: make sure that the Founders would run. I made several tactical choices about the focus of the class and the works that I included. I made sure to include Hamilton; I made sure to play that up in the course description. I included works like The Federalist Papers in order to meet the needs of the course’s cross-listed audience. Many of these choices altered my initial vision for the course. As I began planning the day-to-day trajectory of the course, I felt the class leaning towards what the Founders (and Lin-Manuel Miranda) wrote—not what they Founders read. I began to see nothing but problems the foundation of my class. Honestly, I started to rue even thinking about planning and teaching the class. I still find it a challenge to write and think about this course.
I knew I wanted a larger frame than just “what the Founders read.” Literary works constitute the main body of the course’s readings. These texts reflect a narrow view of the Founders and a narrow view of what they read. The class felt like a giant disservice to my students. Over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, John Fea introduced a running feature called “Today The Founding Fathers Were Invoked.” Each entry provides a rundown of recent news stories “invoking” the Founding Fathers on various topics. Fea closes each entry with a call to action: “The Founders are invoked every day. Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?” Fea’s call represents a concise expression of the concern that I had all summer while planning my class. I came to the conclusion that the “responsible” thing to do was to own up to the course’s limitations and problems, make those problems as central to the course as what the Founders read. I pointed out the limits of the class on the first day. I owned these limitations during the first week of class readings: we read pieces on defining the Founders and Founders Chic.
In the remainder of this post I’ll address a few of the immediate problems that I saw in my course. I’ll highlight the steps taken to mitigate these problems and turn them into a course theme.
Striving for a Diversity of Voices and Perspectives
In light of the narrow topic of the course’s primary readings, I sought to assign additional resources that introduced a variety of perspectives. Given the topic of the course, the content is largely white and male—a direct result of the topic proposed. I sought to mitigate this limited focus by including a unit on the correspondence of Abigail and John Adams, plus a unit on the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. Still, the women included in the course can be seen as defined in relation to their connection to the Founders. I wanted to include additional voices and perspectives in this class. This is a 200-level course with a lot to cover. I did not want to add a wealth of secondary materials, but it would be irresponsible in a course like this not to include current critical conversations related to the Founders. I tried to reach a middle ground on this issue in two ways. First, I wanted the course to have a component that focused on public scholarship: pieces that were easy to read, models of writing for a general audience, but still rigorous. I selected works from popular media, blogs, podcasts, and other sources.
I tried the best that I could to include a diversity of voices and perspectives in the class, especially regarding scholarship by women, but I need to do better. In selecting readings and podcasts I added as many voices as I could. In day-to-day course meetings I try to be aware of which voices I emphasize from our readings. I try to point out these disparities in class discussion. Though the course doesn’t emphasize assigned secondary readings directly from journals or books, I want students to come away from the class aware of the ongoing critical conversations– like those that inspired the Women Also Know History initiative. In selecting the assigned pieces I made sure to select works that could act as conduits to additional secondary sources. I also created a Twitter list that could be a student resource.
The course makes use of several episodes of Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World. This semester I wanted to do better at integrating Ben Franklin’s World into my course. I’ve used episodes of the podcast before, but relied on the hope that students would draw organically on it in class discussions. I was not satisfied by how I integrated Ben Franklin’s World in previous classes. Podcasts are fun; Ben Franklin’s World is fun. I didn’t want to turn listening to podcasts into a chore. For the Founders class I built in short reflections papers centered on each assigned episode of Ben Franklin’s World. These reflections are modeled after a low-stakes assignment that I did as a graduate student in a literary theory course. (Don’t laugh this was one of the best low-stakes assignments I remember as a student—at any level.) The reflections consist of 3 parts: a summary, a reflection, and list of key terms or buzzwords—all on a single typed page. I am encouraging students to think of these reflections as tools to help them in their work; to envision them as records of the show and an accounting of their own ideas. I think this is a fair assignment that does its best to balance taking something fun and using it as an assignment. The question & and answer format of Ben Franklin’s World, along with each episodes’ excellent show notes, lends itself to a low-stakes assignment like this. Note: Be sure to check out Catherine Hostetter’s post “Podcasts and Pedagogy.”
The Syllabus Re-Do Assignment
The semester will culminate in an opportunity for students to redesign the course. In the “Syllabus Re-Do Assignment” students have an opportunity to select new primary and secondary texts for an imaginary semester. I’ve used versions of this assignment with great success when teaching in literature surveys. The assignment invites students to imagine a new approach to the course theme and invites them to select new weekly readings. For this assignment students pair primary and secondary texts, sprinkle them over a semester, generally following the same patterns in our own course: longer works get more time, etc. This isn’t meant to be a daily recounting, but a way for students to envision the semester in weekly chunks. A short personal reflection explaining their remade course will accompany the assignment.
I’ve already started sharing with students the limitations of the course. I am hopeful that the “Syllabus Re-Do” assignment will provide students an opportunity to identify flaws that they see in the course, while drawing on their own academic discipline and personal interests. I am hopeful that highlighting the conversations happening via public writing, social media, and podcasts will help students to see the stakes involved. I’m open to creative approaches in this assignment and I look forward to the results.
The above ideas are just a few ways that I have sought to address problems in my course. This semester students will have the opportunity to participate in activities both on-campus and off-campus. In a follow-up post I’ll address how these outside the classroom components help address other content problems in the class.