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.

Teaching Hamilton: An American Musical as Contemporary American Drama

PALS Note: This week PALS is pleased to present a series of posts with reflections on teaching approaches for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical in various classroom contexts. We hope that these posts are a fruitful spark for continued discussion on ideas for teaching Hamilton in the classroom. (Here are the links to the other posts in the series: Early American Library History and Digital Humanities Using Hamilton, Teaching Revision through Hamilton: An American Musical, and Teaching Hamilton: A Wrap Up; and, here is the initial post that inspired the series: Teaching Hamilton, the Musical.)

In the second post for the series, Sunny Stalter-Pace, an associate professor of English at Auburn University, shares experiences with teaching Hamilton in a course on contemporary American drama. Stalter-Pace’s post adds to the ongoing conversation on teaching Hamilton by situating the musical within the context of a contemporary American drama course.

When I started thinking about how to teach Hamilton: An American Musical, the first models I found came from historians. (I only recently came across a blog post discussing strategies for incorporating Hamilton in several theatre classes, from an introductory level to an honors seminar.)  Scholars of early American history were early proponents of the show; writers for The Junto group blog managed to see its summer 2015 run at the Public Theatre and previews at the Richard Rodgers. Plus, Hamilton arrived at a particularly fruitful time for contemporary playwrights of color reckoning with U.S. history: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon (2014) riffed on the Dion Boucicault play from 1859, and Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home for the Wars trilogy (2015) mashed up the Odyssey and the Civil War for the Black Lives Matter era. Miranda’s work is not just an example of American musical theater but one of theater concerned with what it means to be an American.

I try my best to fit at least one local live performance on to every drama course syllabus. A play on the page is one thing; a play on the stage is quite another. In 2015-2016, our university’s theater department had a particularly resonant season for pursuing questions of history and storytelling in the United States, with Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins mid-semester and an original documentary drama called The Integration of Tuskegee High School near the end. The official title for the course was “Studies in Drama: Contemporary Plays & the Problem of Historical Representation,” though if I had a chance to retitle it now, I’d call it “American Theater + History,” or maybe “Who Lives Who Dies Who Tells Our Story.”

The class was smaller than our usual undergraduate seminars, with only 14 students. Their majors ranged across the spectrum of liberal arts: literature and English education, theater, history, sociology, media studies, and global studies. Some students knew every word of the show; others needed a plot summary even after listening to the original cast recording. Even the most popular of popular culture gets transmitted unevenly; just as we do our students a disservice when we assume they are digital natives, we do the same by assuming they are fluent in Beyoncé or The Hunger Games.

To complicate matters further, even the students who knew Hamilton varied in their knowledge: wide-eyed superfans who knew every word of the show sat next to savvy Tumblr users already invested in critiques of the show’s representational politics. But as I found when discussing Miranda’s footnotes to his own lyrics (first available on RapGenius.com), this is a show that addresses many audiences. Discussion would thrive when the musical theater geek, the hip-hop fan, and the history buff could each contribute pre-existing knowledge to the class’s conversation.

Ham Book Cover

The biggest risk I took had to do with the course text. Hamilton: A Revolution (known to fans as the Hamiltome) was released late in the semester when the course was offered. There would be no hiding the fact that I read the book at the same time as the students. I had to keep that part of the semester open-ended, unsure about what themes specific to the book would resonate within that semester’s discussions. But the ways it used Ron Chernow’s presence to excuse historical inaccuracies added an interesting twist to our discussions of history and narrative. Even the way that Gchats and emails and Instagram-worthie selfies with celebrities were part of the text gave the students a lot to talk about in terms of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s manipulation of current tropes of online celebrity.

Hamilton: A Revolution has its drawbacks: songs from the show appear sequentially at the end of each chapter, with the preceding context illuminating something about the song. One illuminating example was a discussion of set design before the lyrics to “Hurricane,” where props whirl around Hamilton. This format helps students think about text and context in dialogue, but it undercuts their ability to think about the narrative arc of the show. The original cast album is the primary text, supplemented with YouTube videos of the original cast performance that help us talk about the production as something happening in space and time.

Miranda’s footnotes, expanded in Hamilton: A Revolution, helped the class think about the show as a constructed dramatic narrative, not merely a biased or accurate reflection of history. Most revelatory were his discussions of point of view and authority in songs. A footnote to “Say No to This” observes, “Hamilton’s the only one who can narrate the song at this point in the story: It happened to him, in secret, and we don’t know Maria or James Reynolds yet. It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach to storytelling: The person closest to the action addresses the audience.” To sing about an event, we might say, a character must have been in “The Room Where It Happened.” And Eliza has the last word in the musical because she had the last word in life, living fifty years after her husband’s duel with Burr.

Discussing Hamilton late in the semester meant we had several texts that made for interesting comparisons. As a musical, Assassins provided a rich source for considering genre conventions in American musical theater. We could see how the environment and style of the show was established in the opening numbers, how songs allow characters to express their desires in a different way than straight dialogue, and even how a song sung by a narrator – the Balladeer for Sondheim, Burr for Miranda – gives the audience a kind of ironic distance from the proceedings. The documentary dramas we’d read just before HamiltonTwilight: Los Angeles and The Laramie Project – heightened our awareness about how source material was employed in Miranda’s play.

Hamilton: An American Musical may be the ultimate crowd-pleaser in an American drama class. It is contemporary, popular, accessible to students. But as a teacher, I particularly appreciated that there are ongoing and legitimately unresolved critical conversations about it. These will only develop as the show tours and more people can talk about it as a theatrical experience. Hamilton is not just about history; it’s about theater and American identity. I hope I’ve given some other folks a framework for bringing the show into their courses.

Contributor Bio:

Sunny Stalter-Pace is an associate professor of English at Auburn University.   Her review of the Hamiltome can be found at the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is writing a biography of vaudevillian Gertrude Hoffmann. Find her on Twitter at @slstalter.