Now that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical has been on Broadway for 3 years and is well into its national tour, it is only natural for those of us who have been following it from the beginning to feel a bit of burnout. That’s where I am right now. Having taught it in 3 classes already, I find myself wondering how many more semesters it will still be exciting and fresh, both for me and for my students. The national tour has bought some time to be sure. When in the past 3 of 17 students had seen the musical, this year, 3 out of 17 had not. While the feedback I’ve gotten from students is as good as ever, I do wonder if there will come a time when Hamilton will no longer resonate—when the students will get as burned out as I am.
As some of you might remember from my post earlier this semester, I’m participating in a semester-long faculty development seminar right now. That seminar has provided an opportunity for sustained, critical reflection on my teaching practices, including my course design. One of the things that it has really prompted me to think about has been the tightrope that I always find myself walking when designing general education courses: classes have to appeal to students, draw on my own expertise and interests, and also need to meet programmatic goals and outcomes. I tend to teach courses that engage with a popular text, recent events, or contemporary movement as a strategy for meeting those objectives but that’s a tricky balance to strike; such courses can appeal to parents and prospective students and fill the seats but you always have to have a critical eye toward whether or not the class is getting the intellectual work done.
One of the foundational concepts of the seminar has been that teaching and learning are related but not synonymous. While we talk a lot about teaching, we should really be talking about learning. Teaching is what we do, but it is merely the mechanism that activates learning in our students. Our decisions should be based on how our choices activate, enable, and support learning. For me, that has raised tough questions about the courses I design. I do believe there are ways to use popular and contemporary culture in order to engage students and introduce them to academic disciplines and research. But that work is hard. Really hard. To make such courses work, it means you have to separate out what you want and enjoy and what students might want and enjoy from what activates the learning that you want to see, based on your established goals and outcomes. Personal preference—in topic and in texts—can often be in conflict. In the course I’m currently planning and will be teaching in the spring, I’m using the #MeToo movement to engage students in women’s writing from the 1790s (and, ultimately, vice versa). The ethical stakes are high. Teaching courses through the lens of #MeToo is in vogue right now but that doesn’t mean we should always be doing it. Similarly, my Hamilton-centric seminar runs the risk of being trendy with only an illusion of activating real learning, especially if I’m feeling Hamilton burnout. And that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. Ultimately though, I think it’s worth continuing to teach Hamilton. Here’s why.
With its portrayal of the founding fathers as people of color and immigrants, the musical actively participates in a national conversation about what it means to be an American. In the wake of movements like Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March, and the current administration’s policies to curtail immigration, that conversation is more urgent than ever; this course brings it into the first-year classroom by placing it in the context of the eighteenth-century debates about American identity captured in Miranda’s musical. My goal in designing and teaching this course is to introduce the study of the eighteenth century to early undergraduate students; placing Hamilton at the center of the course allows me to make texts and concepts students would typically encounter only in upper division courses accessible even to first-semester students. Whether or not the students go on to study a humanities discipline, I want them to understand why studying the eighteenth century, particularly through its textual and material remnants, matters, and how knowledge can be employed to make sense of the present and to positively impact the future.
In the musical’s version of the story of the nation’s founding, the roles of women and minority figures and anxieties about what it means to be an American take center stage, literally and figuratively. While many people have enthusiastically embraced this retelling, others have been more skeptical about Miranda’s rendering of early America. These skeptics question whether the musical does enough to challenge the prevailing narrative of the nation’s founding, which they argue is whitewashed and idealized. This course examines those claims, using primary texts from the period and scholarly criticism of the musical to contextualize and evaluate them. Among the central questions of the course are these:
- How does Miranda’s image of the revolution and early republic measure up against the picture we put together through our reading?
- What does that mean for Hamilton’s impact and its legacy?
- What is at stake in the way that we envision and represent the past?
To answer these questions, the study of Hamilton: An American Musical in this course extends across the semester and is complemented by readings that complicate both historical and contemporary understandings of race, gender, and national identity in the time of the revolution and early republic.
I have structured the course around the musical’s soundtrack, with individual songs placed against primary texts from the early American period. For example, to introduce the participation of women in early American politics, I have paired “The Schuyler Sisters,” the “girl-power” anthem of the musical, with Judith Sargent Murray’s essay “On the Equality of the Sexes.” In our discussion, we examine how each text defines equality and how each is responding to the legal and social position of women during the time period. Sometimes, however, primary texts are not available, and contemporary scholarship fills the gaps. In response to the only fleeting reference to a historical person of color in the entire musical in “What Did I Miss?”, we turn to historical works like Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, which not only gives us insight into the lives of enslaved peoples but also provides us with a model for reconstructing experiences that have been erased from the historical record. These pairings are meant to challenge and complicate the implied statement that the musical makes about the lack of representation of women and people of color in the story of the nation’s founding when, in fact, many women and people of color were politically active and writing.
One of the central goals of this course is to introduce students to the skills needed to study the eighteenth century, and Hamilton provides an outstanding model of academic inquiry and research. Throughout the musical, Miranda invokes such primary documents as Hamilton’s exchanges with Samuel Seabury, Hamilton’s correspondence with Aaron Burr, the Declaration of Independence, and perhaps most famously, the Reynolds Pamphlet. Further, the musical provides a model of how scholarship can impact the world beyond the classroom: Miranda also clearly integrates academic scholarship into the musical in his use Joanne Freeman’s work on dueling. Critical responses to Hamilton are also particularly valuable to introducing the field of eighteenth-century studies to early undergraduate students as those responses run the gamut from traditional peer-reviewed journal articles and chapters in edited collections to blogs and essays in mainstream media to podcasts and educational documentaries (see Historians on Hamilton, the Summer 2017 volume of Journal of the Early Republic, and the Ben Franklin’s World podcast). The range of these venues and genres can challenge students’ preconceptions about what scholars do and the audience and purpose of academic research. In sum, Hamilton provides an invaluable tool for introducing both the eighteenth century and eighteenth-century studies to students.
Alongside the close study of our course texts—Hamilton, primary documents, and criticism—a number of other class activities support students’ inquiry into equality and American identity in the eighteenth century. For example, early in the course, we head outside to read the Declaration of Independence together. The Declaration after all, was read in town commons throughout the colonies, and reading the document out loud as a group underscores for students what the document was declaring and for whom. Every student reads a section, and in so doing the words become their own and the document theirs. The past comes to bear on the present through our reading, just as it does in Hamilton.
I also provide context for the debates that Hamilton engages in by giving students opportunities to make connections to other manifestations of that same debate. We discuss, for example, how museums present early American history. We examine responses to the opening of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, which received a notably critical review in The Wall Street Journal for the time it dedicates to the stories of women, loyalists, people of color, and indigenous peoples. We also discuss the recent re-design of the early American galleries at Arkansas’ Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art that presents its interpretive text in both English and in Spanish.
We also connect past to present through visits to the Cleveland Museum of Art and Western Reserve Historical Society. At the CMA students view early American paintings and decorative artifacts, and explore how visual art and material culture can be lenses through which to gain an understanding of a time period. At the WRHS, students examine colonial and early republic era documents and learn about the ways that archival collections construct historical narratives. At the WRHS students also get a chance to explore local connections to Hamilton: the establishment of Cleveland is a direct result of the federal assumption of state debts that is referenced in the musical as a part of Hamilton’s economic plan (Connecticut originally claimed the area as its “Western Reserve” and relinquished its rights to it following the war).
In bringing together this wide range of texts and experiences in the process of examining Hamilton: An American Musical, this course immerses first-semester students both in eighteenth-century America and in the academic study of the period through the lenses of multiple disciplines. In the process, Hamilton proves itself to be very effective in doing a lot of intellectual heavy lifting in a topic-driven seminar meant to introduce students to college-level writing. It makes it possible for students straight out of high school to join conversations about early American history, about contemporary social issues and politics, and about art and literature in ways that no other text can. When I ask myself if Hamilton is best way to activate student learning in this particular course, the answer continues to be a resounding “yes.” So even as I listen to the soundtrack less often and even as the giddiness of seeing the musical live fades, I’ll continue teaching it. I may not have the same excitement for Hamilton as I once did, but I still have a great deal of excitement about what Hamilton does for my students.