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.

Book Review: The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy

PALS Note: We are excited to have a guest book review from Caitlin Kelly. In this post, Kelly shares a review of The Slow Professor and addresses what the book offers regarding teaching for both full-time and precarious faculty. Kelly is a Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University.

Book Review: The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber. University of Toronto Press, 2016.

slow prof book cover

The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber is a book I have been trying to get my hands on for months—when I first requested a copy at the beginning of the fall 2016 semester, it was checked out from every holding library in the OhioLink consortium. As I eagerly awaited my turn to read the book, I wondered whether or not it would live up to the hype. As the title suggests, the authors draw their inspiration from the Slow Movement, a resistance to globalization and corporatization, which “challenges the frantic pace and standardization of contemporary culture” (x). Through this approach, Berg and Seeber aim to “disrupt the corporate ethos of speed” (11) by prioritizing reflection, dialogue, and community.

Published by the University of Toronto Press in March 2016, The Slow Professor is a slim volume of roughly100 pages—a deliberate decision rooted in the strong ethical impulse that permeates their book. In the university, corporatization is evidenced by the rise of contingent and adjunct faculty positions and the erosion of tenure, something that Berg and Seeber acknowledge. As they write in the Preface,

Our guiding principles were for The Slow Professor to be useful, accessible to a variety of disciplines, and affirming. While we acknowledge the systemic inequities in the university, a slow approach is potentially relevant across the spectrum of academic positions. Those of us in tenured positions, given the protection that we enjoy, have an obligation to try to improve in our own ways the working climate for all of us. We are concerned that the bar is being continually raised for each generation of faculty, so the book is also addressed to graduate students. (ix)

While Berg and Seeber do write from a position of privilege, their advice is useful for tenure track and non-tenure track faculty alike. In contrast to the “how-to guides” that aim to help their readers find success in the traditional sense of attaining and maintaining a tenure track appointment, The Slow Professor offers readers guidance in “cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience” (x). Where the typical faculty development book gives us the equivalent of a “couch to 5k” plan, Berg and Seeber offer us something more akin to yoga: reflective, empowering, and focused on where we are now rather than where we think we need to be in the future. The Slow Professor entreats us to be more reflective about our work, and this is where the book distinguishes itself from the many faculty advice books already available.

One of the books that The Slow Professor might remind some readers of is Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members (2000), which also urges faculty to slow down, take time, and be more mindful. Even so, the tacit message in Boice’s book is that the endgame is success on the tenure track. Advice for New Faculty Members is divided into three sections— teaching, writing, and service—matching the three requirements of tenure-track positions. Comparing the approach to teaching between the two books is also telling. Where Berg and Seeber offer advice aimed at bringing pleasure back to teaching, Boice’s advice privileges time management and efficiency. One of the most valuable contributions that Berg and Seeber make is the way that they breathe new life into advice like Boice’s. For example, in their chapter on teaching they recommend his approach to preparing for class but where Boice cites self-discipline and practice as challenges to enacting his advice, Berg and Seeber speculate that the explanation may have more to do with a culture that makes us feel guilty about taking steps that allow us to enjoy teaching (46). This is not to say that a “survival guide” is not useful but The Slow Professor offers a refreshing alternative; despite the fact it is written by tenure track faculty, their advice is not solely in service of the tenure track model.

Over the course of the four chapters, introduction, and conclusion, Berg and Seeber apply the principles of the slow movement to time management, teaching, research, and collegiality. Each chapter situates an element of faculty life within the philosophy of the slow movement and offers small-scale strategies that individual faculty members can use in resisting the increasingly corporatized, administrative university environment. For example, the chapter “Pedagogy and Pleasure” breaks down a typical class meeting chronologically, offering advice at each stage of a class for making teaching more enjoyable. The authors first suggest that we make a conscious transition to class instead of rushing. During class, they urge us to not be afraid to laugh and have fun as well as to listen and create a dialogue even in the moments before class starts formally. In preparing for class, they urge us to think of the course as narrative, as a story we tell. In general, the advice offered in The Slow Professor is not groundbreaking; its value lies not in its originality but rather in the way that it is contextualized as resistance to the corporatization of the university. While contemplative in many regards, The Slow Professor is still well researched and well grounded in the literature on both faculty development and the future of higher education. The book is, the authors admit, “idealistic in nature” (ix) but that is, I think, exactly what makes it so refreshing and well worth the couple of hours it takes to read.

According to the University of Toronto Press website, a paperback edition will be released in May 2017.

Caitlin L. Kelly is a Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. At Case Western, she teaches courses in the SAGES program and serves as a tutor in the Writing Resource Center. Caitlin’s research interests include Transatlantic religious and print cultures of the Long Eighteenth Century, women’s experience, the novel, and digital and multimodal pedagogy. You can follow her on Twitter at @CaitlinLeeKelly.