What the Founders Read: Solutions for a Problematic Course

What the Founders Read: A Problematic Class
founders run
First the Founders had to run…

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.

A Frame

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

Poems on Various subjectsIn 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.

Ben Franklin’s World
is a key part of the “readings” this semester

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.

Looking Ahead

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.


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.