Amusements & Useful Devices from K. A. Wisniewski
One of the ongoing challenges in teaching a survey class in American history is making decisions on what to cover in the limited amount of time 14 weeks and 3 hours a week allows. I’m never bored in teaching these classes, and every year the texts, materials, topics, and curriculum changes. It is an impossible task. What can, should, or will be covered from the Paleo-Indians and development of indigenous Native American cultures of North America to the American Civil War?
One of the topics that always makes the cut is, of course, the founding of Jamestown. This serves as a good example of how one week–or just one 60-90 minute session–evolves from one semester to the next.
Although I always provide students with a number of links, primary sources, images, etc., I also allow for a lot of flexibility to allow individuals and classes to investigate their own interests, to ask questions, and, hopefully, to lead class discussions down roads I may not have anticipated.
This semester, something different happened.
The core questions guiding the class session usually surround the following topics:
The narrative of the limited 60 minutes includes a short cast of characters that aim to prepare students for the forthcoming quizzes and exams. Form the outset of the class, I highlight the courses learning outcomes but I also note that we must not only identify the grand narratives of American history, but also deconstruct and challenge these threads, asking what counts as part of the large American story lines–to be aware of the events and people and stories that do not fit into these narratives or “textbook” definitions. Students have an opportunity to investigate such ideas in weekly writings and, in more detail, in their final projects.
Sadly, the limited time only allows for a closer look at just a few notable people. There should be no surprise that the session usually highlight recognizable names like Christopher Newport, John Smith, Pocahontas, and John Rolfe. As a quick reminder, Newport was the captain of the Susan Constant in the first expedition. With Smith, he explored the Powhatan River (towards what’s now Richmond) and returned twice from England with additional men and supplies.
I often assign selections from John Smith’s writings for the class and (as usual for such a class) focus on Smith’s leadership role in saving the colony from devastation, starvation and Indian raids. Some attention is given to the propaganda of his writings and religion in Virgina (and Smith’s “He that will not work, shall not eat” policy). I usually expect students will arrive to class with some knowledge of the John Smith-Pocahontas legends, although each semester less and less students arrive to class with any awareness of their story.
Although this offers a certain degree of liberty in how the narratives are presented, it also takes away some of the fun of critically reading and debunking myths and requires a bit more attention. This semester, students showed less interest in this story, in Smith’s account of his capture, and in Pocahontas’ conversion to Christianity (and adoption of the name Rebecca) and marriage to tobacco planter John Rolfe.
And despite students’ interest in popular culture and supplementary media components to the readings, this semester I discovered that I was actually introducing materials for the first time. Only two students (in a class of thirty) had ever seen Disney’s Pocahontas.
In the end, one session turned into two, divided into a lecture essentially highlighting “What happened?” and (what was supposed to be) a discussion session focused on how we critically read these events and texts and popular culture adaptations of them.
So two big questions / trends emerged this semester. First, as noted earlier, was that students were unaware of the Pocahontas story. For me, this is part of a larger question that has developed in recent semesters. What are the national narratives, symbols, and ideas of America (especially for the new generation of students entering higher education)? A large part of my research and teaching concerns unpacking these stories and I am now forced to re-think the role of these motifs in the formation and maintenance of national heritage and identity. Although these simplified, white-washed, images can create inaccurate and oppressive narrative, I can’t help but wonder how the absence of such threads affect our collective memory and history. Students are puzzled at my questions regarding what has or is replacing them.
The second trend is a little more uplifting and inspiring. Generally speaking, students this semester were simply not interested in the Virginia elites. Their interest in the individual stories of the “average, everyday resident” in these first years at Jamestown was encouraging. These questions led the second session into directions I didn’t quite expect and I hope motivates students to pursue some very interesting research projects later in the semester.