Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Why our blog is called "An American Studies"

We decided on this name because words matter and this blog's title can be read three different ways:
  1. AN American Studies (as opposed to American Studies or THE American Studies) suggests that this just one attempt at making sense of a vast topic...
    Photo by Spiro Bolos, taken at New Trier High School
    ...And anyone who thinks they are covering everything essential to this enormous enterprise in a year long course — or perhaps in over the course of their lives — is just kidding him or herself.
  2. This blog will reflect the "studies" — gathering, questioning, and trading information with a community of scholars — of one American. Millions of people are approaching the topic of "America", but we don't presume to speak for them.
  3. An American [is a person who] studies. While this does not happen always (maybe it is an impossibility), it is necessary for our country to achieve its highest ideal — that all of its citizens can achieve self-fulfillment. Studies — in the broadest possible sense of that word — must be part of this achievement.

Friday, August 29, 2014

We need your info :)

FYI: all of the information collected below will be shared ONLY with your two teachers. Not every question is required.

Friday, August 22, 2014

THIS is Water.

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys. How's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes 'What the hell is water?'"
 David Foster Wallace, Commencement Address at Kenyon College, 2005

Welcome to An American Studies (see Mr. O'Connor's post explaining the name). Hopefully, the above question is one you will be asking yourself (and attempting to answer) throughout the year and beyond this class. As you embark upon writing for a new medium, the blog, it is your task (among many others) to identify the "water" in which you live, be it the North Shore "bubble" or the United States at large. For example, look at the following photo:

"The First Adirondack Was Too Big" by John S. O'Connor

Ask yourself how this photo is emblematic of America at the micro or macro level. Like many photos you view, it has been modified from the original snapshot, and could be said to represent a look through the photographer's "window of self-expression", to borrow a phrase from photographer Eikoh Hosoe. So, even though the camera cannot technically depict what isn't there, Hosoe would argue that the photographer can still show us, through this visual medium, "what lies unseen in his memory."

Please join us in our exploration of distinctly American themes and feel free to contribute your own photographs on the Instagram using our hashtag, #anamericanstudies. When you tag the photo, it will automatically appear in the sidebar on this blog. And don't forget to leave your own thoughts below in the comments section of this post regarding the photograph.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Should Teachers Reveal Their Biases? (updated)

After a somewhat provocative tag-team student post got quite a few American Studies students all "Reilled"-up and a little bit "Mad", I thought I'd recycle parts of this post I first wrote many years ago (check out the exact date -- talk about an artifact -- it's the month before the presidential election!). The question that today's blog post poses has been hotly debated in my own department and I am not surprised that a group of such thoughtful (and largely respectful to each other) students would take it up, on their own!

I had read an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education (the link is now broken, unfortunately) which references a recently published book, Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities, written by three faculty members from George Mason University. If you read the students' post, part of the discussion focused on how appropriate it is when teachers reveal their political perspective**. Would that action have an inappropriate effect on their students? Would it amount to, as one student argued, being "indoctrinated"?

Does this guy look like me? Or Doc OC? Ah, who can tell the difference, anyway!

The book's authors state that based on their 2007 study, the majority of professors "say they keep their own politics out of the classroom". In fact, only a minority of college faculty (28%) admit that they openly reveal their political bias to their students.

But even if the above statistics are true, does it even matter if teachers conceal their political leanings? Another study, conducted by two professors from Pennsylvania State University may have the answer. In their research-based article, "I Think My Professor Is a Democrat", they published two related findings, based on student surveys:
  1. College students agree that most professors do not reveal their political bias (thus corroborating the findings from the book mentioned at the beginning)
  2. But 75% of students were able to guess correctly their professor's political leanings, anyway.
Finally, the biggest question looming behind this particular discussion: if the great majority of college professors call themselves liberal, does this influence their students to become more left-leaning as well? The same researchers conducted another study which found that students started shifting slightly to the left under both Republican- and Democrat-voting professors -- not just under liberal-leaning teachers.

What do these studies mean for our class discussions (online and off)? What could be responsible for the shift to the political left? Perhaps, too, there is a difference between college-level classrooms and high school with regard to these findings?

**For students who want to hear "both sides" of every issue (assuming "both sides" are equally meritorious), my own philosophy has always been (quoted from Howard Zinn): "You can't be neutral on a moving train." I guess I'd rather be upfront with my views than play guessing games all school year-long.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

(De-) Grading College

President Obama has announced a new initiative that will rate colleges. The program which The New York Times calls a "radical new effort," hopes to "hold America’s 7,000 colleges and universities accountable by injecting the executive branch into the business of helping prospective students weigh collegiate pros and cons." The word business seems operative here since the "college process" has become a hugely expensive enterprise and a hugely profitable one for certain companies (think: test prep, tutors, private counselors, college visits and tours, glossy brochures and videos and other arms of the octopus we might call the Educational-Industrial Complex). But should the federal government really be involved in the business of college?



According to the article, the proposed rating system "would compare schools on factors like how many of their students graduate, how much debt their students accumulate and how much money their students earn after graduating." Are these really the best ways to measure education? Is the life of the mind reducible to a cost-benefit analysis? 

This rating system seems to have considerable overlap with our recent discussion of social class and social capital. Who benefits from such a system? Who loses? 

Shockingly, a top Obama official said the rating system would be "like rating a blender," a flawed analogy that might not have been created by someone with a humanities background. In the current education climate, however, the humanities degrees may be devalued more than ever before since they don't promise the highest salaries on the "investment" of education. A recent article decrying the drop in Humanities degrees cites these disturbing trends: "In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. At Pomona this year, they were economics and mathematics." What accounts for this sudden and drastic shift in choice of majors?


Now you may not be as troubled as I am by the current trend away from the humanities and for the "bang-for-your-buck" mentality that is steering students toward lucrative fields such as business and engineering. But, my fear is that such students are being led unwittingly toward the post-college payoff of big salaries without ever considering the larger purposes of education: ethical and humanistic understanding of ourselves and our world. Remember the W.E.B. DuBois quote? "The purpose of education is not to make men carpenters, but to make carpenters men."