Sunday, November 23, 2014

Mythmaking Thanksgiving

As we contemplate consuming copious quantities of turkey, cranberries, and mashed potatoes, it may be instructive to consider what we really know about the origins of our Thanksgiving holiday celebration.

The First Thanksgiving, 1621 by Jean Ferris (1899)
According to historian James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, the Pilgrims did not start the Thanksgiving tradition; instead, east coast Indians had celebrated autumnal harvests for hundreds of years. In fact, our modern celebration only dates back to President Lincoln's 1863 proclamation of a national Thanksgiving holiday (during the perilous times of the Civil War), when the Union badly needed a boost of patriotism. The Pilgrims of New England were not even incorporated into the tradition for another 30 years.

There are literally only two brief primary sources that deal with what happened in the Fall of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The most familiar might be Edward Winslow's Mourt's Relation (modernized spelling below) in which he stated:
our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
What from the traditional holiday celebration is mentioned and what is left out?

Importantly, the above-mentioned quote lacks historical context. Think about it: why exactly were the Indians so willing to sit down with these "invaders"? Toward answering that question, some historians have argued that our yearly celebrations whitewash the permanent colonization of America that might have been impossible without the devastating (but unintentional) plagues that preceded the Pilgrim arrival. This onslaught of disease might have been the most important single occurrence in the history of America. Lastly, feel free to comment on how the depictions featured above in this traditional painting (click to enlarge) may have contributed to the Thanksgiving mythology.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Values for Sale: Whatever, U.S.A.

Sometimes it feels that everything is for sale in our country—including us. That we are unwitting soldiers in a marketing war being waged by giant companies. We wear uniforms of the companies to whom we pay allegiance—Nike, Polo—their logos emblazoned on our chests like flags marking territory: the precious advertising space of our lives. In one class I taught last week, about 1/3 of the students were wearing shirts with the names of colleges (the schools themselves increasingly positioned within the framework of big business). I'm certainly not above this either. Many of my clothes bear the stamp of a business, too. I just don't like feeling like a walking billboard. The physical space around us also feels increasingly tainted by the stench of advertising dollars.

I was thinking about this the other day while watching a baseball game on TV. The Giants, who play in AT&T Stadium, use just about every square inch of the stadium for advertising, including the holographic ads behind home plate which are now part of every pitch. (The only area not smothered in ads is the actual playing field—and you know that's coming!).

Crested Butte, Colo. or "Whatever, USA"

I guess this is why a recent New York Times story caught my eye. Crested Butte, Colorado has decided to take advertising possibilities to a whole other level, temporarily (one hopes) re-branding itself "Whatever, U.S.A." and turning the entire town into a beer ad. The streets and street lamps have been repainted the color of Bud Light cans and in exchange the Anheuser-Busch company has given the town half a million dollars. The company also brags it has brought plenty of new jobs to the town. But at what cost? As one resident says near the end of the article, "I really value my quality of life, and I’m afraid, as we allow these kinds of events to happen, we may be losing it."

Have we gone so far off the rails that we can now only measure the quality of our lives in monetary terms?  

Friday, September 12, 2014

Separate is not equal

In class, we've been thinking about the context of the photo The Soiling of Old Glory. While some people may think that desegregation ended with the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, educational segregation persisted. According to Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, rather than embrace integration,"much of the South translated" the phrase with all deliberate speed "loosely to mean whenever they got around to it." Shockingly, "one county in Virginia closed its entire system for five years, from 1959 to 1964, rather than integrate." Chickasaw, MS, she reports, "didn't integrate until 1970. Private schools sprouted up all over the country to create a de facto segregation that complied with the de jure integration the Court had endorsed.

Sadly, such responses were not limited to the the 60's or the 70's or even to the South. In fact, we may see similar battles being fought right here in Chicago today.

In an article in last year's Reader, Steve Bogira argues that "the vast majority of CPS students are still in schools that are highly segregated, racially and economically." Incredibly, "85% of all CPS students are [classified to be] low income" and "nearly one-third of [CPS] schools have enrollments that are at least 95 percent low-income...[those schools] are also 97 percent Hispanic and African-American." In part this segregation is attributable "to middle- and upper-class families enrolling their kids in private schools or moving to the suburbs once their children reach school age." Sound familiar?

Since the link between low income and low test scores is well documented, Bogira offers a bold proposal: "Rather than concentrating on raising test scores, school and city officials should focus on sharply reducing CPS's low-income proportion. Do that, and test scores and graduation rates will take care of themselves." Low income students would not be the only winners in an integrated school system. Middle and upper-class white students would benefit, according to an education analyst in the article, since "it's good for their children to be in a more diverse environment."

How possible, how plausible, is Bogira's proposal?  To what extent can we say we've made progress as a nation on this issue of education?

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 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."

Monday, March 17, 2014

"Paginas en Blanco": Whitewashed History

Douglas Hale, Secrets (2014)
Recently we've been reading the Junot Diaz novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel that is profoundly concerned with storytelling and history. In describing the absences in both family and national history, Diaz uses the phrase "paginas en blanco" which he describes as a "blank be filled in with the truth" (90).

This year we, too, have been thinking about the relationship between national history and family history. So, we borrowed the model from the Post Secret project and invited the students in our class to each offer up a single pagina en blanco from their own families. We wanted to explore the secrets that remained hidden or the truths that were never talked about openly within family history in a project we call "Paginas en Blanco de Mi Familia". The rules were simple: a single sentence of text and evidence of thought in the graphic presentation of the "secret." Please check out the finished compilation below.

Páginas en Blanco de Mi Familia from Spiro Bolos on Vimeo.

Now it's your turn! We'd like to invite readers of to contribute their own "pagina en blanco" -- a story from your family history that has been whitewashed or silenced, or one that may simply lurk unexpressed. Do NOT include your name or other identifying information. Instead, just upload the annotated image by using the dropbox in the right-hand column of this blog. When we get enough submissions, we will publish the results here.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Between the Lines: Covering (and Uncovering) Sports

Things really seem to be progressing. Take, for example, the responses to Jason Collins, the first openly gay male athlete in a major professional sport, who was just signed to a contract with the New Jersey Nets.  Or the announcement of Missouri football star who announced he was gay just before the NFL draft.

(We like the "first ever..." narrative so much we seem quick to forget about women athletes such as Martina Navratilova, who came out over 30 years ago or even male athletes such as boxer Orlando Cruz or the professional lacrosse player Andrew Goldstein since they did not compete in the so-called "big four sports").  Many have greeted Jason Collins and Michael Sam with applause and high fives.  But, to what extent do the cases of Collins and Sam's brave articulation of their identity really represent progress? The answer may be found in those very high fives.

Consider the case of Glenn Burke, the man who invented the high five: an article on "the origins of the high five." The article itself is fascinating, particularly in light of our consideration of stories and storytelling. Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Dodgers and later the A's invented the phenomenon, but the behind-the-scenes stories are where the real action lies here.

You see, Burke was a gay man at a time when no professional athlete in "major sports" had ever come out. That Burke -- and presumably many other gay athletes -- had to keep his orientation secret in 1978 may come as no surprise. After all, many gay professional athletes still think they must keep their identities secret for fear of hateful reactions from teammates and fans and the loss of advertising revenue. (Think of recent ex-pro athletes Tualo Esera in the NFL, Billy Bean in the MLB, and Jon Amaechi in the NBA, who came out when their careers were over).

So, do you see Jason Collins and Michael Sam's announcements as a cause for celebration or an opportunity to lament the pain of earlier -- and current -- athletes who could not come out? Some, including Josh Levin at Slate  have even seen a new form of homophobia in the responses to Jason Collins' announcement.  Levin cites a chorus of people who aggressively shout "I don't care" or "This means nothing" as a means of shutting down the coverage altogether.

How are the storylines of sports are being managed today? Whose stories are privileged? Whose stories are silenced? What are the "paginas en blanco" in the world of sports? Are the lines drawn differently for men and women? For athletes of different races, classes? Do we see in the case of Jason Collins and others reasons to be optimistic for the future of sports?  

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cut the Cord

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to the White House to attend the State Visit of the French President. Actually, it was a kind of contest the White House Instagram feed offered to all of its 260,000 followers. And I LOST. But you might ask, what business does a high school social studies teacher have with meeting President François Hollande, anyhow?

Good point. But instead, please answer this question: what business does the chief lobbyist of Comcast, David Cohen, have with meeting the French President? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Comcast is about to buy Time-Warner cable? If this merger is approved, it would give Comcast, among many other advantages, "enormous power in negotiations with networks over licensing fees and in determining what shows reach consumers on mobile devices, laptops and television sets" as well as "flexibility to set the market rates" since it would be absorbing Time-Warner, its biggest cable competitor.

I wonder if the FCC and Department of Justice will approve the deal? Is there an emoticon for sarcasm?

L-R: Brian Roberts, President Obama, and Jim Kim
Consider the following:
Hmmm. A kind of "Media-Industrial Complex", no? I thought the USA was all about capitalism and competition: higher quality products/services and lower prices? Furthermore, this merger of Comcast and Time-Warner would literally shrink the number of voices in the media landscape and allow Comcast to control almost 40% of broadband internet market. Thoughts? How do we (or should we) "cut the cord" of influence between government and industry?

UPDATE: Here's a more eloquent critique featuring an interview with Harvard Professor Susan P. Crawford.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Against Docility

Last week in class we talked briefly about what gets valued in school. Or, at least, that's what I hoped to introduce. Remember: the way docility (which means passive) is rooted in the Latin word for "teachable"?

I was reminded of that topic again when I came across this Onion piece: The headline makes the point right away: "English Professor Suddenly Realizes Students Will Believe Literally Anything She Says."  (They really do. Trust me).

While the piece is funny, I think it also reveals a deeper truth. William Deresciewicz, a Yale writing professor, explores this topic in his compelling essay "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education." Here's a brief excerpt of his condemnation of "elite educations":
"Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there. 
Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time. Paradoxically, the situation may be better at second-tier schools and, in particular, again, at liberal arts colleges than at the most prestigious universities." (bold, mine).
It is out of our hope that you become intellectuals that Mr. B and I urge you to create your own philosophies on the issue of civil liberties and why it is paramount that you stake out your own positions on your blogs!

How does our school promote individual thinking, the questioning of authority? Where does it fall short? How might we do better?

Monday, February 10, 2014

History's Missing Pages

Watching the impossibly expensive Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Olympics on Friday, I was intrigued to see how the organizers of the event would present the entire span of Russian history (starting as far back as the 10th century, CE). After all, with a limited amount of time and space, the designers, much like textbook authors, would have to make choices about what to highlight, as well as what to include, and what to omit.

Opening Ceremony, Sochi Olympics
While the tsarist imperial period, starting with the accomplishments of Peter the Great, was impressively beautiful (see above), I was most interested in how the Russians would deal with the period after the Russian Revolutions of 1917. As USA Today put it in their recent headline,"5 things you will, and won't see in opening ceremony", I, too, wondered how the Russians would deal with the long and rather recent Soviet period (ending in 1991), which is widely viewed as a failure. For example, how would we "see" Josef Stalin, the towering figure who not only presided over the rushed industrialization and agricultural collectivization of the USSR during the 1930s (killing at least 20 million people), but also over the undeniable victory against Nazi Germany in the 1940s?

Soviet Cosmonaut Team, 1970s
We wouldn't "see" him at all, apparently. He would be erased from the historical record, of course. Now, this is not the first time the Russians or the Soviets "photoshopped" their own history: numerous examples abound. And a "De-Stalinization" started as early as the 1950s. But to eliminate someone so influential so completely seems an insurmountable task, as opposed to what was done to these relatively smaller historical figures featured in this doctored photo.

But I would argue that Russia is an easy target for Americans: we've been in a kind of war with them ever since the US government refused to recognize the Soviet Union in 1917. A more interesting challenge might be to identify people and periods in American history that have seemingly been whitewashed away from our collective memory. What would you choose to write in the blank pages of American history?

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Forgotten King

The title of this post is intentionally ironic. Everyone knows that we are away from school today because Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is commemorated by name with a national holiday. And just about everyone alive is familiar with King's "I Have A Dream" speech. However, as we wrap up the semester, we invite you to think about what you have previously learned about Dr. King when you were a younger student, in light of this particular speech. The subject of the talk was the Vietnam War, in an excerpt from a sermon given at Ebenezer Baptist Church, on April 30, 1967. During that very perilous time, consider the public response to his words back then:

...after giving the speech...King was dropped from Gallup’s annual list of the most admired Americans and was ridiculed by the New York Times, among too many others. Soon after, he was murdered (Robert Scheer,

Although it is over 20 minutes long, you are encouraged to listen to as much of it as you can (it's audio only). We know what amazing multitaskers you are. Press PLAY and have it on in the background as you message your friends and surf the net ;) Ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Why is this post titled, "The Forgotten King"?
  2. Why don't we Americans celebrate this speech?
  3. How does it relate to our course themes?
  4. Can you make connections to today?