Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

Who tells your story, or, how Hamilton is and isn’t changing my teaching

The experience of being a historian of Early America1)This in itself is a problematic categorization. I study the 19th century, and I am most comfortable with the antebellum period, but my program conceived of me as an “Early Americanist” because I wasn’t doing modern U.S., and the categorization stuck. during the moment of Hamilton has been a complex one for me, and it’s brought a lot of thoughts and feelings to the surface.  Looking back over my summer, and the goals I had for my research and teaching, I realize that Hamilton emphasized and amplified some ideas about history that exist in popular culture and among academics. Now that I see the effects those ideas have had on me, I want to put them down explicitly, first in a post about teaching, and at some point, in a post about scholarship.

Hamilton – like every popular book about a president or a war or a “founder” – reinforces lots of ideas about hierarchies of knowledge in the study of history, even as it is subversive in other ways. In plainer language, so much popular history presents specific kinds of people and topics as the foundations of historical knowledge. The stuff you have to know, if you know anything at all. The stuff people expect you to know.

When you study Early America, and something like Hamilton happens, all of a sudden your friends (hi, Corinne!) and your students start asking you about political things in the late 18th century and you realize you don’t know the things they expect/want you to know.  You know outlines, contours, arguments, historiographical debates, and the bits and bobs you include in your survey classes. And some people respond to your lack of specific knowledge of Hamilton’s views on credit with thinly-veiled skepticism about your qualifications to teach history. And you start to think that you don’t teach enough political history, and that you don’t know enough about these people who are so important to the lay audiences you interact with.

If you look at my aspirational list of primary sources I want to be familiar with, you’ll notice Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia is there. There’s a million things I haven’t done, and reading that is one of them. Nor have I read anything from The Federalist since college, though I at least own it (and a pocket Constitution, which I had before it was cool.)  Nor had I read a lot of Lincoln’s writings recently before I prepped my Civil War class last year.2)As an undergrad, I was more interested in medieval history, and originally applied to grad school to do just that. The copy of The Federalist was from a class I only took because it was a requirement. That professor then turned me into secret Americanist. Even now, it feels dangerous to admit that publicly.  We have a hard time admitting that we haven’t read a classic piece of secondary lit (though maybe it would be cathartic if we all publicly admitted one), and to admit that we study Early America and haven’t really read much by “the founders” makes us feel ashamed. And it doesn’t make a difference to say, in response, “Yeah, but I’ve read a lot of Orestes Brownson…”

In teaching, the only thing I am ever challenged on by students who (as a result of my gender and age) don’t know if I’m really qualified to teach is my knowledge of political history.3)And the history of battles, when we’re talking about wars When a student who was particular skeptical of my qualifications quizzed me on some really arcane stuff about the Tyler administration, I couldn’t really say “I don’t know about that and it’s not a priority for me to know about that right now.” But I was thinking it.

It shouldn’t be surprising that students expect me to know political history and don’t even know to care whether I know lots of other things about history. Whether we like it or not, our popular discourse of American history reinforces the idea that political history is the basic framework, and our teaching often reflects that. We don’t stop the survey at 1877 for no reason, but we also don’t stop it because that was the year of the Nez Perce flight to Canada or the year of the Great Railroad Strike.

My resistance to getting to know and love Hamilton stemmed partly from this knowledge. Honestly, I just thought “Great, another thing about a founder that emphasizes that the stories of these dudes are the most important things to know.” And then, as I got to know and love it, I started thinking that I was maybe not a good historian because I didn’t talk enough about politics in the US I survey. That maybe I was not a good historian…because I didn’t know enough about political history.

When I looked at my course, though, and I looked at my lessons and documents and what they cover, and I pondered what I would remove in order to insert a more detailed discussion of the Adams administration4)Lin-Manuel and I devote similar amounts of time to JA, though I use more polite language, I realized three fundamental truths at the exact same time.

  1. I don’t know that lots more political history would help me make the argument I want to make in my US I survey. The argument I choose to make is an important one to me, and I don’t want to lose it.
  2.  I would only be able to devote more time to political history because it has been populated by men who had privilege and access to write like they were running out of time and, leaving aside the burning of those papers, have that writing preserved and made accessible. We get to know them as individuals in a way that we don’t with millions of other people, and that makes their voices and personalities louder. Something about that makes me uncomfortable, but I’ll leave that for my subsequent post on Hamiltoneffects on my research.
  3. I actually teach plenty of political history! You know what things I don’t teach enough about in the US I survey? The history of women and gender. Environmental history. Agricultural history. Labor history. The history of free black Americans. The history of immigration. The history of the Southwest. The history of the Midwest. The history of lots of native groups. The history of utopian communities. Latinx history. The history of Swedish colonialism. The history of French/British Canada. Sylvester Graham. The history of the Caribbean. Nicholas Biddle. The history of religions. The history of ideas. The history of sex. The history of medicine and diet. Whatever the heck happens in British North America in the first half of the 18th century (this is a joke but also maybe not?) Rarely does anyone complain that I’ve not taught enough about these things. I have even gotten complaints that I teach too much about religion and slavery, and if anything, I know I don’t teach those things in proportion to how important they were to the people we’re looking at in the past.

And so, I decided not to put any more in my class about that bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman. He’s in there, just as he’s always been. So is the general, the Pride of Mount Vernon (and that time when he led his men straight into a massacre), and Thomas (you simply must meet Thomas!), and America’s favorite fighting Frenchman. And we’ll still read Bacon’s Declaration and the Declaration of Rights and Grievances and the Declaration of Independence and a letter between Washington and Morris. And we’ll still talk about partisan fighting.

But Hamilton has changed my teaching, and will continue to do so, because it’s made it even clearer to me that teaching American history at the college level has to be meta. We have to talk with our students about the narratives of American history they know, even without knowing that they know them, talk about what work those narratives do, and talk about what work those narratives can prevent us from doing if we think they’re sufficient. I used to do this incidentally; now I’m going to do it consistently.

So, sure, we’re going to talk about why every other Founding Father’s story gets told, and whether that’s even true.

We’re going to talk about what happens when they try to tax that whisky, from the perspective of the people whose whisky was taxed.

We’re going to talk about who’s really doing the planting.

We’re going to talk about immigrants.

We’re going to talk about why Eliza has to put herself back in the narrative, and why we have to work so hard to put so many people back in the narrative.

And we’re going to put Sally back in the narrative.

And that will be enough.

 

 

References   [ + ]

1. This in itself is a problematic categorization. I study the 19th century, and I am most comfortable with the antebellum period, but my program conceived of me as an “Early Americanist” because I wasn’t doing modern U.S., and the categorization stuck.
2. As an undergrad, I was more interested in medieval history, and originally applied to grad school to do just that. The copy of The Federalist was from a class I only took because it was a requirement. That professor then turned me into secret Americanist.
3. And the history of battles, when we’re talking about wars
4. Lin-Manuel and I devote similar amounts of time to JA, though I use more polite language

3 Comments

  1. I love you forever for this (and a multitude of other things)! And I hope that I have never (even with all of my questions) have never made you feel as if you don’t know your subject area. Being able to share and critique Hamilton with you has been a truly delightful experience over the past year, and my reading of it has been significantly richer because of what I’ve learned from you.

    Also, I know it’s hard as a female scholar, but I think it’s so important to be able to say “I don’t know, because that’s not really my area” to students. They should be able to understand that PhDs study a very limited area, and that while we are qualified to teach many things, the area of knowledge that we have detailed expert-level knowledge about is much smaller. Students ask me stuff about the intricacies of US politics (especially state-level) and I’ve learned to say “Well, I don’t study the US primarily, so while I can tell you all about the state government of West Bengal, or Kerala, I’m not actually super familiar with New Mexico.”

    • Erin Bartram

      August 11, 2016 at 9:43 pm

      You have never made me feel that way! Not at all. Your enthusiasm for Hamilton broke down my resistance, and I’m so happy for that!

      Eventually, that’s what I did say to this student, though my reticence was shaped by the fact that he almost punched me over his midterm grade. When I have talked about Ph.D. specialization with students more informally, though, they’ve found it fascinating. It can’t hurt to make the process clearer to them. We know a bit about a lot of things, and a lot about a few things, and that’s okay.

  2. “Whether we like it or not, our popular discourse of American history reinforces the idea that political history is the basic framework, and our teaching often reflects that. We don’t stop the survey at 1877 for no reason, but we also don’t stop it because that was the year of the Nez Perce flight to Canada or the year of the Great Railroad Strike.”

    I think this goes even further, to the point that our pedagogy sometimes becomes almost purely performative, where we engage our students (especially at the introductory level) in a kind of ritual demonstration that they have mastered this basic political framework, on which we’ve hung our own particular “niche” interests. We’re not actually teaching the *doing* of history – or at least, that has sort of become a secondary consideration to our recitation of the political narrative (problematized or complicated according to our own desires) and our insistence that the students show their mastery of it somehow. So I agree with you here, but I think it’s also a symptom of a larger problem in terms of how we approach our teaching – the issue you’re articulating here seems to be almost about the tyranny of facts (which I think you alluded to in an earlier post as well). The challenge of Hamilton (or whatever the hot history thing of the moment is) is both in the content demands it exerts on us, but also in that it exerts content demands at all – we are suddenly playing on the field of history-as-content, rather than history-as-method. And the content certainly matters a great deal – but part of what you’re saying here seems (to me) to also be about how easy for us to get sucked into that and *forget* that teaching historical content is *not* the primary purpose of history courses.

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