Today’s entrant is Williams College, which U.S. News and World Report ranked as the best liberal arts college in 2016. It is true that, if you pick your way through the history courses, you can find a handful substantive history classes there. The vast majority of classes, however, are entirely obsessed with race and gender or, even if race and gender aren’t the dominant tropes, they cannot resist wrapping the class around to reach those topics.
Williams, for those unfamiliar with it really ought to make a point of teaching American history the right way. After all, it’s been teaching away in a cold and beautiful corner of Massachusetts since 1793. Many who know it claim that it’s the most beautiful campus in America.
I’ll start with the tribal, balkanized “American Studies” curriculum, and then branch out to the broader “History : American and Canada” offerings. There are quite a few classes in each category, so I’ll try to choose representative samples.
Before I begin, let me explain what “EDI” stands for because it crops up in the very first class description. The “Exploring Diversity Initiative” which is a mandatory requirement for all students hoping to graduate. The faculty that voted it into place describes it thusly:
Williams College is committed to creating and maintaining a curriculum, faculty, and student body that reflects and explores a diverse, globalized world and the multi-cultural character of the United States. Courses designated “(D)” in the College Bulletin are a part of the College’s Exploring Diversity Initiative (EDI); they represent our dedication to study groups, cultures, and societies as they interact with, and challenge, each other. Through such courses, students and faculty also consider the multiple approaches that engage these issues. Rather than simply focus on the study of specific peoples, cultures, or regions of the world, in the past or present, however, courses fulfilling the requirement actively promote a self-conscious and critical engagement with diversity. They urge students to consider the operations of difference in the world and provide them with the tools to do so. The ultimate aim of the requirement is to lay the groundwork for a life-long engagement with the diverse cultures, societies, and histories of the United States and the rest of the world.
Remember: When you graduate from a pricey liberal arts college, you’re not an American (which is icky); you’re a citizen of the world!
And now to the classes themselves. If you want to be an American Studies major at Williams, these are a few of your choices. Before you review them, keep in mind what someone commented here (and I can’t find the comment, so my apologies for the lack of attribution), but it seems as if the professors are incapable of teaching beyond the narrow confines of their own PhD theses. They have no general knowledge; only specific.
AMST 101 Spring 2017 America: the Nation and Its Discontents
America is a bundle of myths and ideas, and being an American has always meant more than U.S. citizenship. This course is an introduction to the interdisciplinary study of American culture. We will focus on the workings of that culture as it has been shaped by factors such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, place, and religion. Over the semester, we will ask critical questions of a wide variety of materials: essays, novels, autobiographies, poems, photographs, films, music, visual art, architecture, urban plans, historical documents and legal texts. In this course, we critique notions of American exceptionalism and grapple with questions of power and imagination, struggle and social change, empire, nation and borders, inequality, assimilation, aesthetic form, and the role of the U.S. and its products in the world. Because it focuses on such questions of power and privilege, difference and commonality, this course satisfies the EDI requirement.
AMST 105 Fall 2016 American Girlhoods
The image of the girl has captivated North American writers, commentators, artists, and creators of popular culture for at least the last two centuries. What metaphors, styles of writing, ideas of “manners and morals” does literature about girls explore? What larger cultural and aesthetic concerns are girls made to represent? And how is girlhood articulated alongside and/or intertwined with other identities and identifications, such as race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality? These are some of the issues we will explore in this course. We will read works by such authors as Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Jacobs, Henry James, Sui Sin Far, Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros and Alison Bechdel, as well as discuss such popular phenomena as Barbie and the American Girl Doll Company, Girl Scouts, and Riot Grrrrls. This course meets the requirements of the Exploring Diversity Initiative in that it focuses on empathetic understanding, power and privilege, especially in relation to class, gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity within a U.S. context.
AMST 120 Fall 2016 Science Fiction of the African Diaspora
Publishers, authors, academics, and critics often assume that science fiction and fantasy readers are all or mostly white, an assumption driven, perhaps, by the scarcity of black writers inside the genre–the science-fiction creative-writing classes I teach at Williams, for example, are depressingly undiverse. And for a long time, among professional science-fiction writers, Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler represented pretty much the entire deal. The last fifteen years, however, have witnessed the emergence of a number of black science fiction and fantasy authors from the Americas and Africa. In this course we will read a sample of this fiction, paying particular attention to these questions: In what new ways (if any) do these authors use or imply themes of social hierarchy or race? In what ways (if any) do the standard science-fiction devices of imagined futures, interplanetary colonization, or contact with alien life allow black writers a new metaphorical vocabulary to talk about their own experience? In what ways (if any) are they constrained by readers’ expectations, while white writers are not? This is a discussion-based class. Assignments will include original creative writing, imitative or parodic writing, and of course that old stand-by, interpretive essays on assigned texts. We will be reading well-thumbed classics by Charles Chesnutt, Paulina Hopkins, Amos Tutuola, W.E.B. DuBois, George Schuyler, Delany, and Butler, but also newer works by Pam Noles, Nalo Hopkinson, NK Jemisin, Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, Nisi Shawl, Sofia Somatar, Kuni Ibura Salaam, and Nnedi Okorafor, among others. This course fulfills the EDI requirement, as it engages questions of power and privilege, and the coded representation of racial or ethnic otherness. Any story that involves the clash of sentient species, for example, or a nostalgic or disruptive reinterpretation of the social hierarchies of the past, partakes implicitly of this coded language.
AMST 165 Spring 2017 Slavery in the United States
Slavery and freedom rose as concomitant ideologies–simultaneously and interrelated–critical to the development of the American colonies and United States. Few areas of American social, political, and economic history have been more active and exciting in recent years than the study of this relationship. This seminar introduces students to the most important aspects of American slavery, beginning with an examination of the international slave trade and traces the development of the “peculiar institution” to its demise with the Civil War.
AMST 211 Spring 2017 Race and the Environment
In contemporary societies, race remains an enduring impediment to the achievement of equality. Generally understood as a socially meaningful way of classifying human bodies hierarchically, race manifests itself in a number of arenas, including personal experience, economic production and distribution, and political organization. In this course, we will explore how race emerges in local and global environmental issues, like pollution and climate change. We will begin with a review of some of the landmark texts in Environmental Studies that address “environmental racism,” like Robert Bullard’s Dumping in Dixie and David Pellow’s Garbage Wars. We will examine how and to what extent polluting facilities like landfills, oil refineries, and sewage treatment plants are disproportionately located in communities of color; we will also pay attention to how specific corporations create the underlying rationale for plotting industrial sites. After outlining some of the core issues raised in this scholarship, we will turn to cultural productions–like literature, film, and music–to understand how people of color respond to environmental injustice and imagine the natural world.
AMST 226 Spring 2017 Gender and the Dancing Body in America
This course posits that the dancing body is a particularly rich site for examining the history of gender and sexuality in America. Starting off the semester with the Puritans’ anti-dance treatises and finishing with controversies about twerking, we will analyze how various Americans have used dance to construct and challenge normative values about gender and sexuality. We will pay particular attention to the intersections of race and class with gender, for example looking at how working-class white men danced in drag and blackface in minstrelsy performance in the mid-19th century, and how a moral panic arose when upper-class women attended “tango teas” in New York to dance with working-class immigrant men. We will examine a wide range of dance genres, from stage performance to popular forms to dance on television, and attend live dance performances in the area. No previous dance experience required.
AMST 241 Spring 2017 Performing Masculinity in Global Popular Culture
This course examines popular cultural contexts, asking what it means to be a man in contemporary societies. We focus on the manufacture and marketing of masculinity in advertising, fashion, TV/film, theater, popular music, and the shifting contours of masculinity in everyday life, asking: how does political economy change the ideal shape, appearance, and performance of men? How have products – ranging from beer to deodorant to cigarettes — had their use value articulated in gendered ways? Why must masculinity be the purview of “males” at all; how can we change discourses to better include performances of female masculinities, butch-identified women, and trans* men? We will pay particular attention to racialized, queer, and subaltern masculinities. Some of our case studies include: the short half-life of the boy band in the US and in Asia (e.g., J/K-Pop), hip hop masculinities at home and abroad, and the curious blend of chastity and homoeroticism that constitutes masculinity in the contemporary vampire genre. Through these and other examples, we learn to recognize masculinity as a performance shaped by the political economy of a given culture. The course includes a field trip to a drag performance in Northampton.
AMST 247 Spring 2017 Religion, Environment, and the American West
From the “Land of Enchantment” of New Mexico in the far reaches of the desert to the sacred temples on the West Coast that overlook Pacific Ocean, this course examines the peoples and the “sacroscapes” of the American West. Historian Patricia Limerick regards this region as an extraordinary site of convergence and one of “the greatest meeting places on the planet.” The region is a site of cultural complexity where Penitentes maintained a sacred order, Pentecostals attracted a global audience, Native Americans forged legal/protected definitions of “religion,” and Asian immigrants built the first Buddhist and Sikh temples. Until recently, standard surveys of religious history in North America have devoted minimal attention to the distinctive role of religion in the American West. They have focused on religious history in the flow of events westward from the Plymouth Rock landing and Puritan establishment while generally overlooking the Pueblo Revolt in modern-day New Mexico which occurred in that same century and marked the temporary suspension of Spanish encroachment. How do scholars of religion and history account for these renditions between the past and present? Most mainstream religious histories treat religious experience and identity in the U.S. West as additive rather than complementary to or constitutive of its mainstream narratives. Contemporary historians of religion note the need for new “sights,” “cites,” and “sites” in order to deconstruct and reconstruct this incomplete meta-narrative, taking into account such factors as migration, gender, region, and the environment. In this EDI course we will use tools of critical theory and historicism to examine this region, compare religious cultures, and interrogate ways in which religious practices (de)construct notions of race.
I could go on, but I won’t. Also, is it just me, or do most of these classes sound incredibly boring? Many of them sound as if their content, without all the gobbledygook academic puffery, would barely fill at 200-page history book that one might grab off the library shelf out of curiosity.
Now on to Williams’ actual history classes which, sadly, aren’t much better when it comes to substance and broad knowledge. No matter what the subject, somehow they can’t resist dragging in race and gender, rather as poor mentally ill Mr. Dicks in Dickens’ David Copperfield kept focusing on Charles the First head when he wrote his endless Memorial.
HIST 152 Spring 2017 The Fourteenth Amendment and the Meanings of Equality
For more than a century, the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has served as the principal touchstone for legal debates over the meaning of equality and freedom in the United States. This course explores the origins of the 14th Amendment in the years immediately following the Civil War, and examines the evolution of that amendment’s meaning in the century that followed. Central themes in this course include the contested interpretations of “due process,” “privileges and immunities,” “equal protection,” and “life, liberty or property”; the rise, fall, and rebirth of substantive due process; and the battles over incorporating the Bill of Rights into the 14th Amendment. We will pay particular attention to how debates over the 14th Amendment have shaped and been shaped by the changing meanings of racial and gender equality, and how the 14th Amendment has transformed the promise and experience of American citizenship.
HIST 153 Spring 2017 Establishment & Exercise: Religion and the Constitution in the United States
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This 100-level tutorial examines the constitutional history of conflicts over religion in the United States, and asks how the law has weighed religious freedom against other cultural values, legal rights, and social needs. This course will consider the following questions: How has the interpretation of the First Amendment’s religious clauses changed over time? What happens when the establishment clause and free exercise clause come into conflict with each other? Is the American state secular? What is the difference between religious beliefs and moral beliefs? How have constitutional arguments about religion intersected with social movements and political culture? Topics will include: the origins and early interpretations of the religion clauses; the changing scope of constitutional protections for the beliefs and practices of religious minorities; controversies over religion in schools, workplaces, and public spaces; debates about tax exemptions for religious organizations; the rights of conscientious objectors; and the emerging conflicts between claims for religious liberty and anti-discrimination laws. This course examines the ways these conflicts illuminate tensions between the competing values of equality and liberty, and interrogates the ways that the very act of legal decision-making defines the boundaries of what counts as religion.
HIST 165 Spring 2017 The Age of McCarthy: American Life in the Shadow of the Cold War
The Cold War cast a long shadow over American life in the years following World War II. The relationship between domestic and foreign affairs was particularly acute during the Age of McCarthy, an era marked by a intensifying Soviet-American rivalry abroad coupled with dramatic Red baiting and witch hunts at home. This course explores related aspects of American life from the late-1940s to the late-1950s, ranging from the phenomenon of McCarthyism itself to fallout shelters, spy cases, the lavender scare, nuclear families, the Hollywood blacklist, the religious revival and its implications for foreign policy, Sputnik and the space race, and links between the Cold War and Civil Rights. Using scholarly books and articles, primary sources, novels, music, and films, we will explore interactions between politics, diplomacy, society, and culture in the Age of McCarthy. In this writing-intensive course, we will focus on analyzing sources, writing clearly and effectively, and making persuasive arguments. Students will not only learn about history, but they will learn to think and write as historians.
[I’m willing to bet that the above course alludes only lightly to the fact that Communists had, in fact, infilitrated America’s military and political institutions….]
HIST 166 Spring 2017 Politics and Prose: Invisible Man in Historical Context
“I am an invisible man.” So begins Ralph Ellison’s treatise on black life in the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century. Ellison’s book Invisible Man appeared in 1952, won the National Book Award, and secured a prominent place in the canons of both American and African American arts and letters. Often studied for its literary crafting and for the ways it echoes the work of classic American writers, Invisible Man iterates the black past as it affects its protagonist. This course brings readings in black sociology, anthropology, law, literature, political science, education, folk-life, and music to bear on its examination of the novel and its historical themes, including debates among black ideologues and leaders; links between culture and protest; processes of black migration, urbanization, and community development.
And here we go! Hurrah! The first survey class, although I’d like to be a fly on the wall to find out how it’s being taught:
HIST 252 Spring 2017 From Contact to Civil War: A History of North America to 1865
This course will provide a survey of North American history from Europe’s first expansion into the New World to the American Civil War. Cast as a contest between competing empires and their peoples, the course begins in Europe and Native North America before contact and studies the expansion of European nations into the New World. The course will emphasize the history of British North America and the interactions between and among the many peoples of colonial America. The course will then examine the coming, course, and consequence of the American Revolution (or what many at the time considered America’s first civil war). The new nation unleashed massive and far-reaching economic, social and political changes. The last third of the course will explore these changes in the antebellum era and trace how they affected the coming of America’s second civil war.
The second class in the survey can’t help itself — it slips again into the whole race and gender theory:
HIST 253 Spring 2017 Modern U.S. History
This course surveys themes and issues that inform the historical landscape of the United States after the Civil War and Reconstruction, from the late 1800s to the present. With special attention to freedom and fragmentation, the course examines the dilemmas inherent to American democracy, including: westward expansion and Indian affairs; immigration and nationalism; progressivism and domestic policy; the expanding role of the United States in the world; race, gender, and rights; and the shifting terrains of liberalism and conservatism. The course also tunes into the connections between current affairs and the American past. Course materials include a range of primary sources (letters, political speeches, autobiography, film, oral histories, fiction, and photography) and historical interpretations.
I’ll wrap this up with the one class I’d actually love to take:
HIST 354 Fall 2016 The Revolutionary Generation: Galaxy of Leaders
The American Revolution produced a galaxy of brilliant politicians, statesmen, and military leaders of extraordinary courage, intellect, creativity, and character: Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Adams. In this seminar, we will study their astounding accomplishments–a successful war of independence, a Constitution and Bill of Rights, enduring democratic political institutions, and a nascent party system. But mostly we will focus on their ideas, for they were thinking revolutionaries. We will examine in depth and in detail their superb writings, their letters and speeches as well as Madison’s and Hamilton’s Federalist essays. We will also read recent interpretations of the founding generation by Gordon Wood, Joseph Ellis, Bernard Bailyn, and others.
When writing about the present, Susan Dunn, who teaches the above class, seems to be a garden-variety Leftie, but she definitely has a reverence for the revolutionary generation.
The annual tuition at Williams is $50,000.