The last time I taught students in a classroom Bill Clinton was President, the St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl, and the first X-Men movie was in theaters. I was a lot younger then, and none of my current students had yet been born.
On little more than a hopeful lark, I decided to apply for an adjunct teaching position at Anne Arundel Community College (AACC) in Arnold, Maryland, about a 5-minute drive from where I work at the public library. AACC is consistently ranked as one of the top (and often the top) community colleges in the nation. To my surprise (shock?) I interviewed and got the job teaching Introduction to American Studies.
Had I ever taught this subject before? No.
Depending on how you define “teaching,” I’d never stopped doing it. I’d taught the occasional workshop for beginning writers, trainings at the library, Sunday school at church, and if my movie and book discussions aren’t really what you’d call teaching, at least I (hopefully) imparted some knowledge to those attendees. Yet none of those people had paid money to be there, and none of them were going to receive a grade at the end of the event.
This AACC class was different. These students (or their parents) were paying to be there, and I was getting paid to teach them. When money changes hands, there’s more at stake.
I know I’m not the only presenter who over-prepares. When I first began my Great Movies program at the library I spent hours preparing each introduction and closing thoughts for after-the-movie discussions, and Q&A sessions. But preparation for this class was on a whole other level.
I accepted the position about 10 days before the class started. I was on vacation when I got the news and didn’t have a copy of the textbook, one that had already been chosen and was in the campus bookstore: The American Studies Anthology edited by Richard P. Horwitz (Table of Contents here). Although the book is a bit on the old side (2001) and much has happened since its publication, it contains some good essays. But I knew I wanted to play to my strengths and supplement the text with movies, music, and more.
Fortunately I have a friend named Steve who has taught at AACC for several years. He clued me in on how students learned (or didn’t) during Covid and what to expect. “Their attention spans are very short,” Steve said. “You won’t be able to stand up there and lecture for 75 minutes. You’ll need to break it up, make it interesting.” I planned for that, deciding that I would frequently place the students in small groups so they could discuss topics we were covering, then discuss them together as a class.
Mapping out as much as I could during those 10 days before classes began, I discovered I must come up with enough material for 28 class sessions. I had the syllabi from two previous instructors, but no curriculum other than the textbook. Relying heavily on the textbook, I planned the first three lessons and gained a rough idea for the next two or three beyond that.
On that first day, I went over the syllabus and talked to the students about what they wanted to get out of the class. Some of the answers were:
“I like history, so I thought this would be a cool class.”
Okay, not bad.
“I like history too and really like seeing how we got where we are today as a country.”
“Dude, I’m just here for an easy A.”
At least he was honest.
I had 14 students on my roll. Two never showed up. One dropped after the first meeting. Two stuck around for about a month, then I never saw them again. I was left with a class of nine, all of them guys, all of them (probably) no older than 20. My library coworkers joked that this was “The Guys Book Club” (my library group) young man’s edition.
On that first day I learned a little more about the students, giving them their first “assignment” to tell me three things about themselves with one of them being a lie. They were all interesting, but this was the best one:
1 - My girlfriend’s grandmother turned down a marriage proposal from Joe Biden.
2 - I started a business at the age of 17 in trash removal.
3 - My brother and I have owned over 50 boats in our lifetime.
Which one do you think was the lie?
It was #3. They had actually owned 75 boats. (The student also showed me a non-Photoshopped picture proving #1.)
I also went around the room asking about their last two years of school with Covid.
“I haven’t had a face-to-face class since I was a sophomore in high school,” one freshman said. Others concurred.
“I’ll be honest,” another confessed, “I was watching YouTube the entire two years of virtual learning.”
I assured them that this would be an easy class if they did the work. I gave them a brief overview of the policies and what the class would look like. They seemed okay with it.
What I thought would be the biggest challenge - phones - really wasn’t. I saw a couple of students using them during my lectures, and I spoke to them after class. It mostly stopped, but not until I realized I was doing too much of the work for them: writing things on the white board or making notes on a Word document that was projected on the wall, making it too easy for them to take pictures of what I was writing.
To no one’s surprise, their first quiz provided clear evidence that their note-taking skills were not good, so we had a mini-class on how to take good notes, what to listen for, etc. I stopped writing things on the board and told them they had to figure out what was important.
The note-taking got a lot better.
But there was a bigger problem.
I gave the students assigned readings at almost all class meetings, most of them covering less than 10 pages (since the majority of the essays in the book are fairly short). At the end of one class I assigned them to read “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893) by Frederick Jackson Turner. The next day in class, I told them to break into small groups. Once they did, I announced, “Okay, I want you to discuss what you think is significant from this reading.”
What happened? Silence, followed by the opening of textbooks and the frantic rustling of pages. More silence as they read.
“Gentlemen, I asked you to discuss what you read.”
I changed my strategy for the next assignment.
“What is the attitude of Frederick Douglass in the first two paragraphs of ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July’… Tell us… Bill! Then I’ll hear from Jonathan, then Jason.”
I typically don’t like putting students on the spot like that, but that strategy proved effective. They started reading more, preparing better.
All this to say it’s been a process. For them and for me.
I required them to write two papers for me. I probably should’ve done more, but there’s a point of diminishing returns, especially when you discover some fundamental problems that would take me far too long to address. After the first paper, we went over some of these issues. I mean real nuts-and-bolts problems: spelling, capitalization, subject/verb agreement, constructing an opening sentence, learning how sentences build to become paragraphs, and much more. I’m not a writing teacher (at least in this class), but we do have an excellent Writing Center on campus, and I strongly encouraged all of them to go there with a draft of their next paper.
The guys were also writing for their quizzes. Each quiz contained an essay question. This provided an opportunity for them to work on their writing (although with much less time than they would take for a paper) and put into practice some of the things we’d learned. Their writing did get better. I saw improvement with each student, not as much as I would’ve liked, but still improvement. Small victories.
We discussed songs. We watched portions of movies. We looked at various decades of American history and how trends developed and patterns emerged. But before we did any of that, we spent a long time talking about colonial America, the Pilgrims, and the country’s early days, laying a foundation for the course just as those early Americans were laying a foundation for the nation. I spent a lot of time asking “How did this period (whichever period we were discussing) deviate from the Mayflower Compact?” and “What’s different now? How have we changed?” No matter where we were in history, I tried to bring everything back to “Where have we come from?” and “Where are we now?” I used a lot of sports analogies, things I knew they would relate to easily.
I think they enjoyed analyzing the songs by Alicia Keys, Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Billie Holiday, and Bob Dylan. (My hat’s off to the class for hanging with me for a deep dive of Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues.”) At the last class meeting, one of the students said he’ll never forget “Strange Fruit.” I hope that’s true.
We watched several scenes from the following films: Double Indemnity (1944), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, pictured above), The Searchers (1956), A Face in the Crowd (1957), and No Country for Old Men (2007). I also used Serena Bramble’s short film “Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir.” As I do with my Great Movies audiences, I spent a lot of time talking about how to approach older films, looking at them through the eyes of the people who saw them when they were released. What was going on culturally at the time? Politically? We talked about the Production Code, HUAC, and much more.
I was not surprised that No Country for Old Men was their favorite film as it was the most current. One of the things I did before screening the film was to talk about belief systems - religious and philosophical - and world views. We had some great discussions over whether Anton Chigurh is an existentialist, a nihilist, or something else altogether.
And we talked about the film’s last three minutes, especially Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s (Tommy Lee Jones) dreams. I’ve seen the film at least a dozen times, but something I picked up on for the first time is the background for Bell’s wife Loretta (Tess Harper) contrasted with that of Bell. Loretta is seated in front of her kitchen cabinets with warm light giving the wooden cabinets and shelves a relaxing feeling of order and comfort.
Bell is seated before a stark off-white wall with a window displaying two trees: one dead, leaning unnaturally to the right, the other a twisted, mangled array of branches, the kind of tree you’d find in a nightmare. Loretta is comfortable with her life and retirement. Bell is not.
Discussions were hard to come by during those first weeks. During the last month or so, the guys were ready to open up, discussing the meanings and nuances of the readings, songs, films, and more. I was very fortunate to have earned their trust. There was never a time when I introduced a topic, song, film, or idea that they dismissed or disdained in any way. Again, I was very fortunate.
The students presented their final projects during Wednesday’s class, the last time we’d see each other. They all did a fine job, taking the projects seriously, clearly putting forth significant time and effort. It was something of a surreal moment, similar to teaching beginning band students in August and September, then hearing that final concert at the end of the year. It’s not quite the same, but I felt something of that on Wednesday, and it made me proud to be a teacher again, even if it was just for one class.
There’s something gratifying about teaching, something I’d largely forgotten. Part of that involves working with a group of students where they are and taking them somewhere else. The process may be easier when they’re younger, but not always. They may be able to look back on the experience immediately, discovering something they’ve learned, or it may take time. It may not happen at all. Sometimes you’ll never know. Other times, they’ll contact you out of the blue and tell you something that stuck with them.
So that’s my report. Thanks for reading it. Thanks also to Jarred and Heather for hiring me, to my friends Steve and Alison M. for their valuable suggestions and insight, Becky at the Writing Center, the librarians at AACC, my supervisors at work who allowed me to teach the class while remaining a full-time librarian at AACPL, and most of all my wife Cindy who encouraged me all along the way.
I know that I won’t be teaching next semester. The schedule simply won’t allow it. It is my hope that after I retire from the library (which probably won’t be too far away) I can teach again as an adjunct. We’ll see. But as far as this class went, it was a blast. I absolutely loved it.
Several people on social media wanted to know what we covered. Here it is. Items in bold came from the textbook. Everything else came from other sources.
Thanks for reading.
Unit 1: America as a New World
The Mayflower Compact (1620)
How America Was Discovered - Handsome Lake
A Model of Christian Charity (1630) John Winthrop
Letter III from an American Farmer (1782) J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur
Wendell Berry and Agriculture
“Kill Your Mama” - Alicia Keys
Unit 2: America as an Independent Nation
Declaration of Independence (1776)
The Constitution of the United States (1787)
Declaration of Sentiments (1848)
The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893) Frederick Jackson Turner
What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? (1952) Frederick Douglass
“Strange Fruit” - Billie Holiday
The Searchers (1956) John Ford
Unit 3: America as a Place to Belong
“This Land is Your Land” - Woody Guthrie
Americanism and the Foreign-Born (1915) Woodrow Wilson
Newspaper Comic Strips, Immigrants, and Representation
WWII Veterans and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) William Wyler
Film Noir and Veterans (and others) Adjusting to Postwar Life
“Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir” - Serena Bramble
Double Indemnity (1944) Billy Wilder
Three American Originals: Baseball, Jazz, Western movies
Unit 4: America as a Land of the Free
The Gettysburg Address (1863)
The Four Freedoms (1941)
American Culture in the 1950s (mostly music, movies, TV)
JFK’s “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You” inaugural speech (1961)
“The Times They Are A-Changin’” - Bob Dylan
America in the 1960s - JFK, Civil Rights, Vietnam, Changing Culture
Unit 5: America as an Empire
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
The Utility of the Union (1787)
“Tombstone Blues” - Bob Dylan
The Monroe Doctrine (1823)
The 1970s - Changing Culture, Distrust of Government, Watergate, Kent State
The Logo Map and America as an Empire (Much of this lecture was taken from the book How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr)
Are We an Empire?
Unit 6: America as a Culture
The “Me” Generation
Who Do We Trust? When Did We Stop Trusting?
Religion, Technology, and Crime
No Country for Old Men (2007)