How will I teach this course next time? What changes will I make? What worked? What flopped? These are the questions that all teachers must ask themselves. As “Witnessing the Sixties” draws to a close, I am reflecting on its second coming, which will occur in January 2020. Demonstrating growth and willingness to improve a course is a key reference point for any hiring committee or a friendly discussion with your chair/dean.
I offer three resolutions in this post. All three flow from a broader question I have been reflecting on for the past few months: how can an American Historian offer a successful class to American Studies undergraduates? I think striking a balance between analysis of form and diffusion of content is crucial. American historians are well suited to teach in area studies. I aim to be self-conscious about how my current institutional context shapes my teaching.
First, I want to foster a creative tension between generative (sometimes quotidian) primary sources and the classic pieces of the era’s literature. In other words, I want to get at the social history while never losing sight of big ideas. The course I designed this semester seemed to work back and forth between the two realms: some classes were geared towards a packet of primary sources and others were focused on key books like Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait or Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Next time I want to intersperse the two approaches more frequently.
For example, I plan to assign at least two of the magazine articles Betty Friedan analyzed to create her path-breaking notion of the feminine mystique. The students had a number of questions during our sessions on The Feminine Mystique that could only be answered by going directly to the sources. How did she interpret the magazine articles she used to construct her thesis? Even the most perceptive intellectuals are mediators between their sources and ideas. In 2020 we will have the magazine articles directly on hand.
I also needed some granular sources to be placed alongside Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This text, and Leary’s social vision, became central to the conversations we carried over the semester. The students delighted me with their attention to the social and political visions of the drug culture. Leary makes cameo appearances in a number of other course readings. Leary argued that revolutionaries must drop out of the social order, of course. But, he also posited a social and political vision of oneness with humanity via the cosmic experience of LSD. What I needed to help make Leary a key player in the class were some of the basic facts of his biography (these can be covered in lectures) but also a few newspaper articles on him. Next time I plan to cut down on the pages assigned from The Psychedelic Experience to have students focus on the press releases explaining why Leary was fired from Harvard in 1962. Harvard, in fact, has a nice little website with a very helpful bibliography.
I found that primary and secondary source pairing worked well when I matched Michael Herr’s Dispatches with Michael J. Kramer’s The Republic of Rock. Kramer analyzes how soldiers in Vietnam listened to Jimmy Hendrix and partook of the existential angst of the home front. Rock and Roll helped to transport the counterculture to bases and jungles of Vietnam. Thus, we could explore, as a class, just how deeply the anti-establishment ethos had penetrated into a key bastion of the establishment: the military. Rock and Roll, promoted by the military commanders to boost morale and played on official radio stations, circulated counterculture ideas among the troops that undermined authority. We listened to “The Watchtower” and asked ourselves not only what the lyrics meant but about the reception history of the song itself among the troops. Herr manages to capture a similar phenomenon: the everyday resistance and anxiety of the soldiers. I want to design more lessons along these lines, with a source of academic history and a primary source of a participation on the ground.
As for the classics, I found that I should have assigned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Catch-22. I want the next class to explore the (perceived) absurdity of the bureaucratic establishment, a central trope of early 1960s literature. I found that a deep exploration of the irrationality of social and military hierarchy was a much needed framework as the course pushed forward. We needed this paradigm in our intellectual toolkit. Primary sources seem somewhat limited in capturing this sentiment: a deep dive into a canonical writing is required. Next time Joseph Heller or Ken Kesey (as an author rather than a protagonist!) will grace the syllabus.
The next modification is perhaps a perennial struggle in our teaching: I want lectures and discussions to have a much more fruitful relationship. Lectures on the Sixties should capture the quantity and breadth of the social and political agitation. How many communes were in the US as of 1970? Around 7,000. How many women marched with Friedan at “The Women’s March for Equality” in New York City? 10,000 or so. The texts I assign should capture the essence or the emotions of the movement. I want to assign Herbert Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation again, but I want to lecture more precisely on the social history of student rebellions. I want to offer a better contextualization of Marcuse’s text in the history of Cold War American capitalism and, dare I say, the intellectual history of Marxism. Too often, I titled towards one, or the other, lecture or discussion. I should always remind myself that they are not mutually exclusive: lectures can generate discussion and discussions, of course, feed material into our lectures. Questions raised in discussion can be explored more fully in a lecture, even if they go unanswered.
Finally, I opted for my spring 2019 course to feature 5 medium-sized papers and a lengthy research paper (8 pages). I am going to seriously entertain scaling down to more frequent papers that are shorter in length. The sources of The Sixties – social, political, cultural, and economic – ooze creativity. They are vibrant and strident calls for emancipation, whether through identity or mind-alterations. I want to offer students more opportunities to thread sources together. What does The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test teach us about Chicano Liberation? How might Black Power: The Politics of Liberation enter into conversation with All The President’s Men?
In writing this post, I have entered myself into a contract to make these changes for next year! Thanks for following along.