by Roderick Ferguson, Associate Professor
Sometimes a class reminds you why you became a teacher. Sometimes teaching is about more than the number of students enrolled. Sometimes students want more than easy answers. Sometimes answers are not the point of critical thinking. Sometimes critical thinking means raising difficult questions and not turning away from where that difficulty leads.
Who knew that a course initially designed to satisfy enrollment demands would take teachers back to their first love and bring students to new horizons? Who knew that some time after September 11, 2001 we in American studies would find a new pedagogical mission?
During the 2005-2006 academic year, Department of American Studies faculty members convened to design a course that would “introduce" students to the field. We wanted a course that would be true to our interests in the United States as a global actor and how it impinges upon life here and in other places. We imagined a course that would be a long and considered answer to the question that seemed to break from so many American mouths after the September 11 attacks: “What led to this?" And so we worked tirelessly to find readings that would respond to that inquiry and give students a sense of how wars in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East account for the pre-history of that event.
While we believed in the innovation of the course, we recognized that capturing an audience is always a gamble. And then we got word that the class filled almost immediately. Encouraged by our new-found providence, we decided to raise the enrollment limit and see how far we could go. That first year we stopped it at 121.
The second time the course was taught, we capped it at 220 students. The question that flew from my lips, of course, was “Why?" And soon it dawned on me that the course emerged at a particular historical convergence: It was five years after September 11; the country was beginning to relax and invite reflection. Ordinary folks, journalists, professors, and politicians began to ask questions about the drive toward war and occupation. The mood seemed to be changing nationally, away from the prohibitive climate that damned as unpatriotic anyone who criticized the war or the Bush administration. More poignantly, though, we introduced the course to the very people who became teenagers at the moment of the attacks. Not only were they introduced to the usual anxieties of pubescent life, they also had to confront national anxieties about terrorism and war, anxieties that permeated everyday existence. It was, also, the first time that many of them would get to talk about that confrontation in a university setting.
Despite the sometimes-intimidating size of the class, there are students who stand out in my mind. There are the Arab and Muslim students who with a nod, a handshake, a chat, or a smile expressed their gratitude for a course that would finally talk about how they had been constructed as today’s “forever foreigners" and “enemies within." With historical readings about the Spanish-American War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, some of them told me that they could see the ways in which they were part of a long line of groups that suffered that dubious distinction. I also remember the always on-time remarks of the veteran who flew helicopters in Vietnam. After I screened David Zieger’s Sir!, No Sir! — a movie that chronicles the history of the vast anti-war movement led by American GI’s — that same vet showed me pictures of his own antiwar activities while he was enlisted; he told me those activities had slipped from memory’s grip. The times that I have taught that course have made me bear witness to these truths: A course can speak to people’s need for their complexity to be a matter of record, and a class can remind you of depths that you had forgotten.
I never told them what to think. But I did insist that they think. In fact, for the first class session, I told the students that we were there to study war. To give them an idea of how we were going to approach September 11 and the wars that followed, I likened the War on Terror to the matryoshka dolls — the nesting dolls from Russia. In the big doll called the War on Terror, we might find the 1973 coup in Santiago, Chile; the No Gun Ri incident of 1950, or the Battle of San Juan Hill of 1898. In the last class, I ended with these remarks: “I began this course with the idea of the matryoshka dolls, and the War on Terror as our big doll, and all the terrible dolls that are in that doll. I hope you see now why we cannot pass that doll on to anybody else. We, the faculty, offered this course as a way of boosting enrollments in American studies, but in teaching this course we have been reminded that the real reason for teaching is not about increasing enrollments or majors but getting students to seize the intelligence, the wisdom, and the courage that is in you. Work up your nerve and claim it."