Sunday, July 16, 2017

Put a pencil to my temple, connect it to the syllabus...

The other day I confessed to a colleague that I've been blasting the Hamilton soundtrack in my car all summer (even the parts that leave me helpless) and I'm working nonstop to squeeze the play into my American Lit Survey class next spring, but he got a sour look on his face and said, "I understand that Hamilton is very"--sniff--"popular," in the same tone in which you might say "I understand that bubonic plague is very"--sniff--"uncomfortable" or "I understand that genocide is very"--sniff--"messy."

So okay, it's not every day that I include popular music in a literature class; in fact, last spring's experiment with Nobel-Prize-winning poet Bob Dylan may have been the first time. Students enjoyed that exercise even if I found it less than enlightening, but then I'm not a Dylan fan. Hamilton, though, is a different story--when I find another fan, I just can't shut up about it. You should hear me babbling with my daughter, the music theory expert: I go on and on about narrative structure and how certain phrases gain depth and richness as they recur in different contexts, while she talks about musical structure and how the rhythm reinforces important ideas. I will never be satisfied until some part of Hamilton gets dropped in a forgotten spot on the syllabus.

A few weeks ago I was talking to an English major who's due to take my American Lit Survey next spring and when I mentioned that I'm trying to find a place for Hamilton, her face lit up. When students get that excited about an assignment--well, I want to be in the room where it happens. Fortunately, Hamilton will fit right in with the reading list.

For years my theme for the class has been “Discovering America All Over Again,” which is what American writers were doing after the gaping wound called the Civil War. We look at each new literary movement as an opportunity for authors to explore and expand upon what it means to be an American, watching as the canon opens ever wider to embrace different kinds of voices, a theme that will easily embrace the young, scrappy, and hungry immigrants who get the job done in Hamilton. If I have one chance to capitalize on the popularity of the show, I’m not throwing away my shot.

But how do I include it on the syllabus? I doubt that we'll have access to a filmed version of the play before next spring, and only a few scenes are available online. On the other hand, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance of the opening number at the White House Poetry Jam would follow nicely after the Beat poetry section of the syllabus, with its emphasis on poetry as performance. Here’s a thought: assign that early version of the work alongside a video of the finished piece and talk about the fluid connections among poetry, music, storytelling, and drama as an interactive process instead of a set of static categories. Showtime!

The assignment would be popular with students, who don’t often apply the p-word to other authors on the syllabus--Henry James, for instance, or even Toni Morrison. (“Why does the story have to be so long? Why can’t she just tell us what she means?”) Students sometimes say these authors are intense or they’re insane, but that's just because they've never seen a rap battle between Henry James and Toni Morrison about the nature of American literature. If there’s a reason Hamilton’s in line when so many other authors decline in popularity, that would be nothing to (wait for it!) sniff at.

So there it is: a task, a goal, a purpose, a vague idea that needs to be developed into a workable plan. There’s a million things I haven’t done—but just you wait! I’m teaching Alexander Hamilton.


Stop all the Complaining said...

Sign me up!!! That is a great idea- I will be very interested in future updates on how it goes.

Laura said...

And yet again, I want to be taking your class.