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Teaching American Identities: A University/Secondary School Collaboration

From: American Quarterly
Volume 54, Number 2, June 2002
pp. 255-277 | 10.1353/aq.2002.0018

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American Quarterly 54.2 (2002) 255-277

We must not be afraid to help our students and our communities confront the contradictions of their own histories and the history of the American republic. Only through the realization of our historical and present tensions can we hope to nurture the development of individuals who will become active participants in the American narrative without the false hope of easy resolution, but with the sustained capacities to work toward a society in which democratic aspirations become democratic justice, and diversity becomes a means of forging a deeper national identity.

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At issue is the production of a border pedagogy in which the intersection of culture and identity produces self-definitions that enable teachers and students to authorize a sense of critical agency. Border pedagogy points to a self/other relationship in which identity is . . . defined within multiple literacies that become a referent, critique, and practice of cultural translation, a recognition of no possibility of fixed, final, or monologically authoritative meaning that exists outside of history, power, and ideology.

In 1996, we were told that our small program in American studies would have to institute one course for its new major that all majors would be required to take. Because this would put a strain on our already slender resources, we saw the demand as the final tactic of bureaucrats in the sanctioning committee who were looking to give us one more hurdle to jump. Accepting the inevitable, the three faculty members who would be teaching the course met to figure how we would design the yet unnamed course that all of us would have to teach.

A few months before our first planning meeting, Judith Smith received a call from the social studies coordinator for the Cambridge Public Schools. Margaret von Gonten was interested in setting up a high-school-to-college program that could serve as an alternative to AP courses and that would help non-college bound students to imagine themselves capable of and interested in doing college-level work. She asked if we had any courses that would lend themselves to having a section taught at the high school, by a high school teacher, with college credit provided for students who successfully completed the course. She promised us her best social studies teacher. And she kept her word. Carol Siriani, a thirty-year veteran of the public schools and a member of UMass Boston's first graduating class in 1969, attended the first planning meeting of American Identities, which was designed from the beginning to be an introductory course in American studies that would serve students at both the University of Massachusetts Boston and at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, the only public high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The course we dreaded has, ironically, become an unusual if not pioneering endeavor that we believe offers a model of sustained university/secondary school collaboration. It meets some of the central agendas that educational theorists have posited as necessary for such collaborations to result in authentic educational reform. At the same time, it suggests the important role that American studies pedagogy can play in such reform efforts. For if any field has the potential to instantiate what Henry Giroux defines as "border pedagogy," it is American studies. First offered in 1997, American Identities focuses on the multiple ways that "American" has been defined in the historical era from World War II to the present. Through a variety of resources, including historical texts, fiction, autobiography, material artifacts, TV, film, and popular music, students explore individual, family, ethnic, class, gender, sexual, and racial identities in relation to the formation of national and transnational identities.

American Identities at the University of Massachusetts
Rachel Rubin, Lois Rudnick, Judith Smith

American Identities was designed as an introduction to the field of American studies that would provide students practice with the methods and texts necessary for reading U.S. society and culture from an interdisciplinary perspective. It was intended to meet one of the central goals of the new American studies major, borrowed from the title of an NEH-funded American studies summer institute for high school teachers: "connecting the differences." Invested in a "both . . . and" strategy of...

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