Earlier this week, a guest on NPR noted that Abraham Lincoln took second (to Jesus) in the number of books written about a modern historical figure. Wow!! It’s clear that he is one of the most remembered U.S. Presidents.
The TSP Reading List suggestion for Presidents’ Day, “History, Commemoration, and Belief: Abraham Lincoln in American Memory, 1945-2001,” explores how Abraham Lincoln is remembered in the U.S. This would be a great article to assign during a unit on collective memory. Before the students read the article, have them each quickly write about how/why they remember Abraham Lincoln. Afterward, survey the class to see if they remember him as the Great Emancipator (the primary memory found in the article), the Savior of the Union, the Man of the People, the Self-Made Man, or the First Frontier American. This article would go well with Gary Alan Fine’s “Reputational Entrepreneurs and the Memory of Incompetence: Melting Supporters, Partisan Warriors, and Images of President Harding.”
Genocide is fundamentally social, though sociologists often ignore it in research and in the classroom. A lesson on genocide could be part of multiple course units, such as ethnic conflict/war, race, crime/criminology, law, human rights, collective memory, etc. Here’s one of many ideas:
Assign John Hagan and Wenona Rymond-Richmond’s article “The Collective Dynamics of Racial Dehumanization and Genocidal Victimization in Darfur” (ASR 2008). Also consider assigning Contexts’ podcast with author John Hagan, which can be found here.
A few questions to consider:
1. What is the legal definition of genocide?
2. Why are only some groups protected under the legal definition of genocide? Should other groups be included?
3. How does genocide differ from crimes against humanity?
4. How do Hagan and Rymond-Richmond explain genocide?
With the mid-term elections recently behind us and the 2012 Presidential elections drawing closer, Jeffrey Alexander’s piece “Heroes, Presidents, and Politics” reminds us that political narratives are stories about heroes. There are many ways you can use the article, which can be read online here, in the classroom.
*Alexander stresses that narratives and images are created. Gary-Alan Fine’s work on reputational entrepreneurs further elaborates how and why certain reputations are created, and his article on reputational entrepreneurs and the image of President Harding could be used to complement this piece. Assign both articles to students, and ask your students to discuss who might work as a reputational entrepreneur for Obama or McCain (i.e.. political parties, lobbyists, public officials, etc.).
*Ask students to find pictures, articles, and other campaign materials from recent elections and to discuss what narratives the campaigns were trying to create.
*The lesson could also be combined with Nathan Palmer’s suggestions on how to teach hero-making.
Memories of the past are fluid and powerful. They are influenced by the present and can simultaneously influence the present. Memories can be manipulated to serve interests and often provide blueprints for social action. In the Summer 2010 issue of Contexts, two pieces capture these and other nuances of memory.
Barbara Sutton’s photo essay on “Situating Memory in Argentina” highlights pictures of the military dictatorship that disappeared, tortured, and violated the human rights of the people of Argentina. Robin Autry’s piece, entitled “Memory, Materiality, and the Apartheid Past,” examines processes of constructing memories in South Africa.
These readings could be paired together or could easily be paired with a chapter from Jeffrey Alexander et. al’s book on Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, which explores the relationship between collective memory, identity, and trauma.
For an assignment, students could research sites of memory and bring pictures and a historical description of the site to share with a group.
Potential discussion questions include:
How can a memory be shared? Do you have to experience something in order to have a memory of it?
Do you think collective memory has the ability to deter future atrocities and human rights violations? Why or why not?
The notion of collective memory often insinuates that a dominant memory exists. However, Autry’s piece notes that resources and opportunity also play a role in which memory prevails. Discuss how power can affect collective memory.
How do you view the U.S. treatment of Native Americans, Abraham Lincoln, or more recent events like September 11th? What factors influence these memories and beliefs about the past?
Below Nathan Palmer, faculty in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Georgia Southern University, shares some great ideas on how to teach students about making heroes, the social construction of reality, and rituals.
Students are filing into a large lecture hall. An empty stage in front of them with a simple black text on white background powerpoint slide reads, “What if we treated sociologists as celebrities or sports heroes?” At 9:00 am exactly the lights dim and a hyped up song begins to play. Students are looking around the room for answers when over the speakers they hear, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please as we announce tonight’
s starting lineup for your very own Georgia Southern Eagles! Starting at teacher hailing from the University of Nebraska, it’s NAAATHAAAAN PAAALMEEER!!!” The music reaches a crescendo as I storm in from the back of the auditorium, slapping high fives with students as I make my way to the stage. Once on the stage I pour baby powder in my hands and throw it in the air mimicking LeBron James’s pre-game ritual. Then I point both my fingers to one side of the room just like the fastest man in the world Usain Bolt does.
Heroes, Celebrities, and Constructing Reality
The music stops. When the students stop laughing hysterically I start a discussion about how we “make sports heroes.” We talk about the lights, music, the announcer’s tone of voice, the crowd participation and all the other rituals we do across the country at sporting events. This is a great way to discuss the social construction of reality in a way that students really connect with. I also bring in Durkheim’s insights about rituals and community building. Nowhere in the United States is there a more naked concerted effort to clearly define an “us” and a “them” as there is at sporting events.
Typically my students want to take the conversation beyond sports and look at pop-culture celebrity making. This is an easy transition given that the way we make pop-culture celebrities is very similar to sports hero making. Students talk about movie trailers with quick cuts and a dramatic voice over. They talk about TMZ, Extra!, and other celebrity news magazines that prop up the most mundane behaviors as being amazing and trend setting.
Inevitably, one student will say, “I hate celebrities and sports heroes. The real heroes of the world are Pat Tillman and the men and women who serve our country.” This is a excellent opportunity to talk about the rhetorical frames we use to describe soldiers. I will ask the class, “How do we talk about soldiers and the military in the United States when we want to honor them?” The class is quick to use words like sacrifice, bravery, courage, and honor. This demonstrates to the class that even when talk about people who do more than score a touchdown or star in a movie, we still use symbols and rhetorical devices to socially construct a heroic reality for them.
Making Your Intro Music
Creating your audio introduction is fairly easy. I buy a high energy top 40 song off of iTunes each semester so that my students will immediately recognize the song. iTunes is great because you can buy a “clean” or censored version of the song and it will only cost you $1.29. Most recently I used the song “Winner” by Jamie Foxx. After you pick a song you can use free programs like Audacity on a PC or GarageBand on a Mac to record your “announcer intro” and then mix the track with the song you’ve chosen.
Teaching symbolic interaction is typically something we all do during the first weeks of a introduction to sociology course. This activity is especially good because it affords us an opportunity to break student expectations early. As I am sure is apparent by now, this activity takes a fair amount of courage on your part. However, by putting yourself out there, so to speak, you can shatter student preconceptions about professors and college classes. You can also rest assured that your students will leave class and tell all their friends about what they learned in sociology today.
Teaching as Theater
The reality is, if you are teaching 100+ students in a large lecture hall you are doing performance theater like it or not. When students walk into a theater sized classroom and when you stand on a stage with a microphone, it should surprise no one that students expect to be entertained. As sociologists we have a unique opportunity to play with student expectations and violate norms in a way that both makes for good pedagogy and good theater.