Below is my final assignment for USSC6901: Fundamentals of US Studies. Strangely, though it was an academic essay, I didn’t notice I was using abbreviations until it was returned, which was embarrassing, but generally, it’s a work I’m pretty proud of, and possibly the first blog post I’ve written that has been assessed. Even if it wasn’t, technically, a blog.
During our very last USSC6901 class, former Bush administration official Barry Jackson came to speak to us. There was a moment during his talk, where he mentioned the importance of the “universal sense of belonging to a story” in the United States. It was a moment of perfect synchronicity: I’d already noticed a theme emerging across our weeks of class: the role of narrative, of story-telling, in American life and American culture. It popped up in all manner of sessions, from classes on culture to those on foreign policy. Narrative, it seems, perhaps even more than any other attribute, is central to how many Americans understand their country, and is certainly central to the way politicians and other major cultural figures present it. Stories are a big part of American life.
Beyond that, though, is another dimension to the way narrative helped me understand the course. Rather than being able to pinpoint the start of this course as the beginning of a story about my understanding of the United States, I quickly came to realise it was another chapter- undoubtedly a major one, but another nonetheless- in my understanding of and, in a funny way, my relationship with, the United States. I realised this study, and all I’ve learnt so far and will learn in future is part my own narrative, and that my own story is important to how I understood both the course, and, more broadly, the United States. What I’ve learnt, and the ways I’ve grown, in the last month does not exist in a vacuum. It’s not something that just happened, out of the blue. Rather, it is another chapter in my personal, unfolding narrative. As I reflected on the course during my study, my own American story became especially relevant.
I suppose it makes sense to start with that story, to begin at what, I suppose, was the beginning, both of the course and of my understanding of the US. When Carson gave us the list of questions we could think about in our critical reflections, it seemed essential that I start by considering my own American journey. So the second post I wrote in my reflective journal (which, at first, was kept online as a blog then, as time became more precious, moved to a written journal) was a story, my own narrative, of my history with the US, from the first moments of my Mighty Ducks obsession, to the day we landed in Portland, Oregon, in 1997.
In telling the story, which I termed “My American History”, in my journal, I discovered several truths about my biases regarding the United States. First of all, I was very hesitant to characterize Americans, largely because I knew a diverse group of people while I was living in Vancouver, WA, between April 1997 and January 2000. I wrote on my journal on that second night of class:
When people talk about Americans, I inevitably picture [my best friend’s] face. When they talk about obnoxious American travelers, or ignorant Americans, or selfish Americans, I sometimes get angry. Because, though it is a big country, it is, of course, made up of individuals. Statements that would not be tolerated were they made of most other nationalities are par-for-the-course when it comes to Americans. (E. Riley, Reflective Journal, p. 4)
This understanding was central to how I thought of Americans, and was also a wonderful place to start: with the understanding that the US is not a monolith, isn’t a cultural giant divided simply into conservative and liberal, but is rather a varied and nuanced place. The importance of that understanding was reiterated throughout the class.
I also realised I identified particularly strongly with notions of “The American Dream.” In telling my own story, I realised there was a good deal of suburban idealism in the tale. On page 5 of my journal, I described our life in the US.
We lived in this lovely little city called Vancouver, Washington. Not Vancouver, Canada. Not Washington DC. It is the most confusing place name in the States, I swear. We could see Mt St Helens- the volcano that erupted in 1980 and again (more minorly) recently- from our bathroom window. The suburb we lived in was Salmon Creek, just off 134th St, where the I5 and I-205 met. It was named for the actual creek, which ran behind our neighbourhood…
We lived in a small neighbourhood, and we did, in fact, know all our neighbours. It was kind of cliché. We carolled at Christmas time, we had trick-or-treaters at Halloween, every time it snowed (about once a year); we would be out on the streets with our sleds. And on the fourth of July, we had a huge neighbourhood BBQ, and let off fireworks for a good five hours. All the Dads in the neighbourhood would compete to see who could get the best ones. Nobody beat our next-door neighbour, Mr. Tilp. (E. Riley Reflective Journal, p. 5)
It’s funny: even just three weeks after writing those words, I realise how idealized my memories are. I realise how much they are informed by my belief in the “American Dream”, which was instilled in me largely while I was over there. I valued those elements of tradition and community that we identified as tropes in the course of our study. It’s amazing how, even after three weeks, I’m able to identify biases of which I wasn’t aware.
This was a recurring theme throughout my journal: without meaning to, I have linked almost every class to something I already knew or something from my past, or something I’d read or thought. Rather than being individual moments of clarity or understanding, they were inherently interconnected: to each other, and to my own, broader understanding of the United States. I was learning about narratives at the same time I was building on my own.
Take, for example, the early class on the US Government, with Assoc. Prof. Brendon O’Connor. When I wrote in my journal following the class, the first thing I mentioned was a website called fivethirtyeight.com, which I read religiously during the 2008 election (E. Riley Reflective Journal, p. 13). It is a fantastic site, which deals a lot with polling about the election (the guy who started it, Nate Silver, was a baseball statistician who applied what he’d learnt there to politics). In the course of presenting such information, though, the site had to be interested in process. It explained the way the election worked. And, along the way, Silver pointed out mathematical anomalies in the system. Consequently, I came into class with a pretty fair idea about how much of the electoral process worked (even about Maine and Nebraska’s special way of allotting Electoral College votes), but having that knowledge been acquired in quite a piecemeal way.
What the class offered, therefore, was not the opportunity to learn something new, but the opportunity to structure that information in a new and meaningful way. It filled in gaps and made connections, and put things in a broader context. Certainly, there were new things I learnt in the class, but mainly, it was information I had already known. Working through it, however, allowed me to understand it better. The separation of powers, for example, was something I probably would have claimed to understand previous to the class, but after Assoc. Prof. O’Connor’s class, I both understood it better, but also had a greater appreciate for how complex and difficult to understand it was. Once again, it was fitting pieces of information into a broader story.
It is difficult for me to reflect on what, specifically, I discovered about the US in the last few weeks. Without meaning to sound arrogant or presumptuous, I don’t feel that I specifically leant something entirely new- and the new. But my understandings of some things were truly enriched by the study, and while other things, being only touched on in short lectures, have certainly inspired me to want to learn more. While I despaired in my journal that I just couldn’t seem to grasp any of the economic theory (E. Riley Reflective Journal, p. 19), I certainly am motivated to at least try now.
If one thing has been abundantly clear through the course of the class, it is how important it is to examine the assumptions we have about the United States. Its prominence in our daily lives and the fact its cultural reaches are so broad, can lead to a sense of complacency. We think we understand the United States because we see it and hear about it constantly.
Ironic, then, that in the course of this reflection so far, I’ve made a few rather strong, broad-reaching statements about the US and failed to provide evidence for some of my claims, especially those relating to narrative. It’s an omission worth addressing, however briefly.
Dr Stephen Robertson’s class was particularly relevant for identifying the role of narrative in American culture. While both our film studies class, and Dr. Jane Park’s class both directly touched on narrative (as, indeed, many of the other classes, though not so directly), Dr Robertson’s class was interesting in the way it identified not one but a broad range of narratives, of terms that are imbued with cultural meanings. In looking at President Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, given during the primary election campaign in 2008, we examined the way Obama positioned himself, using language, inside a number of broader American narratives. Obama harked back to the nation’s founding moment in an attempt to understand it as it is now, but also explained his own identity in terms of his narrative- the child of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother. This tradition of understanding things as they are in terms of things as they have been was well demonstrated in Obama’s speeches.
It was an excellent example of the prevalence of a common narrative in American life, in the way a speaker can both add to the narrative and speak to the narrative. It was merely one of many examples of this trend, but certainly gave weight to the theory that narrative is an important part of American life. Though I ultimately didn’t do the second assignment, in my research for it, before I made that decision, I read a number of inaugural addresses, and realised Obama was by no means the first to do so. Storytelling has been an essential part of American political rhetoric for a very long time. It truly is a country that conceives itself in terms of stories.
While I feel most of what I’ve gained from this course fit broadly within that framework of a narrative, one particularly important aspect of the class falls well outside it. Much of what I gained from the class happened not during formal teaching, but in the relationships I have developed with my peers. I was astonished at the camaraderie that developed in the course of the class, and is continuing. Rarely have I met a group with whom I have forged friendships so quickly, or found myself to have so much in common. In talking after class and during breaks, in going for drinks after the final class, my understanding of our coursework was enriched in a remarkable way by the discussions I had with my peers. No honest reflection on the course could omit this.
The intensive, three-week class was, at times, overwhelming. Though much of the information was at least somewhat familiar, the sheer volume of it, the broad range of ways it was presented, and the speed at which we were required to ingest it was challenging. In the course of the time, I realised that, just as there is a tradition in the United States of positioning yourself within a broader narrative. In understanding this, I came to better understand this course as part of a broader, unfolding narrative of my own.