Since I’m awash in grading, I’d like to wrap up the semester with a meditation on final projects and cultural studies. I asked my ENGL 1101 students to create websites that perform a cultural study of a chosen artifact of American culture in terms of its relationship to race and technology. Overall, I think the assignment went quite well. Students appreciated the opportunity to share their ideas with an audience beyond me and even beyond their fellow classmates. And they especially enjoyed playing around with Dreamweaver, html, and iWeb. (Or so they tell me in their reflection papers.) An additional enticement was that they got to select artifacts of American culture that were important or relevant to them, including the Ford Mustang, the iPhone, and the NFL.
The greatest challenge students faced when making their arguments about these artifacts, though, was to bridge the issues of race and technology. Most of their websites ended up devoting one page to race and one to technology and not tying them together in a way that exposed how they are intimately related (the theme of the course). The best of the websites, of course, did the opposite.
And this has made me realize the challenge of asking students to do cultural studies, to critique what, to them, is often held sacred. For example, this website explores the film Forrest Gump, which the team leader confessed to me is his all-time favorite movie. There was a lot of potential here for the students to analyze the fascinating political usage of Forrest Gump, especially the way that conservative politicians have glommed on to it as evidence of the American Dream. During my conference with the group members, I asked them if it is possible to, in fact, argue the opposite: that Forrest’s accidental achievement of the American Dream exposes its arbitrary nature. The students were savvy enough to know that they should acknowledge this counterargument on the homepage, but then they quickly dismissed it and moved on to a glowing testament to how influential the movie is. (Even though I had warned them of the distinction between doing cultural studies and writing up a fan site.) These students were too close to their chosen artifact to approach it critically, I think, and so ended up reifying some dominant national narratives (even though they are mostly international students) while they applauded the movie’s technological innovation and cultural contribution.
Jaded cynic that I am, I had expected that my favorite websites would be those that took a much more critical eye, such as this one about McDonald’s. And it was one of my favorites, to be sure. Everyone loves a good dig at corporate giants like McDonald’s. However, it’s a familiar critique that’s been levied before. Even though I enjoyed both the argument and the art of this website, it didn’t stick to my ribs in the same way this final site did.
The students whose websites were the strongest, I believe, were those who approached the assignment in a way that recognized—perhaps more keenly than I did—how complex it really was. These particular students argued that LA Dodgers player Fernando Valenzuela was a huge inspiration to the Mexican and Mexican American communities, and that he paved the way for a more diverse national pastime, much in the same way that Jackie Robinson did. However, they also uncovered an insidious history: that the members of the Los Angeles Mexican American community were forced out of their homes in order to build the very stadium that Valenzuela played in. In the end, the students don’t celebrate the Dodgers, and they don’t completely denigrate them either. They recognize the complexity of American history and culture, the way that incongruent narratives often coexist in our past: that there are histories to celebrate and histories to atone for, and that we can and should do these simultaneously. Perhaps this is why the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is followed so quickly afterward by the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).
But that’s a different holiday season…