This semester as a collective project my school of Arts and Humanities worked in various ways toward a better understanding of what we called our Big Idea, “happiness.” One is Bob Ritzema’s excellent blog, Life Assays.
In my classes I plugged happiness in as the topic of the final papers, then sequenced the semester’s shorter papers as topical analyses leading to happiness as the synthesis. In my introductory World History classes the topics were community and agency. The students tended to struggle with the concept of agency, which I spent a lot of time walking them through as an umbrella term for power, control, choice, action, reaction and the like, but kept coming back at me informed by the folk definition of bureaucratic functions. Eventually I realized I was doing them no favors shielding them from the framing problematic of the structure/agency question, and this seemed to click; whether because it was the right way to teach it all along or they were ready for it from what had come before would be hard to untangle.
In general I find students have some trouble getting past definitions to concepts, and from concepts to cases. Of course it’s a cognitive mistake to linearize that way, so we also work from cases back to concepts, which does complicate the instruction. When introduced to abstraction they’ll spend a whole paper defining their terms if you let them; I call this throat-clearing. It takes a lot of patience and individual attention to get many students comfortable with a dialogue between the concrete and the abstract.
In my Contemporary World History seminar I added a third topic, networks. For the community module we primarily worked out of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, a wonderful ethnography of failures to communicate between Hmong immigrants and social service providers in Merced, CA; for agency we worked from David Reynolds’ nice global history One World Divisible; and for networks we had Donald R. Wright’s The World and a Very Small Place in Africa, which uses a world systems approach to work through how Niumi on the West African coast has been tied into the Atlantic Complex over hundreds of years.
This was a good group with good materials to work with, so we had a blast. One of my students is a community organizer, a real smartie attuned to the discourses of exclusion and oppression. She thought along with me all semester and had a whole bunch of clicks about how what we were talking about related to her work. Here’s one of those, from her network paper:
Taking oneself out of a network is near impossible. A person may be a socialist, but unless he moves to a remote location and begins to grow his own food, make his own clothes, defend himself, he is still living and functioning in a capitalist system that works by allowing people to mentally compartmentalize their actions. A group of activists may take up a cause, but in these times, it is near impossible for them to work outside of the non-profit industrial complex…. The institutionalizing and invisible nature of networks create an environment where people become so dependent on each other it is impossible to unsubscribe from the relationship.
Yup, we’re stuck with each other and in some pretty complex ways. I can’t wait to see how she finds happiness in this.