The United States is often described as a melting of many different identities, practices, and cultures. But what does it mean to be an American? Dr. Johnson’s course AMST-A 200 Comparative American Identities will help students examine the formation of legal, social, cultural, and economic identities within the United States and within U.S. controlled territories. It will also help students answers the following questions: Who counts as American? To what ends have citizens and non-citizens assumed, claimed, or refused American identity?
An interview with Dr. Colin Johnson, Associate Professor in the Department of Gender Studies and Adjunct Associate Professor, in the Department of American Studies is below.
How does this course fit the theme of this year’s Themester?
Dr. Johnson: Given the fact that the course’s entire purpose is to examine “the formation of legal, social, cultural, and economic identities within the United States and within U.S.-controlled territories,” it’s fit with the “identity” aspect of next fall’s theme is pretty exact, at least from my perspective. What may be less obvious is the extent to which the course necessarily deals with “identification” as well insofar as national identities don’t just happen, especially in diverse and nominally pluralist counties like the United States. They are forged and maintained through complex structures of feeling, ritual, and everyday experiences and practices of inclusion and exclusion, many of which have become so naturalized and taken for granted that they tend to go unnoticed. One of my goals in the course is to make these aspects of everyday life in the U.S. more visible so that students become more attuned to role they could play, and already do play, in helping to shape what it means to “be American.”
Why is it important for students to take this course? What knowledge or skills do you hope they gain?
Dr. Johnson: I’d really like for students to understand how deep-seated many of our beliefs about American identity are, but also how socially, culturally, and historically contingent they are. People tend to experience identity generally as a deeply personal matter. And it is. It’s important to understand that identity isn’t just a personal matter, however. It’s also the place where the personal interfaces with the political, where the private interfaces with the public, and where the present interfaces with the past and, arguably, the future as well.
What, to you, is the most interesting aspect of this course? What do you learn from teaching it?
Dr. Johnson: I think it’s enormously interesting to consider how our various identities and modes of identification interact with and condition one another, sometimes in truly surprising ways. I mean, any time you start talking about ‘identity,’ two things immediately become clear: first, we all have multiple identities; second, none of us experience those identities one at a time. Rather, on a personal level, identity is sort of like a tight knot that holds our sense of self together. The trick to thinking about identity is learning how to loosen that knot a bit so you can begin to examine all the various threads that feed into it. This in turn gives you a much better of sense of how your experience of the world is tied to the experiences of others.
Are there any assignments that you are particularly excited about?
Dr. Johnson: This is the first time I’ll be teaching this course, so I’m still in the process of working out a lot of the details where specific assignments are concerned. I’m really excited about the course generally, though, so I’m hoping some of that sense of excitement will find its way into the assignments and activities I’m planning. I will say this: one of the wonderful things about teaching classes that deal with American culture is that we’re completely surrounded by it. That makes pretty much everything a potential resource, from the extraordinary collections housed in IUB’s libraries, galleries, and museums, to the social landscape of our campus, to the city of Bloomington itself. I am definitely trying to think of fun ways to leverage as many of those resources as I can.
What type of students would you encourage to take this course?
Dr. Johnson: I think the course would be suitable for, and hopefully of interest to, pretty much any IUB undergraduate. I suspect, however, that it will be particularly interesting for students who are curious about how the past has shaped the world they were born into, both in terms of incredible opportunities that world presents, and the extraordinary challenges it faces moving forward.
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