Monument Culture Reflections (2)

I recently finished my second round of teaching Monument Culture for the Harvard Extension School. I love teaching this course because it’s always a fresh set of monuments my students choose to write about, so it’s always a new set of methodologies necessary, and new things to learn.

This iteration, my students chose:

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Is the Met doing enough to address its own institutional racism?)
  • Nantucket Meridian Stones. (What precisely are they?)
  • A memorial to an assassinated journalist. (A revolution most haven’t heard about outside of Slovakia)
  • A colonial statue in Singapore. (Who would want a monument celebrating colonization?)
  • A colossal statue of Peter the Great in Moscow. (Moscovites hate it. It was built via corruption. But should it go?)
  • A monument to the victims of cartel violence in Mexico. (Why this monument fails at its intended purpose.)
  • The USS Midway in San Diego. (How American war culture manifests in monumentality).
  • A Vietnam Veterans memorial in Massachusetts. (How pathos is achieved in this memorial.)
  • A statue of Peter Stuyvesant in upstate New York. (A proposal for what can be done with this monument, short of removing it.)
  • The Peace Arch on the US-Canada border. (A discussion of how the Peach Arch became a COVID monument).
  • The Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. (An explanation of why Black Lives Matter surprisingly does not particularly like Black Lives Matter plaza).
  • The mysterious Utah monolith. (Another COVID monument, and a Social Media monument).
  • A Hindu temple in Ayodhya, Hindu, built atop a Mosque. (How sacred monuments and bogus archeological claims are being used by the Hindu majority to justify seizure and bulldozing of Mosques in India.)

Some Notes to Self, or,
What-to-do-Again? What-to-do-Differently?

This was also my first time teaching this course as a semester-long course, which means it lasts 15 weeks, meeting two hours per session. This meant significant changes to the structure of the syllabus. This also means that students have twice as much time to write and revise their papers as they do in the Summer School version of this course.

In my course reviews, people seemed to especially like the visit from Susan Gilroy, a Harvard Librarian who gives them the skinny on putting the library resources to good use. I also encouraged early and often that students make use of the Writing Center, and also engage in a Zotero training session, which is something I will surely do again.

Students also really liked how I set up the peer-view sessions, which is great news because I sure spent a lot of time thinking through how to teach them to do useful peer reviews. The added benefit is the first drafts I finally lay my eyes on are significantly better after peer review. This saves me a lot of time because I’m getting drafts that need developmental editing (big picture thinking), not copy editing (not my job!).

The biggest problem I had with this course is, for the first time, I had a student who was persistently inappropriate. This was a 30+ year old man with no filter, who was frequently overtly rude to peers and guest speakers. I was relieved when he chose to drop the course, but that was a lot of headache. In the future I may start this course with some sort of preamble regarding what it means to make good-faith comments and questions, and I may even create some sort of exercise where I explicitly model what good faith comments and questions are, especially when it comes to talking about difficult topics. On the other hand, I’m inclined to hope that this particular egregious situation was an exception, and won’t happen again. No other student in any of the courses I have taught has ever had any problem understanding what it means to participate in good faith.

After this student dropped the course, I circulated a Google Survey just to see where people were at, get a temperature check, how they were liking the course so far, and what they want more or less of. This was a good idea, and certainly something I will do again. I think it is important that my students, who are often professionals pursuing their ALM degree, see me not as an authority but as a peer and ally in the exploration of this topic, and in the step-by-step process that builds eventually to their final paper. It is important to encourage everyone to bring their professional skills and expertise to bear on the discussions. It is also important to make sure students make the connection when methodologies for their papers rhyme with the methodologies of another paper, and to make sure those students are explicitly in conversation with one another. Students should see each other as allies and resources, and I need to do everything I can to foster that.

The high point of this course, for me, was when Emil Maya Little came to speak. I honestly cannot believe, by the power of cold-emailing, I was able to get such a remarkable and relevant person to come speak to my monumenters. Emil was responsible for triggering the series of events that led to the toppling of the confederate statue Silent Sam at UNC Chapel Hill. Silent Sam I know a lot about (having written the Silent Sam Syllabus, which is one of the cornerstones of this course), but I had no idea the absolutely wild racism that surrounded not just Silent Sam, but the University itself, the surrounding neighborhoods, and so much more. I will be inviting her back as long as I teach this course.

We also invited Professor Patricia Kim back, who always delivers an amazing introduction to the work of Monument Lab (another significant cornerstone of this course), as well as her own cutting perspectives on the purpose and work of monuments.

Not to mention all the crazy stuff that went on in monumental current events! I had to redirect the course several times in light of the stuff that kept happening. A anti-hate group White Lies Matter stole a monumental throne to Jefferson Davis, and threatened to turn it into a toilet if the United Daughters of the Confederacy didn’t cede to their demands—wild. Biden nixed Trump’s hagiographic statue garden. COVID-19 of course created the open question: how do we memorialize a pandemic? The Current Events aspect of this course is part of why I reserve the right to edit my syllabus on the fly—don’t work ahead. I certainly think we will need to build in some readings for COVID again. I also intend to assign a reading from Kanan Makiya’s The Monument: Art and Vulgarity in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, not just because it’s good, but also because I always have veterans in my classes, and I want to put something there for that demographic. I’m also considering formally incorporating some discussion of Anthropocene monuments, Extinction monuments, and Global Warming monuments given their obvious and immediate relevance.

Here’s some of the action (or, “why is this course relevant?”):

What’s next? This summer I’ll be teaching two sections of this course, both one right after the other on Tuesday/Thursday, which means I’ll will have a seven week sprint where I’ll teach from 8:30am until 3pm, and have to grapple with twice as many papers. In preparation for this, I’m very seriously streamlining the course website, the exercises, etc, so I can be as efficient and fair with my attention, as well as stagger due dates that cause me major workload influxes (giving draft feedback, for example). I’m looking forward to it. If I feel I get the two-course system down efficiently, I hope to teach it every summer, and since it is remote, I hope to Zoom in from wherever I might want to be in the world.

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