Reflecting on the 1980s Course

Belinda Carlisle was right: heaven is indeed a place on earth. For me that would be the  experience of teaching my American Conflicts and Cultures in the 1980s course. I, of course, equally loved my Digital Image of the City course as I discussed earlier, but teaching the 1980s was just…fun? Perhaps it’s that as a child of the 1980s, I could step back in time and make recent policy, legal, and social shifts resonate in the bodies and minds of young people born in the late 1990s. Actually, it was attaining that learning objective with a group of really incredible, curious students that was all the fun.

In this post, I’ll share how the course unfolded and how I structured teaching a decade so that it mattered to my students. As a project of public humanities, students worked together to build a timeline of the key events of the 1980s relating to their paper topic, and edited entries in Wikipedia related to their work to add further citations, data, and information regarding their research topics. In this project of public humanities, the research that students do does not end on the page but serves to extend knowledge to the world while showing students their own agency and role in the production of knowledge. As I orgainally posted on the 1980s course website, the timeline, papers, and Wikipedia entries are below–enjoy!

In order to get into the 1980s, I taught from a great deal of images and videos. The era of the remote control, MTV, cable, and CNN afforded ample easily accessible and mostly new material for students who had never seen the Challenger explode, never heard of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, and had no clue how there was a time when not everything was made in China. Taking a very critical approach to the matter of cultural studies, I pushed students to connect this recent era to their own lives and make political economies, social movements, cultural “norms,” and the seemingly mundane events of everyday life, both past and present, matter. As I say in the course description, “From the rise of the Religious Right to the fall of the Berlin Wall, from the Iran-Contra Affair and Challenger Space Shuttle accident to the launch of MTV, from the plague of AIDS and the crack epidemic to the fierce debates around the sex-porn wars and the “welfare queen,” events, individuals, and policies of the 1980s radically redefined understandings of sexuality and gender in the United States. The students of American Conflicts & Cultures: The 1980s at Trinity College learn to interpret and contextualize cultural objects by connecting the intimate and global topographies of these events and identifying the ways that they still affect our daily lives.”

Thanks to my students for an incredible semester! Many thanks also to Sara Koopman for the introduction to Wikiwash that allows you to track Wikipedia edits in real time and also show edits from specific editors.