"The students were leaving school with [on average] $26,000 worth of debt but they still believed in the American Dream ... they knew they were the ones who were going to beat it."
The American Dream
In 2011, Hauhart (criminal justice) wanted to explore a topic that wasn’t in the curriculum: a conversation about the American Dream. He approached Birkenstein (English), a long-time proponent of team teaching, about collaborating on a course that would invite students to critically examine the concept. What does it mean? Does it exist? What does it look like? Can it actually be attained? Birkenstein liked the idea.
“Investigating the American experience has been a large part of my life’s work,” shares Birkenstein. “We chase the dream because it is perpetually out of reach. But the dream seems always to avoid fault for unrealized hopes and goals. There may be individuals or systems and organizations that are culpable, but the dream is never at fault. Somehow, the American Dream has the ability to shake itself off and continue.”
Hauhart’s proposal, coupled with both scholars’ intense curiosity about the subject, led to the interdisciplinary studies course, “Chasing the American Dream” (IDS301), which they described as “an energetic and engaged examination of the American myth and reality encompassed by the iconic phrase ‘the American Dream.’”
This well-received class has been taught three times and is scheduled again for spring 2016. It uses original historical materials and contemporary texts to engage students in a dialog about the “vitality, potential, and meaning” of this rich and perpetually relevant topic.
In addition to co-teaching, Hauhart and Birkenstein initiated projects that had their roots in the class. Two papers were produced. The first paper, presented at the University of Victoria, Canada, was based on the results of a survey of students from the class and their belief in the American Dream. “This was at the end of 2011,” explains Hauhart. “The students were leaving school with [on average] $26,000 worth of debt but they still believed in the American Dream.” Adds Birkenstein, “People got that it was a bad market, that the dream was failing many, but they knew they were the ones who were going to beat it. The American Dream provides for this, provides for exceptions.” The paper was well received and later published in a peer reviewed journal sponsored by the Global Studies Association.
The second paper, presented at a conference in Madrid, spoke to the exceptionalism of the United States as a nation; that the American Dream contains within in it the premise that, allegedly, “the United States has a uniqueness that no other country has,” points out Birkenstein. “The American Dream wouldn’t exist except for this uniqueness.” Hauhart notes that this idea arguably first arose with John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon to his followers on the deck of the “Arbella” before they disembarked to start life in the “new world” of Massachusetts. This paper was also later published, in the peer reviewed International Journal of Critical Cultural Studies.
So what does the American Dream and working together have to do with being published?
Along with publication of the first two papers, this December, Salem Press/Grey House Publishing is releasing “American Writers in Exile,” a volume from their “Critical Insights” collection. Co-edited by Hauhart and Birkenstein, this collection of 14 essays by literary critics from around the world (including Hauhart, Birkenstein and fellow Saint Martin’s English Professor, Jamie Olson) is the direct result of their class, “Chasing the American Dream.”
“Reading in the class is centered on ‘The Great Gatsby,’” says Professor Hauhart. “Birkenstein wanted to add Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises.’ Both Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote outside the U.S.” Curious about this phenomenon, a natural discussion arose between the colleagues about the number of writers who wrote in exile. “The reason many writers left [the U.S.],” notes Birkenstein, “was to find the American Dream that they thought no longer existed.” “…And it was cheaper in Paris,” winks Hauhart.
So when Salem Press approached Birkenstein about editing a volume – and the American Dream was already taken – they selected the related topic of American writers in exile.
The volume focuses on ex-pat American writers such as Henry James, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. The volume opens with two introductory essays co-authored by Hauhart and Birkenstein. “In addition,” comments Hauhart, “it includes one essay each - Jeff's commentary on the "Lost Generation” in Paris between the world wars and mine on the pre-eminent, American modernist poet, Hart Crane who sought exile to escape his demons.”
The team is guided by a passion to tap into related issues and collaborate. As such, they knew they wanted another Saint Martin’s voice in the mix. They invited resident authority on Russian authors, Jamie Olson, to contribute an essay on Russian-American poet, Joseph Brodsky.
“As a country of immigrants,” shares Olson, “displacement lies at the heart of who we are as a nation. Poetry scholars and critics tend to place Brodsky squarely in the category of ‘Russian poet,’ but I aim to complicate that categorization and get others to think of him as an American poet, as well. For immigrants and exiles, identity is rarely as simple as being only this or that thing, and Brodsky, like many others, straddles both cultures.”
As this book project draws to a close, Hauhart and Birkenstein look to Grey House in hopes of coupling this volume with a volume on European writers in exile. Additionally, Hauhart has just completed a 100,000 word manuscript on the American Dream for Palgrave Macmillan.
But it’s not just about publication for Hauhart and Birkenstein. For them, the future is also about their roles as academics and what is best for their students’ education.
“In an age of passive consumerism, students need to be interrogating these ideas that shape their every life choice,” declares Birkenstein. Hauhart adds, “I was an attorney for 20 years. Collaboration is what you learn. Students need to learn that they can make a contribution. We are always looking for students who want to be a part of a project as authors, editors or researchers.”
Hauhart and Birkenstein are interested in the world around them. They pursue those interests and share the enthusiasm for learning and working together with their students. In the end, what these educators are doing through the living of their lives and the pursuing of their own goals is to provide a model of the kinds of results that can be achieved through creativity, curiosity, collaboration … and the pursuit of the American Dream.