Notes from the Classroom: First Day

temple.jpgFirst days of class mostly blend together. You know what to expect: some introductory remarks, the syllabus,  perhaps a corny ice-breaker depending on the class size. You might even get out early. But there are a few first days from my undergraduate years that stand out.

I once had a professor with a perverse pride in scaring students into dropping his class. The hemorrhaging of students after the first day seemed to have become his calling card. So he spent the first class discussing the syllabus in exacting and intimidating detail, making every assignment sound extraordinarily hard. He was not like other professors, he said, and his class was not like other classes. No, here in this class a significant part of our final evaluation would be determined by our “professionalism grade.” Being a natural rule-follower, I promptly determined to pretend to be a professional every Tuesday and Thursday morning for the next four months. I think he was very impressed.

The other first day of class I remember was economics 101. The professor walked into the room and began to ask us questions about economics. We provided our pat answers, whether from the right or the left, and to each response he asked another question, exposing the limits of our certitude. Before long we were down to bedrock: what is a good society? What is a just distribution of resources? How do we balance competing claims of justice and liberty and equality?

This is actually a stylized rendering of the class. What I remember about it is not the details, but the feelings of wonder, confusion, and intellectual stimulation it evoked. That’s an accomplishment on the first day of class that a lot of courses never achieve at any point in the semester.

So, today was the first day of my two sections of Immigration and the American Dream. The results, I’m sure, were somewhere between professor professionalism and econ 101.

We jumped right into some primary sources and saved the last 10 minutes of class for the syllabus. I had five different documents so we split into five groups. Each group had two tasks: first, what does this document mean? What sense can you make of it? Second, what questions do you have about it? What don’t you know that you think you need to know to be able to evaluate this source?

After we came back together and the groups shared what they came up with, we discussed what it might all mean, what light these documents shed on “Immigration and the American Dream.” Were there through-lines in the documents? Themes tying them together?

Students mentioned some good possibilities: a sense of expectation, the importance of white racial identity, assimilation, disagreement over the meaning of the American Dream, gaps between an idealized America and its reality, and so on.

Our takeaways were that speaking of a singular “American experience” is difficult if not impossible; that we are entering into a long-running debate about what the United States is and what it should be, and what role immigrants do or ought to play in that. The exercise was also meant to impress upon the students that asking good questions is a key skill that we want to cultivate. They didn’t have enough information to really understand their documents in depth. But some of the students thought their documents were quite simple and easy to understand. They didn’t see the need to ask more questions of their sources.

I want to dispel that certainty. Being able to imagine what we don’t know is crucial. Coming up with plausible answers is fairly easy. Asking questions that will illuminate and expand our understanding is much harder. Hopefully we will ask lots of good questions this semester.

For some students, this was probably too much too quick–an intimidating and awkward exercise with a room full of strangers. Others took it in stride and had insightful things to say. Others were probably just annoyed that we used up the whole class period on the first day. It’s going to be a fun semester.

Notes from the Classroom: Are We A Nation of Immigrants?


This semester I am teaching two sections of a class called Immigration and the American Dream. I didn’t make the title. Most of the students will be freshman and sophomores, and most of them will not be history majors. As I think about what I want this course to be, I’m grappling with the perceptions of immigration and history my students might have as they enter the classroom on the first day. To speak of Immigration and the American Dream is, I think, to conjure images of the Statue of Liberty, of poor huddled masses yearning to be free, of an exceptional nation made up of freedom-loving people from all over the world. It brings to mind a claim that is practically a part of our civic religion: America is a nation of immigrants.

In structuring the course, part of what I’m setting out to do is to help the students think critically about the “nation of immigrants” narrative. Some students may walk into the classroom with this narrative embedded in their thinking as a kind of common sense:

Of course the United States is a nation of immigrants.

I want to provoke students with the possibility that this simple phrase is not so much a statement of historical fact as it is an ideological claim deployed for specific purposes. Many immigrants have come to the United States; that’s true! But to speak of a nation of immigrants is to make a claim about what kind of country the United States is and what it means. It’s a claim about how the United States is different from, and better than, other countries.

Many historians are uncomfortable with immigration as the defining American story because of the obvious groups it appears to leave out: Native Americans and African Americans. Trying to shoehorn these groups into a nation of immigrants narrative is not an adequate solution.

The better approach might be two foreground the encounters and systems that provided the necessary foundation of mass immigration. To try to do that, I am planning to incorporate a significant amount of transnational history and settler colonial theory¹ in the course. Will it work? I don’t know! But it will be an interesting experiment.

A settler colonial framework takes the conquest of Native American lands not as a given, but as the essential and ongoing act of violence that enabled the American experiment. A settler colonial framing better enables us to see that the nation of immigrants was possible because–and only because–of violence and dispossession on an extraordinary scale. Invasion and conquest, enslavement and expropriation, preceded and accompanied migration.

Lorenzo Veracini has theorized a model in which settler colonial states tend to have a “triangular relationship” between settlers, indigenous groups, and “exogenous others.” While settler states often exclude these exogenous groups in various ways, they may also selectively include them over time, allowing them to become, in effect, “probationary settlers.” Precisely because they are imagined as having no prior claim to land, such groups can potentially be incorporated into the settler colonial polity.² For all the discrimination exogenous groups such as Irish and Italians faced, they were always potential settlers.

The Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886. It was the beacon that would greet millions of Eastern European “probationary settlers” in the era of mass immigration at the turn of the century. That same year, the United States Army continued its campaign of conquest in the west, attacking Native Americans and seizing the land that some of those probationary settlers would one day occupy. Immigration was not only the familiar flight from European squalor to the shores of American opportunity. It was invasion; it was opportunity for some and dispossession for others.

As students encounter this framework, they can hopefully begin to understand that it is not the way to understand the history of American immigration, but a way to do so. In the process, the nation of immigrants story is not debunked, but is dislodged from its commonsense status. If I’m lucky, students might get a taste of looking at the same event with two sets of glasses, and have an “Aha!” moment as it dawns on them that both sets of glasses help them see something important about the world.


¹See Patrick Wolfe’s 2001 article, “Land, Labor, and Difference: Elementary Structures of Race,” in the American Historical Review.

²Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).