Making history ‘real and relevant’ is Jean-Christophe Agnew’s classroom mission
Events both long ago and recent come alive in Jean-Christophe Agnew’s undergraduate American history classes, so much so that one student described his lectures as “a complex tapestry.” Awarded the 2014 Sidonie Miskimin Clauss ’75 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities, he brings relevance to history beyond the classroom as well, giving undergraduates research and homework assignments that treat them to Yale’s vast art and material culture collections, library holdings, and rare manuscripts.
Courses: “The Formation of Modern American Culture, 1876-1919,” “Making America Modern, 1880-1930,” “Cultural Capital: New York in the 20th Century,” and “American Consumer Culture of the 20th Century”
In his inaugural address, President Peter Salovey described students as one of the “treasures” of Yale. What excites you about teaching Yale undergraduates?
I think the word that first comes to mind is curiosity. If you think about the intellectual energy and curiosity that these students bring to the university and bring to my classroom, it is extraordinary. That is the first thing one notices, for example, in a freshmen seminar. If you then think about that curiosity in relationship to the extraordinary diversity of these students — the regional, the national, the international dimensions of their experience — and you put that curiosity and those experiences together in a classroom, it’s electric for the teacher. It’s as if you have your work set out for you in that moment. It’s really that fierce energy and intellectual curiosity that makes teaching here such an exciting prospect and challenge as well.
Do you learn anything from your students?
I learn an enormous amount from my students — our students — and I learn both inside the classroom and outside the classroom. In the classroom, it is the conversation among the students that first opens up all sorts of possibilities, whether it’s in a text, an image, or a set of historical events that I’m talking with them about. Again, that diversity of experience and interest, when it comes together in the classroom, basically opens up different perspectives on the topic at hand, or text at hand, that I had not thought about before.
One then also learns from the research that they begin to do, and that becomes more and more important as they move along through their own four years here into research papers and finally often into projects of one kind or another. Those have been eye-openers from the very moment that I’ve been here. I have a big pile of these senior theses and junior papers and so forth that I’ve acquired over the years and that are sort of physical evidence of what I’ve learned from that experience.
To that I would add all I’ve learned from them outside of the classroom. The astonishing creativity that so many of these students have — that one has a peek at in the classroom — is on display in all sorts of ways in the kinds of projects they engage in outside the classroom. I just went to a play, a musical that was totally produced, created, and performed by undergraduate students as part of a Theater Studies project, and was just stunned by the talent, creativity, the enormous amount of effort that went into this extraordinary production — and that is part of my learning experience and makes this such a special place as well.
What drew you to teaching, and what do you find rewarding about it?
What drew me to teaching, I think, probably is an experience that many other teachers have had, which is my own teachers. I would first point to a marvelous high school teacher, Florence Bloom, who opened up American history to me in an advanced placement course I took in my senior year and who was in many ways a model for me as I thought about going to college. Then when I was in college another faculty member, Sheldon Hackney, who was a historian of the South — a student of C. Vann Woodward, who was one of extraordinary figures on the Yale faculty for many years — and I think he passed on that inspiration to me when I was an undergraduate. The possibility of that vocation was made real to me by those two teachers.
For several years I taught in public school — fifth grade — and that was certainly a challenge, but it really confirmed for me how high the stakes were in teaching in a way that I hadn’t perceived, and that really sealed the deal for me. That’s how I then decided to go to graduate school and become a university professor. Part of it is, I think, carrying forward a tradition of teaching that has been inspirational to me. Another part of it is the importance that I place on the stakes of history, of making history real and relevant to my students, who are quite ready to see that. But the ways in which that may be seen and appreciated can be multiplied, and that’s part of what happens in the classroom. When that happens, that is extraordinarily satisfying to me. I think the one hope I have for students is that they continue to ask questions themselves. One of the most satisfying aspects of my experience here is focusing that curiosity on the questions of history but also, essentially, of getting students to continue to ask those questions well beyond their time here.
Years after students leave here I often receive emails or messages from former students who tell me that when they saw a particular painting in a museum or a particular historical site or have read a book — something stayed with them from the classroom that was still alive for them. Faulkner is famous for saying, “The past is not dead, it’s never dead, it’s not even past yet,” and I think making that idea real and abiding for students is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of teaching.
What advice would you give a Yale undergraduate about his or her time here?
In thinking about suggesting what students might do here in the four years, it’s hard to think about adding one more item to the very active lives that they lead. One thing that I suggest, and have suggested to students before they leave, is that they spend some time appreciating some of the extraordinary resources there are in our museums here. We have some of the most extraordinary university resources, not just in libraries, but in museums: the Yale Art Gallery, the Yale Center for British Art, the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Those, particularly, in the arts and humanities — the resources of the Beinecke Library in terms of its manuscripts; the Garvan Collection in terms of material culture; the collections in what I think is the major university museum in the United States, which is the Yale Art Gallery — are themselves astonishing. And it is possible, given all the activities that students have, to go through this university without spending serious time in these venues. That should not happen.
I contrive ways in my own courses to move students, through assignments and what have you, into these galleries just to get a glimpse of these resources, but I would love for them to spend more time in them. So that actually is one of the major pieces of advice, not largely philosophical but very practical: Spend a little more time looking at what we have in those museums.