Hamilton and the Bibliographical Revolution in the Classroom

By Caitlin Kelly

Over the past few years, I have developed an undergraduate seminar that explores the intersection of art and history in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical. (See assignment prompt here.) The seminar is a first-semester course in my institution’s general education curriculum that serves as students’ introduction to academic writing and research. A challenge for these students is their lack of knowledge of the early American period, and while they are generally familiar with the American Revolution, what they do know is sometimes inaccurate, or too limited to catch all of Miranda’s references. To address those limitations, students must acquire new skills: namely, learning to read academic research deeply and closely. To help students practice this kind of reading and see the value in it, I turned to the bibliographies compiled by Age of Revolutions.

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Self-directed reading from the bibliographies allows students to place the story Hamilton tells within its historical context, to parse fact from fiction, and to understand why historians are interested in the musical. Students report what they learn in an essay called an “exploratory bibliography” that is part literature review and part reflection. To begin, students choose a broad topic such as women’s roles in early America or the Atlantic slave trade. Then, they identify three articles or books from the Age of Revolutions bibliographies and find them in our library. As they read, students mine the citations of the works they have chosen to identify two additional articles or chapters to read. The project then concludes with an essay of five to seven pages in which students write about their reading experience, sharing what they learned, what questions and interests were raised in the process, what they would like to learn more about, and the connections they discovered. This approach is designed to focus students on the intellectual work of reading, and it responds to William Zeiger’s argument that thesis-driven research papers send the message to our students that “the ability to support an assertion is more important than the ability to examine an issue.”[1] Designing an assignment around the Age of Revolutions bibliographies like this helps me to communicate to students how important it is to take time to read widely and closely.

Take for example women’s roles during the revolution, which is a popular focus among students after listening to Miranda’s girl-power anthem “The Schuyler Sisters.” In the song, Angelica Schuyler sings that she’s “been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine” and that when she meets Thomas Jefferson she will “compel him to include women in the sequel.” Scholars of the period understand that Miranda is taking liberties here. Students, however, are often surprised to learn about women like Judith Sargent Murray alongside learning about the legal doctrine of coverture. This knowledge makes it possible for them to see where Miranda is grounding his representation of women in historical facts that may surprise many, while taking artistic liberties that remind us that the ideals of the founding generation were not fully realized in the Constitution.

Over five weeks, I guide students through the project by breaking it down into manageable tasks, providing frequent opportunities for feedback, and modeling strategies for reading academic texts. Once students have procured their books and articles, I give them a week to begin reading. At this point, we discuss the structure of academic arguments using a common text as an example, usually from Historians on Hamilton (which includes essays by scholars also represented in the Age of Revolutions bibliographies).[2] We identify the writer’s argument and objectives, locate their evidence and examine their use of it, and talk about what questions the essay raises for us. These new skills are reinforced with frequent feedback in class over the next week. For example, I ask students to submit a short paragraph about one of the chapters or essays they are reading, and then I give them feedback on their work, choosing a few examples to provide live feedback on in class. Another activity that works well is asking students to give 2-minute oral commentaries on an article or chapter.

The Age of Revolutions bibliographies serve as a sandbox where students can explore an unfamiliar discipline, and their self-directed reading models how to conduct research as experienced scholars do. When undergraduates are left to find their own sources for research projects, they often struggle because they do not know how to navigate databases and catalogs or what search terms to use, and they have difficulty discerning the differences in the materials they find. By working from bibliographies, students know that the information that they are reading meets academic standards. As John Bean notes in Engaging Ideas, students are also often intimidated by the “time-on-task” required by the kind of reading we ask them to do, and the bibliographies can eliminate that worry.[3] And, of course, in our work, we seek out the suggestions of experts in the field first, including consulting resources like the Age of Revolutions bibliographies. The bibliographies then make it easy for faculty—regardless of their area of expertise—to provide a direct link to the experts on revolution in the Atlantic World and beyond. Doing that also helps students to join the scholarly conversation, which is beneficial because “difficulty seeing themselves in conversation with the author” is another one of the barriers students often face in reading.[4]  Students also begin to recognize good academic research when they see it.[5] As experienced researchers know, it takes time to acquire enough knowledge of a field to be able to participate in disciplinary debates. Using bibliographies can reconstruct a small part of the conversation, and that helps students quickly build familiarity in a new field. In sum, these bibliographies eliminate for students a lot of the barriers and uncertainties of the typical research project.

Later in my course, the students turn to many of the authors, journals, and publishers that they were introduced to through the bibliographies; and, when they do write thesis-driven papers and give presentations in the final weeks of the course, the students demonstrate a level of expertise and confidence that I rarely see in first-year students’ work. For example, students cite articles from field-specific journals like The William & Mary Quarterly and foundational monographs like Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic. Before I began integrating the Age of Revolutions bibliographies into my course, I had never had first-year students in general education courses engage with (or even find) these kinds of sources on their own; while I am always happy to recommend journals and books to students, many students are too shy to ask for suggestions or do not realize they need help until it is too late. Integrating the bibliographies into my assignment design has ensured that students like these who might not ask for help have a resource for identifying the best research in the field.

 In addition to the women’s issues that I noted earlier, students frequently use the Age of Revolutions bibliographies to explore topics such as the development of political parties and government institutions, the contributions of marginalized populations to the founding, and the economic forces that shaped the fight for independence and the Constitution. For many students, perhaps inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s claim that Hamilton is “a story about America then, told by America now,” their interest in these topics comes out of a desire to better understand where we are today.[6] Wondering how we came to be so divided, students find through their research that we always were. Students trying to make sense of the Trump presidency’s departure from longstanding norms come to find that those norms were established by George Washington himself. Prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement, many students go in search of people of color in the history of early America. When they come back to Hamilton, these students better understand the impact of Miranda’s choices to frame debates between the cabinet members as rap battles and to quote Washington’s Farewell Address in “One Last Time.” “And, instead of chalking up the absence of historical people of color in Hamilton (aside from the fleeting appearance of Sally Hemings in “What Did I Miss”) to time limitations, students are more willing to engage with critiques of the musical’s treatment of race and slavery.

All in all, the Age of Revolutions bibliographies have proven to be an invaluable resource for my first-semester students and for myself. The bibliographies help students learn to read and use academic research, and since I have begun to integrate the bibliographies into my course, I have seen remarkable progress in my students’ abilities to choose quality sources for their papers and apply what they have learned to their evaluations of Hamilton. Students also frequently comment that what they learn through their self-directed reading using the bibliographies is far different than what they learned reading textbooks in high school. That kind of comment suggests something important: that when students start with an open-access, peer-reviewed online publication that foregrounds timely, readable, and rigorous scholarship, they can see a place for themselves in the conversation and in the academy.


Caitlin Kelly is a Lecturer in the English Department at Case Western Reserve University where she teaches in the SAGES program. Her current project examines Leonora Sansay’s Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo, and she frequently speaks and writes about approaches to teaching 18th-century British and early American literature and culture. Follow her on Twitter @CaitlinLeeKelly.

Title image: Image from Hamilton playbill. 

Appendix 1: Click here to view Caitlin Kelly’s “Exploratory Bibliography Project” Assignment Prompt

Endnotes:

[1] William Zeiger, “The Exploratory Essay: Enfranchising the Spirit of Inquiry in College Composition,” College English 47.5 (1985): 458.

[2] Renee C. Romano, and Claire Bond Potter. Historians on Hamilton: How A Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s Past. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018.

[3] John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011, 163.

[4] Ibid., 165.

[5] Ibid., 164.

[6] Edward Delman, “How Lin-Manuel Miranda Shapes History,” The Atlantic, September 29, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/09/lin-manuel-miranda-hamilton/408019/.

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