First-Year Seminar: The American West: History & Myth

Applying to a first-year seminar? Hist & Lit lecturers are offering some great ones! We talked to Chris Clements about his class, “The American West: History & Myth,” the Oregon Trail, and his cowboy fashion of choice.

What inspired you to teach this class?

I have a lot of experience teaching courses on Native American history and Indigenous Studies. I’m also a US historian in a much broader sense. The West, as both a real place and a set of ideas, is everywhere in these fields! When I was offered a chance to teach a First Year Seminar, I figured it would be a great opportunity to think in big ways about the relationship between US and Indigenous histories in this country. And, it’d give me an opportunity to think through a classic American Studies question: What is America? The American West, I think, makes up a significant portion of the answer. It’s a concept that’s never been fixed. As a geographic region, the West once meant anything west of the Appalachian Mountains. At another time, it meant anything west of the Mississippi River. That being said, to this day, the country’s longest running, weekly rodeo takes place in…New Jersey. What’s up with that? The West is simultaneously a material place and a cultural blank canvas, occupied territory and Indigenous homelands, a land of opportunity and a land that has seen brutal conflicts over basic resources like water. How can this be? We probably won’t find a neat answer to that question in the class, but I hope we’ll all walk away with a better understanding of how and why the West has come to feel so quintessentially American.

What’s something you’re excited to share with students?

I am most excited to play the original Oregon Trail computer game collectively as a class. Will we survive the journey? Only time will tell. Should we ford the river? We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Will we learn to think in exciting and inventive ways about how a computer game can be a critical text worthy of academic study? You betcha.

What’s something surprising students might not know about this topic?

We’ll spend a considerable chunk of time thinking about the genre of “The Western,” which, I think, people usually associate with a certain kind of cinematic tradition. But, what do we make of the 1968 Star Trek (The Original Series) episode that imagines a wild west on another planet? Or, Lil Nas X, who teamed up with a country icon to produce a genre mash-up that clearly spoke to the masses? What I think students might find surprising about these texts is that they reveal the West to be everywhere in popular culture, even where we might least expect to find it.

What can your class help us better understand about the present?

Perhaps more than any other big idea in American history, the West has been a site for perpetual mythmaking. In an era of extraordinarily visible forms of political struggle and battles over how we interpret history, the present, and the future, I think studying the West will help us to understand the subtle ways that individuals can adopt myths or engage in mythmaking to accumulate social and political power. Do you want to know more about state violence, about race and racialization, about gender norms, about America’s fascination with individualism and suspicion toward communalism? All roads lead quite quickly to some aspect of the historical and mythical West.

What advice do you have for a first-year student?

Be confident! Be vulnerable! The best way to learn is to accept that there are many things you (and every single one of your classmates) simply don’t know. The sooner you can embrace and own that learning is an ongoing process, the sooner you can free yourself from the impossible burden of trying to know everything. In other words, don’t be afraid to ask questions, to boldly express your confusion, and to see your fellow students as collaborators and allies in class.

If you had to teach in a cowboy hat or cowboy boots all semester, which would you choose?

Bejeweled cowboy boots. Obviously.

For more information, you can email Chris, and apply here.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

%d bloggers like this: