American Culture Program Moves Students to Think

Perpetual Motion: Americans on the Go covers movement of ideas in America.

Ellen Hostetter
"The whole point of the American Culture Program is getting students to understand America and to give them context for understanding what is going on around them."
- Ellen Hostetter, 2009-2010 Helen and Agnes Ainsworth Visiting Professor of American Culture

Cynthia Leonard ’10 entered the American Culture Program thinking she would be learning about transportation issues. Little did she know that a lettuce plant would have the biggest impact on her thinking.

With a 2010 theme of “Perpetual Motion: Americans on the Go,” the spring American Culture Program explored movement and mobility in America. “I was thinking roads and cars and maybe moving products,” Leonard said. “I had no idea that movement was so broadly defined, that it could include the movement of ideas.”

American Culture’s interdisciplinary approach uses classroom discussions, guest speakers, readings, and trips to immerse students in a general topic from a variety of perspectives.

“The whole point of the American Culture Program is getting students to understand America and to give them context for understanding what is going on around them,” said Ellen Hostetter, the 2009–2010 Helen and Agnes Ainsworth Visiting Professor of American Culture. “We take a general theme and look at it from every angle possible.”

During the spring, students studied everything from transportation and suburbanization to gay and civil rights to the growing sustainable food movement. The idea was to look at major cultural, social, and literal movements in American history.

The program’s design “brings the material to life,” said Gerry Sherayko, history professor and American Culture faculty member. “You read the books. You hear the speakers, and then you go to the sites. This is experiential learning at its best.”

Students traveled to sites in Virginia as well as Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, and New Jersey. Each trip focused on a different movement in American history. They studied jazz in Harlem, talked with the first female mayor of a New Jersey town, learned about the civil rights movement, and talked with participants in the Stonewall Riots. They traveled to Ellis Island and toured the Museum of Modern Art.

“There is a different perspective to every facet of American history,” Leonard said. “They don’t teach this in high school. You might study the civil rights movement, but you don’t study the people who sparked it. You don’t study the harsh realities. Going through and critically examining it from every angle makes you understand it so much more. You learn the actual moment, the other people’s points of view, their history, and their version of the American dream. You take away from it that other people see things differently from you, and this is why.”

During one trip, students visited the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, where nearly 150 workers were killed in 1911. The tragedy led to improved working conditions for millions of Americans.

Julio Rodriguez and Will Berke

“It gives it meaning for students,” Sherayko said. “America changed for the better out of a terrible tragedy. It is a powerful thing to be there and see that after reading about it.”

On a tour of highways in Pennsylvania, the group talked with engineers and other transportation experts about the evolution of highways and the differences between roads like the Lincoln Highway and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway in the United States, was designed to encourage travelers to stop at towns along its route. In comparison, the Pennsylvania Turnpike was designed to get travelers to their destinations as quickly as possible.

“The students were able to ride on those highways and think about what they had learned,” Sherayko said. “They were able to get a feel for how different things are now and what that has done to the American psyche.”

The program’s approach provides students with hands-on knowledge of what they are studying.

“It was hard at first, but it pays off when you start seeing things from so many different perspectives,” said Jane Campbell ’12. “You read about things. You listen to speakers. You look at images. You go on trips where you can see the places where these major events happened and experience them with your professors. You are not just being lectured. It makes it more real and much more interesting.”

Faculty members in the program try to incorporate alumnae as much as possible. This year, students were taken on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Nemours Mansion and Gardens in Delaware by Grace Gary ’76, who serves as the executive director. They also met with Lynn Kehoe Rollins ’64, who talked about her role as senior advisor for women’s issues for George E. Pataki, the former governor of New York.

“This program made me think more critically,” Campbell said. “It made me think about the country in a different way.”

A favorite trip for many of the students was to visit Margaret Krome-Lukens ’07, who is assistant director of the Pickard Mountain Eco Institute in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Students met people involved in the local food movement and were able to spend time working on the farm with Krome-Lukens.

The discussions about sustainable food included a visit on campus from the market manager of Lynchburg’s Community Market and discussions about waste, American consumption, and the growing movement toward purchasing more local food.

After the session on food, Leonard went out immediately and bought a lettuce plant. Today, she harvests leaves from the plant daily.

“I see so many things from a completely different angle now,” Leonard said. “Take my lettuce plant. If everyone had their own plant, it would make a huge impact. That applies to everything in the American Culture Program: the movements, the civil rights, the transportation, the prison movement, the gay rights movement. All of them started with individual people. Enough people started paying attention, and eventually American thought changed.

“Having that lettuce plant is a constant reminder to me of what I learned in American Culture,” she added. “It’s something I can do. It’s a way I can play a part.”