Grad Research: Jeannette Vaught on teaching the mystique of the cowboy

One of our department’s chief strengths is that it gives advanced graduate students the opportunity to create and teach their own small classes for undergraduates. Today, Ph.D. candidate and instructor-of-record Jeannette Vaught relates a fascinating unit she created for her class, “The Cowboy Mystique in American Culture.”

By presenting science as a central part of cultural history, I show students how scientific inquiry responds to cultural pressures. In the first unit of my “Cowboy Mystique in American Culture” seminar, I paired selections from Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization about Theodore Roosevelt’s constructed sense of masculinity with “Agassiz,” a chapter from Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club detailing battles between various nineteenth century scientific race theories. To offer a concrete example of how race, gender, and science were entangled with politics, in class we analyzed Roosevelt’s use of the term “race suicide” in his own writings. By the end of the class, students understood that Roosevelt’s valorization of manly virility was deeply tied to emergent scientific anxieties about whiteness in the face of immigration and imperialism. Such transformative realizations eventually led the class to question the cultural pressures that shape current scientific debates, and to learn how to approach them from a historical, not polemical, position. In the Unit wrap-up, several students commented that they’d had to “break up” with TR (he’d been their favorite president!) after they’d learned to turn their critical eye towards his identity. The “Roosevelt as Bad Boyfriend” discussion was fun, for sure, but it resounded with students’ developing critical thinking skills.  Music to my ears! 

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