Professor Kathleen Donegan wins American Cultures Innovation in Teaching Award

The English Department is delighted to announce that Professor Kathleen Donegan is this year’s recipient of the American Cultures Innovation in Teaching Award. This campus-wide award, given by the American Cultures Center, “recognizes the use of pedagogical developments to enhance the students’ learning experience in the American Cultures classroom.” Professor Donegan was awarded this distinction for the ENGL 166AC course she taught this past Fall, “Race and Revision in Early America.”  Professor Donegan is the latest in a recent string of faculty teaching awards: Professor Scott Saul won the same award last year, while Professor Mitch Breitwieser was the recipient of last year’s Distinguished Teaching Award.

An expert in early-American (pre-1800) literature and culture, Professor Donegan began designing her course, which satisfies the American Cultures requirement every Berkeley undergraduate must fulfill, by asking how she could bring more – and more diverse – students into a consideration of our country’s “narrative of origins.”  For her, it was a chance to nuance and enrich her students’ understanding of the early cultural history of the United States.  She observed that most students consider early American culture to be “all Puritans and sermons,” but the reality is actually much more complex and much more relevant to an understanding of what it means to live in America today.

To accomplish this task, she organized the course around four sites of early-American racial formation that would be relatively familiar to her students: landfall on a deserted island, the founding of Jamestown, the Salem Witch Trials, and Thomas Jefferson and the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Each site raised certain themes that echo through the annals of American history in various revisionary forms (hence the title of the course: “Race and Revision”).  For instance, her discussion of the Salem Witch Trials in 17th-century Massachusetts focused on the intimate connection between the trials and the war which the Americans were simultaneously fighting with the Abanaki Indians.  The majority of the afflicted women were refugees from the war who had witnessed the death and destruction attendant to such conflicts.  The stories the women told – of, for example, meeting a dark man in the forest – are what we might now recognize as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, imaginative repetitions of events too disturbing for the psyche to process fully.  From these narratives, however, spun out the myths of the dark magic of the savage inhabitants of the American wilderness, a theme which she developed and “revised” in discussions of the rumors of “magic” surrounding black women from Barbados in the 18th century slave-trade to the conjure tales of the 19th century and all the way up to the performances of Nina Simone and their parody of ideas about enchantment and black sexuality in the 20th.

Drawing these kinds of connections across disparate historical periods was a challenging task for her students.  To give her students a guiding framework, however, Professor Donegan began the course with Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy.  This treatment of race in 17th century America by perhaps the greatest contemporary American author “steadied” the students in their attempt to consider the ways in which early-American formations of race are relevant beyond their specific historical moment.  The characters in the novel served as touchpoints throughout the semester that organized the large analogies Donegan was asking the students to draw across the various materials.

What Donegan found particularly satisfying about teaching the course was the way in which it opened her students’ eyes to the fascinating world of pre-Revolutionary America, a period which many students consider themselves to have “mastered” long ago.  The relative scarcity of what we might think of traditional “literary” texts pushed Donegan into a mode of radical interdisciplinarity that allowed her to bring all sorts of different historical materials into the discussion: songs, legal documents, court testimony, petitions and speeches took their place next to novels and poems in a way that broadened the students ideas about how to understand a moment in cultural history.  Professor Donegan described feelings of great excitement when a student quipped to her that, after one lecture, she had to call her mother to see if she was aware that the “standard” historical account of early American was, in fact, far from accurate.  The students, in fact, were so taken with the material that they requested discussion sections – which the GSI Katie Simon was more than happy to run.  When not one final exam discussed race and early-American history in stereotypical, polarized and static ways, Professor Donegan knew the course had been a success.

Please join the Department in congratulating Professor Donegan on her award.  The eye-opening intellectual experience she gave her students certainly is deserving of such an honor.