What do you get when you ask an English professor to teach alongside a history professor? You get AMST 201: the Civil War and Memory, co-taught by associate professor of English Alice Rutkowski and associate professor of history Justin Behrend. The word “memory” immediately catches the eye of those who read the course title. “We chose memory as a way to approach it from each of our disciplines and provide insights,” Behrend explained. “Memory is elusive. It’s not just history, it’s not just literature; it’s an odd blending of both.”
“The idea is not so much that we’re studying what happened during the war itself, but primarily how we remember the war as Americans,” Rutkowski said.
Since this class is not just based on textbook facts about the Civil War, the course uses many sources such as movies and novels. One of the films the class watches is the classic Gone with the Wind. Rutkowski and Behrend plan to use this movie to show the major misrepresentations that this movie perpetuates.
Behrend said that he wants to address thought-provoking questions to the class. “Why do people latch onto [Gone with the Wind] as their memory of the Civil War? What does it mean for this to be the framework for understanding the Civil War?” Behrend said.
As well as literature discussed in class, the professors also want students to be able to use this film to be able to understand the implications these sources have because of popularity.
Besides this film, the class also watches sections of Birth of a Nation and Glory. As a final project this year, the class also gets to compare one of the films watched in class to more modern films interpreting the Civil War era, including Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave and Lincoln.
The class also utilizes literature ranging from the modern-day text The March by E.L. Doctorow to the antiquated novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, which celebrates the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. In using both these novels, the class is able to see a range of views on this historical event.
The variety of perspectives helps the class because the course looks at the Civil War over a 150-year period, ranging from the end of the war to present day. “It’s a good opportunity to bring up how the past is present in the present,” Rutkowski said. In looking at this event over many decades, the class is able to understand how society’s memories have been altered.
“[Memory is] a lens to understand the moment, there is no authentic past waiting to be captured and brought back to us today; it’s always an interpretation,” Behrend said.
This is the third time Behrend and Rutkowski have taught this class together. The class is held on Mondays and Wednesdays in Milne Library.