Teaching Hipster History: Ending the Semester on an Ironic Note

Hipster GWConclusions are hard, I find, and no less so in teaching than in writing. Both at the end of a book and at the end of a course, really great endings add a bit of spice—something just new or unexpected enough to cast what’s come before in a different light, something that makes it exciting to reflect back across the material you’ve just learned.

I aim for student-driven discussions, and at semester’s end in previous seminars and discussion sections, I’ve struggled to coax students into producing the final chord that resonates in all registers of a course’s architecture. I’ve had students free-write (and then discuss) to summarize, as succinctly as possible, the change over time they’ve learned about in the course, and I’ve asked students to identify what one idea from the class they hope they’ll remember forty years from now. Both exercises have produced good-enough results. But since they didn’t ask students to see the courses’ material anew in any way, I’ve found myself wanting more.

But my students’ final discussion this semester was so invigorating that I just had to write a blog post about it. At the last meeting of an upper-level undergraduate seminar I titled “Politics and Capitalism in the Early United States,”[1] I began our wrap-up discussion with an observation. We had encountered historical arguments on a diverse array of topics and by a wide range of authors over the course of the semester. But one theme subtly united many of them: irony.

At the beginning of the semester, for example, while discussing some primary sources I shamelessly raided from the footnotes of Michael McDonnell’s The Politics of War, we had talked about how the Virginian experience of mobilizing for a rich men’s war for independence unexpectedly produced a social revolution. Later, we had dwelled on the deep ironies of Jeanne Boydston’s account of women’s work in the early republic—how relegating women’s work to the noneconomic sphere served to make nineteenth-century male wage earners feel political and economic “independence,” even as the very real material value of women’s work licensed capitalists to pay male workers less than a living wage. We had picked through the geopolitical and economic fallout of the Haitian Revolution, and considered the ironic argument that the creation of the world’s first free black republic breathed new life into U.S. plantation slavery. Using documents reproduced in Mel Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox, we had seen how everyday market transactions between whites and free blacks sometimes created the opportunity for cordial relations across the color line in early republic Virginia—but that the security of slavery at large was the only thing that insulated such relationships from posing any threat to white supremacy. In reading the work of Stephen Mihm, we had seen how the anarchy of early republic currency policy culminated in counterfeit counterfeit detectors, a delicious irony if ever there was one. In reading the work of Alexandra Harmon, we had learned that early republic whites projected anxieties about their own market culture onto Native Americans, and twisted those projections into a justification for removal. And by the end of the semester, of course, we were all too primed to engage Seth Rockman’s pointedly ironic book about how some early Americans’ prosperity was built on others’ privation.[2]

All these arguments were couched in an ironic mode; that’s precisely how they pack their punch. So, I asked, what explains the trend? Is irony a mode of historical interpretation specific to our own moment in cultural history and time? Irony is the essence of hipster culture; are we experiencing a hipster moment in American historiography? Alternatively, was the early American republic in fact a uniquely ironic time and place in history—one whose patterns are best explained through irony? Or, even more broadly, is there something fundamentally ironic about history? Are humans essentially ironic creatures?

The students really ran with it. They talked back across the books we’d read and the debates we’d held. They engaged the course’s overarching question of why and how American democracy and American capitalism emerged in tandem. And they also took the conversation much further, into discussions of what makes for a compelling historical argument, into the ethics of historical writing, and even into a conversation about the nature of historical knowledge.

Several students argued that irony is a way to make nuance seem clever as opposed to confusing; it’s a means to address contradictions without reducing their messiness. Another called it “the most sophisticated way of analyzing historical data”—a way to keep making new arguments once historians have pretty well established the “facts.” For some students, this description marked the differences between history and more empirical disciplines, and provided a starting point for looking back over the scholarship we had read and cataloging just how much interpretative work went into each book. A student who’s deeply sensitive to the stakes of historical writing noted that “hipster history” only works for events that happened pretty far in the past; we could not write ironically about 9/11, for instance. I agreed that irony is often a rhetorical act of distancing—or at least an act that’s premised upon distance; but, I asked, should we be distancing ourselves from the early American past enough to be ironic about it? Is that the best way to tell such tragic stories? Another student suggested that irony is mostly a matter of perspective. The classical historians were hardly ironic, he noted, but today we read many of them that way. Likewise, French Revolutionaries unironically emulated ancient Rome, but now we can see they were in fact creating something new. Irony then, he argued, is a product of the fact that ideology and understanding tend to lag behind reality; there’s catharsis in undoing that historical naïveté once we’ve achieved the perspective to see it, and it often ends up reading as irony. Another student disagreed, contending that irony is more specific to our own historical moment. Nobody writes just about the past; historians also write about the present. And perhaps that, he noted, explains the recent prevalence of ironic narratives, more than anything inherent to the periods we study or the act of studying them.

I didn’t entirely buy the premise of my own prompt. After all, the most artful ironic argument in American historiography is American Slavery, American Freedom, and the late Edmund Morgan could hardly be called a hipster. Historians have used irony to make arguments for quite awhile. Likewise, while Jill Lepore, the foremost public intellectual currently working in our field, has produced the most pointed recent examples of history in the ironic mode, the same pieces are oftentimes heartbreakingly earnest. Irony isn’t only about hipster indifference; it can also evoke sympathy. But that all was besides the point of the conversation, which was to end the course by getting my students to see some of our now-familiar material in a new way, in the hopes of making more of it stay with them beyond the end of the semester.


[1] Course subtitle: “Markets and Revolutions from Independence to the Age of Jackson.” Overkill? Maybe.

[2] Michael A. McDonnell, The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Jeanne Boydston, Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); Melvin P. Ely, Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War (New York: Knopf, 2004); Stephen Mihm, A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007); Alexandra Harmon, Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

16 responses

    • Sure, Andrew–hence my reservations about the prompt’s premise. But I think that good classroom discussions often need to start with a moment of feigned ignorance and/or ambivalence on the part of the instructor, in order to open up space for students to flex their own ideas. It was less important to me that my students know what Hayden White has written than that they, themselves, got to ask and debate questions like some of the ones that drove *Metahistory,* etc.

      • I, for one, never understood what Jim Croce had to do with the emergence of liberalism. I guess it was just a bad reading of “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown.”

        • And strangely enough, Gordon Wood’s work is all ironic, and can be summarized thusly: (elite) Americans wanted a republic, and got stuck with a democracy. That said, I wonder about Jim Croce and the reading of “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown.” Would not “Working at the Car Wash Blues” really be the ur-text of liberal resurgence?

  1. That’s a great idea, Michael, as a way to prompt the ever-difficult “big picture discussion,” and especially in the Revolution and Early Republic.

    I’m teaching an Atlantic economic history course this semester, and last week a few of the students started to challenge the premise of the whole course. (Is there an Atlantic world? Does economic history matter?) So as a final week discussion, we’re re-writing the syllabus to empower them to make decisions about how to frame those questions, as well as cover topics that didn’t get enough air time. Tomorrow’s the hard part, where we have to figure out what to cut to make room.

    • What a great exercise, Joe–sounds like a blast, and super productive for you, too. I’ll have to stick that one in my back pocket 🙂 Also sounds like you have some stellar students!

  2. Little known fact: I wrote most of Scraping By while wearing a trucker’s hat, drinking from a mason jar, and listening to Alanis Morrisette for inspiration.

    • My students will be thrilled to learn that you’ve confirmed our suspicions, Prof. Rockman. Would that we had known earlier; the seminar could have invited you out to discuss the book over PBR ironic Capri Suns.

  3. If history, done professionally, is about poking holes in the way we think things ought to have happened in order to find out how they actually happened, then I think irony is an essential tool to analyze the past. You have to be prepared to identify and reflect on unintended consequences, and what it means for understanding of both the past and the present when we know events don’t usually play out as intended. I’m very taken with this approach, Michael, and like others here will probably have to borrow it myself to see if it changes how my students reflect on the historical material they have read.

    That said, like you, I don’t totally buy your premise either, and not simply because you were being cute with your students when proposing that we are all hipster historians now. I think there’s something to the idea that history can be tied together with reference to a universal human experience like irony, but I would wager it’s not exclusive to it. It depends on how one structures their syllabus, however, and whether the necessary readings exist to sustain this point, but I reckon one could concievably tie together a course by reflecting on the role of anger, fear, lust, hope, despair, and a whole host of other human reactions in driving historical change. I think historians are doing this, even as their primary reaction to a lot of the history they write is to ironically reflect on just how different things are from what we thought they were as recently as a decade ago. Maybe in the 1970s, historians would have angrily relfected on this (I’m struggling to think of an example of a historian lustily reflecting on history, but can think of a few doing so hopefully, despairingly, and even one scholar reflecting fearfully). So maybe it is the moment that Early American historians are in, when a whole host of new comparative approaches are forcing us, with chagrin, to revise things it turns out weren’t as certain as we thought they were.

    • All great points, Craig–thanks so much for weighing in. I really like your list of other “modes” that could be used to tie together a course’s material, and will be thinking about them the next time I sit down to plot out a syllabus. I wonder what it would be like to have an analogous end-of-semester discussion about hope–or if it’s even possible to do so without being pollyannaish. Something to aspire to. Thanks again!

      (I should mention, incidentally, that I think this approach is particularly well-suited for and important to readings seminars, where the end of the semester really requires a moment that crystallizes spottier coverage, in a way that chronological lecture courses don’t.)

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