American Idol: Searching for a Superstar

This is an investigation into the meaning of America.

Officially, this three credit course is called Experiments in American Political Thought. Informally, it is known as American Idol: Searching for a Superstar. Whatever the handle, the course is a historical survey of American political thought from the founding to the present. And, as the hefty seven page syllabus points out, students will be presented with more than twelve political thinkers—ranging from the Puritans to Tony Kushner, from Horatio Alger to Malcolm X.

It is the kind of reference to American Idol competition that is made for the Simon’s Rock campus, and social science faculty member Asma Abbas knows it. “American Idol and its nods to the notions of popular cellular democracy and public opinion seemed to be a perfect space to interact with democratic and American notions,” Abbas says.american-idol-pullquote

Originally a citizen of Pakistan, Abbas’s inquiry and interest in American history and politics is less experiential than it is scholarly—and it affects the way she approaches teaching this course. “In this class, more than in any other course I teach, I will often defer to my students,” Abbas explains. “I do not enter the class as an expert, because there is something about the students own experience of America and Americanness that is crucial. I want to honor that.”

The classroom dynamic is typical of the kind of thing that is abundant at Simon’s Rock: engaged, fiercely intellectual discussion. Abbas does not lecture, she asks questions—over and over again—that inspire deep, critical thinking. They are the kind of questions that instigate widely different interpretations of text and history. So when the class discusses Ben Franklin's autobiography, Abbas’s questions begin conversations that dig not only into Ben Franklin the man, but also Ben Franklin the legend. Ben Franklin the autobiographer. Ben Franklin, American Idol?

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