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Christopher Dixon on Teaching American History in Australia

DixonChristopher Dixon is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Queensland. He completed his BA (Honors) and Masters (Research) degrees at the University of Western Australia, and a PhD at the University of New South Wales. His publications include Perfecting the Family: Antislavery Marriages in Nineteenth-century America (University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), African America and Haiti: Emigration and Black Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century (Greenwood Press, 2000), and in collaboration with Sean Brawley, a number of works on the Pacific War, including Hollywood’s South Seas and the Pacific War: Searching for Dorothy Lamour (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). He is currently writing a history of African Americans in the Pacific War. He has served as President of the Australian and New Zealand American Studies Association and as President of the International Society for Cultural History. He is also an International Contributing Editor for the Journal of American History.

What led you to become interested in American history and your field of expertise?

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the United States seemed to always be in the news—the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, Apollo 11, Watergate—and, of course, American culture became increasingly influential. For my parents’ generation, whose views were shaped by what appeared to be the dominant power of the United States during World War II, the United States seemed almost omnipotent; for those of us born at the end of the Baby Boom, American power and the principles underpinning the exercise of that power were less certain. By the time I started university, the United States loomed large on my radar. At the University of Western Australia, American history was not a major part of the curriculum. European and Australian History were heavily represented, with a smattering of offerings on Asia. The two lecturers who taught U.S. history had come to it indirectly: Anthony (Tony) Barker had started his scholarly life as a historian of race and slavery in the British Empire, while the late Frank Broeze was a maritime historian, whose academic reach was as broad as it was deep. Most importantly for me, both were outstanding teachers as well as first-rate scholars. From my second year as an undergraduate, one way or another, my intellectual gaze was directed toward the United States.

What challenges do you face studying American history abroad?

We have a lively American Studies community here in the Antipodes, under the auspices of the Australian and New Zealand American Studies Association (ANZASA). Established over 50 years ago, ANZASA is a vital part of our scholarly and, at our biennial conferences, our social lives.  Nonetheless, significant challenges remain in studying American history from this distance. Of course, the Internet and the digitization of many primary sources make a huge difference for us in conducting research. Air travel is significantly cheaper now than even a couple of decades ago. But that 14-hour flight across the Pacific—usually followed by a flight on to Washington or New York, wherever the relevant archives are located or conference is being held—takes a toll.

In what ways does living outside of the U.S. lend you a perspective on American history that is perhaps different from historians who live and work in the U.S.?
One of the persistent themes in Australian political and cultural life is that we’re becoming “Americanized.” While that phrase—almost always pejorative—is commonplace around the world (and is far too often used and understood uncritically), I suspect it has a particular resonance in Australia, since we’re both settler societies, with liberal-democratic political traditions, and unresolved issues relating to race relations. Of course, as soon as you start interrogating any of those similarities, you’re struck immediately by the profound differences between the two societies. A few years ago, a taxi driver in Austin, Texas, told me that “Americans are just like Australians.” When I asked her about the high level of gun ownership in the United States, she sought to reassure me: “Don’t worry, ’round here just about everyone’s got their own gun.” Only a minority of Australians would be reassured by such a statement, but we don’t have a lobby group analogous to the NRA, and significant gun control measures were enacted—with relatively little objection—during the 1990s. What does all this mean?  In both teaching and research, while the common language as well as deep cultural and political connections provide entrees for Australians to understand the United States, we always do so from the perspective of an outsider, albeit a slightly familiar outsider.

From my own perspective, that’s always been an advantage, enabling me to see many of the questions that intrigue me about the United States—particularly those pertaining to race relations—in a wider, what we might call transnational perspective. My second book, looking at African Americans and Haiti during the era of the Civil War, and my current project, a history of African Americans in the Pacific War, have certainly grown out of and benefited from that transnational lens. In this regard I’m certainly not alone among the American Studies community here in Australia: Ian Tyrrell, in particular, has been instrumental in opening up U.S. history and historiography to a less parochial, and more international, transnational approach.

How do you approach teaching American history in your country? (For example, if you teach a U.S. survey course, do you teach a coverage model, or do you discuss certain themes?) 

In teaching U.S. history—domestic, as well as foreign policy—my courses seek to address the disjunction between American rhetoric and the realities of American power, whether that be in terms of foreign policy, race relations, or whatever provokes students’ curiosity.  My course on post–World War II America centers on American international power (during and after the Cold War), Civil Rights, and the challenges to the political system (particularly McCarthyism and Watergate). Throughout the course, we’re also alert to the profound cultural and social transformations that have taken place in the United States since 1945.

Are there patterns in the ways your students react to American history? What kinds of core assumptions do you encounter among your students? 

Many of our students imagine they’re familiar with the United States. Indeed, many have traveled there, and they’ve all “seen the movie.” To generalize, a clear majority of students like Americans. They’re far more ambivalent, however, about the United States. Their views are shaped as much by culture as by politics. They appreciate Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and the Sopranos, and some even agree with me when I try to persuade them that Bob Dylan is the single most important cultural figure since World War II. But many also recognize, and don’t hesitate to criticize, the less worthy aspects of American culture. Just as significantly, I’m always impressed by students’ deep curiosity and by their determination to interrogate and deconstruct the myths that are so fundamental to American history.

In part, then, my role as a teacher is to give my students the tools to conduct that interrogation and deconstruction—and ensure that their views of the United States are informed views. Sometimes, of course, students’ assumptions are ill-informed and difficult to budge; more typically, however, students are curious and willing to explore and test their preconceptions. By the end of semester, fewer are willing to begin sentences with generalized assertions about “The Americans… ” After all, there are 320 million of them.

What courses do you regularly teach to undergraduates? Do you teach graduate students? If you do, what graduate courses do you teach? If you teach both groups of students, does your approach change? If so, how?

I teach two undergraduate courses on U.S. history, “Anatomy of a Superpower: The United States Since 1945” and “American History through Film,” as well as a course on the Vietnam War, which includes a considerable amount of U.S. history. These are among our most popular undergraduate offerings, which reflect a common pattern at those Australian universities where U.S. history subjects are offered.

Our Masters and PhD students do not complete coursework; their program is based around their dissertation. I’m currently supervising eight graduate students writing theses on American history topics, ranging from a study of patterns of learning and innovation in colonial Virginia to Clinton’s foreign policy.

What are the most challenging topics in American history for you to address to students in your country?

It’s probably the same for students in the United States, but the students I’ve taught here in Australia seem to find Progressivism a challenge, perhaps because of its imprecision, perhaps because of its contradictions, or perhaps because its legacies were so ambiguous.