Teaching Hub

“On the Road” with Jeff Melton

Instructor: Jeff Melton
Course: On the Road (AMS 412)
Audience: Undergraduates

Jeff Melton

Part cultural history, part literature/film survey, “On the Road” examines the enduring narrative that emerges when Americans take to the open road behind the wheel of a car. Car culture is arguably the most definitive characteristic of late-20th century American social structure, and the cultural productions that emerge from it reveal the culture at large like no other component.

What are your goals for this course?  

My overall objective is to draw students into the material and encourage them to recognize the complex historical contexts for those works, while also making connections between them and over time. Students must demonstrate a capacity to appraise literary and cinematic statements of American open-road culture, comprehend the complex interactions deriving from and informing road culture, explain connections between its historical and social components.

What are your favorite teaching strategies in this class?

The course depends on class discussions wherein students analyze particular works of art, music, literature, and film that demonstrate facets of road culture. A regular strategy for the class is to have them work in small groups. Group work is standard and carries with it many frustrations. Students in Jeff Melton's classStudents do not enter any group activity with the same levels of curiosity, preparation, and work ethic. I demand that they negotiate such relationships with some regularity, nonetheless.

Students also perform short impromptu oral reports, as well as more extensive oral presentations, but all are based on primary texts (literature and popular culture documents, such as car ads and travel posters), road music, and film scenes. I remain committed to such exercises.

Even if students struggle to grasp or explain a major interpretative idea, the fact that they initiated the discussion is worthwhile. I can then help them work through the idea. I believe this process makes the class more dynamic.

What teaching challenges does this course present?

The ethos of the course carries with it an inherent contradiction: I ask them to celebrate the open road while trapping them in a classroom. Shouldn’t they just go?

Another challenge is to find some balance between asking students to consider an array of road experiences on an intellectual level and also to place themselves in the novels, songs, films, etc. emotionally. If they are forced to think about the open road while sitting in the classroom, they can at least imagine their own journeys. I hope the material makes them want to go.

What are your solutions?

There is no solution. I acknowledge up front the contradictions inherent in the course, and we use them as starting points. We encounter course material in reference to their own expectations regarding “road trips.” I think this helps them care about the experiences of the travelers they encounter.

What else do you want your students to leave your course knowing?

I want them to know which roads lead out of town! I am only partly joking here. I want them to be fully aware of the open road as a cultural idea and aspiration and to place themselves within that ever-evolving narrative.

I also want them to know how intertwined it is with the history of the United States. The theoretical basis for the nation provides, in myriad ways, the encouragement and the framework for individuals to pursue happiness. I want them to know that story and to come up with their own versions, on their own roads.

Melton is an associate professor and the director of undergraduate studies in the Department of American Studies.