Tag Archives: history

Hamilton (the musical) has a Genius (the website) Problem

If you follow me on Twitter or have read my post over at Pedagogy and American Literary Studies, then you likely know I’ll be incorporating Hamilton: An American Musical in one of my classes this coming semester.

In other words, “if ya don’t know, now ya know.”

In my class I’ll be approaching Hamilton by pairing it with several excellent of examples of public writing written by historians and cultural critics. Additionally, I plan on pairing Hamilton with several online exhibitions from various museums and libraries.

However, I’m on the fence about using the annotations for Hamilton provided by the website, Genius.


Genius is a crowd-sourced and web-based platform that allows users to annotate the lyrics of songs. Genius originally began as a way to annotate the lyrics of rap music, but has since expanded to a variety of other texts, including Hamilton. On the surface, Genius is cool. It allows for crowdsourced knowledge that can be enhanced with links, images, and gifs. It allows for annotations and comments from users. Many works, like Hamilton, can be linked with YouTube or platforms like Spotify that allow for a multimedia experience that echoes the format of VH1’s Pop-Up Video. On first pass, it is a dizzying array of resources presented in a fresh and exiting way. As other people have noted the applications for the classroom are apparent.

check chernow

However, Genius has an authority problem that centers on a veneration of Lin-Manuel Miranda and the musical’s major source material, Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton. The community of editors on Genius makes the veneration of both Chernow and Miranda clear in the instructions and advice to new annotators of Hamilton. One of the editors’ stated goals involves Miranda verifying annotations. Another piece of advice extols users to #CheckInWithChernow. Andrew M. Schocket addresses the problems with the history detailed by Chernow, especially in light of the biography’s resurgence in the wake of the musical’s success. And Schocket isn’t alone. William Hogeland, on Twitter and his blog, has critqued the problem of the musical and its main source material. As a teaching tool, the issues with Genius and Hamilton result in a thorny intertext that requires spending extensive time working through issues of the practice of history as a field, dealing with source evaluation, or exposing students to issues of authority.

First year students often have difficulty navigating issues of authority when it comes to evaluating sources. The difficulty of students becoming critical readers and thinkers, especially in their first semester, is one reason that I find myself pondering the authority problem of Hamilton and the Genius annotations. Chernow’s biography has many of the hallmarks that students see as a “good source”: it is big, it has notes, and it has a bibliography. Or, as the Grumpy Historian, pointed out on Twitter, Chernow’s biography is an example of “How biography (and primary sources, and footnotes) can hide #BadHistory.”

I am wavering on my class using the Genius annotations for Hamilton. It is an extensive source that could be used in powerful ways to discuss authority and source evaluation. I’m using Hamilton in the context of a composition class. We will address issues of authority and the evaluation of sources. However, we can’t do everything in as much depth as I would like. My main focus has to be on wiring instruction. There is not enough time in the classroom. I imagine that there would be more time to devote to such issues in an upper-level class.

my edit

Perhaps the solution is to fix the Genius annotations of Hamilton. Extensive revisions could be done in a class focused on public writing or digital writing. I did an experiment. I wanted to see how easily Genius annotations could be revised and updated. I set up an account on Genius. I created a profile in which I leveraged my academic authority. I made a revision to “The Reynolds Pamphlet.” I made a small suggestion. The original annotation links to a full-text version of “The Reynolds Pamphlet” provided by a partisan political website. I altered the link to take users to a full-text version of “The Reynolds Pamphlet” provided on the Founders Online site from the National Archives. I left a comment that I made the change and the reason for the change. Perhaps there is an even better link I could use, but the purpose of my edit was to incorporate a sound source and see if the change would be accepted.

As a result of this experience I learned that revising annotations on Genius is not as easy as revising entries on Wikipedia. I made my edit on June 30th and it is now July 8th. The original annotation for “The Reynolds Pamphlet” has not been updated. If users click on the list of proposed edits, located at the bottom, then they can see my proposed change. In the intervening days between my edit and writing this post, I did receive an upvote on my proposed change. Small victories.

As another experiment, prior to writing this post, I took a look at the annotations for the line “Martha Washington named her feral tomcat after him” from the song “A Winter’s Ball.” I did this in the wake of a recent article that exploring the veracity of this anecdote. As Joanne Freeman noted on Twitter: “Seems like a non-story, folks, as I noted when interviewed yesterday. Story clearly from a 19th c “story” book.” I thought the “tomcat” line could be a quick candidate for an easy revision. Believe it or not, there are extensive annotations to this one line of the song. It was not a candidate for a quick edit and I didn’t make any changes.

one user noted

One user did comment about the partisan nature of a linked site.

I noticed, in reading the annotations of the “tomcat” line, that one of the annotations takes Genius users to a partisan blog on Hamilton and Christianity. An additional link takes users to another partisan political website with an article on Hamilton and John and Abigail Adams. Genius annotations for Hamilton reveal links to similarly partisan websites and blogs. However, making meaningful edits to Genius is not as easy as it appears, as my experience with “The Reynolds Pamphlet” shows. Making revisions isn’t just about changing links. Much of the information from the sites cited by users is extensively embedded in the user-generated content on Genius.

Revisions of Hamilton on Genius are needed if the site has potential uses for the classroom, which makes such a project a seemingly ideal candidate for an upper-division class with a digital humanities or public writing focus. Last summer, I wrote about the potential of a digital humanities project focusing on revising entries of American women writers on Find A Grave. In my post I addressed the potential difficulties of such a project because of the prevalence of entries locked by users, many of whom are no longer active users. Hamilton on Genius has many of the same problems because the entries are a year old and the editors behind the project may no longer be active.

I thought writing this post would help me make a firm decision about using Genius in my classroom. I’m still not sure. One reason I like Genius is because it is a repository of musical and cultural references that I’m not in a position to connect for students. However, if my extra credit assignment on Hamilton is any indication, students are very capable of making the popular cultural connections that I can’t provide for them.

I still have a few weeks to plan my classes. I’ll no doubt continue to waiver on the topic of using Genius in the classroom. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Filed under digital humanities, digital pedagogy, Hamilton, history, pedagogy

Revolution, Marketing, & the Legacy of the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies

I’ve been working on a project examining poetry at the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies since the fall of 2014. Of course, when I began this exploration I had many questions. I had the big research questions.

And I also had logistical questions: Was there an archival record? Where was this archival record?

Looking for an archival record of the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies naturally led me to the potential of exploring materials related to Moravian College. Was there a connection? Did they have materials? Information on the webpages for the library and the school archives seemed to indicate an avenue of pursuit, but it wasn’t screaming “hey, look here! Hey, start here!” Additionally, there was the issue of access. Library websites made it clear that there was not a full-time archivist available.

Eventually, I sorted out my archive questions out and have since spent a lot of time at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem.

The connection between the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies and Moravian College wasn’t exactly clear when I began exploring this project in the fall of 2014. On the surface, however, that connection seems to be clearer today. Sort of. Or, at least, the connection Moravian College wants to make to the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies and a revolutionary past has become clearer.

Moravian College’s embracing of its historic past is interesting to me as someone involved in higher education. My composition classes in the spring of 2015 and the fall of 2015 addressed on higher education. In class we frequently explored the marketing of colleges. Together we took a critical eye to the marketing rhetoric of colleges and universities. One of my classes in the spring of 2015 was a dual enrollment class. We often focused on Lehigh Valley colleges and universities since many of the students were going to schools in the area. A local focus also made sense since we could frequently use local media coverage of area schools as a jumping off point for discussion. The online presence of Moravian College was something we explored often.

The above paragraph is an attempt to build my ethos. I remember what the website for Moravian College looked like a year or so ago. It certainly doesn’t look like it does at this moment. Just trust me: it was a rather typical website of a small liberal arts college in a nice community. When I began initially exploring the website of Moravian College in the fall of 2014, there wasn’t anything distinctive about it. It was what one expected from the website of a small liberal arts college in a bucolic setting.

Last fall, I found myself again visiting the webpage of Moravian College. Things had changed.

Navigating to Moravian College’s website forces the viewer to confront immediately a revolutionary past. It isn’t subtle.

Moravian Splash Page

When a viewer of the website scrolls down, the call to “Be a Little Revolutionary” recedes and they’re confronted with a very short history of the origins of Moravian College.

Scroll Down Moravian Website

The “16-year-old girl” mentioned in the short history blurb is Countess Benigna von Zinzendorf, daughter of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf.

Moravian Revolutionary in Your Blood

Taking ownership of that “revolutionary” claim.

When I visited the Moravian Archives in the fall of 2015, I noticed that the streetlights surrounding the campus of Moravian College featured flags proclaiming their motto for all to see. “Be a Little Revolutionary” is a marketing campaign that seems to be everywhere. Again, these streetlight flags were not something that I saw present in the summer of 2015 when I first visited the Moravian Archives.

a lot of revolution now and then

wow much revolution such colonial past wow

The new list of best places to work in the Lehigh Valley came out recently and there was a profile of the award winners in the local newspaper. Each workplace profiled is listed with a little bit of information, including the founding date. The local paper, The Morning Call, lists the founding of Moravian College as 1742 and in another article, featuring factoids, lists the claim of “the sixth oldest college in America and the first school to educate women.”

best place to work

Competition for students is difficult. I understand the drive of colleges and universities to undertake attention-grabbing ad campaigns and to develop buzz phrases for marketing purposes. I do know that the history of education in American, especially women’s education, is complicated. It is far too nuanced for sloganeering. I’ve not delved too far beyond the #18C in tracing the connection between the schools. It is certainly much more complicated than what a marketing campaign tries to make it. This use of the idea of revolution, The Revolution, and a historical past is driven by marketing. It is a clever and organized campaign.



This isn’t an all-inclusive post about the history of the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies and it isn’t a post about the history of Moravian College. It is a post drawing attention to branding and marketing of higher education today. I think this post is a starting point for highlighting the collapsing and simplification of a rather complex historical past, not just of the boarding school and Moravian College, but also American history and the history of women’s education in the United States.

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Filed under academia, higher edcuation, history, Moravians

Not your typical University Commerical

The genre conventions for a 30 second TV spot used by major colleges and universities, especial R1 institutions with bigtime sports, are rather conventional. Nondescript inspiring music accompanies well-known images of the campus, vague highlights of award-winning research faculty (often in science and technology), and students often enjoying life far from the classroom. And there are sports.

Last night I saw a university commercial that exploded nearly all of these well-known higher education advertising conventions. This commercial for the University of Minnesota aired during their game against the University of Michigan:

The Minnesota commercial features Keith Mayes, a scholar of 20C African American history, at Minnesota. It is clear from the opening words that this commercial is going to do something different. The commercial opens right up with a big, bold claim. It is certainly a claim familiar to many scholars of American history and life, but it lays a foundation for an argument largely unfamiliar to the general public. This is not going to be your typical university commercial. It is going to have substance. It is going to have an argument. It is going to keep going on this line. And it is going to pack a punch in 30 seconds.

Given my usual audience I’m not going to go into detail with this advertisement. Watch it yourself.

This particular ad from the University of Minnesota is from a series of similar ads. Many of them feature tough issues ranging from global warming and the environment to medical research. However, for me at least, this one stands out for how it focuses attention on teaching while it also highlights race, social justice issues, and the achievement gap. And, of course, the humanities, especially our relationship to history, has a prominent role.

I think this commercial will resonate with many of you.

The University of Minnesota did a good thing for all of us, especially humanities scholars at bigtime research and sports institutions. The ad provides an example to help ask the question to departments, school divisions, and administration of why the PR department doesn’t create advertisements like this.

I think the ad also raises a larger question. The work done by Mayes represents a nexus of history and curriculum development designed to ensure the long-term academic success of minority students. We often advocate for the ability of the humanities to do relevant cultural work that matters today.

I am not a fan of “the humanities matter argument” because it rings as a rather vapid platitude. I think the best way to defend or justify the humanities is to not talk about it, but do it. But how many of us in the humanities do scholarship that could be featured in a commercial like this one? I think that is question we need to grapple with and not rely simply on the claim that humanities matter.
PS: I watched last night’s game on my Xbox via the ESPN ap. The world of commercials works differently in that context. I do not know if this commercial was broadcast on cable or satellite feeds. However, millions of people have cut the cable and watch ESPN online. I still imagine a significant population saw this advertisement.

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Filed under academia, higher edcuation, history, humanities