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American Road Trip Class Offers Intellectual Twists and Turns

Professor Susan McWilliams

Professor John Seery

As summer travel season nears, the open road holds new meaning for a group of Pomona College students.

Taking a politics course devoted to The American Road Trip, they’ve been reading Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, Alexis de Tocqueville and Toni Morrison.

They’ve traveled together by bus along a stretch of Route 66, taking in sites ranging from the Madonna of the Trails statue to the first McDonald’s, and each student was to take a road trip of his or her own.

They’ve talked and written extensively on just what mobility means to Americans.

And if sometimes the class discussion took surprising directions, that’s to be expected at a college where meaningful conversation rules the day—and old Route 66 runs just a few blocks from campus.

“Because this class has never been held before, we've basically operated on the principle that anything connected to road trips is fair game for conversation, and it's led us through some unexpected twists and turns,” says Sam McLaughlin ’16. “The challenge, most of the time, has been trying to connect those diversions back to political theory—but for me, finding those connections is the most exciting part of the course.”

 So how does travel tie to political theory?

“Without road trips, there wouldn't be political theory as we know it today,” says Associate Professor of Politics Susan McWilliams, who is teaching the class with Politics Professor John Seery.

McWilliams explains that the word “theory” comes from theoria, the term the ancient Greeks used to describe the practice of traveling from one city state to another to gain political knowledge.   

“The Greeks had the idea that a traveler, who would be exposed to different customs and laws in different places, would come to know more about politics than anybody who stayed in the places they were born. By comparing the rules and the ways of life he saw in multiple places, the theoros—the traveler—would come over time to have broad political knowledge.”

 Though the concept behind it is rooted in ancient history, the class came about in that spontaneous road-trip sort of way.

In his class last year on the Idea of America, Seery was leading a discussion on Easy Rider when a student blurted out that a class about the American road trip would be great. Seery agreed, and after class, the professor headed straight to McWilliams’ office. She was working on a (recently-published) book, Traveling Back: Toward a Global Political Theory, described as “the first book to explore a heretofore neglected travel-story tradition in Western political thought.”

They talked, and in about an hour, the American Road Trip course was born.

In one recent class session, which followed extensive readings on the lore of Route 66, the conversation covered everything from fast-food culture to Fontana history before reaching the topic of American monuments, with McWilliams noting the strange-but-true existence of a vault behind Mt. Rushmore holding tablets preserving the words of the Declaration of Independence and other key records of U.S. history.

“It’s striking to me how many of the pieces that we’ve read … suggest that America is a place where we know ourselves by monuments we see on the road,” said McWilliams. “Monuments are meant to be the things that endure across time and yet the road is this place of great transience.”

Many thoughts followed. Do we even know what to do when we encounter these odes to America? Are visitors to these roadside monuments looking for some sort of eternal experience? Is the road itself a monument of sorts?

Says Emma Paine ’14 of her time in the class: “The conversation has rarely if ever stalled out with the two professors and the students in the class always ready to contribute. Professor Seery and Professor McWilliams really made the class an interactive and varied learning experience.”
         
Along with the readings, the professors also offered a series of movies, ranging from Twelve Years a Slave to Easy Rider to The Wizard of Oz.

And, of course, any good road trip requires music.

Music Professor Joti Rockwell audited the class and taught a couple of sessions. “At one point in the course,” says Seery. “He had the entire class singing the “Sorrow Songs” from W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk--and we found ourselves in a politics course singing, and singing in harmony, and then analyzing those passages from the new-found perspective of musical performance. I think everyone would agree that the class has been a superb example of liberal arts interdisciplinarity.”

For Aaran Patel ’15, a U.S. citizen who grew up in India, the class readings of Tocqueville’s work resonated. “He was also a sort of outsider who came in with a very different lens to view … what mobility means to the American people,” says Patel, who drove Interstate 5 north to San Francisco and back for his own road trip.

Along the way, Tocqueville’s observations on the sameness of the American landscape and the sheer scale of the American project rang true as Patel drove through the vast, agricultural center of the state instead of following the 101 up the scenic coast. “It wasn’t the most fun drive,” he says of the inland route. “But it wasn’t exactly boring either. This was my first big road trip.”

And now that the class has reached the end of the road, Ben Brasch ’16 looks back at it as an intellectual journey that can’t be duplicated.

“I feel confident in saying that the syllabus that comprised this course will never be reproduced in a classroom again,” he says, noting a reading list that combined Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass—and David Lipsky’s Although You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. “And these titles and authors only represent the tip of the iceberg of our class readings.”

“This semester has given a small number of us … an utterly unique experience.”