In the fall of 2012, I was a Teaching Assistant for Dr. Edward Balleisen’s “American Business History” course. I led my own group of 16 students during a 75-minute discussion section on Fridays. I was extremely fortunate that my students were willing to participate in a series of new teaching experiments which involved them sharing contemporary media clips found through American Public Media’s Marketplace, NPR’s Morning Report, The Economist, and The New York Times and connecting these headliners to the overarching trends we saw throughout American Business History (systems innovations, creative destruction, barriers to entry etc.) This activity was a great opportunity for students to take what they learned in lecture and apply these concepts to their own lives and the major events and business trends that were shaping American society last fall. For example, one of my students discovered a clip on NPR’s Morning Report, “‘Adapt:’ Failure as an Option On the Way to Success,” which discusses the tendency of successful Internet start ups to emerge from general failure in their market. This student led a discussion on the theme of “failure” in American business, drawing comparisons between 21st century Internet startups to the topic of that week’s class: the growth of urban department stores (in which failure was common in many business ventures). This student asked a series of thoughtful questions including: In comparing that time to this NPR report, do you think this idea of failing to succeed was as common or necessary as it is today? If not, what conditions make it easier to bounce back after a failure in developing an Internet startup rather than in the nineteenth century with the department stores? Through this discussion, students were able to grapple with complexities of historical context in shaping the outcomes in various scenarios of American business.
Students also had the opportunity to approach these “media moments” from a cultural prospective by leading group analysis of movie clips, music videos, and television commercials that contain in their imagery and wording themes which speak to American business history. For example, one of my students led an analysis of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin” and compared Dylan’s portrayal of the US government and American discontent in the 1960s to that of the Populist Movement in the late nineteenth century. Through this discussion, my students were able to juxtapose these seemingly distinct periods in American history to discover commonality in the nature of social and economic discontent across decades.