From Disney World to NASCAR

A course takes students on tour of the American experience by visiting local landmark sites.

  The class gathers for a look into American tourist attractions. (Photo courtesy of Constance Perry ’15) The class gathers for a look into American tourist attractions. (Photo courtesy of Constance Perry ’15)

An English course on Americana, led by Associate Professor of English Emily Russell, offered students a chance to look at tourism closer to home, partaking in three distinct field local field studies in Florida: NASCAR, Disney’s Magic Kingdom, and Weeki Wachee, which is known for its underwater mermaid show.

The beginning of the NASCAR race. (Photo courtesy of Constance Perry ’15) The beginning of the NASCAR race. (Photo courtesy of Constance Perry ’15) As a student in the class, I woke up early on Saturday morning to go to NASCAR. Hailing from California, the experience was foreign to me, but viewing the experience after reading various texts about NASCAR and the South changed the way I approached the experience. If I had gone to the event without the background of the readings, my expectations would have been forged on stereotypes.

“The field study changed my perception of tourism because of how prepared we were to visit the sites,” says my classmate and graduating senior Andrew Goring ’15. “Not only had we researched each location, but we also had read critical theories about several of the larger themes that they have in common. When we finally arrived, we had the background to evaluate how each site is a representation of national image and discuss the narrative that the country is trying to construct of its past, instead of simply enjoying the sights. When I travel in the future, I want to make sure I always do so as an informed tourist.”

Students Faithe Galloway ’15, Mollie Jones ’15, and Jenna Lindsey ’16 at the NASCAR stadium. (Photo courtesy of Constance Perry ’15) Students Faithe Galloway ’15, Mollie Jones ’15, and Jenna Lindsey ’16 at the NASCAR stadium. (Photo courtesy of Constance Perry ’15) In Weeki Wachee students watched a live mermaid show, including moments where the mermaids consumed apples underwater and splashed about waving the American flag. In Disney, students were exposed to less common attractions including the Carousel of Progress, Tom Sawyer Island, and the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. All of these attractions, though often passed up by the average Disney goer, are important to how we craft the American identity and the overall themes of the Americana course.

Russell, who designed the course, explained that many students come to such landmark sites with preconceived notions of the experience. These notions can come from expectations of the experience as well as stereotypes of the experience created by marketing or social presentation. Russell’s goal was to provide students with a new lens, “by looking at these sites through a lens of close readings, students start to see the world around them in new ways and break down the boundary between the class and their lives.”

So how were sites chosen? Florida has many interesting sites that almost made the list, but ultimately Russell selected sites that she says are “embodiments of the major themes of Americana—nostalgia, commercialism, regionalism, and tourism.”

“The homespun charm of Weeki Wachee provides an important contrast to the carefully maintained world of Disney,” says Rusell. “All of the sites include explicit displays of patriotism and tell different stories of what America means. By comparing Morgan Freeman’s narration of selected American history in the Hall of Presidents to ‘live mermaids’ singing Lee Greenwood’s ‘Proud to Be an American’ to fireworks at a NASCAR race, we were able to drive home a key lesson from the English classroom: there’s a fundamental connection between what is said and how it’s communicated.”

Of course, with this many amazing site visits and incredible syllabus with readings ranging from the carnivelesque Geek Love to Alan Moore’s renowned Watchmen, the course has many eager students asking if it will be offered again. Russell intends to teach another similar course, but keep the sites domestic rather than including the international travel aspect. Either way, the course marks an incredible educational experience for students, with many students having either gone to the sites for the first time or reengaging with the sites through the lens created by the class readings.