The Great War, Modernity, and Memory

“The Great War” brought on a new consciousness in Europe and the United States. From the worst disease epidemic in world history to the closing of American borders to the total reshuffling of international powers to a foundational moment of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, World War I fundamentally altered the way Americans understood themselves and their place in the world. How did these events and experiences affect American politics and culture? How did artists and intellectuals reflect upon and express this new, modern outlook? How did they seek to memorialize the war, and how do we remember it today?

Inside the Classroom

This course will ground students in the global history that provided the context for the war’s outbreak, allow them to see the meaning of the war “over there” here in the United States, and reveal the connections between Americans and the world in the early twentieth century. Together, we will come to appreciate the importance of Americans’ experiences abroad in this era and develop ways of analyzing the meaning of war memory and memorialization.

We will consider the paradox between President Wilson’s call to fight for democracy and his government’s curtailment of civil liberties and civil rights during the war. We will examine the complexities and challenges of engaging a large and diverse nation in a global war. We will also contextualize the experiences of individual soldiers and their communities to discover the ways in which individual experiences both connect to and challenge broad-based understandings of history. Finally, we will trace the connections between the United States and the world in order to pierce the enduring myths of American isolation and exceptionalism.

Outside the Classroom

Students will have the opportunity to hear from a range of experts, including Constitutional law scholars, historians, and military experts. We will also connect to the Virginia’s World War I Centennial Committee, which is working to help Virginians remember and understand the role the state’s citizens played in the war. Our travels might include American cemeteries and memorials in Europe, state memorials around Virginia, and national memorials in Washington, D.C. As much as possible, we’ll encounter first-hand both the war and the way it is actively remembered today.

Research and Capstone Project

Student projects will attempt to historicize and personalize the wartime experience. In the fall, students will research and analyze the published experiences of famous contemporaries of the war, learning both to research an individual life but also to analyze writing and creative expression about the war. In the spring, students, working in groups, will choose one of three projects: Some will “adopt” an American who was killed in action in Europe. “Adoption” means both researching the individual but also connecting to the place where he or she died, including his or her gravesite. Others will research the life of an American who did not fight in the war but was involved in some other way, such as a suffragette, a conscientious objector, a socialist, a German American, etc…. Finally, a third group will develop a digital exhibition of primary source materials on the war.