Year after year, semester after semester, Jim Cullen teaches once-in-a-lifetime history classes that students remember — and talk about — for the rest of their lives.
While that may sound like hyperbole, it’s actually very close to the truth: Cullen’s classes stretch beyond the traditional borders of a history syllabus, often by incorporating pop culture.
Cullen’s multidisciplinary approach to history transcends the classroom. In 1995, he turned his doctoral thesis into the book The Civil War in Popular Culture, which was published by Smithsonian Institution Press, and he’s gone on to explore the intersection of society and history in a dozen more books, including Born in the USA: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, and the forthcoming Those Were the Days: Why All in the Family Still Matters.
“Trying to foster curiosity is the most important thing a teacher does,” says Cullen, who is an ECFS parent himself. “Curiosity is a rare and precious commodity, and it’s not something you can count on, but it is something you can coach or elicit or try to foster.”
“We’re trying to get these kids to listen in the broadest sense of that term. That means listening carefully to things that they know — and to things they don’t.”
His signature class is LP: 12 Albums that Changed the World, which he teaches with music teacher Tom Christensen. “The great thing about Fieldston is that it’s small enough that you sit down at lunch and there are people from different departments with you and you strike up conversations,” Cullen told me. “Tom is, of course, a musician’s musician, but he has very eclectic tastes, and we got to talking and thought about trying to build a class around classic albums.”
Music is the perfect vehicle with which to teach students about not only artists, but also what was happening in society when an album was recorded. The songs, like letters, contemporary newspaper articles, and diaries, can be used as primary sources for historians and students of history.
So far, Cullen has taught the class several times and has presented a different lineup of albums for each. While the response to the course has been quite positive, one problem has arisen recently: students today don’t really listen to albums anymore, or even know what an LP is. But Cullen is undaunted — and flexible. “We’re retitling the class Rock, Rap, and Country,” he explains. The class will now be organized around musical genres and individual songs instead of albums.
“At some fundamental level, one of the things we’re trying to get these kids to do is to learn how to listen in the broadest sense of that term,” he continues. “And that means to listen carefully to things that they know, or think they know, and to listen carefully to things they don’t.” He sees that skill as one that’s translatable to other classes and studies.
Cullen is a New York City kid by birth. Growing up in Northport, Long Island, he was the son of a firefighter and a housewife, his upbringing a study on suburbia and the pursuit of the American Dream. (As a result, he’s also a beleaguered lifelong Jets and Mets fan.) He went to Tufts to study English literature. “After college, I won an internship at Simon & Schuster. So I spent a year in the publishing business,” he remembers. But after a year in New York, he headed back up to New England. He wrote freelance for a year and then went to Brown University for a master’s and a PhD in American studies.
Before coming to ECFS in 2001, Cullen taught freshman composition at Harvard in the expository writing program, which is a required class for freshmen, as well as interdisciplinary courses for small groups of undergraduates.
Once he arrived, he almost immediately began trying to figure out how to add interdisciplinary classes to the curriculum that were similar to the classes he taught at Harvard.
At the time, he says, “my wife [Lyde Cullen Sizer] was teaching at Sarah Lawrence, so I was commuting between Cambridge and New York.” The couple had one son who was already enrolled at ECFS. They had twins next, followed by one more child. Understandably, “we needed to figure out something closer to home,” he says. Former ECFS history teacher Andy Meyers recruited Cullen, and he has been at the school ever since.
Once he arrived, he almost immediately began trying to figure out how to add to the curriculum interdisciplinary classes that were similar to the classes he taught at Harvard. “The great thing about Fieldston is that it fosters a certain kinds of academic entrepreneurialism,” he says. “If you look hard enough, there’s usually a way to work with the existing structures and make something happen. That’s as true as it is for a kid who wants to have an assembly on an unorthodox subject as it is for a teacher who wants to develop an unorthodox course.”
He was able to do just that early on, teaching a class on humanities with the principal at the time. Cullen has not only taught classes himself, but also helped create an interdisciplinary senior seminar that combines aspects of English, ethics, history, and humanities, which has been well received.
He thinks that interdisciplinary teaching is only going to get more popular and is something students will encounter with increased frequency in college. “Trying to give kids a running start with that,” he says, “is important.”