Students tell the secret history of America on Medium

Life in the stands at a San Jose Earthquakes game. An honest assessment of the problem of public bathrooms in a city that’s hostile to the poor. The American hipster, circa 1800. When a group of UC Berkeley students were selected to tell the secret history of America to the public on Medium.com, these were some of the stories they chose to tell.

The class — titled “The Secret History of America” and made up of 15 or so handpicked students — was the brainchild of American studies professor Michael Cohen, whose piece published on Medium about “douchebag” being the best white racial slur eventually picked up national attention.

The Secret History of America/Lauren Aguilar

Sketches of the secret histories of America, as told by UC Berkeley students/Lauren Aguilar

“I wanted to do something different from a typical seminar,” says Cohen, who built the course syllabus around the idea of having his students veer away from the traditional academic paper in favor of producing work that not only would be posted publicly, but also “was something people would actually want to read.”

“What occurred to me was that a lot of these second-semester seniors were realizing that every paper they have ever written at the University of California had been read by exactly one person, who then slapped a grade on it because they were paid to do so,” says Cohen. “What I really wanted them to do was write. I wanted them to write the 2,000 best words they’ve ever written.”

So they did. After spending the first half of the semester immersed in readings and discussions, the second half pivoted into a kind of creative writing class where students were trading work with each other and workshopping pieces. What is the story we want to tell? What is the best way we can tell it?

“I was worried it would become a diary,” says Lorraine Petel, who wrote a first-person piece that looked at loneliness in the punk subculture. She found it hard to open up and share, she says, “but I wanted to write about loneliness in punk because for so long we’ve been infatuated with the idea of them just being oddballs, but there is loneliness and sense of being rejected there, too.”

The parameters of the assignment were intentionally broad, and the results were predictably varied. Some students used the platform to produce personal essays that examined subjects like racism, life inside a multiracial family, and white privilege and genocide. Others, tacking away from more personal stories, traced fingers along San Francisco’s Barbary Coast and pulled back the curtain on life at the headquarters of the Manhattan Project.

The Problem with the public 

Though the students encouraged each other within the classroom, the gaze — and clacking keyboards — of the public gave some of them pause. As the Internet continues to become more ubiquitous in daily life, so too does the problem of trolls and vitriol in comment sections.

“There were a lot of worried looks that first day when Professor Cohen said that the end goal was to write a piece and publish it online,” says Kristen Wilson, who wrote about the relationship between atheism in America and the Cold War.

This, too, is part of the education. And in an open, online culture that sometimes yields cyberbullying, threats and malicious publishing of private information, learning how to deal with commenters is not without value.

Professor Michael Cohen

“I can’t say that I know how to deal with [the problem of online harassment] or that I have any solutions to the problem,” Cohen says, detailing the deluge of hate mail that his Douchebag story got after it was picked up by Gawker. “I tried to convince the students that the worst thing that was going to happen was that no one was going to read it. If you put a lot of energy into something and people have this incredible response to it — positive or negative — then that’s great.”

Promoted stories

While the cause for concern may have been real, the results have largely spoken for themselves. Students received a small handful of negative comments, but for the most part the experience was positive.

“One response that struck me was a challenge to the weakest part of my argument,” says Wilson. “I actually ended up having a really productive conversation with this person, though. It helped me flesh out my argument to myself, even if it wasn’t something I was going to go back in and edit later. We left it at a really good place.”

After the launch of the class page, staffers at Medium found a handful of the pieces and promoted them. Page clicks and shares blossomed, and the class page amassed nearly 2,000 followers.

“To me, that number [1,700 followers] means that there is great potential for this kind of work, and I think it means that these students can come out of this believing that they have a voice that is worth listening to and cultivating,” says Cohen. “It shows that work by young people that is serious can find an audience. The Internet doesn’t have to be filled with the literary equivalent of selfies.”

The class page may soon have some new posts, as Cohen plans on having the next group of secret historians take a look at the 2016 presidential election.