How to Teach an American Inauguration

Since 2008, My College Students Have Been Exploring—in Real Time—What the Transfer of Power Ceremony Reveals About the Nation

How to Teach an American Inauguration | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

The author watching the 2013 inauguration of Barack Obama. Courtesy of Himanee Gupta-Carlson.

“Wouldn’t it be cool to go to D.C. for the inauguration?” I remember telling a fellow adjunct instructor in late 2008. Barack Obama had just been elected, and most of us were filled with joy at the arrival of the nation’s first Black president. A new era of hope in America was beckoning us to take part.

“You can go, you know,” my colleague replied.

“I would have to cancel class.”

“Don’t cancel class. Teach the inauguration with your cell phone. Your students will love it.”

I did, and I’ve never regretted it.

In our digital age, presidential inaugurations create opportunities to teach and learn intimately together. They bring urgency to the study of history and politics, by connecting the past to the present. They demonstrate how the disquieting power of patriotism, and the way we experience patriotic ritual through media technologies, might be used to mask gross inequities in America’s unraveling social fabric.

Since 2009, I have taught the inauguration every four years as a history-in-the-making event, traveling to Washington, D.C., for both of Obama’s inaugurals and for Donald Trump’s in 2017. I initially taught the event to students in two introductory political science courses. In 2013, I taught it in a digital storytelling course, and in 2017, in two introductory U.S. history courses.

This year, I am teaching the inauguration in an Asian American history course and a historiography seminar. Only this time, heeding COVID-19 restrictions, I am at home today, and will be engaging with students through browser windows. And I am engaging not just with an inauguration, but with the January storming of the Capitol by a violent mob.

How, I’ve been wondering, would I incorporate these events into my teaching?

In planning, I thought about how students and I are likely to remember this insurrection. I also thought about how social media shapes today’s political and historical events.

Back in 2009, instructional technologists at the community college where I then taught helped me set up a learning activity that modeled the Obama campaign’s groundbreaking use of social media to connect voters and candidate. I asked students to watch coverage of the inauguration at home and to communicate with one another and me via email, text messages, Facebook posts, and online class discussion boards. I encouraged them to think about how the processes were creating a sense of community and to consider the long-term potential of these communities to bring about changes they wanted to see in the world during their lifetimes. My hope was that students would build their reflections into an ongoing “vision for the world” project they completed over the term.

Back then, like most teachers, I was occasionally frustrated by the fact that students were using their phones and laptops in class to chat with friends and surf the internet. I sometimes threatened to confiscate the devices, until the 2009 inauguration helped shift my perspective. I started to realize that I could help students and others learn to use the devices to do much more than combat boredom. Community builds through sharing stories, ideas, and thoughts. How do these processes work?

I purchased a Blackberry Curve smart phone and learned how to use it to send and receive emails and text messages as well as take pictures and create short videos.

Obama’s first inauguration on January 20, 2009, drew an estimated 1.8 million people, the largest public event ever at the National Mall. After riding a crowded Metro train and walking for nearly two hours, I made it to the closest available public viewing spot of the Capitol dais where the president, first lady, and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court would stand for the swearing-in.

I stood with my friend Jenny and my husband, Jim, craning my neck to see a Jumbotron screen some distance away. Aretha Franklin began singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

A red light on the Blackberry Curve blinked. I was receiving a text message from a student.

“Hi Himanee! I’m so excited for you! Where are you standing? Can you see anything?”

“Just a lot of heads, but I can hear Aretha singing. Where are you?”

“Watching TV. What’s going on now?”

Outgoing President George W. Bush appeared. A ripple of boos erupted. The Blackberry blinked again.

“Do you think it’s appropriate to boo g.w. bush?” another student asked via text.

“Well, not really. How about you?”

“It is their right to display their feelings towards the outgoing president but personally I would not boo him. Did you?”

During the course of the day and into that evening, I received about a dozen text messages and 20 emails, and students posted nearly 200 comments on online course discussion boards. They asked whether I had seen protests; whether there were rules regarding the use of religious texts (such as the Bible that had belonged to Lincoln that Obama used in taking the oath of office and in the voicing of prayers); and how I felt as an ethnic minority being at the inauguration. Some who were unhappy with the election results expressed fatigue over hearing Obama’s name over and over again.

In our digital age, presidential inaugurations create opportunities to teach and learn intimately together. They bring urgency to the study of history and politics, by connecting the past to the present. They demonstrate how the disquieting power of patriotism, and the way we experience patriotic ritual through media technologies, might be used to mask gross inequities in America’s unraveling social fabric.

These voices braided together captured a history we co-created. Underlying the messages were questions of credibility: Was the crowd I was standing in like the one they saw on TV? Where did race and religion fit in a secular America? And did people who did not like the new president fit into this America? In this sense, I learned the students were not passive observers but rather—with the help of technology—active participants.

My own combination of being on site while participating with my students online also taught me a few striking lessons.

In 2008, I had imagined a sort of kinship with Obama, at least in part because Obama’s campaign had created this sense of relationship through its relentless use of the same communicative tools I was now using to teach. I saw him as his campaign portrayed him to me: as a community organizer, a basketball player, the first “hip-hop president,” a person who was about the same age as me and was non-white, like me.

At the inauguration, a different Obama surfaced: a flag-loving commander-in-chief of armed forces in a geopolitically powerful America. American flags lined the Capitol as well as the steps leading down to reflecting pools and the Mall pathways, and the firing of a cannon followed after Obama took the oath of office.

I asked myself if this was my vision for America. Or was my vision the crowd of people around me—the people huddled in coats, stomping their feet to stay warm; the small child holding the hands of his parents and chanting “Obama! Obama!”?

I learned later that even though the inauguration was a public event, a select group of people had better seats. Members of Congress receive color-coded “tickets” that they typically distribute to their monied supporters, staff, and campaign volunteers. The public viewing areas begin where the ticketed spots end.

This deeper understanding of the inaugural made me want to keep using it as a classroom tool. Nearly four years later, in fall 2012, I was an assistant professor at SUNY Empire State College in upstate New York, teaching digital storytelling. My students were learning online and using the tools that once had been distractions for multiple uses.

My class began one day after the inauguration and was fully online, so I took a different approach. First, my co-teacher and I initiated a collective story using a platform called StoryTimed. We began the story—my colleague from her home in Buffalo, and me in D.C, a few days before the inauguration. Then we let the students take over. I also expanded the definition of classroom to include my entire social network of friends and colleagues via Facebook and Twitter. And, finally, an undergraduate whom I invited to participate added a steady stream of comments to my Facebook event and posted updates I sent her by text when the internet lines jammed in D.C. Unable to immediately access the digital conversation, I immersed myself in what was happening around me.

As with 2009, flags and military salutes etched the edges of the ceremony’s narrative. These images evoked 20th-century political scientist Benedict Anderson’s idea of imagined community, where people who do not know each other imagine the nation into being through a tacit agreement to imbue shared symbols with meaning. That idea carries a sinister warning, Anderson argues, in that it can lead masses of people into a blind love for the nation and its representative symbols— flags, artillery, the president—and a forgetting of the often violent and inequitable underpinnings of that nation’s existence. In 2013, I stood in a mostly African American and mostly women crowd—a group of college students, teachers, and community organizers. We did not know each other, but we came together, singing “Amazing Grace” and repeating lines that flashed across a Jumbotron screen about the nation’s potential to heal. When Obama and his family appeared, we cheered with joy.

How to Teach an American Inauguration | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Crowd exiting a Metro station and trying to get to the Mall in 2013. Courtesy of the author.

“Here come Malia and Sasha,” I said in a message posted to Facebook. “This is a very loved family. You can feel it. It’s like we know them ourselves!”

“Here comes the President!!!” posted my student.

“Obama looks like he’s loving this moment. He was just announced and when he broke out into a grin, the crowd exploded,” I replied.

I left feeling as if I had attended a spiritual gathering, with a renewed consciousness of the power that community could wield. I just hoped it would not blind me or anyone else to the deep inequities that remain in America’s social fabric.

Well in advance of the 2016 election, I arranged to teach the 2017 inauguration to two U.S. history classes. My plan this time was to start the conversations on election night and to sustain them in the days leading up to and following the inaugural ceremonies, in hopes that students would find continual connections between past and present, and would reflect on how both could help them find future ways to participate in civic life.

Students dug into the history of the Electoral College, wrote essays exploring the post-Civil War Reconstruction and its relationship to the nation’s present divisiveness, and engaged in discussions with me throughout the long night in which Donald Trump emerged victorious.

For the week of the inauguration, I asked them to view and discuss online virtual exhibits at the Smithsonian’s history museums while I shared discoveries I made while visiting in person. We conversed via Twitter and Facebook not only about the inauguration but also about the Women’s March that took place the day after. Many students participated in women’s marches in their communities, and shared pictures and comments.

Students were curious about the size of the crowd and whether it was as racially and ethnically mixed as those at Obama’s ceremonies. They also asked me if I had seen any protests or violence and urged me to stay safe. The Trump supporters I did encounter, however, were congenial. We talked on the Metro and in lines at security gates before entering the Mall about the weather, the festivities, and “the rich people” who had tickets. Around me, the gathering was sparse and mostly white, reflecting the differences between the nation that Trump supporters were imagining into being and myself. Students quoted snippets of Trump’s short speech and expressed wishes for the nation’s divisiveness to end. After the ceremony, I lingered by a Jumbotron screen, watching the Obamas depart the White House in a military helicopter. As the helicopter flew over the Mall, I impulsively started running with a few others toward it, arms in the air, waving good-bye.

The 2021 inauguration is expected to be a limited live event with heavy security. The National Mall has been closed, and only members of Congress will be present. Trump has said he will not attend Biden’s inauguration, the first departing president to deny his successor such a courtesy in 152 years.

Classes started again this week. On Tuesday, I asked students to take part in a dialogue being hosted by my college on the historic significance of Kamala Harris’s election. Today, I plan to teach the inauguration by asking students to join me at, where the event will be livestreamed. We will converse together on in-class discussion boards, and I plan to ask them to reflect on how to write the history of this inauguration for the generation to follow.

In preparation, I’ve been thinking a lot about something I expect to see on the livestream: the face masks we’ve all been asked to wear in public to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

In this tense moment, perhaps the mask might emerge as a new symbol of a new kind of nation. Wearing a mask is like making a sacrifice. It’s done to protect others from contracting the coronavirus, should you be carrying it. It is a call to work together to help the world heal.


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