William Adler, PhD, found a dramatic way to make engagement skyrocket, even among nonmajor students: Use a smash Broadway musical as a teaching tool.
Assistant Professor of Political Science, Northeastern Illinois University
PhD, MPhil, and BA in Political Science
Although his only acting experience was in a third-grade production of Annie, Dr. William Adler of Northeastern Illinois University has always loved musical theatre. So in 2009, when he saw a video of Broadway creator and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda performing a rap about American founding father Alexander Hamilton, Adler was fascinated. After all, he teaches about Hamilton in his American National Government course—and this presented an entirely new opportunity to boost engagement.
When Hamilton came out, Adler was hooked. And he knew his students would be as well. While he has always used many different types of materials to teach about national political processes, he has found that integrating elements of pop culture helps draw students into the subject. As he says, “You have one shot of getting students to learn about the events and why they’re relevant.” And, to paraphrase Hamilton, he is not going to throw away his shot.
Students are not always interested in politics
Not all of Adler’s American National Government students are political science majors. While he enjoys the opportunities to talk about political issues and inspire students who come in with no background in the subject, he wants to get all of his students excited about politics. Unfortunately, much of the course material is, on its own, a bit dry, making it difficult to draw and hold students’ attention long enough to spark critical thinking.
Use a pop-culture hit to teach history
Adler uses musical numbers from Hamilton to teach about the formation and history of American government. The combination of theatre and political science is just the right mix to make history come alive—and Adler says the students are loving it. He is hopeful that the engagement he sees with students in his class means that they will continue to be engaged in political debates long after the course is over.
“I love being able to talk about these issues, especially with students who don’t have a background in this—to make it so relevant and exciting for them that they continue to be engaged in political debates, get involved in their communities, get out and vote, and become part of their civic debate.”— William Adler, PhD
Course description: Description and analysis of national political institutions and processes. Current issues and problems of American government.
See resources shared by William Adler, PhDSee materials
Use video, audio, and lyrics to teach history
After Adler saw the rap that Lin-Manuel Miranda performed for President Obama in 2009—which later became the opening number for the musical Hamilton—Adler started using it in his instruction about The Federalist Papers.
Then, when Hamilton debuted, Adler snapped up the cast recording and watched the “Ham for Ham” YouTube videos the cast made outside the theater. The videos were of scenes from the musical or were related to topics in the musical. Adler loved them and was sure his students would appreciate them, too. “It became a sort of next natural step to find more of them to use in the course,” he says.
Then the musical became a pop-culture phenomenon, and Adler found that his students were just as enthusiastic about it as he was. So now, in addition to other materials he uses in class, Adler combines audio, video, and printed lyrics from Hamilton to increase student interest, provide context, and inspire critical thinking as he teaches about American government.
Here, Adler shares several lessons in which he has integrated Hamilton into his instruction. For additional ideas and details, see Adler’s article on his methods: “‘History Has Its Eyes on You’: Hamilton and the Introductory American Government Course.”
The Federalist Papers and “Alexander Hamilton”
In musicals, opening numbers are designed to grab the audience’s attention. That is one reason Adler turns to Hamilton’s opening number to introduce students to The Federalist Papers. Specifically, Adler shows the video of “Alexander Hamilton,” as performed at the 2016 Grammy Awards, to give students a glimpse of the man who wrote the majority of these papers.
He also plays another Hamilton song, “Non-Stop,” which illustrates the collaborative nature of the creation of these documents. This is evident in the lines:
Alexander joins forces with James Madison and John Jay to write a series of essays
Defending the new United States Constitution
Entitled The Federalist Papers
The Declaration of Independence and “The Schuyler Sisters”
Some of the information in Hamilton serves as background discussion for issues that occurred after the events covered in the musical. One example is women’s suffrage.
As part of a lesson about the effect of the Declaration of Independence on Americans, Adler plays a YouTube video of “The Schuyler Sisters” number from Hamilton that was performed at the White House in 2017. Lyrics include mention of the pamphlet Common Sense, in which Thomas Paine argued for independence. The character of Hamilton’s future wife Elizabeth Schuyler and her sisters sing:
I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine.
So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane.
You want a revolution? I want a revelation
So listen to my declaration:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident
That all men are created equal”
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson,
I’mma compel him to include women in the sequel!
This leads to a class discussion of the “Declaration of Sentiments” signed at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, which launched the US women’s suffrage movement. Adler tells students, “That was the sequel.”
Congress and “The Room Where It Happens”
One of the most important units Adler teaches is the lesson on how a bill becomes a law. In the past, he had trouble getting students interested—even when playing the Schoolhouse Rock video “I’m Just a Bill.” Now, Adler combines that video with the Hamilton “The Room Where It Happens” video (with lyrics), which is about the dinner table bargain between Hamilton and Madison. (In it, Hamilton concedes on the placement of the nation’s capital in exchange for Madison’s commitment to pay off Southern war debts.)
The immigrant emerges with unprecedented financial power
A system he can shape however he wants
The Virginians emerge with the nation’s capital
And here’s the pièce de résistance
No one else was in
The room where it happened
He also shows a PBS documentary, Hamilton’s America, which includes interviews with experts, politicians, and entertainers who discuss, as Adler puts it, “what Hamilton was up to and why it matters.” Through these different materials and viewpoints, students develop a stronger understanding of how Congress works.
Voting and “The Election of 1800”
When Adler teaches about elections, the class discusses how elections were different in the past. In particular, they discuss the election of 1800, which led to the Twelfth Amendment and changed the way the Vice President was chosen.
The Hamilton number “The Election of 1800” dramatizes the situation in which the losing presidential candidate could become Vice President. Jefferson says, “Ooh, you know what, we can change that, you know why? (Why?) ’Cause I’m the President.”
To the average student, the concepts of American history may seem obscure at first, but hearing them rapped helps them better understand what happened and makes it feel more contemporary, says Adler. It also engages the interest of students who otherwise might not have found history relevant.
Adler’s joy in this subject area is infectious—a few students have told him they were not sure what they wanted to major in until they took his course, and now they are majoring in political science.
His work has been acknowledged outside the classroom as well. He won an excellence award in teaching, partially based on his work using Hamilton to teach political science. He is currently working on a new course on pop culture and politics that will cover a variety of topics—with “a decent portion of the course on Alexander Hamilton.”