Kristina Bross, Marc Diefenderfer, Michelle Campbell, and Amy Elliot
When the announcement came that JTO had selected The Female Review for its next collaborative reading/teaching endeavor, I wracked my brains to try to remember the last time I’d read it—grad school, prelims, most likely. Years ago. But it had stuck, and my memory of it—a combination of surprise about the range of gender roles and performance available in early American literature and bafflement at the mediated form—prompted me to think about its possible place in my upcoming survey of early American lit.
I hadn’t taught the survey in some years; the course itself is under siege here—low enrollments coupled with pressures from higher up to connect our curriculum more concretely to the job market means that going forward the class will be offered less often, mostly to fulfill requirements for education majors or as one pathway to meet requirements for straight-up English majors rather than as a common, gen-ed course. In addition, we’re in a period of rebalancing our undergraduate and graduate programs, and as a result, last year fewer of our graduate students were assigned sections of literature courses of their own. As a stop-gap measure in mentoring new literature teachers, we experimented with assigning small cohorts of graduate students to shadow established literature classes, and three Ph.D. students joined my class.
In response to these changes, my department has rewritten curriculum and created new courses to meet core graduation requirements. We are looking to meet our undergraduate students more where they are, and to develop syllabi that mesh with our land-grant, tech-and-engineering identity (an effort for which our graduate students may be better equipped that tenure-track faculty). Thus we are working to articulate explicitly the skill sets our classes help students develop; we’re developing “genre fiction” classes (detective fiction, sports and fiction; haven’t thought about romance yet, but maybe?) even courses that teach imaginative “world building” as a complement to computer graphics design courses.
I suppose this description of recent curricular reforms could be a prelude to a declension narrative. But I don’t think that’s the plot we are inhabiting, least not necessarily. I am enthusiastically prepping a fall offering of “Science Fiction and Fantasy” (fully enrolled a week after the registration window opened, natch) that’ll put a Midwestern spin on the genres and will even sneak in a little early American instruction via an alternative-history fantasy in which the “United” states never emerged. But as much as I’m looking forward to the new teaching challenge, I do think we lose something significant when we decide that early American literary history is for specialists. The survey, so long a bread-and-butter course for early Americanists, still strikes me as uniquely valuable, a chance to interrogate with some time and attention the cultural productions that seem at once utterly strange and still so much a part of those of us in the U.S.
But my approach to the survey has changed, of course, as it should have done, from the exceptionalist literary history I learned as an undergrad to the heavily historicized version I spun earlier in my academic career, to what, exactly, today? For this iteration, I decided that I wanted to try to get students to think about how “America” has been constructed, not as inevitable, but in fits-and-starts, with dead-ends as well as successes. As a tag-line on the syllabus, I subtitled the survey “America and Americans as Speculative Fiction,” in the hopes of both de-naturalizing the idea of a (singular) American identity and to try to get at what made (and makes) such an identity possible. I decided to start with descriptions of Eden and the Golden Age, move through exploration/travel/captivities, take on the Declaration of Independence as a speculative speech act that instantiated an American identity, and head toward satire, drama, fiction for imaginative explorations of these ideas. Although the literary history I spun through my text selections wasn’t some radical departure from standard survey fare, I hoped that by foregrounding the constructed nature of our national identities, and with some judicious inclusion of new-to-me texts (Franklin’s “Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim,” Byrd’s Sheppard Lee), the readings might help students contemplate American literature, culture, and their own identities differently.
Female Review seemed ready-made for my take on the class: a text that was speculative in every possible way, from Mann’s vexed and vexing mediation to the glimpses we may be getting of Deborah Sampson’s self-fashioning, which I wanted to have students understand as itself a sophisticated and difficult construct, not as reflecting her authentic, singular voice. Not incidentally, I also hoped that by bringing in a newly edited text and collaborating with the graduate cohort to lead discussion, the undergrads would get different angle on literary analysis and scholarly conversation. Of the three Ph.D. students who joined me, Michelle Campbell, Marc Diefenderfer, Amy Elliot, none is an early Americanist, but all three are super-sharp, enthusiastic, creative collaborators. We decided that one way to short-cut the expertise gap would be to have them take on the task of prepping and presenting Female Review. Since I hadn’t taught it before (or, indeed, read it at all for some twenty years), I wouldn’t have much standing to second-guess their approaches or compare it to my own pedagogical choices.
Amy, having recently emerged from a graduate seminar on formalism, took on genre and form for us, asking students “what exactly is this?” As we prepped for the discussion, we talked about how this narrative is very different from a lot of what they’d read before—either on their own or in the class—so we wanted to ask whether the text created some kind of “American genre” and what elements they trace in our other texts. She asked students to talk about the word “review” and what exactly that meant (recap, a history, a performance, a military review) and how the genre was setting us up to understand Sampson.
Michelle dealt with personal identity and sexuality. She led students in a discussion of how Mann’s description of Sampson both constructed her as subverting feminine roles, but also abiding by them. For example, Mann describes Sampson as having “tokens of a fertile genius and an aspiring mind,” but also a “primeval temper” that was “uniform and tranquil.” Although she’s described as smart and even-tempered, she is purported to have all the submissive qualities of an ideal femininity: “She may be noted for a natural sweetness and pliability of temper–a ready wit, which only needed refinement–a ready conformity to a parent’s or patroness’ injunctions–a native modesty and softness in expression and deportment, and passions naturally formed for philanthropy and commiseration.” Asking students to square Mann’s description of Sampson with her actions can help students critically consider the depiction and performance of acceptable gender roles that would be legible and palatable to Mann’s readership.
As Marc took over, we discussed the ways in which the text’s mythic conventions reinforced its radical commentary on gender. By connecting Sampson’s dreams and imagined battles with monsters first to classical accounts of monsters and violence and then to the text’s account of the real-life Siege of Boston, students were better able to ascertain Mann’s critical intervention in regard to the nation’s mythic vision of itself—a vision balanced on the difficult construction of Sampson as a heroic individual.
We had mixed success—positive enough to encourage us to include the text in a future version of the course, definitely—but with some challenges to take up next time. A number of students had difficulty parsing the voices of the text, even though we’d been talking about such issues at least since our reading of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity. Or rather, they had difficulty knowing what to do with Mann’s heavy-handed mediation other than to note it. Beyond a doubt, the experiment would have been a failure entire were it not for Jodi Schorb’s excellent, clear critical introduction. Our students were unanimous in their praise of it. Perhaps because the text was difficult for them to puzzle out, more of them seemed to have ingested the introduction for Female Review than they had done for most of our other texts.
It was more difficult to handle their unfamiliarity with classical mythology and their commitment to conventional gender roles in their own moment, both of which I underestimated, and which led to some frustration. For instance, when I asked students to think about whether they’d keep the text on a future version of the syllabus, one student wrote that Sampson’s experiences weren’t “representative” enough to merit inclusion in the sweep of the syllabus (which I’d thought was the point).
One small moment in the discussion suggests a way forward next time: by linking Sampson’s story and Mann’s narrative to genre fiction, ironically enough (I said this post isn’t a declension narrative). As we struggled to make sense of the push-pull of gender representation and heroicism in the text, we hit on Sampson’s parallels to—of all things—Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. This brief moment in the discussion seemed to have been surprisingly satisfying to the students, and led to one of those prized “ah ha” moments in the discussion. My takeaway? It’s not that undergraduates aren’t interested in literary history or historic cultural productions—they are quite interested in puzzling them through. Rather, they want to link that history concretely to their own moment, to the texts and literature that give them so much pleasure today—a connection that promises to help them better understand the literary forms that captured the imaginations of their forebears centuries ago. My realization isn’t earth-shattering, but it encourages me to find ways to connect older curricular genres—the beloved survey—to new.