Beyond Early American Literature: Teaching The Female Review and Contemporary Works

Gregory D. Specter
Duquesne University


For the purposes of this post, I want to comment first on the particular circumstances in which I taught The Female Review in my first year honors course. I think understanding the context will help those considering The Female Review in their own classes to see the versatility of this Just Teach One offering, it’s accessibility for students, and the possibility of using it beyond the American literature classroom. In short, while you should consider including The Female Review in your survey course or upper-division American literature course, I recommend thinking creatively about incorporating it in different courses.

Unlike many participants in this fall’s Just Teach One initiative, my course was not focused on early American literature, let alone American literature. The course was focused on the theme of history, memory, and revision—all themes that are prominent in The Female Review. This course featured a handful of contemporary texts: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, and Seth’s George Sprott: (1894-1975). Like the course theme, these readings were selected by a committee of instructors also teaching this particular honors course. My iteration of the course featured a substantial unit on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Indeed, it was only Hamilton, our engagement with primary sources, and several essays on the musical which provided students with any connection to early America. Additionally, a key component of my course involved students working with local archival collections in order to complete the semester’s major assignment. Working on a project involving archival work and telling a story about the past provided students a unique perspective on The Female Review– which is, of course, a text focused on a retelling of the past.

I share all of the above information for two reasons. First, even with the seemingly odd fit of The Female Review, my experience (and the students’ experience) in the classroom was very positive. As a class we had fruitful discussions of The Female Review over the course of two class periods. Second, I share my particular circumstances of teaching because they shaped how I prepared the students to read this work and how we discussed the work during class.

Because the focus of my class was not early American literature, I spent time preparing students to engage with themes about gender and the role of women during the early republic. While prior readings on Hamilton introduced students to the representation of women in history and the archive, I knew that engaging the topic of gender might be difficult for students. Since virtue and decorum were important thematic elements of The Female Review, I asked students to prepare for the class by reading a short piece by Karen Robbins on the connection between the “Pursuit of Happiness” and virtue. Robbins’ essay provided students an extra layer of context that they could rely on during their reading.

Secondly, I prepared a brief reading guide for students. I am a fan of preparing short reading guides for students. Reading guides can aid students significantly in preparing for engaging with a longer work. A reading guide is an opportunity to provide students with context, a sense of expectations, and allow for providing guiding questions. In The Female Review, it frequently feels like Deborah Sampson slips away from the narrative. Such quirks of the text could be problematic for students and I highlighted this factor for them in the reading guide, provided a way of understanding these gaps, and provided further guiding questions. I also identified some ways of thinking about how the text fit our course themes. Of course, I tried to walk as fine line between guiding students versus telling them how to read this particular work.

I want to close with addressing some ways of entering into discussion of this text in the classroom. I found it effective to begin with the title page and dedication page for The Female Review. These pieces of paratext provided a way of entering into the text and provided a robust way of jumpstarting a vibrant class discussion. In general, I find using title pages of works as a start to discussion is an effective pedagogical tool for the classroom, and in this case the title page for The Female Review is a great example of pole-vaulting into the rest of the text. With little prompting students took control of the discussion in thoughtful and engaging ways.

I encourage others to consider using The Female Review in other creative contexts. Hopefully my circumstances of using The Female Review show that the text has a great deal of potential. Yes, use The Female Review in an early American literature class—and—consider it for other courses, too!