Teaching to Teach, with Skype, Willing Colleagues, and The Female Review

Laura M. Stevens
University of Tulsa

I taught The Female Review in a graduate seminar titled “Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Americas”. This course, which had ten masters and doctoral students, asked how the setting of the Americas and the Atlantic shaped early Anglophone novels published in both England and America. We began with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and concluded with Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok, while using Eve Tavor Bannet’s insightful study, Transatlantic Stories (2014), as our main scholarly reference point from beginning to end. The Female Review was not the ideal candidate for inclusion among the other narratives, which tended, like narratives including Aubin’s Life of Charlotta Dupont, the anonymously authored The Female American, and Charlotte Lennox’s Euphemia, to feature oceanic crossings or intensive treatments of landscape and physical setting. Billed as non-fiction, it also isn’t a great fit for a course on fiction. It did however end up resonating in interesting and productive ways with our other readings in its treatment of history as well as of sex and gender.

We read this text after devoting a class to the first volume of Susanna Rowson’s Reuben and Rachel, or Tales of Old Times (1798), which narrates a history of interaction between Europe and the Americas, from Columbus’s landfall through the mid-seventeenth century, through the fictional story of the primarily female descendants of Ferdinando Columbus (son of Christopher) and Orrabella, a Peruvian princess. Having just devoted a class to discussing how a history of contact and colonialism looks when told through a series of women, my students and I were nicely positioned to explore what happens to the history of the American Revolution when told through the story of a female soldier like Deborah Sampson.

Alongside The Female Review my students read Greta LeFleur’s article, “Precipitous Sensations: Herman Mann’s The Female Review (1797), Botanical Sexuality, and Queer Historiography” (Early American Literature 48 [2013], 93-123), which considers how the late eighteenth-century popularization of botanical taxonomy, seen in publications like Erasmus Darwin’s poem Love of the Plants (1789), made possible new ways thinking about sexuality. We also of course made use also of Jodi Schorb’s wonderfully informative preface to the JTO edition of Mann’s text. In spite of the prominence of relationships and sexualities we today would categorize as queer, my students were struck by the pains Mann took to stress Sampson’s heteronormativity through emphasis on heterosexual romance and Sampson’s status as a “lady”. Even more, though, they were interested in the degree to which this narrative dwelt on the mundane details of an infantry soldier’s existence, with more ordinary activities ranging from building fortifications to burying the dead, alongside the more exciting accounts of combat. The minutiae of these accounts, peppered with references to Washington, Lafayette, and other heroes of the war, along with Mann’s detailed descriptions of Sampson’s physical appearance, add up to a fascinating treatment of the question of veterans’ merit. That is, what do compensations and commendations do veterans deserve from their countries, how are their struggles and achievements documented, and what happens when they are overlooked? Given that part of Mann’s purpose was to win a pension for Sampson, this text can show us much about how early histories of the Revolution were inflected by discussions about the status and rights of a veteran – and more broadly, the place of the military — in a republic.

The most exciting part of this three-hour class, though, was the time we devoted to pedagogy. When Duncan and Ed sent out the first emails to the people who had volunteered to teach this particular JTO text, I realized that most of my colleagues would be teaching it to undergraduates, and I decided to see if I could draw on their experiences to teach my graduate students a bit about teaching. I asked over email if any of the other JTO participants might be willing to have a teleconference with my students about the approaches they had taken, and I was thrilled when Caroline Wigginton at the University of Mississippi and John Havard at Auburn University Montgomery quickly agreed. I moved my class into a room set up for big-screen teleconferencing and scheduled 30-minute Skype calls to both of them. Caroline and John each sent me a syllabus for their course and some supplementary materials, which I asked my students to read beforehand in order to prepare some questions for our remote guest speakers.

The conversations were immensely helpful for my students in their professional and pedagogical training. Caroline and John both spoke eloquently about the courses within which they were teaching The Female Review, and their sense of how this late eighteenth-century publication fit within and advanced the goals of these beautifully designed courses. This attention to the specifics of pedagogical context was, to my mind, hugely beneficial to my graduate students. They gained much from learning how both Caroline and John had developed entirely different approaches to this text as they integrated it into their courses, and how they pondered the abilities and needs of their own students. What most impressed me were the assignments both had developed. Caroline had designed highly structured “Context Reports”, which required that students analyze the day’s reading in dialogue with other primary and secondary readings, all connected in some way to the course’s topic of transatlantic bodies. John had required that his students develop their own edition of The Female Review, with explanatory notes and other annotations. This approach of course brought students into more actively engagement with the text while they also pondered the intricacies of editoral theory. The question of what to do with a text in a classroom seems obvious, but it’s actually tricky and crucial; it gets at the heart of a teacher’s ability to leverage texts in ways that actually build students’ interpretive and writing skills while also helping them learn complex material. My students learned a great deal not only from seeing what two professors at different institutions had done with this fairly obscure narrative in their classrooms, but also from listening to Caroline and John think out loud about the process of deciding what to do with a text in a pedagogical setting, essentially putting it to work for their students’ learning experiences.

I asked my students right after the Skype conversations what their biggest takeaways had been. Several of them expressed gratitude for the seriousness and detail with which Caroline and John had addressed questions about teaching a text that contains some sexually explicit material and invites queer readings. Were their students comfortable with this material? Did the narrative’s treatment of cross-dressing, sexuality, and gender, with arguably feminist and pro-queer rhetoric, provoke silence, discomfort, or vocal homophobia? What to do if two students in a class start arguing with each other or take offense at what a peer has said on these topics?  What to do if a student dismisses this material as not “real” literature? Caroline and John each had useful suggestions to offer about how they introduce their students to a topic or text that might challenge or upset them, how they model for their students ways of talking about sex and sexuality with scholarly detachment but sensitivity, and how they respond when students express discomfort with material that challenges their world view or even their sense of moral rectitude.

The Female Review did several things for my class that I had not predicted. It resonated in fascinating ways with the place of women amidst several other narratives dealing with nation-formation and war. As a non-fictional account it called attention to the mechanics of narratives, the nuances of truth claims, the texture of realism. It compelled deeper scrutiny of the various types of love and affection expressed between women, and between men and women, in other narratives from our syllabus. Most of all, though, this text introduced a vibrant and useful discussion for my graduate students about teaching, especially teaching a relatively obscure and historically embedded text.