Factory Teaching

Thomas Hallock
University of South Florida
thallock@usfsp.edu

We hate directives that come from above. The Provost attends some conference on educational leadership, maybe reads the latest pedagogical trend, then then asks faculty to revamp an entire curriculum. A few years back, faced with accreditation woes, my campus buzzed with assessment talk. The terms felt like factory education. The acronyms threatened to crush my soul: Academic Learning Compacts (ALC’s), Student Learning Outcomes (SLO’s).

But my department did something smart: we worked ahead of deadline. Facing budget cuts, we took the opportunity to justify our own relevance and framed Student Learning Outcomes around courses we already taught. I drew up this SLO for early American literature: develop a knowledge of literary or artistic conventions, rhetorical or metaphorical figures, or forms characteristic of specific modes, genres, or traditions.

Taking seriously our own matrix, I revamped the American survey to 1860 around genre, medium and mode. No more tired thematics or bogus history. Students in the survey now compare different versions of the relación, slavery and captivity narratives; they compare competing forms of print and oral literacies; my assignments (with limited success) ask students to move past two-bit analysis and symbol chasing — no more papers papers on Edgar Allan Poe’s twisted genius, or the meaning of black in “The Black Cat.”

Enter here Just Teach One. More than expected, The Factory Girl fell into an ongoing conversation about uses of the literary in early America. (I would not call the addition seamless.) On the day we discussed Sarah Savage, I recorded the class conversation. I transcribed the recording later, wincing at my poor preparation and listening skills. I did not know which passages to foreground in an unfamiliar text. I started the novella on a tablet, took lousy notes, and should have read the criticism. I came to class, stuck between meetings, largely unprepared.

The conversation predictably struggled. Students presented their thoughts and I tried shoving them towards mine. Faced with a novella, they retreated to motive-driven analyses. Should we like William? The scene with the blue ribbon? Unrealistic. My prompts, meanwhile, asked them to consider how the medium of a novel worked — what did books do? “What did women not have in 1814,” I asked. (Silence.) Birth control, I reminded them, but the students had not read Cathy Davidson, and coming from me, the point fell flat.

Then our conversation turned to a specific scene of reading. A few weeks earlier, we had discussed one of my favorite passages, the part in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography where he describes his forbearers’ contraption to hide a forbidden book. I had compared the passage to Mary Rowlandson, who also used the Bible as furniture (as a pillow), but where Franklin remained silent on the Good Book’s contents, Rowlandson offered scripture as conspicuous analogy. With Sarah Savage, students returned to an equivalent scene of reading.

They frequently spent the evenings together, which Mr. Danforth would sometimes enliven by reading, aloud, some useful or entertaining book. He was reading the character of Miranda, in “Law’s serious Call,” and his auditors were listening with deep attention, when a rap drew Mary to the door, where with pleased surprise she found the physician, Dr. Mandeville, who occasionally visited her grandmother, having been formerly a boarder in the family, with Mr. Seymore, their clergyman. Mrs. Burnam welcomed them with warm cordiality; while her features were expressive of the high gratification she felt, at receiving so early a visit from the new settled minister. For though compared with her age he was very young, yet she reverenced him as her teacher, and had even asserted that, from all she had heard of his excellencies, she was inclined to believe him to be nearly as good as his predecessor.

Now let me be honest. I have no expertise in early American literacies. (The survey offers coverage, which means we venture outside our areas of research.) But from my own experience, I could suggest this exercise in comprehension. I asked students to pull up the text on their tablet, laptop or phone, then read the passage silently. Then we read the same two or three sentences in the same way the scene describes — that is, out loud.

The comparison led to a syntactic analysis. I asked my students whether they could could diagram the sentences. (“Like in high school?,” someone said.) We talked about the embedded phrases, the pauses now considered anathema in our era of mobile devices. Then we turned to the subject of consumption. I shared how I had started The Factory Girl on a tablet, found my own comprehension lagging, and printed out a copy. My point about modes of consumption led to a productive conversation.

The class closed with an informal survey, in which The Factory Girl fared well. More than half the class enjoyed our meeting, and everyone liked being part of Just Teach One — an experiment that connected them to other campuses. Most of all, I am still pleased with my department’s decision to anticipate an academic trend. (Ironically, during our last program review, we were told to revise our SLO’s.) The survey offers valuable points for exploring the uses of genre, medium and mode across historical periods, while indulging in a little close reading.

In good conscience I go online and complete my part of the department’s annual assessment form. I check Box 1.b.: genre, medium and mode. Thank you, Provost. Always a pleasure to defend our own relevance. Just another day at work.

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