Making Literary History: Just Teaching One in an Undergraduate Survey Course

Jon Blandford

Bellarmine University

I decided to incorporate Humanity in Algiers into the undergraduate survey course I teach every fall, which covers American Literature from its beginnings to 1865.  As anyone who teaches a course with such a broad scope is no doubt well aware, it can be difficult to find time to cover all of the usual suspects, let alone to include lesser-read works.  That said, because most of my students in this course are English majors, one of my goals is not only to familiarize them with a range of texts and authors, but also to get them to think like critics—i.e., to reflect on why it is that scholars have assigned meaning and value to certain texts, and also how those values have shifted over time.  I want my students to understand that the canon of American literature is always in flux, with the texts we read and how we read them reflecting our own values and assumptions as much as they do the interests and concerns of the historical moments when they were written.  Adding Humanity in Algiers to our calendar of readings seemed like a good way to address that particular course objective.

To encourage my students to think like literary historians, I designed an essay assignment around Humanity in Algiers.  The prompt called for students to analyze the extent to which this novella anticipates or echoes themes, ideas, or tropes from other literature we had read and discussed for the course.  It also asked them to consider what, if anything, might be distinctive about this text—what new insights or perspectives it might contribute to our conversation about the literature and culture of the period we had spent the semester together studying.

Of course, I did provide my students with some context for the novella.  I gave them a very brief introduction to the Barbary Wars and the Barbary captivity narrative genre, drawing on materials from the website of the University of Michigan’s Clements Library (my thanks to fellow Just Teach One participant Melissa Adams-Campbell for pointing me in the direction of this resource).  For the most part though, I wanted to know what my students might see as significant about this text, and, on the day the papers were due, I invited them to use what they had written as a springboard for our discussion of Humanity in Algiers.

Not surprisingly, my students drew a number of connections between Humanity in Algiers and other anti-slavery texts we had read (including excerpts from Equiano’s InterestingNarrative, Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin).  Among other things, they noted parallels between these other more familiar texts and the focus in Humanity in Algiers on the separation of families, the importance of literacy, and even the sexual violence endemic to the institution of slavery (as seen in the Alzina subplot).  Several students zoomed in on the representation of the religion in the text, which prompted an interesting discussion about the passage in which God orders Azem to return to slavery following his successful escape.  Why, some students wondered, would an anti-slavery text written for a religious audience depict God as not wanting Azem to run away?  Is this of a piece, as a couple of students suggested, with Stowe’s portrayal of Uncle Tom as someone who refuses to fight back?  Was the novella’s anonymous author, like Stowe, trying to create a slave character who wouldn’t be threatening to white readers?

A couple of particularly astute students who read Duncan and Ed’s footnotes pointed out that the reluctance of the novella to endorse Azem’s escape from slavery is likely reflective of its status as an early abolitionist text advocating a gradualist solution rather than more radical or violent change.  As one student put it in his paper, the novella reminds us “that the conversation [about slavery] was a polytomy instead of a dichotomy, where more arguments were being made than to continue slavery or to promptly abolish slavery—a nuance that is often overlooked when examining American slavery.”

What my students did find more radical about Humanity in Algiers was the role reversal in the frame narrative.  They were fascinated by how its representation of a white American forced into slavery in Africa inverts the scenario we see in most literature about slavery, and speculated that this framing device would have made easier for white readers to identify with the plight of enslaved people of color.  They were likewise intrigued by the novella’s representation of Islam, with several choosing to focus in their papers on how similar Islam is represented as being to the Christianity with which the novella’s audience would have been more familiar.  That was surprising to them—and frankly, to me—and probably alone makes Humanity in Algiers deserving of inclusion in the calendar of readings.  While there aren’t a lot of opportunities in the survey course to reflect on the history of the relationship between the US and Muslim cultures, that’s a conversation that’s worth having.        

Overall, I’d call this experiment a success, so much so that I’m planning on bringing back Humanity in Algiers for a 400-level course on the literatures of slavery and abolition that I’m teaching in the spring, when we’ll read it alongside a handful of other Barbary captivity narratives.  I even think I would teach it in the survey again.  My students seemed to enjoy reading it and to get a lot out of writing about and discussing it.  It’s always helpful too to have another early work of fiction in the repertoire, as my students at least tend to respond more enthusiastically to works of fiction than they do, say, to excerpts from The Federalist Papers (believe it or not).  I’ll conclude by stating that participating in Just Teach One was interesting for me as well, and I’d be happy to participate again in the future.                  

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