Negotiating Expectations

Melissa Gniadek

 Rice University

I was not sure what to expect when I incorporated Humanity in Algiers into my course on American Literature to 1860 this semester.  We read the text fairly early in the semester but we had already encountered traditions of travel and captivity in other texts, so I imagined that students would have a firm sense of those contexts.  We had read Philip Barnard and Stephen Shapiro’s edition of Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly, an edition that makes much of the novel’s international dimensions and various subplots that highlight imperialism and commerce, and I thought that those themes might productively resonate with Humanity in Algiers.  Slavery had not yet been an explicit focus of too many texts, but we would soon turn to Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer and the horrific scene at the end of Letter 9.  Excerpts from David Walker’s Appeal and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative would follow a bit later in the semester.  Humanity in Algiers would, I imagined, allow us to move from captivity to the slave narrative and to see those as intersecting traditions, while keeping a transnational perspective in view.  To help students understand the historical context of Barbary captivity narratives and to think about them in relation to other narratives we had read, I gave them the beginning of Paul Michel Baepler’s essay “The Barbary Captivity Narrative in American Culture.”  I also encouraged them to explore the Clement’s Library online exhibition on the Barbary Wars for additional background, and I provided them with a list of focusing discussion questions and a map so that they could try to orient themselves in the geography of the narrative.

I asked students to post a brief response to Humanity in Algiers on our online discussion forum before the class when we would be discussing the text.  As I read through those posts I was surprised to see that a number of students had taken the opportunity to express their reactions to the novella rather than offering the types of careful readings that we had been working on over the first few weeks of the semester.  And it was immediately clear that many of them had similar reactions.  The novella was being presented to them within the context of the developing abolition movement, but they were surprised by what seemed to them a relatively “benign” depiction of slavery.  This was around the time when the comedy web series “Ask a Slave” began making the rounds on the internet, and I worried that a significant portion of our class meeting dedicated to Humanity in Algiers would need to be spent dispelling the types of questions about slavery confronted in that series.

As soon as we began to discuss Humanity in Algiers in class I realized, however, that the text itself would resolve many of the issues raised in the discussion posts.  I asked students where their expectations about representations of slavery in abolitionist texts came from and most of them pointed to Douglass’ Narrative, which many of them had encountered in high school.  That they expected particular types of scenes of horrific violence and that they were confused by the perceived absence of such scenes in Humanity in Algiers was telling and prepared us to discuss arguments about depictions of the violence of slavery later in the semester.  (These discussions had additional resonance this semester as the film version of 12 Years a Slave was released, reviewed, and discussed.)

More immediately, I asked students to acknowledge the origins of their expectations and then to focus on the text at hand.  As we launched into a discussion of Humanity in Algiers’ “Preface” and frame story, one student’s comment brought us to the second paragraph of the “Introduction,” where the “American” freed by Azem’s legacy remembers endeavoring to “reconcile” himself to his enslaved condition.  “I considered my state no worse, if so bad, as that of thousands in my own country,” he remembers.  “My father, I knew, had a man and woman slave; and I had often heard him say they were happier than he was.”  As we lingered over this paragraph, something clicked.  Everyone moved past their initial reactions and saw what the text was doing much more clearly.  What followed was (in true Just Teach One fashion) one of the liveliest discussions of the semester as students connected paragraphs like this one, in which the “American” acknowledges his “Algerine” master’s right to his person as property, to abolitionist arguments.  They excitedly explored passages in which the text’s argument for gradual rather than immediate emancipation is clear and they considered the implications of that argument.  They puzzled over the text’s religious rhetoric and noted the work done by Azem and Alzina’s monologues.  They were invested in discussing Sequida’s dream and Omri’s interpretation of the dream.  They were interested in Omri’s character in particular, and in exploring the representation of Azem’s “good character” and economic success.  And they worked their way through a productive discussion of family in Humanity in Algiers.  That discussion began with a student’s observation about the improbable nature of a plot in which half the characters discover that they are long-lost family members, and it ended with other students positing that this highlights the separation of families in ways that further arguments against slavery.  In short, once students were encouraged to move past their initial reactions, Humanity in Algiers taught itself, and had the class excitedly discussing and debating, and staying after class to continue discussing and debating.  Weeks later, I heard some of them still discussing what to make of various character names in Humanity and wondering what those names might have signified to readers in upstate New York.  Some students opted to write mid-semester essays on the text and it, like other Just Teach One texts before it, became one that students would refer back to throughout the semester.

My experience negotiating my students’ expectations and initial reactions to Humanity in Algiers was a helpful reminder that in preparing to teach something new and relatively unfamiliar, I might be bringing my own expectations about their experience with the text to bear on them in ways that I might not (rather paradoxically) with a text that is more familiar to me.  Letting go of expectations and exploring the text together in class resulted in an incredibly vibrant conversation that prepared us to encounter other texts a bit differently later in the semester.

One final note: inspired by the Just Teach One responses to teaching Amelia; or the Faithless Briton, I opted to use that text in an introductory American Literature class this semester as well, effectively just teaching two.  I, like those who wrote about their experiences with Amelia, found it to be an extremely efficient text and one that also generated a lively discussion.

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