“The Problem of Sympathy” or “Teaching to Teach”

Laura M. Stevens

University of Tulsa

In truth, I did not just teach one. Instead, I assigned all available texts from the Just Teach One Project, Humanity in Algiers: or, the Story of Azem, The Story of Constantius and Pulchera, Amelia: or the Faithless Briton, for a graduate seminar, “Early American Literature: Thinking, Feeling, Believing, Praying.” As the title indicates, the course used these four activities as unifying conceits for examining a range of writings produced in, or in response to, the Americas before approximately 1800. This approach facilitated a bit of transnational or comparative study, with, for example, a class on “Prayers and Beliefs” that included accounts of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Native creation narratives, and the Bay Psalm Book, and a class on “Thinking about Thinking” bringing together writings by Lahontan, Murray, and Jefferson. I also structured the course with a heavy emphasis on pedagogy, using the Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume A as a central text. In the course description I articulated the goal of preparing my students to be teachers of early America both as a stand-alone subject and as a unit within broader undergraduate surveys of American or transatlantic literature.

Our discussion of the Just Teach One texts took place on the last day that was devoted to readings, preceding a research symposium and then a day on which the students prepared and discussed lesson plans on a particular text. This was also the only class day in which primary readings were not paired with secondary ones, with the exception of the already posted responses from instructors on the Just Teach One web site. We opened by considering all three texts together, with some focus on the pedagogical issues raised by teaching texts from the Just Teach One web site. Longstanding issues of canonicity, cultural capital, and accessibility acquired some sharpness as we thought about what signals the paratextual elements of these lightly annotated texts broadcast in comparison with those broadcasted by the Heath anthology or glossy paperback classroom editions of early American novels on the one hand, or by facsimiles of original eighteenth-century printings on the other. Some conversation about the labor of editing and annotating primary texts (provoked by Duncan Faherty’s and Ed White’s excellent work on these three early American publications) accompanied our semester-long discussion of the ever-present pedagogical questions of what to teach, what gets left out when new texts are taught, how to pace and order readings, and how to tell a story through a syllabus. Looking at all three texts together also compelled us to consider the importance of magazines to textual distribution and reading cultures in early America. More than in any other discussion for this semester, we attended to the categories of “pleasure” and “fun” in the popular reading experience, while we wondered what other texts abutted or framed these narratives in their original publication format.

The students agreed that Humanity in Algiers was the most challenging of the three narratives for teaching because of its more ponderous pace, its moralistic overtones, its positioning within the politics of slavery, its apparently narrow initial audience, and its relatively complicated cast of characters. The consensus was that Amelia, with its straightforward seduction plot and explicit emotionality, would be grasped most easily by introductory students, while Constantius and Pulchera, with its cross-dressing and swashbuckling zaniness, would be the crowd-pleaser. Humanity in Algiers would require more informational scaffolding from the instructor – one student suggested that a family tree would be a helpful teaching aid, as well as a timeline of central events in the history of slavery and abolitionism. They did all feel it could be very productive in undergraduate classrooms, however, and they were keen to pair it with contemporaneous texts addressing captivity, freedom, and slavery. If it struck them as the most challenging text to teach, it also seemed to be the one with the greatest potential payoff.

Other texts from the syllabus provided obvious pairings for lively discussions, especially Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and Susanna Rowson’s Slaves in Algiers, but also a collection of texts by Cabeza de Vaca, Mary Rowlandson, and others under the heading of “Captivities and Enslavements.” We talked at some length about the almost symmetrical political oppositions in Slaves in Algiers and Humanity in Algiers, with the latter’s sympathetic, nuanced treatments of slaveholders deflating the anti-Islamic and anti-semitic caricatures stereotypes of the former, and we compared the rhetoric of liberty in both texts. Almost more powerful was the contrast in rhetoric and tone between Humanity in Algiers and Equiano’s Narrative, particularly Equiano’s depiction of the Middle Passage. Where Equiano calls his readers to inhabit the perspective of a terrified slave, Humanity in Algiers moves back and forth between master and slave, showing one of the masters to himself have been liberated from prison. The latter narrative employs as much honey as vinegar in its approach to slaveholders: rather than shocking its readers into apprehending the full horrors of slavery, it shows slaveholders to be complex humans who have made the wrong decisions for understandable motivations. It then presents paths of thought and action toward a gradual abolition of slavery, showing slaveowners the happiness they can find by moving away from an appalling practice.

The understanding, even compassion, that Humanity in Algiers displays towards slave owners was a difficult topic for my graduate students, as was its gradualist approach to abolition. These were also topics they anticipated having difficulty with in the undergraduate classroom. We did, however, reflect on the ways in which this text might prompt students to break out of the set patterns that tend to direct classroom discussions of tough issues, especially slavery and race. I shared with my graduate students the outlines of a conversation I had had in my first year of teaching with an undergraduate who had come to my office after a class on Equiano, grappling with the knowledge that her ancestors had owned slaves. This was a response I had never anticipated and was unprepared to address in a way that the student clearly needed and deserved. How could and should I, as a literature teacher, respond to her sudden alienation from her familial past as well as her worries, as an observant Christian, about whether these ancestors had been condemned to hell for this sin? Humanity in Algiers does not answer this question, but it compels us to inhabit the positions of people struggling to do the right thing, even if in the slowest and most incomplete of ways. It also shows how what is to us today – and just is, without respect to place and time — one of the starkest moral issues, was seen by its practitioners as a matter clouded by custom, culture, economy, and of course convenience. To consider slavery in this way is not to diminish the sins of the past, but rather to prevent us from taking refuge in the easy righteousness of hindsight, for it forces us to consider what present practices of ours the future will consider in the most unambiguous terms as wrong. In this way alone, advancing critical perspectives to consider the moral dilemmas of the present, Humanity in Algiers has potential for great impact.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *