Reflections on Teaching Rosa for “Just Teach One”

Marion Rust, Professor
University of Kentucky Department of English

 

My students were somewhat taken aback that I had thrown Rosa; or, American Genius and Education into a graduate seminar on “Disenfranchised Voices in Early American Literature,” dominated as the syllabus was by non-fictional self-narratives from Thomas Shepard’s congregant conversion narratives to Austin Reed’s The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict.  Based on the varied, disjunctive and fragmentary nature of the material we had been working with up to this point, the subgeneric montage of the novel struck them as familiar. But a disappearing blazing sword metonymized into a mattress occupied by a genderless crying body; narratorial reflections on proper modes of sympathy; attractive fifty-year-old women with complicated pasts; discussions of proper reading practices that include a dog-kicking self-styled male sentimentalist; lampoons of barely literate reporters and the popular gazettes they stoked; brilliant, penniless suitors; Peruvian Incan household dependents and their long-lost daughters: all wedged awkwardly into the barest semblance of a marriage plot?  This particular assortment struck them as fanciful to the point of excess (proviso: anyone who had read Wieland seemed relatively at ease with the flaming sword). I think the students decided that I was testing them by taking narrative fragmentation from the texts we read to the syllabus itself, thereby calling upon their ability to discern pattern not only within recalcitrant works but also between them. And in a sense, this is true. Lobbing a deliberate zinger into an otherwise traditionally coherent syllabus just to see what happened betrayed a certain Jane Tompkins A Life in School attitude on my part. I also happen to love the Just Teach One project and couldn’t wait any longer to contribute, especially as administrative responsibilities continue to chip away at the number of classes I teach in any given year. Finally, let us not forget the names! Roaster, Ecstacy, Charmion, Laetitia Lively, Squire Fist and Justice Ample, to say nothing of “Sturdy” for the most important slave character: what’s not to love, or loathe?

Not a single student seemed to hold this experiment against me, and it is tempting to continue inscribing one text that is “not like the others” onto future graduate seminar syllabi.  Here’s what one participant wrote after class: “Rosa — let me tell you — was a real hoot. It can feel like a mosaic of disparate and at times contradictory parts, like a quilt pieced together with patches that were designed by people who didn’t know what the rest of the team was working on.” At the same time, were I to teach Rosa again, I would go further in class to salve the chaos that the reading experience engenders. I might begin with the theory the book ends with regarding environmental racialization and the true nature of nobility, a topos that appears throughout the narrative both explicitly (note that “Count de Buffon” makes an appearance) and in the person of a central character (short answer: Peruvian Indians can be anything they wish, but “negro domestics,” as in slaves, not so much). I think this approach would help make sense of the novel in the context of the course as a whole, which was dedicated to figuring out what disenfranchisement meant and means, how those so categorized in their time managed to write and publish, and what their innovations offer that would remain otherwise unreachable.  Is it coincidental, I might then ask, that an author whose greatest pleasure seems to be lampooning popular print culture so as to inculcate reading practices that could put the balance between reason and feeling back on the right footing might also find worthy the question of “whether the natives of the American continent are as acute and vigorous in their intellect as the natives of Europe, and whether they are as susceptible of mental improvement”? This discussion could lead us into a topic of currently broad and ever generative critical interest: how did 19th-century authors and their audiences figure the relationship between reading and citizenship? (“As people gather socially, literature plays a central role,” wrote another student who appreciated the novel’s depictions of “coffee-house publication society.”) What can these figurations reveal to us that might have lain dormant during the period of initial publication?

The third element of this text I would emphasize in future courses would be an incoherent if enduring fascination of my own: the author’s continual return to the topic of the mind.  Ruminations on proper forms of emotionality and the obsessive scrutiny of certain characters’ psychic states even during seemingly ordinary moments compelled me like nothing else in the book (cf. the aforementioned 50-ish woman of means, trundling along in her carriage, to whom we are introduced in the book’s opening pages). I’m not sure what I make of this yet, but there’s something Jonathan Edwardsian about it, and I want more.

The above “next time I teach it” rubric imagines an entirely different graduate seminar than the one we just finished. In said imaginary class, I intone just enough to exert seamless control over the substance and direction of every 2.5-hour meeting.  The table does not crowd the chairs up against the walls, keeping personal space at a premium and necessitating a carefully planned entrance and exit on the part of all. The students have done perhaps a less thorough job of preparing, such that their dialogue remains a little less lively and little more focused on, ahem, my ideas. Do I want such a course? Never. Legroom and fire exit safety aside, we had a great time and learned a lot, perhaps in that order. Teaching Rosa made me a beginner again. Which only shows how far the students of ENG 750 had already come.