Rosa, or American Genius and Education

Sarah Salter
Just Teach One Reflection

 

Is Texas a country unto itself? A region? A “state of mind,” as bumper stickers, t-shirts, and country classics proclaim? I teach multiethnic US literatures in an English Department on the South Texas Gulf Coast. This means that my students and I learn together hundreds of miles into what was, in the period I study, often mythologized as The Republic of Texas.

Many students at my university articulate complex regional identities, tied to US institutions and cultures, developed from logics and orientations of borderlands, underwritten by multilingualism. In the American Literature survey where we read JTO’s Fall 2017 offering, an anonymous satirical novel titled Rosa, or American Genius and Education, our syllabus is organized into regional units, each unfolding on their own chronological trajectory. Thus, the Texas/California/Mexico unit moves from Spanish American folktales to Cabeza de Vaca to the US Invasion of Mexico to the carved-wall poetry of Angel Island before we double back, starting again with John Smith in Virginia on the way to Douglass, Jacobs, and Chesnutt. In this context, students are authorized to embrace regional specificity from a range of perspectives: they teach me about local religions and folklores, about Texas public education, about the grade-school mythos of Davy Crockett. Meanwhile, I have (I hope!) curated for them a selection of regional identities can seem beautifully specific in their potentials and depressingly similar in their limitations.

We encountered Rosa, or American Genius and Education at the start of a “Mid Atlantic/Middle America” unit. The unit marked the point in the semester where we began to read more broadly in regional terms and to think more broadly in conceptual ones. Our experience exemplified for me the value and importance of the Just Teach One project. Rosa was, after all, a text that I didn’t know very well. Introducing the novella, I told the students that I too would be reading it through for the first time, having skimmed it in anticipation of the course and of the unit. Faced with this shocking news of professorial experimentation, one of my boldest students asked how, then, I knew it was a worthwhile text at all. That I trusted in JTO editors Duncan Faherty and ED White, that I trusted in the purpose of Just Teach One, that I had faith in scholarly community and collective knowledge making, all seemed to mollify the questioner. The question re-affirmed for me that opening a course to the JTO project constitutes an invitation to share pedagogical authority in a range of generative ways.

Rosa acted as an ideal pivot between reading in the survey and reflecting on the survey. “In what terms would you argue for Rosa’s inclusion in any survey course?” I asked them, “What does it add to our learning experience?”

By teaching a text without conventional canonical clout, I enabled my students to explore the terms of their own engagement. Some suggested that the value of the text was its humor. The satirical content and stylistic play offered a welcome contrast to the brutality of Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition and the cruelty of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Others emphasized the ways that genre indeterminacy spoke across our survey: was Rosa didactic and activist like the work of Harriet Jacobs or Margaret Fuller? Was it darkly funny fiction like “Bartleby,” or oddly fluffy social commentary like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”? A third avenue made use of character elements to imagine cross-regional connection: how does the presence of Sol, a powerful example of indigenous intellect, speak back to Anglo-American expectations of the type articulated by Jefferson? How does Sol’s denunciation of American ambition and political relativism (not to say hypocrisy) remind us of José María Tornel and Frederick Douglass rejecting the 1840s logic of Manifest Destiny or William Apess recounting the history of King Philip? Was the widow Charmion feminist like Angelina Grimké? Finally, what was the condition or context for early nineteenth-century Baltimore? Since our survey proceeded in a kind of circular chronology—starting with regional contact narratives again and again, moving to postbellum social debates again and again, only to start over with contact in a new place—our wide-ranging discussion of Rosa could be both locally specific and transregional, both temporally concrete and transhistorical. My students, some of whom have never left South Texas, seemed to relish the chance to draw connections fast and loose, or clear and indisputable, or undeniably speculative, across the sweep of US literary and cultural history.

We began the course with the literatures of South Texas and the Mexican Republic, exploring histories with which my students were often intimately acquainted. Although our work with Rosa led them to an unfamiliar region, developing inter-regional meaning and exploring the intertextual connections of the text enabled a different iteration of scholarly power. By taking on the job of providing the “final takeaway” for our engagement with Rosa, students could experiment with a version of meta-conceptualizing that offered them educational authority. Naming this authority, and encouraging historically devalued populations (women, indigenous and minoritized individuals, the economically vulnerable) to take hold of it, is part of the educational mission of Rosa; facilitating canon expansion in the classroom is part of the educational mission of Just Teach One; helping create new knowledge structures for individual students and for classroom communities are part and parcel of my own educational mission. I suspect that many of my colleagues and peers feel similarly. For me, the chance to Just Teach One is also the chance to Just Teach with, alongside, and in the good company of Many. It is also the chance to Just Learn from Many—from texts lost to history, from students, from those who will post here their own reflections and responses to this ongoing educational experiment.

Thank you to Duncan Faherty and Ed White, and to Common-Place, for creating and sharing this wonderful educational project for lo these many years.