Budding Genius and Introductory Literary Studies

Caroline Woidat
State University of New York—Geneseo

 

I taught Rosa; or, American Genius and Education in a section of the required gateway course for undergraduate English majors, minors, and concentrators. The course aims to help students “develop a working vocabulary for analyzing texts and relating texts to contexts; understand the theoretical questions that inform all critical conversations about textual meaning and value; and participate competently, as writers, in the ongoing conversation about texts and theory that constitutes English as a field of study.” The subtitle of my course, Reader & Text: Marginal Spaces, is explained as follows on the syllabus:

In this section, we will examine the marginal spaces of literary production—that is, the space in which critics engage with texts, and the role of marginalized voices and traditions in shaping our understanding of “literature.” Readings will include early American women’s, Native American, and African-American literature that has been recovered by scholars from the margins of literary history, for example, together with diverse contemporary writers whose work complicates genre and foregrounds the complex social, political, and economic dynamics involved in literary creation and interpretation.

Students encounter critical and theoretical essays addressing the questions of why we read, how we read, and what we read, and they practice their interpretive skills with weekly short writing assignments throughout the semester.

I have previously included readings from Just Teach One in the course because the site works so well to explore these issues, but this was the first time that we read a JTO text concurrently with other participating classes and that students were required to write about the text in a 5-page analytical paper. Both proved valuable in providing students an opportunity to go beyond reading about textual recovery to actively engage in the process themselves. With a new awareness of the scholarly work involved in selecting and editing texts like Rosa for classroom use, my students gained the sense that they were breaking ground with their own readings of the novel and arguments for its value. Reader & Text emphasizes the interpretive skills of close reading, a prerequisite for upper-level courses that demand more research, contextual analysis, and engagement with other critics. Given the relative lack of scholarship on Rosa compared to the abundant critical materials for other texts on our syllabus, students assumed more confidence as they strove to develop original interpretations of the novel. Some of their anxieties as budding undergraduate scholars faded with the knowledge that Rosa hadn’t already been widely explored and discussed, and that their critical skills and voices were important to its study.

This is not to say that students were always comfortable reading Rosa as they attempted to understand and analyze the text. They thought the text was difficult at times and often demanded rereading given certain stylistic elements such as long sentences, a non-linear and complicated plot, inset narratives and essays, and contemporary allusions and satire that are hard to recognize. After their initial reading of the novel, students found some of the subplots “pointless,” the inclusion of Richard’s literary efforts confusing, and the conclusion too unrealistic and like a “soap opera” with its “over-the-top” weaving of narrative threads into a neat resolution. They described the narrative as lacking focus, going off in various directions, breaking the fourth wall, and challenging readers to look for patterns that might connect seemingly “random” elements in the novel. I compiled a running list of their first impressions during class, using them as springboards for further discussion about changing literary aesthetics and critical approaches—considering, for example, varying cultural demands that literature be moral, educational, entertaining, realistic, etc. Students appreciated the complexity of characters like Sol and Mrs. Charmion but were disappointed by Rosa’s lack of development beyond an allegorical figure. Given all their criticism and questions concerning the novel’s construction, I encouraged students to embrace the opportunity in their analytical essays to make sense of what they saw as problematic formal and thematic elements.

We discussed Rosa during one 100-minute class period and devoted more time in several subsequent classes to developing their individual paper topics, thesis statements, and outlines in smaller workshop groups. During this process, students continued to explore compelling issues in Rosa, particularly the tensions between the novel’s conservative and progressive treatments of social inequalities based upon gender, race, and class. Students were drawn to theme of nature vs. nurture raised by the novel’s multiple narratives of adoption, coming of age, and social mobility. They explored Rosa’s participation in American myth-making with these rags-to-riches and Pygmalion stories, and with its metafictional concern with writing, publishing, and sensationalism in mass media. The novel offers an intriguing, timely historical perspective on national debates concerning “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and what makes American “great.” In the end, students were unsure whether the novel’s satire functions to ridicule the notions of American superiority asserted in its conclusion. To what extent is the novel celebrating American values over European ones, and to what extent does Rosa critique America’s inflated sense of its cultural advancement as ironic and hypocritical?

After students finished the paper assignment, we revisited their thinking about Rosa and its value as a course text. The novel is well suited for the study of narrative form and techniques, and it complemented other texts on our syllabus with nonlinear plot lines (including recent works by contemporary authors). Students observed that Rosa pairs well with Hannah Foster’s The Coquette, and that reading Foster’s epistolary novel first (or, I would add, another early American seduction novel like Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple or JTO’s edition of Amelia) might enhance their interest and understanding Rosa. In an introductory course, students would benefit from more class time tracing the convoluted relationships and plot lines, perhaps with the creation of a character chart and family trees. Rosa’s complexity challenged students but ultimately provided a rewarding experience as they crafted a rich variety of topics and interpretations in response to the many questions this novel generates.