Is it any good?: The Recovering Sincerity Project

Karen Woods Weierman

Worcester State University

 

In Fall 2015, I placed the Just Teach One text Sincerity at the center of my American Novel I course.  The “Recovering Sincerity Project,” adapted from a JTO assignment by Jon Blandford, asked students to do the work of literary history and decide whether the novel deserved critical attention and inclusion in courses like ours.

The project spanned most of the semester and included the following phases:

  • A first reading and seminar discussion of Sincerity (following our reading of The Coquette).
  • A field trip to the American Antiquarian Society, including a tour by Paul Erickson and a special exhibit curated by Marie Lamoureux, featuring Sincerity in the Boston Weekly Magazine; the book version, Sarah, or The Exemplary Wife; and other first editions from our reading list.
  • A class annotated bibliography, in which each student was assigned a source referenced in the JTO headnote.
  • Some related readings: excerpts from Charlotte Temple and an entire issue of the Boston Weekly Magazine.
  • A second reading and seminar discussion of Sincerity toward the end of the course (following Brown, Sedgwick, Melville, Stowe, and Wilson).
  • Individual writing conferences and peer conferences.

Some phases of the project worked better than others.  Scheduling two readings of the novel, one at the beginning and one at the end of the semester, was essential to the project’s success.  The class annotated bibliography was also very useful, as demonstrated by their frequent citations of the sources in their projects.  The trip to AAS was important and enjoyable—the students learned about this gem in their own neighborhood—but I do not think it contributed much to their evaluation of Sincerity.  The shortcomings here were mine: in the future, I need to make a tighter connection between the archival resources and their own work.  Reading the entire issue of the Boston Weekly Magazine was the weakest component of the project.  Students felt disoriented by the magazine issue and wanted more context.  I’d like to learn more about teaching periodicals and serialized formats.

In all, the final projects were a pleasure to read.  I asked them to consider the following questions:

  • Is it any good? What do you value about Sincerity?
  • What do reviewers and scholars value about Rowson’s writing? What are her shortcomings?
  • How does Sincerity connect with other texts in our course? To what extent does Sincerity echo or anticipate themes, ideas, or tropes from other novels we’ve read this semester?

The general consensus was that the novel was historically important but not a great artistic achievement.  As one student commented, it is “deliberately written but not beautifully written.”  But the novel also had its advocates.  One student contended that “Sincerity reflects Rowson’s cynical transformation of the role of virtue in a modernizing world….  By understanding the assumptions and values embraced in Charlotte Temple, and examining how those assumptions and values are inverted in Sincerity, a clearer understanding of Rowson’s own ideologies come to light.” And while another student found “no pleasure at all” in the text, she conceded that if readers are “seeking to gain an understanding of the complex nature of womanhood in post-Revolutionary American culture, Sincerity should decidedly be at the top of their reading list.”

For my part, while I will not be teaching Sincerity again in the near future, I will most certainly include Just Teach One texts in future courses.  It gave my students an authentic experience of doing literary history, and it put me on a more equal footing with them as we explored a new text together.  My students enthusiastically endorsed the Just Teach One class experience and appreciated the respect and collaboration at the heart of the endeavor.

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