Laura M. Stevens
University of Tulsa
Given the title of this text, I suppose I should be, well, sincere about how the class went. The students were great, the text was great, but I did not quite meet my own expectations for this particular teaching endeavor. It was not a disaster by any means, but the four 50-minute classes I led on this novel felt more like the rough draft of the classes I would like to teach in the future than ones I was proud to have taught.
Part of the problem was that Sincerity was not a fantastic fit with the upper-level undergraduate course on Early American Literature that I had organized for this particular semester. Subtitled “Cuttings from the Edge of Contact”, this course looked at early American writings within a framework of intercultural conflict and violence, with a strong emphasis on indigenous responses to European colonization. The novel was a poor match for this subject, but I was so excited about the pedagogical ideas that had developed (in the wake of a discussion during the joint SEA-OIEAHC 2016 conference in Chicago) about setting up conversations between students at different universities as they read the text simultaneously, that I decided to shoehorn it into the syllabus.
There was a tilt-a-whirl feel to the first class on Sincerity, as we shifted from accounts of the Pequot War and then Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative to a late eighteenth-century sentimental and epistolary novel that barely touches upon the Americas. Most of the first class was given over to a highly compressed explanation of the early novel and of its sub-genres, epistolary and sentimental novels. It was not until the next class that I really began to hear my students’ responses to the text, and it took a while for us to sift their sense of this particular novel from their sense of sentimental and epistolary novels in general. Partly because we spent too much more time than I had anticipated on these preliminary matters, we did not dig as deeply as I would have liked into the details of narrative form and character development. Still, there was an intriguing upside to the rather abrupt way in which the students encountered this text. Moving immediately from Rowlandson to Rowson left them beautifully positioned to see how Rowson structured Sarah’s marriage as a captivity. I was thrilled with this part of the discussion. The students were baffled and impatient at first with Sarah’s vision of marriage as a kind of martyrdom, and they were skeptical of the physical fragility this heroine exhibited when she tried to hold down a job. Once we began as a group to consider how limited her options were, how tiny the arena in which she could exist as a reputable female, they began to acknowledge her dilemma and understand her response. In a sense, the true payoff of our reading of Sincerity came through at the end of the term when we spent a day on Judith Sargent Murray’s proto-feminist writings. Reading Sincerity helped them see exactly what issues Murray was addressing and why they were so important.
I had been excited about the blog that Theresa Gaul’s student Kasia Waggoner had set up for the students in seven different university courses to respond to the text, and I presented this blog to my students as a pedagogical experiment. They were quite game about responding to the prompt I had posted or to commenting on another student’s post (I had asked them to do one or the other). I’m afraid that we ended up underusing the blog, however. This was largely my fault, as I couldn’t figure out in a short time-span, even as I was preparing to teach a novel that was new to me, exactly what to do with the blog. It was very fun to surf through the postings and see what my colleagues at other schools were doing with the next, and I chatted in a fairly breezy, non-specific way with my students about what other students had posted. A true discussion between my students and those at other schools – what I had really hoped would happen — never really emerged, partly because there were too many postings for us to sort and analyze, too many voices speaking at once. In retrospect I think that two stages of inter-mural discussion would have been more productive: first, a blog very much like what Kasia put together, so that students and teachers could look at the whole array of what various classes were doing, but then a second stage of interaction in which two classes would be assigned somehow to dialogue with each other. A format more dynamic than a blog, like a twitter hashtag, might be better for this second stage of more targeted conversation. I also wonder if a debate could have provided more of a structure and more of a fun competitive edge. Two separate classes could be assigned to debate each other on a question such as, “The message of Sincerity is that marriage is a death sentence for a woman, as she must abdicate her will to the desires and decision of her husband. True or false?”
In sum, the experience of teaching this novel this first time did not quite live up to my hopes, nor did the experiment of teaching it through the blog. It all went well enough because my students were so intellectually deft and so open-minded about the enterprise. The whole effort would have crashed and burned had I had a lazier, more mentally stagnant, or less sporting group of students. And several things did work very well. I loved being able to see (and steal from!) the discussion prompts that the other teachers posted on Kasia’s blog. I also thorough enjoyed the camaraderie of working alongside my colleagues at other universities as we exchanged quick emails about the blog and the novel. I would have enjoyed even more of this kind of exchange. Sincerity required more of an investment than the other JTO texts, but it was time and effort well spent. Having taught Sincerity once, I now feel ready to teach it well.