Teaching an undergraduate survey course like I do every fall presents a couple of challenges. For one, there’s the problem of what to include. I’m the only one in a relatively small department of eight full-time faculty who specializes in American literature prior to the Civil War, and, unless our majors elect to take one of my 400-level courses, the required survey represents their primary exposure to texts and authors from that period. As a consequence, I feel a responsibility both to cover canonical figures and works by lesser-known authors, especially women and writers of color less familiar to students from high school curricula. A second and related challenge involves helping my students to understand why anyone would want to devote sixteen weeks to studying early American literature in the first place. Although most of my students are too polite to pose that question, I sometimes get the impression that, to paraphrase one of my colleagues, they regard difficult historical texts as “literary spinach,” as something that’s good for them because that’s what they’ve always been told.
I attempt to address these two challenges in my survey course by explicitly foregrounding questions of literary value—i.e., why it is that we value certain texts, and how these values shift over time. We spend some time on the first day of class discussing different ideas about why early American literature matters, and whenever possible over the course of the semester, I try to help them see the continuing relevance of key ideas and tropes (e.g., the roots of the discourse of American exceptionalism in John Winthrop’s “city on a hill”). Like I did last fall when I first participated in “Just Teach One,” I gave my students this term an opportunity to consider for themselves questions of literary value by designing a meta-critical assignment that asked them to think like literary historians. More specifically, I had them write an essay in which they made a case for the significance of St. Herbert by considering both how it is similar to other texts we had read and discussed and, just as crucially, what new insights it might contribute to our ongoing conversation about American literature and culture. Even though St. Herbert chronologically would fall early in the sequence of readings we cover in the survey, I made these papers due toward the end of the semester so that they would have plenty of material upon which they could draw. On the day the papers were due, we used what they had written as a starting point for a discussion in which we explored some of the ways in which St. Herbert anticipates and echoes some of the key themes and patterns we had encountered elsewhere.
We had spent a couple of weeks earlier in the semester looking at the rhetoric surrounding Indian Removal and the trope of the “Vanishing Indian,” so I wasn’t surprised that a number of students chose to focus in their papers and our subsequent discussion on Ludono. One student pointed out how the novel rather surprisingly grants Ludono “the authority to define the religious framework” of his interactions with St. Herbert, noting, for example, the significance of the episode with the Spirit of the Lake, as well as the fact that when the two characters first meet, Ludono corrects St. Herbert’s mistaken assumption that he “goest [to the mountain] to pay homage to the new moon,” using the misunderstanding as an occasion to teach his white companion about his beliefs (26). Ludono thus, this student suggested, may be a more challenging figure than he first appears. Other students took our conversation in different, equally productive directions. A few focused on how the novel’s portrayal of companionate marriage and of St. Herbert’s rejection of hereditary privilege in favor of self-determination (both represented in positive terms, but also as a source of pain and suffering) would seem to correspond to the sense of promise and anxiety that accompanied the new nation’s struggle to define itself as independent from European traditions and monarchical rule. A third issue that came up in student papers and during our discussion was St. Herbert’s depiction of solitude in nature, with one student going as far to read the novel’s titular melancholy hermit as the antitype of Thoreau at Walden Pond.
As fascinating as these different avenues of inquiry were, I was also struck by what got left out of the conversation. My students, for instance, didn’t ultimately have much to say about the novel’s use of gothic and sentimental conventions. We touch on both of those genres during the course of the semester, though perhaps not to the extent that we could. Indeed, given how much my students seemed to get out of our discussion of St. Herbert, it occurs to me that it might make sense to cut some of the non-fiction we read in the course (especially in the first part of the semester) in order to make room for more early examples of fiction, and for a more sustained investigation of the relationship between generic conventions and the different types of cultural work that texts from the period performed.
In short, I’d say that I have come to see participating in “Just Teach One” as useful not just because it provides me with an excuse to incorporate a new text into an already overstuffed calendar of readings, but because it allows me and my students to interrogate our sometimes unexamined assumptions about literary value. Although my assignment isn’t perfect (and I’ll no doubt tinker with it if I choose to assign something like it again), it gives me a chance to survey the terrain of my early American survey, to reflect on what my students are learning and where there might be gaps I could address in future iterations of the course. I should also add that this assignment yields relatively interesting and original essays (at the risk of sounding glib, there are only so many term papers I can read about Hawthorne’s vexed relationship with his Puritan ancestors, no matter how well-written those papers may be). For those reasons, I hope to “Just Teach One” again in the future, as I continue to rethink what it means to teach an undergraduate survey and how I can make the course more meaningful for my students.