Lost and Found: Empowering Student Archival Research Through “Just Teach One”

Rochelle Raineri Zuck

University of Minnesota Duluth

When I first heard about Profs. Duncan Faherty and Ed White’s “Just Teach One” project, which provides digital scholarly editions of “neglected or forgotten texts” for classroom use, I was really excited at the prospect of introducing new material into my American novels course (Faherty and White “Welcome”).  What proved even more exciting, however, was that participating in this program helped me to empower students to discover their own “forgotten” novels.  Working with “Just Teach One” texts such as “St. Herbert—A Tale” (1796) demonstrates to students, perhaps better than any other way that I have tried, that there are new things to be discovered/rediscovered about early America. In my most recent course on the American novel to 1900, an upper-level seminar for undergraduate majors and English MA students, I used the “Just Teach One” project, with its emphasis on recovering understudied materials, as a frame for the students’ own final projects.  In addition to reading “St. Herbert,” students were asked to find their own “neglected or forgotten texts” published before 1900 and argue for the importance of their selection to the study of early American literature and culture.  After hearing their classmates present their projects, students in the class voted on which text they felt would be best for inclusion in a project like “Just Teach One.”

The fall 2014 iteration of my American novels course focused on the development of the American novel, starting with William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789) and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797) and moving through “St. Herbert” (1796), Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798), Tabitha Gilman Tenney’s Female Quixotism (1801), Leonora Sansay’s Secret History (1808), and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy (1821).  With its multiple plot lines, “St. Herbert” helped to connect the various literary themes and elements present in these novels, including seduction, filial obedience, sentimentalism, Gothicism, and issues of race, class, gender, and religion.  Its serial publication under the pseudonym of “Anna” also opened up discussions of authorship and book history.  Some of the novels that students examined for their final projects were published anonymously or were written by a relatively unknown figure, so it was fruitful to think through how one can argue for a text’s significance based on factors other than the author’s identity.

Working with “Just Teach One” also prompted me to redesign the course’s final project.  Instead of the more traditional research paper that I had assigned in previous semesters, students in my fall 2014 class engaged in a recovery project in which they had to find their own “forgotten novel,” and produce a final paper and a 12-15 minute presentation arguing for the importance of their text to the study of early American literature and culture. When they began working on their projects early in the semester, Duncan Faherty was kind enough to correspond with our class about “Just Teach One,” answering student questions about why he and Ed White pursued this project, how they find novels, how they choose between the novels that they find, and how they research them. Faherty pointed students toward print resources such as Cathy Davidson’s Revolution and the Word (1986) and online databases—such as Early American Imprints. Series I—that students had access to through the University of Minnesota Duluth library.  Students also looked through databases such as American Periodicals Series, Early English Books Online, and Wright American Fiction (Indiana University) to find novels published between 1789 and 1900 that could be considered “neglected” or “forgotten” works, with a particular emphasis on those published before 1820.  Once they located their novel, students began to research its author (if applicable), publication history, and relationship to other, more canonical literary works.  In addition to books such as Davidson’s and secondary sources found through JSTOR and Project Muse, students used resources such as Dictionary of Literary Biography Complete, WorldCat, census data, and various contemporary newspapers and periodicals. This process was not always easy, and students at times expressed frustration at not being able to find a lot of information on their author/text, a feeling with which those of us who do archival research can certainly relate.  Their final presentations described dead ends, misdirections, and the occasional “breakthrough” in which they unexpectedly stumbled on something useful.  The students researched a diverse group of novels, from lesser-known works by major figures to popular works by relative unknowns.  They found temperance tales, children’s literature, adventures on the high seas, and revisions of earlier works.  Ultimately, they voted for Osgood Bradbury’s “The Old Distiller: A Tale of Truth” (1851) as their choice for an understudied novel that has a lot to offer to students of early American literature and culture.  It is certainly one that I plan to add to my reading list.

Participating in “Just Teach One” introduced me to a wide array of interesting works and helped me to get students into the archives—virtually if not in person.  Their projects took them beyond close reading and researching well-known authors and texts and into the kind of literary detective work required of those who engage archival materials.  My own experience as a graduate student at the Newberry Library as part of a CIC Graduate Student Seminar led by Prof. Phillip Round (University of Iowa) was transformative, and I want to share something of that experience with my own students without requiring them to leave Duluth.  More broadly, working with “Just Teach One” materials such as “St. Herbert,” about which relatively little has been said, involves students in the project of creating new knowledge and advancing the field of early American studies.

 Works Cited

 Faherty, Duncan and Ed White.  “Welcome to Just Teach One.”  Just Teach One.  Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, n.d.  Web.  8 August 2014.


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