Teaching the Unfamiliar

Abby Goode
Plymouth State University

I decided to include The Black Vampyre; A Legend of St. Domingo (1819) in my “Rethinking Early American Literature” course for obvious thematic reasons. Even before reading it, I had a sense that the text would fit well within the intellectual arch of the course; I anticipated discussions of posthumanism, transnationalism, and the gothic mode that would complicate the more familiar topics of race, gender, and colonialism, while also preparing us for the eclectic, often bewildering, final text of the semester, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). But for me, it was the text’s engagement with the Haitian Revolution that sealed the deal. For many learners at Plymouth State, “Rethinking Early American Literature” is one of the first opportunities to question and reorient long-standing historical narratives about a seemingly hermetically sealed U.S. nation, and the Haitian Revolution highlights the central role of the West Indies in the history of enslavement and black liberation. The Black Vampyre, however, did much more than introduce new content into the course. The text’s unfamiliarity gave students permission to experiment, assume authority, and make visible their own development as scholarly collaborators and thinkers.

Throughout the semester, and especially leading up to our reading of The Black Vampyre, I emphasized the text’s status as a non-canonical, newly recovered work. I myself had only read it twice. We were all in this together, this process of grappling with the strange and unfamiliar Legend of St. Domingo. This fact opened up a space of experimentation in my own teaching as well as that of the students. But before I describe our experience, I should first note that “Rethinking Early American Literature” is rooted in the values of open pedagogy, a form of teaching and learning that treats students as producers rather than just consumers of knowledge. Influenced by Paul Hanstedt’s work, the course seeks to develop a sense of authority/authorship in students. In this course, students develop pedagogical materials and readings for future semesters in the ever-changing, dynamic, digital textbook, The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature.[1] As part of this endeavor, they also teach particular classes and lead us through exercises that they have designed specifically for our learning community. I should also highlight that “Rethinking Early American Literature” is a deconstructive class. Throughout the semester, students respond to the question of “what is American Literature?” with varying levels of certainty. Even as students engage with so-called “American” texts and themes, largely for the first time, we also continuously put pressure on the parameters of knowledge and literary canon formation. The student-authored preface of the anthology captures this process better than I can.

It should come as no surprise, then, that we held two classes on The Black Vampyre, one led by yours truly, and one led by students. Here is how my class went: To prepare, I asked students to write a blog post that examined the text in relation to a keyword that we had not discussed much in class (such as food, ecology, the supernatural, or vampirism). I asked: How does your analysis of this keyword complicate, enhance, or diverge from previous conversations that we’ve had with respect to American literature? At the beginning of class, I distributed printed copies of their responses to this prompt, asking students to take time to read and annotate their classmates’ blog posts. Then, I asked students to record the title of the post in their notebook and briefly note what they learned from this post. We completed this process twice, after which students wrote down how these blog posts affected their reading of The Black Vampyre overall. Rather than jump into a spirited discussion, as I often do, I introduced individual, exploratory movement into the lesson.

With their notebooks, which now contained a mini-record of their and some of their classmates’ thoughts on the reading, students circulated around the room with a stack of post-its. I had posted seven pieces of chart paper on the walls, each corresponding to a different unfamiliar keyword, such as “human/nonhuman boundaries” or “the gothic.” Each sheet contained four quadrants. I asked students to focus on the top two quadrants and visit at least four keywords. In the quadrants, students provided descriptions of how the text engages with the respective keyword, drawing on their and their classmates’ thinking, as well as instances in the text (page numbers/specific words or phrases). Next, I asked students to find a desk with a slip of paper. These slips contained familiar keywords that we had discussed throughout the semester: race, gender, nation/transnation, sex/sexuality, and capitalism. I asked students to pair their familiar keyword with an unfamiliar keyword and post their responses in the third quadrant. For example, some students responded to the question: How does the text’s depiction of vampirism affect its depiction of gender? Students met in groups based on their familiar keyword and discussed commonalities and differences across their responses. In one final circulation, students selected one of the unfamiliar keywords, and responded to the following prompt in the fourth quadrant: How does The Black Vampyre’s engagement with this keyword challenge commonly-held assumptions about American literature?

The purpose of this lesson was to (a) highlight the unfamiliar themes and questions that The Black Vampyre introduced to us and (b) recognize and catalogue the myriad ways in which this text reframes our understanding of racial difference, the idea of the human, slave rebellion, sexuality, and empire, among others. Rather than guide students through an instructor-led discussion, I simply asked them to silently read, reflect, explore, make connections, and remain curious about the text. In many ways, I was attempting to build a thematic foundation for the student-led class to follow, and for this reason, the students in charge of said class collected the sheets of chart paper, which were now studded with colorful post-its, for potential lesson-planning material.

Rather than draw on these sheets, however, the students developed their own approach to engaging with the weirdness of The Black Vampyre. They compellingly describe this approach in the following piece: “Sucking the Meaning Out of The Black Vampyre” I encourage you to read it in full. It describes a modified fish bowl exercise that worked so well that I was inspired to try it in another one of my classes this semester. Often, fish bowl exercises involve an inner circle, where a small group of students independently debate a given topic. Meanwhile, the outer circle observes, takes notes, and assesses the discussion. Sydney and Jess, the students in charge of this class, rendered the inner and outer circles more permeable. For the first fish bowl, the students in the outer circle displayed signs with keywords that interested them (which ranged from “dark ecology” to “masculinity” to “slavery-as-metaphor”). They could self-nominate or nominate others to enter the fish bowl, pose a prompt, and then exit, thereby directing and redirecting the fish bowl discussion that ensued.

During the second fish bowl, the members of the outer circle prepared keywords, but did not display them. Instead, we attempted to nominate others based on our own understanding of their intellectual priorities and readerly inclinations. For instance: “I’m interested to hear what X has to say. They tend to raise provocative questions about sexuality.” This is powerful because it affirms that we listen to and remember one another’s ideas. As Jess and Sydney put it, “we tried to develop an activity that not only encouraged collaborative exploration of this new text, but also engaged students in thinking about our long-term classroom dynamic as it has developed over the semester. We wanted to highlight that we knew each other as individual literary ‘scholars’ who already have ideas, interests, and inclinations when analyzing our texts.”

In the end, we remained mystified by D’Arcy and his multilayered, sensational tale. Why use vampirism and the Haitian Revolution as a metaphor for capitalism or an occasion to continue a now-obscure literary feud? What are the racial politics of a text that depicts a slave rebellion but returns to the status quo of enslavement, leaving the master unscathed, un-aged? And what are the racial, sexual, and gendered underpinnings of American horror more broadly? I hate to disappoint readers who may have expected a post about the content of The Black Vampyre, but for our class, the text’s unfamiliarity was its most powerful feature. It allowed for more exploratory, open, and collaborative conversations that acknowledged the intellectual progress of the class and de-centered my scholarly authority. As an added bonus, the text also inspired final papers on vampirism, the gothic, and ecology across early American literature.

[1] As I’ve written in Open Pedagogy Notebook, this anthology is by no means a finished or static product. Rather, it is an imperfect, ever-changing, pedagogical text that will guide future learners as they engage with the enduring questions of American literary history. I’d also like to highlight that this anthology, spearheaded by Robin DeRosa, has also occasioned a Rebus Community-sponsored project, edited by Tim Robbins. Click here to view this text.