Monday, June 2, 2014

Teaching Eighteenth-Century "Atlantic" Literature, Part One

Almost exactly a year ago, on a panel organized by the Society of Early Americanists (SEA) on the subject of pedagogy at the American Literature Association (ALA)'s annual conference, I gave a presentation about an undergraduate class that I had developed over three years by trial and error called "Pirates, Puritans, and the Revolutionary Atlantic World." An early version of the syllabus for that course was already linked to the SEA webpage for teaching resources. The question that I raised at that conference is the very same question that I am always thinking about on this blog Atlantic Literature -- how do we conceptualize Atlantic literature? But also, how do we communicate this conceptualization to our students in the context of a broader undergraduate curriculum? My paper told the story of how I began to use literature about pirates as a hook (so to speak) for getting students excited about some difficult and sometimes dry literature about heavy topics such as economics, slavery, science, and transatlantic social networks; what I learned, however, is that pirate literature was not just a hook, but that it would actually change the way my students and I read and interpreted many of the more canonical texts in very productive ways. After the positive feedback and encouragement I got at that conference, I decided to develop the paper further into something worth publishing and also apply for the "Innovative Course Design Award" given by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS). As fortune would have it, I won the award, and along with the two other winners, I gave a presentation at the next ASECS conference, which was held in Williamsburg in March, just a few months ago. At the same time, I was also on another panel at the ASECS conference about the new "oceanic" paradigm for literary study that both critiques and develops that Atlantic paradigm.

Here I want to step back and reflect on all of this (as I am in the midst of revising my longer essay about it) in two different posts on my blog -- part one that you are reading now is about the institutional context for thinking about teaching oceanic literature, and part two will be about the concepts and metaphors we use for theorizing it. In addition, both of these blog posts aim to redress an error, for while I was doing the research for my previous essay and doing my own teaching, I was unaware of a book that collected a bunch of essays by different professors on the very same topic, Teaching the Transatlantic Eighteenth Century, edited in 2010 by previous winners of the same ASECS award Cristobal Silva and Jennifer Frangos. I will try to offer an elaboration and critical reflection on this useful book as well as some self-reflection.

The main idea for this post is rather basic but still merits discussion, I believe, and that idea is that innovative, dedicated teaching is greatly affected by its institutional context. It is obvious to say that institutional support and academic freedom matter. What is less obvious is the variety of ways and forms that mattering can take as well as the conflicting obligations and dilemmas a teacher will face when they are deciding what to teach and when they are testing the waters to see what is possible. My own experience was very similar both to that of my fellow award winners and to that of the editors and many of the contributors to Teaching the Transatlantic Eighteenth Century. I was lucky to work at colleges committed to progressive education. My first experience was at a Catholic liberal arts college in central Minnesota that emphasized social justice and the central role of literature for an ethical life and where I was given a lot of freedom and encouragement to experiment with courses that ask students to think about the relationship between literature and economics and their own vocation as my course did. Later I took a job at a secular liberal arts college in New York City that emphasized interdisciplinary learning, team-taught classes, and a connection between academic learning and its worldly application and therefore would value a class that could potentially make all of those sorts of connections.

Likewise, one of the very first points that the editors to Teaching the Transatlantic Eighteenth Century make is the need for mechanisms for alternative teaching models such as team teaching that could manage the logistics of scheduling and classroom space (in their case, a professor of American literature and a professor of British literature) as well as the importance of a supportive department. Almost all of the contributors to their book foregrounded the institutional context for their class, whether they taught at a 2-year college or at an urban public university that catered to a significant number of first-generation immigrant students.

In addition to the specific situation where one teaches, whenever I reflect on my own personal history that led me to teach the way that I do, I find myself thinking about the debt that I owe my mentors: when I was an undergraduate student, about two decades ago, professor Jim Egan taught me how to think analytically about the function of anthologies when the groundbreaking new Heath Anthology of American Literature was first published and to consider the questions foregrounded by Carla Mulford, the editor of the early American section of that anthology and one of the co-founders of the SEA that was established just a few years before I took Jim's class. The field of early American literature was rapidly transforming itself to be more inclusive of women, Native Americans, and African Americans and more conscious of issues of social position, class, and the exclusive nature of the publishing industry. Almost a decade later, when I became one of Mulford's graduate students, she made it a priority for us to think analytically about the institutional structures where we worked. Also important for my thinking about the institution was the work my professors Ralph Bauer and Djelal Kadir did to bring scholars from different fields (e.g., Latin American and Caribbean literature) and different languages into conversation with each other as they organized innovative new conferences and published books that were transformative for our academic discipline and opened its horizon of possibility. When I prepared for my talk at ASECS and wondered what to say, I discovered how much my own "innovation" and "creativity" was not merely my own, but theirs also and an entire community of scholars dedicated not only to scholarship but also to teaching.

This community matters. In a review of an ALA conference and the institutional history of the SEA that I published in the journal Early American Literature, I note that when the SEA was first created and participated at the ALA conference, it organized one panel every year dedicated to teaching. For young faculty concerned about tenure and promotion, the existence of such panels and the ASECS "Innovative Course Design Award" provides public recognition for young teachers who have taken risks in their teaching and have dedicated time to that innovation. Considering that universities have in the past given priority to publishing in scholarly journals as the benchmark for evaluating performance, such equivalent academic recognition for teaching makes a difference by empowering young scholars to take risks in the classroom.

The other point made by many of the contributors to Teaching the Transatlantic Eighteenth Century is that when we teach, we are always teaching in relation to courses and curricula taught by our colleagues. Until reading that book, I had not fully given this enough thought, and I think it's a crucial point about this complex, multifaceted relation. While my like-minded cohort at the SEA, ASECS, and ALA conferences might all be fans of these transatlantic and postcolonial approaches that aim to decolonize the minds of our students, some of our colleagues may not be. Moreover, our students are often utterly unaware of the disciplinary histories of "national literary canons" that these new approaches aim to deconstruct. Many of our students may not have taken enough classes in "English" or "American" literature to have a solid grasp of what such a national paradigm for literary study actually means. For me, this raises a serious question that may provoke something of an existential crisis for professed Atlanticists. If the so-called transatlantic and transnational approaches to literary study acquire their self-identity in relation to the supposedly more "traditional" frameworks, then that identification places our course in a secondary, dependent relationship. And in fact, many times I've heard from colleagues, students, friends, and even family that we need to learn the traditional canon first, even though we all recognize that this canon is largely a late nineteenth-century invention (or a fiction), before we can do the more advanced work of deconstructing this fiction.

I think many people would agree with this notion that the traditional sort of class ought to be taught prior to the course that deconstructs it (and is therefore, structurally, given priority), but actually, I don't. I don't think students necessarily ought to learn a wrong thing before they learn to demystify or deconstruct it to make it right. One doesn't teach students that 2+2=5 just so that we can later explain that it's actually 4, and likewise I am not especially motivated to teach an inherently racist, sexist, classist, and nationalist canon that I think was wrong to create in the first place just so that I can later show that it was wrong.  I agree with Cornel West's essay "Minority Discourse and the Pitfalls of Canon Formation" that argues such a scenario reduces minority literature to a secondary, dependent position that merely mimics what it ought to critique rather than realizing its transformative and creative potential. So, I want to focus on a course that begins and ends with questions that are larger than the discipline and that connects with the students where they are -- their imaginary spaces (which includes the movies they watch, the news they hear about, and the multiple and often incoherent historical meta-narratives that inform this imaginary space) as well as their very real anxieties about the future.

The timing of my class perhaps mattered more than the academic debates about canons and academic paradigms because I was teaching it between 2009 and 2012 when the country was in the midst of a financial crisis deeply felt by students worried about their student loans and their career prospects. I hoped my class about the relation of eighteenth century literature to economic issues could be a critical tool that they could use to make sense of their own world.

Nevertheless, in spite of my intention to aim the class at what I believed mattered for our students as they make their way in the world, the issue of our class's situatedness within a larger curriculum defined by a sediment of disciplinary history remains in effect. Obviously our students experience our class in relation to their other classes and the requirements of that curriculum. For those of us attempting to break the mold, it is certainly the case that a departmental curriculum that divides its requirements into "British" and "American" puts us in the very peculiar and uncomfortable position of having to articulate our class in critical relation to the classes of our colleagues (especially since the categories "British" and "American" are not only historically anachronistic to our pre-1800 period but also paradoxically antithetical to the supposedly universal -- or at least cross-cultural -- themes that great literature so movingly portrays.) Moreover, this peculiar position is not only in relation to other English classes, but also to the general liberal arts curriculum. For example, it is increasingly common for colleges to require their students to take two classes on diversity, one focusing on diversity within the nation (e.g., the civil rights movement in the United States) and one focusing on international perspectives. Of course, a transatlantic course such as mine is doing both at the same time, so I have to choose one. When we "pitch" our course to both our students and our colleagues, we are inevitably testing the waters (so to speak) of a very unique set of curricular and institutional configurations that conflict with each other even as they support our endeavors.

No comments:

Post a Comment