Last week when the Junto hosted the History Carnival we noted the creation of the “Just Teach One” project, co-sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and Common-place. Today we’d like to take a closer look at what promises to be an exciting addition to thinking about how to teach early American studies (for both literary scholars and historians).
Duncan Faherty of Queens College (CUNY) and Ed White of Tulane, the masterminds of Just Teach One, explain the project as follows:
A little over a year ago, inspired by papers and discussions at several conferences, we set out to create a web-based resource to share neglected or forgotten early American texts. We did so thinking about the practical challenges to canon expansion: the availability of texts; the need for a textual apparatus for classroom use; the difficulties of the first teaching, often in isolation; professional disincentives to recovery scholarship; and so on.
The result was the Just Teach One project, which aims to provide free-access, downloadable texts prepared for classroom use, while also providing a venue for a community discussion about the texts and their successes or challenges in the classroom.
In the fall of 2012, we asked colleagues from around the country, from a diverse range of colleges and universities, if they would consider teaching an initial text, the anonymous “Amelia, or the Faithless Briton” (1789). Fourteen were able to include it in a syllabus and then share their reflections on the experience-how students responded, how the new text informed other readings, and their own thoughts on how the new text might expand or sense of early US writing. Meanwhile, thanks in large part to the efforts of Paul Erickson, the American Antiquarian Society generously agreed to host and support the JTO project at Common-Place.
A classroom-ready version of “Amelia” is now available at www.common-place.org/justteachone/, where you will also find some wonderful teaching reflections from colleagues in the field. This past semester, another group of volunteers has been teaching “The History of Constantius and Pulchera,” and their reflections on this experience will be available later this spring.
On an idealistic level, I must admit I was initially ambivalent about the project. Since one of my many hats is book history, I strongly believe in getting my students as close as possible to original texts that looked as they did at the time rather than modern re-creations. But I’ve learned from several instances of using materials from Early American Imprints or America’s Historical Newspapers in the classroom that students struggle mightily not only with the orthography, vocabulary, and other grammar and syntax issues (which, secretly, I want them to struggle with to get at the flavor of the piece in question), but also with the quality of the images, smudging of ink, and the difficulty of printing out non-standard pages onto 8.5×11 sheets. In other words, after a few semesters I’m starting to look around for better ways to do it.
There are other places to find modern facsimile editions (even open-access!). I found, for example, a digital edition of A Brief History of the Warr with the Indians of New England, Increase Mather’s 1676 account of King Philip’s War. It’s great, and the editor, Paul Royster, has posted a number to the Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska. The key insight of Just Teach One, if it succeeds, is to combine that editorial work with close-to-live reviews of how the texts actually work in the classroom.
The site currently has a strong literary focus, coming as it does out of discussions among literary historians. The first two texts, “Amelia: Or, the Faithless Briton,” and “The History of Constantius and Pulchera,” are both novellas first published in magazines during the early Republic. If you read the set of posts from instructors who utilized the JTO edition of Amelia in their classrooms last fall, it’s striking how many paired it with either The Coquette or Charlotte Temple, the two most famous of the sentimental fiction novels of the 1790s. Many taught it in graduate or upper-level undergraduate courses on women and gender, race and captivity, or the period of the early Republic. Several taught it in a lower-level literature survey, with mixed results.
As a historian, I’m selfishly interested in learning and thinking more deeply about how such literary texts might be employed in a history course. I enjoy reading and teaching both The Coquette and Charlotte Temple, though both are far too long given the structure of the survey courses at my university. But Amelia? Maybe. In this regard, Elizabeth Hewitt’s discussion of the book in her literature survey points to the best possible outcome. She described the novella as a “remarkably economical text” that “does a lot of work:”
We were able to discuss the history of the novel and read an example of one in a relatively primitive form. We were able to discuss the importance of the magazine as the delivery system for narrative fiction. We were able to talk about the novel as an epitome of the classic tropes of the seduction tale. We were able to use it to consider the tendency towards moral didacticism in popular literary fiction. We were able to discuss the family romance allegory that shapes post-revolutionary rhetoric.
As I said, a best-case scenario. Honestly I’m not sure about the early US survey, but possibly in my Early American Republic course. However, I’m not offering either again until Spring 2014, so don’t hold your breath for commentary from me.
In total, this is an important project that could help bring underutilized texts into the undergraduate classroom across several disciplines, and I applaud the linking of the scholarly endeavor of editing with pedagogy across a range of institutions. My only questions revolve around what else may be in store in the future—so far, Faherty and White have publicly offered only one additional text for consideration. Last, I hope that as the project develops it aims for the best of the interdisciplinarity that early American studies, and in particular Common-place, have to offer. The literary historians can’t have all the fun!
In the meantime (and in that spirit), my brain is already firing with possible texts I’d want to see included. (Anyone up for a few newspaper issues?)