A Tale of the Classroom: Introducing Richard Dunn’s Book to Undergraduates

Dunn Roundtable CoverRichard Dunn has written a big book. Normally, big books like Dunn’s are primarily meant for fellow academics, grad students who need to pad their comps list, and the super-interested general public. (That category still exists, right? Right?) For academics, these types of books influence two aspects of our scholarly life: our own academic projects and our classroom instruction. The previous participants in the roundtable have focused on A Tale of Two Plantations’s contribution to the former category, while I would like to focus my remarks on the latter. So I am going to skip the basic parameters of a book review—namely, identifying the key arguments and weaknesses of the volume—and focus on how this book can work with undergraduate students. 

Before I get started, it should be noted that the size of the volume makes it very difficult to assign to undergraduate readers, unless it is an upper-division class with history majors who are dedicated to their craft and don’t have much of a life. (I mean, I have a hard enough time getting students to read a monograph over 200 pages.) I’ve already blogged about this problem before, where I propped Alan Taylor up as the villain of all our syllabi.[1] So in most cases, the entirety of Dunn’s book will likely not work as an assigned text.

But portions of Dunn’s work might work quite well, so let me highlight three ways in which I think A Tale of Two Plantations can be profitably used in the classroom.

First, the book achieves in describing something that I’ve found to be crucial for understanding the development of slavery: the differences between mainland and Caribbean plantation systems, and how the two interacted with one another. It is important, I think, for students to recognize the distinctions of American slavery, especially within a broader non-American framework, so this book serves as an important tool. Usually, I’d use something like Vincent Brown’s Reaper’s Garden, and then fill in the differences with continental America’s history, but A Tale of Two Plantations places those differences right in front of us. For example, chapters 1 and 8 in the book would serve as excellent introductions for students to understand the difference of slavery in the Caribbean and the continental United States; at the least, those chapters are excellent resources for when I make my own classroom lecture on the topic.

Second, the book also offers helpful case studies that allow students to understand particular elements of slave labor: for instance, Chapter 3 offers a compelling story of slave family disruption in Virginia, while chapter 6 traces the influence of Moravian missions and the role of religion in general in a Jamaican slave plantation. Both of these chapters work well on their own without having to read the entirety of the volume, and offer students a glimpse of the much larger project. These chapters bring an element of humanity to what are sometimes difficult stories to grasp, and make the study of slavery much more intimate. Just like Alan Taylor’s books, I’ve found that these case-study-centered chapters work great as stand-alone reading assignments, especially when they are coupled with the book’s introduction so that they can grasp how the chapter fits within the larger project.

Third, exposing the students to the book, or at least portions of the book, introduce key questions of the historical craft. Dunn is pulling from a very interesting, if limited, set of primary sources, and engaging what he has done with them raises a lot of questions. (As an earlier contribution to this roundtable has already highlighted.) This is the kind of book that you can actually engage in class, and show where you are uncomfortable with some of the author’s approaches and analyses.

This last point is all the more possible since they created a wonderfully interactive website, www.twoplantations.com, to go along with the book. At the website, students can investigate the genealogical records themselves, and see what they could do with the sources at their disposal. A useful assignment might include having students, after they have read a chapter in A Tale of Two Plantations, explore the site and come up with competing interpretations of the sources. This type of interactive website is a very welcome feature and makes the volume all the more enticing within a classroom setting.

More fundamentally, and perhaps more easily, Dunn’s book should, even if we don’t force our students to read it, buttress much of our own lectures. There are a wealth of examples and data in the volume’s pages to add color and vibrancy to our discussions of plantation life in the Caribbean and Virginia. In my lecture notes for when I discuss slavery in the Caribbean, I plan to use the story of the slave woman Affy (chapter 2), whose life highlights issues of interracial sex as well as religious conversion in Jamaica. I also plan to use a lot of the nitty-gritty details Dunn has gleaned from the two foundations to offer two case studies of how plantations imported, treated, and exported slaves on the eve of emancipation. In short, I found A Tale of Two Plantations an immensely helpful volume when it came to translatable data for undergraduate lectures.

The historiographical impact and interpretive rigor of the book will certainly be debated, and A Tale of Two Plantations may take a heavy shot or two. But it is also a substantial achievement that provides lessons not only for academic discussions concerning slavery but also undergraduate classrooms trying to make sense of the past.

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[1] I’ve also come upon this issue recently with Ed Baptist’s book, which I found perfect for the classroom—if it wasn’t for its intimidating size.

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