Addressing Despair in the Classroom: An Ecocritical Approach to Non-Canonical American Writers

PALS Note: This is the second post from Christina Katopodis about her novel approaches to the American literature survey. Read below for her ideas on combatting despair in face of the many injustices and tragedies in American literary history. And find her first post here

In my last post, I talked about building community in the classroom, something I value as a teacher because it means simultaneously establishing a safe and flexible learning environment. The community-building began with the nature walk and class blog, in shared experiential learning. The ecocritical framework to the course, from the walk to the readings, bolstered a sense of solidarity in the classroom that we discovered we needed later in the semester. One additional goal I had for “American Literature: Origins to the Civil War” was to center America’s origins around her founding mothers and people of color in addition to the “city on a hill” story. While I view this as a good strategy, I didn’t anticipate despair in the classroom when we encountered the never-ending violence of nation-building on multiple fronts. The underlying ecocritical framework to the course became a method to combat despair with activism.

Reading Dissonance in American History: Indian Removal & The Noble Savage
To construct a feminist American origin story from the outset, we devoted time to Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, and Hannah Dustan, women in and on the edge of the wilderness. From risking the dangers of childbirth to committing murder, these women demonstrated that life in the wilderness was all about survival, skill, and reason. Despite the Calvinist doctrine of passivity, they didn’t have time to be victims. In early American captivity narratives, the wilderness was a space in which transgressing gender boundaries was palatable even to Calvinist readers.

Bridging early American origin stories and nineteenth-century reimaginings, we read the introductions to Deloria’s Playing Indian and Mielke’s Moving Encounters. There’s little room for secondary reading in a survey course, but both were a fantastic investment of class time. Playing Indian provides context for the Boston Tea Party, from appropriations of Native American identity under the guise of radical freedom to shedding the costume after the war to adopt Indian Removal politics. Likewise, Moving Encounters provides several readings of sentimental moments between whites and Native Americans predicated on the death and departure of Native Americans.

We discussed the Indian Removal Act (1830) at length while reading Hope Leslie and Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Teaching the two together was extremely rewarding. Students loved Hope Leslie—it’s an exciting tale that reimagines the Pocahontas story very differently from John Smith’s telling. According to David Reynolds, Magawisca is portrayed as an angel of the forest, which counterbalances the nineteenth century “Angel of the House” stereotype. Students strongly sympathize with Magawisca, more so than any other character, yet this compulsion to empathize warrants addressing the problematic portrayal of the noble savage. The novel can easily lead into the trap of apology but Mielke’s book prepares students to problematize Magawisca’s sentimental departure. Then, and I highly recommend teaching them in this order, students view Cooper’s novel very differently: the disguises are all taken off at the end and racial boundaries are clearly restored. The love stories in Hope Leslie disguise this, whereas Cooper’s racism is obvious. The secondary readings bring this contradiction to the forefront: students understand that novels sympathetic to Native Americans may also be supportive of Indian Removal.

Race and Gender in the Wilderness: Intersectionality & Environment
The wilderness in both novels plays a large role in representations of race and gender. In Hope Leslie, the potential love between Magawisca and Everell is acceptable only when they are young and living on the edge of the wilderness, the borderline of “civil” and “savage” that gets wider with age. In the wilderness, Magawisca’s arm is severed in the act of saving Everell’s life. It’s clear she is a warrior who saves Everell instead of being saved. Likewise, at sea, Hope uses her education (more specifically, her Latin) to escape from a band of drunken sailors chasing her. Sedgwick’s refusal to write women as incapable victims recalls the early captivity narratives; she uses the wilderness as a place to test gender boundaries and break them.

While racial boundaries seem clear in Mohicans, Cooper’s view of masculinity is not. Heyward is a charming suitor for Alice Munro when he’s standing in Colonel Munro’s office, but in the wilderness he’s incompetent, always falling asleep on watch, and rather pathetic for a hero compared to the skilled Chingachgook and Uncas. Yet Heyward displays gentlemanliness, weary of violence, establishing himself as “civil” and not “savage” in comparison. Gender and race intersect in different ways depending on the ground a character stands on, or what his ambitions are. We read Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick through a similar framework but adding in disability studies, the white whale symbolizing whole masculinity, endlessly deferred.

Finding Individual Accountability: Transcendentalism & Self-Reliance
Both Cooper and Melville can be read using animal studies, but this can also lead to despair when discussing the pigeon shooting in Cooper’s The Pioneers or the whaling industry. When students expressed mounting anxiety about deforestation, climate change, and animal extinction, I told them to go back to Thoreau and to connect his love of nature to civil disobedience and activism. The “Economy” chapter of Walden is as much about Thoreau’s financial accounts as it is a philosophy of personal accountability.

As the irony of the Declaration of Independence infiltrated class discussion, and the revolutionary American spirit lost its romance, the Emersonian part of my pedagogy kicked in: I believe that students need to go out into their environments and decide for themselves what justice is and what they need to do to achieve what feels most true to them. I ask them to do some self-reflection, form their own ideas and back them up with evidence and analysis, and, in turn, form their identities and career paths. Emerson asks, “Where do we find ourselves?” That, to me, is what college should be about. At least, it’s a good time to start questioning.

A student spoke up in class one day to tell us about her younger brother who was studying 8th grade American History. He told her what he was learning and she said he had it all wrong, fact-checking his history book based on what she had learned in our class. This moment became an example of how students were already taking a first step to making change happen. I used the structure of the course to argue that we were already working toward justice by doing justice to people as well as the animals and lands that have been marginalized in history. I said it was up to them to do something with that knowledge. There are worse things to be accused of than being an optimist.

Despair in the Classroom: Teaching Slave Narratives

Image via PBS

Most students define “American” at the beginning of the semester using words like “freedom,” “acceptance,” and “equality,” probably based on their 8th grade history class. But the American origin story becomes an even more obvious myth when we talk about the Fugitive Slave Law (1850). The connections between America’s origins and today’s politics lead quickly to disillusionment and despair. Concurrent discourse in the media about shootings, the second amendment, Black Lives Matter, and police brutality had trickled into class discussion throughout the semester because they were so relevant. It quickly became apparent that not much has changed in the country’s violent history.

I think we reached a breaking point at Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. I had framed Incidents as a narrative about survival instead of victimhood, but disillusionment with “the land of the free” made it hard to view her as anything but a victim. As I discussed Dr. Flint’s power over Linda Brent, a student in the back of the room repeatedly commented, “but that’s so sad.” I opened my mouth and then stopped the protective teacher impulse because empathy is not enough, and there are zero “take backsies” in history.

The best thing I think we can do for our students is to treat violence and injustice as content and not as metaphor. For example, rape isn’t a literary device, no matter how many times you teach Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.” That’s why I teach consent in the college classroom, treating my students as actants and survivors, young Cora Munros and Magawiscas instead of victims.

Addressing Despair: Choosing Literature that leads to Social & Environmental Justice
Empathy and anger are only preliminary, limited responses to literature. Literature leads to activism, which is the best way to argue for its relevance today. Stowe’s sentimental novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, although it has many, many problems, nevertheless served as evidence in Congress to argue for the abolition of slavery. This course ended in the spirit of social justice once we openly acknowledged our despair and talked about it together as a class.

Central Park - Harlem Meer copy
Central Park via the author

This fall I’m working environmental justice into the syllabus and tying it to social justice. I’m inspired by my colleagues Kaitlin Mondello and Becky Fullan and their work at John Jay on this blog: Sustainability & Environmental Justice. I will be asking students to pledge to do one thing that is environmentally sustainable for the duration of the semester and to write a reflection about the experience as one of their blog posts. If we reach a moment of despair about climate change, I can remind them that they are already taking part in a solution, similar to the work of questioning and reading critically. I hope the disillusionment will turn into an optimistic sense of social and environmental responsibility as well as a belief that they will effect change in their adult lives.

Contributor Bio:

IMG_4852088740534 copyChristina Katopodis is a 19th Century Americanist, Adjunct Lecturer at Hunter College, and an English PhD student at the Graduate Center CUNY. Christina’s dissertation brings together American Transcendentalism and Sound Studies, examining vibrational epistemology in the works of Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and William James. Her teaching philosophy balances backwards pedagogy with student-driven learning, aiming to empower individual students by providing flexible learning environments in the classroom and online. She draws from a variety of approaches to make texts accessible, allow individual students to progress at different paces, and encourages intellectual risk-taking in class discussions, collaborative group work, and using media platforms from blogs to Twitter. For further information, check out her website, where she also blogs about teaching.


2 thoughts on “Addressing Despair in the Classroom: An Ecocritical Approach to Non-Canonical American Writers

  1. Reblogged this on Christina Katopodis and commented:
    Pedagogy and American Literary Studies (PALS) invited me last month to write a guest post on teaching the American Literature Survey Course. While collaborating and making edits, the wonderful team at PALS gave me an opportunity to write a second post about something else that happened in the course:


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