Pedagogical Lessons from the Transcendentalists: 2017 NEH Summer Institute in Concord

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Part 1: New Contexts for Teaching Henry David Thoreau

I participated in the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on “Transcendentalism and Reform in the Age of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller” this past June 18-July 1 in Concord, Massachusetts. The Institute was co- sponsored by the Community College Humanities Association and organized by Sandra Petrulionis of the University of Pennsylvania, Altoona. Along with Dr. Petrulionis, a Thoreau scholar, Institute participants learned from other major scholars of American literature and Transcendentalism such as Phyllis Cole, Robert Gross, Megan Marshall, John Matteson, Wesley Mott, Joel Myerson, Lance Newman, Melissa Pennell, and Laura Dassow Walls.

Twenty-five professors from around the nation, representing a wide range of institution types–community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, large state universities, and regional state colleges–attended the Institute. Along with lectures from visiting faculty and field trips around Concord, the Institute included several opportunities for participants to talk about pedagogy and teaching. The twenty-five faculty members who were at the two-week Institute will teach approximately 3,100 students across the country in the 2017-2018 academic year, and, collectively, tens of thousands of students over the courses of their careers.

I attended the Institute to develop a new course called “Rise Up! Protest and Dissent in American Literature” which will highlight several nineteenth-century American writers, including many of the Transcendentalists. (I plan to write about this course for PALS soon.) This is the first of two PALS blog posts about my experiences at the NEH Summer Institute in Concord. Today’s post will focus on Henry David Thoreau, and my next post will be on “Teaching Women and Transcendentalism.”

Beyond the “Hermeneutics of Suspicion”

The Institute left me with new contexts for teaching Henry David Thoreau, who I had all too often taught as the reclusive and misanthropic author of Walden and as completely disengaged from the people and world around him. In fact, over the years I had skeptically taught Thoreau with the cynical tone represented by Kathryn Schulz in “Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s Moral Myopia.” Schulz claims “[t]he real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” But an Institute lecture from Thoreau biographer Laura Dassow Walls made me realize that I had been reading and teaching Thoreau through a hyperactive “hermeneutics of suspicion.” In my case, my suspicion was that Thoreau was a white, male author historically taught, studied, and valorized at the expense of nineteenth-century women and minority writers.

But I’ve come to see that while teaching an inclusive canon of American literature, there is plenty of room for Thoreau. A recent biography by Walls, Thoreau: A Life, published just this summer to commemorate the 200-year anniversary of his birth, portrays Thoreau as a complex and principled writer, thinker, and activist:

“…he was a loving son, a devoted friend, a lively and charismatic presence who  filled the room, laughed and danced, sang and teased and wept…. [He was] a writer of world-class achievement; a natural scientist who gave us the deep poetry of nature writing; a political activist who, in the name of the common good, gave the weak their most powerful tool against the strong; and a spiritual seeker who encouraged every one of us to enter into the great experiment of life.”

Indeed, taught in this historical and biographical context, Thoreau can help our students think more deeply about concerns that many of them bring to the classroom after the election of 2016, particularly the perils and rewards of social and political activism.

Thoreau as a Radical Abolitionist

This semester I’ll teach Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government,” an account of his night spent in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax in opposition to the expansion of slavery and the U.S.-Mexican War. Viewed solely through the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” Thoreau’s action seems naive and futile, as his aunt soon paid his tax and he was released from the Concord jail. But what I learned from Institute faculty such as Petrulionis and Walls is that Thoreau was a committed and even radical abolitionist. His family hosted escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad, and he was an ardent supporter of John Brown before the fatal raid on Harpers Ferry. Thoreau’s support of Brown, his family, and his collaborators continued even after Brown’s death.

Learning about Thoreau in Concord made me realize that he was a person of conviction who used not just his literary voice, but also his actions, to live out those convictions and make a difference in the world. My students are looking for models and guidance as they become more involved in social movements and activism in our politically divided country. A nuanced consideration of Thoreau’s “civil disobedience” and his involvement in the abolitionist movement can help students sharpen their thinking about how their beliefs translate into deliberate action in the world. Thoreau might inspire them to “be a counter-friction to stop the machine,” while his frustrations may help them navigate the dissonance between political ideals and realities.

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Place-Based Learning: Thoreau in Concord

As a professor at a liberal arts college, I often tout the benefits of “place based learning” and the impact  of out-of-class experiences on students’ classroom learning. However, I was not prepared for the benefits that place-based learning in Concord would have for me and how I would teach Thoreau. Certainly walking the few miles from Concord to Walden Pond along the “Emerson-Thoreau Amble” and viewing the iconic pond from the site of Thoreau’s cabin will inform the way I teach Thoreau in the future. My experience in Concord was embedded in Thoreau’s life and history as I daily walked past the house where he lived with his aunts and sisters, the town hall where delivered Lyceum lectures to the community, and the site of the jail where he spent the night in 1848.

Learning about Thoreau in Concord gave me a better sense of Thoreau as an authentic and sincere person and inspired me to bring place-based experiences into all of my teaching. This will be difficult to do with my students in north Texas, thousands of miles away from New England. But the next time I teach Walden, I will ask students to connect to the literature through their own sense of place. I will ask them to think and write about their own Walden, a place on campus or their hometowns where they can experience peace and the satisfaction and inspiration of being alone.

Many of my Texas students, like Thoreau in Concord, grew up in small towns. I will ask students to consider how the people and places in those towns shaped their worldviews. Many of my students will be able to relate to Robert A. Gross’s, a historian of Concord, observation that “Thoreau was locked in a lifelong quarrel with fellow citizens to whom he was inextricably bound by a thousand, imperceptible ties.” Yet my students, like Thoreau, feel a sense of pride about where they are from and are grateful for their formative experiences there. As Thoreau wrote of Concord, “I have never got over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in all the world, and in the very nick of time, too.”

 

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And Finally, “Huckleberries”

Many participants in the Institute routinely teach Thoreau’s most well known works such as Walden Pond and “Resistance to Civil Government,” but we were delighted to be introduced to Thoreau’s essay on “Huckleberries.” Dr. Lance Newman assigned this essay when he spoke to us on Thoreau and environmental justice. The essay is a natural and cultural history of the huckleberry and argues against the commodification of land and environment in a capitalist society. This essay would be a lively addition to any syllabus on American literature, environmental writing, or creative non-fiction.

In the essay, Thoreau writes of local huckleberry parties where his companions brought “remarkably shaped dishes,” including “a coffee-pot to the huckleberry field” to make it easier to sneak tastes of the huckleberries they gathered. He maintains that the local berry patches are vital to the education of the young, as “[t]hese berries are further important as introducing children to the woods.” He claims that “I served my apprenticeship and have since done considerable journeywork in the huckleberry field,” and wonders “[w]hy such haste to go from the huckleberry field to the College yard?”

“Huckleberries” reminds us of the social Thoreau, who needs to be taught as a vibrant if vexing person, a paradoxical and principled activist, and a humorous and humane writer who still has much to teach our students about their own place and experiences in the world today.

Coming soon, Part 2: Teaching Women and Transcendentalism.

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3 thoughts on “Pedagogical Lessons from the Transcendentalists: 2017 NEH Summer Institute in Concord

  1. What a wonderful post, and what an important point you make about the “social Thoreau.” At digitalthoreau.org, we’re also great fans of the social Thoreau, and we’ve built a site for readers to be social in reading him. You and your readers here may be interested in looking at commons.digitalthoreau.org, where you can have conversation right in the margins of “Walden” or “Resistance to Civil Government.” You can set up a class as a private reading group or read publicly with others. You can also find scholarship here (including essays shared by Sandra Petrulionis), and you can share your own scholarship or teaching materials. Look forward to your post on women and transcendentalism!

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