Teaching Failure: Aunt Phillis’s Cabin

PALS blog contributors highlight their best teaching experiences and most successful lesson plans as a means to inspire other educators in the field of American literary studies. Yet all of us have had experiences when we were not at our best, we let our students down, or something just did not work in the classroom. Acknowledging our teaching failures, along with our successes, is part of a reflective pedagogical practice that ultimately enhances our own teaching and our students’ learning.

Looking back on it, I can now see that assigning Aunt Phillis’s Cabin (1852) by Mary H. Eastman, a pro-slavery response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), was a bad idea. A very, very bad idea. Yet even this teaching failure was an opportunity for pedagogical reflection that has helped me rethink what I am trying to do in my classroom when I ask my students to consider the legacies of slavery and racism in American literature.

In fall 2015, I taught a freshman seminar entitled “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: An American Classic on Trial.” The purpose of the course was to familiarize first-year students with Stowe’s novel, its popularity, its problematic racial politics, and its cultural longevity. While we studied its success as an abolitionist novel, we also considered Stowe’s use of pernicious racist stereotypes. We read both glowing and critical nineteenth-century reviews of the novel along with James Baldwin’s scathing critique, “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” At the end of the semester, students read Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987), another portrayal of nineteenth-century slavery, escape, and redemption. I wanted students to see all perspectives on Stowe’s novel—positive, negative, historical, contemporary—in order to think about the power of literature to change the world.

Because this seminar was also a general education requirement connected to the teaching of writing and critical thinking skills, we examined how the novel used specific characters to make anti-slavery or rebut pro-slavery arguments. To that end, the class learned about “anti-Tom novels” by southern authors, a plethora of which appeared soon after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These responses to Stowe’s successful novel were written with the aims of “defending the plantation as a good place… [and] depicting blacks as either happy in slavery or racially aunt phillis cabinunfit for freedom.” Aunt Phillis’s Cabin; or, Southern Life As It Is was the most popular of these novels, selling 20,000-30,000 copies.

I assigned Aunt Phillis’s Cabin as an example of the pro-slavery arguments Stowe had to address so that my students could better appreciate the milieu in which her work was originally written and received. Since the novel responded to specific scenes and characters from Stowe’s work, reading it would engender discussions of intertextuality and deepen students’ thinking about the success, popularity, and effectiveness of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an abolitionist novel. The students had already researched the various pro-slavery and anti-slavery debates in the nineteenth-century, including nineteenth-century theories of racial difference, but as I found, they were not prepared to read Eastman’s novel.

They hated everything about the book. First, it is an overtly racist novel and many students were distressed and upset by that. Some of the students thought I was presenting Eastman’s pro-slavery novel as a literary and moral equal to Stowe’s abolitionist novel—just another “equally good” perspective. Second, it is poorly written and very bad literature. I had planned for us to discuss its cultural significance, not its literary merit. But that did not matter.

After reading Aunt Phillis’s Cabin, the students came to class outraged. They did not want to discuss the questions about intertextuality and argumentation I had carefully prepared for class discussion. They just kept asking, “Why did you make us read this?” For these first-year students, the fact that a college professor had assigned this book and placed it on a syllabus signaled the book’s legitimacy. I soon realized that whatever pedagogical point I was trying to make by teaching the novel was lost.

I clarified the reasons why I had assigned the novel, and then admitted that my reasons were no longer relevant based on the class’s unified reaction. I told the students that their response was so strong that I would never teach Eastman’s novel again in that course. (If I ever need to explain “anti-Tom literature” in upper-division American literature classes, I will provide an excerpt.) I apologized to the students, specifically to those who were upset by the racism expressed in Aunt Phillis’s Cabin. I encouraged students to come to my office hours if they wanted to discuss their concerns with me more.

I had built enough rapport with the students over the semester to assure them that I was not trying to provide a platform for Eastman’s racist worldview. I cut the novel from the syllabus altogether and gave students the option to write about something else for the response paper I had assigned on Aunt Phillis’s Cabin. To be sure, many students wrote on the novel anyway and had a great time tearing it to shreds.

The next week we moved on to reading Beloved which is a challenging, explicit, and controversial novel, but one written to expose the racist legacies of slavery, not to perpetuate that racism. Today those students—who will graduate in May— tell me that Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Beloved are among the best books they read in college. I query them hopefully, “I bet you don’t even remember that one book that everyone in the class hated. What was it called again? Aunt Phillis’s Cabin or something like that?” Nope. They still remember.

I realize now that even if I had sound pedagogical reasons for teaching a pro-slavery novel that the effect it had on my students and my classroom was not worth it. Indeed, racist and white supremacist discourse has received so much renewed legitimacy in recent years that I would rather use precious class time and syllabus space to amplify unequivocally anti-racist voices—to the extent that I no longer even teach Stowe. The seminar on Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a useful pedagogical exercise to help students think through the complicated racist politics of Stowe’s day and our own. But I now believe it is more pedagogically responsible to teach inspiring examples of social justice and anti-racist activism through the work of writers such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, William Wells Brown, Pauline Hopkins, and Charles Chesnutt.

To my students from that 2015 seminar who had to suffer through Aunt Phillis’s Cabin, I’ll say it again: I am so, so sorry! As you go into the world and make it a better place, I know that each of you will follow Harriet Beecher Stowe’s commandment to “feel right.” But I also know you will do more than that as you live your values of equality of justice. You are going to follow the spirit of Sojourner Truth and make this nation “rock like a cradle.”

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2 thoughts on “Teaching Failure: Aunt Phillis’s Cabin

  1. I don’t even know what to say beyond how any teacher in their mind can rationalize teaching something like this. How white are you? The mental gymnastics one needs to go through to justify teaching a text like this in the first place is beyond words. Try taking off your white hood before you design a syllabus next time.

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