Texting Thomas Paine: Connecting 18th-Century Politics and 21st-Century Students

Now that it’s just us American literature teachers here, we’re finally free to admit it. We find the works of Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, Abigail Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and other American revolutionary-era authors the most exciting we have ever experienced. Their poetical expression of political ideals, their adept use of parallelism and synecdoche, and their religious fervor against AnglOppression give light to our days and keep us awake at night.

To paraphrase the early republican poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, the writing of the revolution arouses our blood like red hot lava. And that’s pretty hot.

But if we have any capacity to read the barometer of a classroom, we also recognize that sometimes, once in a while, every so often, our students do not feel the same enthusiasm for revolutionary-era writing. Especially when we are teaching a survey course, which is when most of us teach these authors, and it’s the only time when most of our students will ever encounter them.

Sometimes we even get resistance. This presents a quandary for teachers of American literature. These texts are both canonical and critical to the understanding of the development of global democracy. But their language and structure can feel archaic to the youth of the 21st-century, their points of view too homogenous to inspire a diverse society.

Yet, as I tell my students, revolutionary writers were ginormously popular among 18th-century audiences, on both sides of the Atlantic. What made Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry household names were just not their ideas – which had been articulated decades before by philosophers like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau – but their delivery of these ideas in everyday language through popular types of media. Patrick Henry’s Speech to the Virginia Convention was printed in so many newspapers he would have been, like, Tik Tok Famous. Thomas Paine was such a shameless self-promoter that if he could have Tweeted Common Sense he could. Or if he put it on the Facebook he’d be that person with like 20,000 friends he barely knew.

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One reason Paine and Henry’s writing was so popular, even, I daresay, viral, was that they knew their audience. They adapted philosophical and legal concepts that maybe our students find to be a drag when they read the Declaration of Independence, for example. But when Thomas Paine said them, people got all excited like it was an ice cream truck coming down the road. When Thomas Paine said his ideas were Common Sense what he really meant was that he was going to put ideas that were difficult for many people to understand in a language that could persuade common people.

One thing that is true though? Is that today’s audience of “common people” does not have the same expectations as Paine’s readers. In order for ideas to go viral in the 21st century, long sentences and extended analogies probably won’t work the best. Nor are current readers likely to eagerly pass political pamphlets from hand to hand down the halls of the college campus, as readers did with Common Sense. But short sentences, memes, texts, and videos are quite persuasive today – so persuasive that millions of dollars are spent each day to promote political ideas on social media.

I find, like anybody finds probably, that students’ brains must be forced to engage with 18-century political writing. It just doesn’t slide through them like an episode of Archie on Netflix. But if I ask students to re-articulate revolutionary texts on their own terms, I’ve found that sometimes I can get students to push such writing past the frontier of resistance and allow them to grasp their complexities and arguments by putting them in their own language. I’ve also found that asking them to work in pairs or larger groups not only helps as they brainstorm ideas, but gets them talking and starting to experiment with revolutionary texts before they even realize they are doing so.

Here is a very short version of my prompt:

Revolutionary Texts, Tweets, and Tik Toks

Dear Student,

Do you ever wonder what the literature of the American revolution might look like if it was distributed through chats and memes????

If so, then you are lucky. This project asks you to convert a passage of revolutionary writing into a style and format (text, video, meme, or maybe something I don’t even know about) that would persuade your peers, and which they would be enthusiastic to read or watch.

Choose a passage from the selections by Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, Red Jacket, or Abigail Adams that we have read this semester. Then, in groups of 2 students, you’ll work together to accomplish the following:

    1. Recreate the passage’s argument and rhetorical choices as a string of text messages, a thread of tweets, a short video suitable for the Tik Tok or the YouTube, or a Meme. Make a script, then execute your choices in new media. Note that you’ll be expanding your original writer’s media choices by including visual and/or auditory persuasion. (15 pts)
    2. Compose a short (300 words or more) essay that articulates your creation’s argument and analyzes the rhetorical choices you’ve made to persuade through image, text, and sound (if applicable) rhetorically persuades. (15 pts)
    3. Present your recreation of the text to our class. Show us the original document, your new media creation, and explain how your creation uses audio, visual, and textual modes of communication to make the original writer’s argument in a format appealing to 21st-century consumers. Suggest what social media platforms would effective in distributing your new creation. (10 pts).

Two suggestions I make to my students:

  • They should choose something very short. Choose one concise, discrete unit of thought that can be encapsulated succinctly enough to go into tweets, memes, or short videos, and whose complexity can be captured in a short span of time.
  • I encourage them to use language and other forms of visual and aural code that they and other media consumers of the year 2019 engage with on a daily basis. They can build on popular culture or other social media. They can make it fun and exciting. If I don’t totally understand what they are getting at because I am very old, that’s OK because I have their essay to help me translate and understand their decisions.

I wanted to share one of the most impressive and creative projects.

Based on their interpretation of Common Sense, these students created an imagined exchange of text messages and memes between a loyalist and a revolutionary American. Next, they superimposed Thomas Paine’s face and some dialogue over a key scene from the movie High School Musical 3, which apparently young people. In this duet, the film’s protagonists might be interpreted as personifications of loyalists and revolutionaries lamenting their impending separation after American independence. The creators of this video did a little more than was asked of them. Arguably, the video that they produced is two projects worth of reinterpretation.

One word of caution: if you ask your students to do a project like this, you’re going to get a wide range of results, from projects that are well-produced but misinterpret the primary text, to those who adeptly understand the primary material but for whatever reason couldn’t get technology to quite work, to those who maybe fall short in both literacy and use of technology. You might need to be more hands-on than hands-off as you guide them through the nuances of the original text and refine their ideas.

But the results can be rewarding for students. My students often come away from the project with a sense of mastery they would not obtain from the average analytical essay. And I guarantee that you’re going to learn something too – you might come away with new kinds of media literacy, or even more satisfyingly, a deeper understanding of how your students’ minds and hearts work: how they take things apart, how they connect them and put them back together, and maybe most importantly, what excites them.

I hope you think that this project sounds productive enough for you and your students to experiment with it. Good luck, reader.

And let us know in the comments how you and your students fared! All we have is each other.

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Clay Zuba is an English Teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches American Literature and writing. In 2016, he was awarded a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Delaware. His acclaimed blog love7g.com about Nathaniel Hawthorne is a precursor to his upcoming historical novel Love in the House of the Seven Gables.

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