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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is thomas-paine-2.jpg

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.


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.

Teaching the Crucible in the Post-Truth Era

Actual still frame from The Crucible (1996). No alterations have been detected.

“We burn a hot fire here; it melts down all concealment. Are you certain in your conscience, Mister, that your evidence is the truth?” – Deputy Gov. Danforth, The Crucible, ACT 3.

Dear College Professor,

As you may have read, I recently taught The Crucible in my 11th-grade English class. I know what you’re thinking. “I read The Crucible in high school in 1990, you read The Crucible in high school in 1971, you’re teaching The Crucible in 2019. What’s the diff, man?” When I first started teaching The Crucible last year, I didn’t know either.

But this year, I kind of started to, which is why I wrote the first part of this article, where I explained some of the difficulties I was encountering this year, and how I hoped to work around them. In this second part, I’m going to tell you how my solutions worked out, and what I learned about my students and myself.

Since I was once a College Professor, perhaps one not that different from you, I’m hoping that my observations about my students’ political and information literacy will help you prepare to teach this same body of students as they enter your classrooms.

If we limit ourselves to the historical context of the 1950’s, The Crucible is not a difficult text to teach. It’s when we try to help our students examine the play’s relationship with our 21st-century politics that things get sticky.

In 1952, the already acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller used the plot and setting of Salem Witch Trials as the foundation for an allegory about his own experiences during the Red Scare of the 1950’s. During this decade U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy led the House Un-American Activities Committee to accuse numerous Americans, based on little or no evidence, of being communist spies. Miller represented the contagious panic and mass-hysteria of the Salem Community to show his audience how a search for truth and justice had become corrupted by fear and a compulsion among the political elite for self-preservation.

As a result of Miller’s play, as Erin Cassese recently explained in a recent Vox article, the term “Witch-Hunt” entered the American consciousness as a means to describe a government-led, fear-driven persecution of marginalized members of society (often, as in the Salem Witch Trials and the Red Scare, women) for scapegoats. Did you notice that woman being inappropriately assertive? She might be a witch, or a communist.

But as Cassesse points out, our modern “Witch Hunts” – the term invoked by President Trump each time his actions are investigated or his authority questioned, “are often invoked defensively by men in positions of power and authority.” Calling investigations into patriarchal abuse of power, be they Trump’s alleged collusion with foreign powers or accusations of sexual assault by men like Brett Kavanaugh (as in this shaky argument), “witch-hunts” does more than undermine their veracity in the public eye – it delegitimizes them, and repositions the powerful as victims.

This second point – about the way that the term “Witch Hunt” has been co-opted by men those who control the apparatuses of state power – is the lesson that I find both more important for my students to understand, and found impossible to teach in my classroom. But it’s the point I find most important because it’s about language and literature and the way language changes. About how a term used to describe the abuse of the weak by the powerful has been co-opted to protect the already powerful. Whether or not we believe Kavanaugh, for example, or even sympathize with his outrage, the use of the term “Witch Hunt” has changed – and this is relevant to an American literature classroom.

When I tried to discuss this problem of language with my students, they were mostly silent. It’s true that they’re in high school – many of these students don’t follow politics closely. But probably fewer of your students do than you think, either. Yet, I found that they are nonetheless exposed to the modern use of the term, through either their social media or their parent’s television sets. Yet, because of the disparity between the ways that conservative and mainstream media sources portray current events, a classroom cannot create a consensus because it cannot agree on basic facts.

As I told you in my last post, in an attempt to remedy this problem, I asked my students to research a controversial current event that has been characterized in the news media as a “Witch Hunt.” I asked them to then write an essay that argued whether their event really is a Witch Hunt. In other words, based on their research, are the accusations driven by actual evidence of wrongdoing, or by mass hysteria and desire for political power.

Well, I’ve now had time to read their essays, and to reflect on what I learned from reading them. I’m ready to share with you, reader.

And the main thing I found: finding good, unquestionably unbiased and reliable sources about current events is getting to be kind of a sticky situation.

When Things Are Sticky

Quand y’en a marre […] via Adrien Leguay

As in any research project, our choice of sources will often determine the answers to our research questions. When I taught research in college, and when I teach it now, I try to teach my students how to identify reliable sources and to avoid unreliable sources.

My students made a lot of mistakes in this part of their projects. Often, these were the same mistakes my college students typically made – failing to understand the difference between an editorial/opinion piece and investigative journalism, for example. Or relying heavily on sources that did not analyze any primary information, but whose primary purpose was just to generate web traffic. Or accepting the face-value assertions that their source is non-partison when just a little digging reveals it’s sponsored by an oil company or something. So, I need to teach this better. You might consider the idea of placing an emphasis on this area, too.

There is no oil in the water. Coast Guard_100618-G-5176S-237-oil via Florida Sea Grant

On the other hand, I found that when we’re researching current events, it’s much more difficult to find the lines between a reliable source and an unreliable source than when we’re doing the research typical of the college classroom. We can’t just say “use only peer-reviewed sources.” If you’ve ever tried using your university-provided databases for research on a topic less than a couple of years old, you’ll know it doesn’t work that well.

When we leave the sources open to the online sources that could be arguably deemed reliable, which I did when I assigned the “Witch Hunt” project to my students, students can find the “facts” to support either side of an issue. My students found the sources to support arguments that Trump and Kavanaugh are victims, as well as that their victims are victims. They were not always sources I necessarily liked. But they were sources that, based on my initial online surveys, their families and immediate social circles would find reasonable.

Faced with this issue, I’m aware that some teachers make a list of prohibited sources. For example, you can use CNN but not FOX. You can use the Washington Post but not the New York Post. But I’ll tell you, it’s really easy to alienate your students by telling them that the primary sources of news accepted as unbiased in their household are really propaganda.

The Fire of Concealment

Fire! Via D4E

In your research and in my research peer-review is the gold standard but there is no peer review for current events because no one can agree on who has authority. Our standard news conduits leave open questions we would have once deemed reasonable to all but conspiracy theorists. What is reliable information? Is it the Attorney General of the United States? Is it the Central Intelligence Agency or the President of Russia?

In the United States we cannot agree on the answer to these questions as a society. In teaching The Crucible this year, I’ve come to doubt that it is not reasonable to presume that I can solve them in my classroom.

In Act 3 of the Crucible, the protagonist John Proctor who, as the saying goes, has 99 problems with him but being a witch is not one of them, tells Deputy Governor Danforth, the judge of the play’s Salem Witch trials, that Abigail Williams and the other accusers are lying. To prove this, John Proctor calls on Mercy Warren, who has herself accused others of witchcraft, to testify. Danforth warns Proctor: “We burn a hot fire here; it melts down all concealment. Are you certain in your conscience, Mister, that your evidence is the truth.”

Danforth’s fire is one of purification, that burns the impurities away from society. But what if our 21st-century fire does not “melt down all concealment” but instead burns so brightly that none can see what is behind it? What if this fire burns so long that we come to question whether there is any truth behind it, at all? Maybe this is the danger. Maybe this is the lesson of The Crucible in the Post-Truth Era.


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.