From time to time we get questions via social media about teaching certain texts. A while ago, for example, John Hay tagged PALS on Twitter with a question about teaching Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World or Elizabeth Stoddard’s The Morgesons.
I passed Hay’s question along to the rest of our PALS Twitter following without any comment.
I’ve thought a lot about Hay’s question since his initial inquiry. I don’t have an answer to the question (based on my firsthand knowledge of teaching these texts), but I have thoughts on the nature of the question as it relates to PALS, its mission, and the authors creating content on our platform.
I should, in theory, be able to answer Hay’s question, but I can’t answer based on any real world experience. Permit me the indulgence to talk about my academic and scholarly background. The bulk of my coursework in graduate school focused on early American literature. My PhD comps list ranged from the American Revolution to the eve of World War I. My primary and secondary comps readings centered on sentimental literature. I wrote a dissertation on Harriet Beecher Stowe. I have “read” The Wide, Wide World and I have read The Morgesons.
This December I’ll be 5 years out from completing my PhD. I should, in theory, have the knowledge and experience to address the merits of teaching The Wide, Wide World or The Moregsons. Five years out from completing a PhD means I should have taught either a senior seminar or a graduate seminar on sentimental literature that included The Wide, Wide World and The Morgesons. Five years out from completing my PhD means I should have worked extensively with English majors. Five years out from completing a PhD means I should be finishing my first book.
Of course, the idealized pathway I describe above is based on comparing my career trajectory to my undergraduate and graduate teachers and mentors.
My experience is a symptom of the problems facing higher education and our disciplines; all exacerbated by the Great Recession of 2008. Again, I don’t share my experiences as an indulgent form of woe-is-me-ism that I can toss on the internet for everyone to read. I’m no different than the legions of other PhDs in our field. I share my background & experience because it is common to our field, and especially so for the PALS readership. My experience isn’t different from the majority of our full-time PALS contributors or many of our guest contributors. When I began drafting this post (and now a few months later), none of the PALS’ founding-editors will have non-precarious, full-time employment dedicated exactly to what we were trained to do, let alone devote extensive time to supported scholarship.
What do my experiences and the experiences of my co-contributors to PALS mean? It means that the work of PALS is limited by the nature of our profession and the lack of opportunities for teaching within our discipline, let alone our specialties. Our teaching experiences, the very heart of our source material for PALS, come from, for the most part, teaching general education courses, specifically first-year writing. I’ve had several conversations with contributors and editors that run along the lines of this: “I’m running out of ideas to write about for PALS; I just don’t have the classroom opportunities.” I’m not making a lament, but an observation that seeks to highlight the limitations of PALS in fostering certain questions about the teaching of American literature.
Maybe the real observation isn’t that we’re collectively running out of ideas, but many of us are collectively running out of opportunities.
What I am saying is not new. Erin Bartram addressed these issues in her essay about leaving academia. Bartram, in a latter tweet thread, hit the essence of what many of us face in the humanities. I should really pull a quotation, but it’s hard to do so because I want to quote all of Bartram’s thoughts; just read her essay and this related Twitter thread.
I find myself thinking about topics for future posts. I have a few I’d like to write which draw from the classroom. However, many of the posts I want to write—right now—are reflective and not about teaching American literature, but the ideas are adjacent to the field and the reality I and my co-contributors face.