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.”

Advertisements

Beyond the Literary Analysis Essay: Autobiographical Literary Criticism

vintage typewriter
So over the literary analysis essay.

I am so over the traditional literary analysis essay.

The thesis-driven literary analysis essays we assign in composition and introductory literature courses are difficult for even advanced undergraduate English majors to write. Think about it: We ask novice students to produce “original” (whatever that means in the undergraduate classroom) arguments about literature but to completely distance their writing from their personal responses to the text. Of course that results in subpar student writing that we dread to grade and that students hate to write. And let’s face it, the traditional literary analysis essay, even when assigned in college courses, can barely deviate from, and actually relies upon, the much-maligned five-paragraph essay format.

No student takes a literature class or becomes an English major because they want to write lab reports about literature. If we believe the value of the humanities comes from the transformative power of literature, reading, and writing, we should develop writing assignments that reflect and allow us to assess that. Indeed, several pedagogy-focused panels at the Society for the Study of American Women Writers conference highlighted instructors of American literature who regularly assign innovative alternatives to the traditional literary analysis essay. Essay prompts that depart from the literary analysis essay can still promote the deep, critical thinking about literature that supports our course and department student learning outcomes.

Autobiographical literary criticism is a genre of academic writing that weaves personal narrative, a type of reader response criticism, and textual analysis to allow students to come to deeper insights about literature. It crosses the boundaries between “criticism and narrative, experience and expression, literature and life.” With autobiographical literary criticism assignments, we provide students with the opportunity to be transparent about the values, “beliefs[,] and formative life experiences that inform their response” to and analysis of literature. While the format, topic, and structure may vary depending on your pedagogical aims, autobiographical literary criticism assignments integrate (but do not rely solely upon) personal narrative with the purpose of achieving deeper textual analysis and insight into literature.

Autobiographical Literary Criticism in a Capstone Course on American Transcendentalism

I recently assigned an autobiographical literary criticism essay in my capstone course for English majors entitled “Secrets, Lives, and Legacies of American Transcendentalism.” I developed the course after attending the 2017 NEH Summer Seminar on Transcendentalism. The course considered how lived experience formed the philosophy, writing, and creative expression of Mary Moody Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott. Autobiographical literary criticism seemed an especially appropriate method to probe the Transcendentalists, who, in their own writing, breached the boundaries of “criticism and narrative, experience and expression, literature and life.”

I assigned a 13-15 page autobiographical literary criticism essay as the final paper in the capstone course. Students were to focus on one author and primary text and “[c]ritically examine [your] own experiences in relation to a work of literature.” Although this assignment encouraged a more creative and personal approach to literary analysis, students were instructed that the essays still needed to include a thesis or “focusing” statement that would address what the literature is doing as a work of art or what it is trying to do in the world.  As I instructed the students, “Your thesis statement, or major claim, isn’t about you—it is ultimately about the literature. But your personal narrative can illuminate the significance of the literature (as well as your interpretation of it) for others, including, if relevant, your own students or future students.” The essays were to include layers of textual analysis, scholarly voices, and cultural/historical research stitched together with the student’s narrative voice.

Throughout the semester, the students had written several scaffolded assignments that they could integrate into their final essays including weekly response papers and a long book review of a literary biography of the author they were writing about. We used several class sessions to discuss and workshop the essays. I also provided examples of autobiographical literary criticism from the volumes The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism (Duke UP) and Private Voices, Public Lives: Women Speak on the Literary Life (U North Texas P). I read my own autobiographical literary criticism in class not only to provide additional models of structure, organization, and format but also to cultivate trust and community among the students by sharing my own personal writing.

Student Responses to Autobiographical Literary Criticism

Students were excited by the opportunity to link their lives and experiences with the literature, but even the most enthusiastic struggled with incorporating personal narrative. A common lament from the class sounded something like this: “We’ve spent the past 15 years learning to not use ‘I’ or talk about personal opinions in our essays, and now you are telling us we have to!” Students had various levels of comfort revealing personal responses and finding authentic ways to connect personally with the literature. Showing them several models and approaches helped, and I gave them the option of deciding how and to what extent to use personal narrative in their essays; some wove it throughout, others used it to frame the introduction and conclusion, while others limited it to just one section of the essay.

One student wrote that he initially hated Thoreau but came to love Walden after our class hike at a local pond, our 21st-century, rural Texas version of a Walden experience. Another student wrote about her struggles with her family’s sexism and her goal to become a writer in relation to Margaret Fuller’s strict, patriarchal upbringing and authorial aims. An essay by a devout Catholic student compared her spiritual diary with the religious practice expressed by Mary Moody Emerson in her Almanacks. The president of our campus’s student environmental organization wrote an essay that examined how Thoreau’s life and writing can guide environmental activism today. And one student narrated her journey from business major to English major through the lens of Emerson’s Nature. This assignment pushed many students to original and unexpected insights about literature, such as the student who passionately developed her claim that Louisa May Alcott, although sometimes a harsh critic of Transcendentalism, was the most “transcendental” of all the Transcendentalists.

Overall, the students said they liked writing the autobiographical literary criticism essay and were proud of the writing they produced. Those who struggled with integrating personal narrative admitted that they usually have difficulty with developing content in general, no matter the assignment. Like all essays of this length, some students had issues with cohesion and sustaining consistent prose and ideas throughout the essay. But overall, I was satisfied with the high level of sophistication in terms of content, structure, and writing style that the autobiographical literary criticism assignment inspired. Students produced essays that made claims about literature, demonstrated textual analysis, and commented on the significance of literature in their lives and in the world. What more can we ask for as teachers of American literature?

Would I Assign it Again? Yes!

Compared to traditional literary analysis essays, I found these essays easier to read and more enjoyable—yes, I said enjoyable!— to grade. I plan to assign a shorter autobiographical literary criticism essay in the 300-level class I will teach this coming semester, and I realize that if I ever assign this type of essay at the introductory level, I would have to spend a lot of time helping students balance personal narrative with textual analysis. Assigning autobiographical literary criticism as an alternative to the traditional literary analysis essay was a success, and I encourage others to experiment with this genre in their own teaching and writing. I am creating online resources and plan to organize a Google chat about teaching and writing autobiographical literary criticism later this spring. Please contact me if you would like to participate!