American Literary History and a Social Justice Walking Tour of Campus

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In our uncertain political moment, students at the small, liberal arts college where I teach are looking for meaningful and productive ways to engage with the social justice issues that matter to them and to make a difference through their service and activism. Moreover, students on my “majority minority” campus do not always see the connection between earlier periods of American literary history, present day events, and their lived experiences. With these matters in mind, last spring I integrated a social justice campus walking tour—a tour that students research, write a script for, and conduct as their final exam—into my course on Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Social Reform.

This course is an upper-division class for English majors and minors that examines nineteenth-century American authors who used their literary influence to imagine a more just and inclusive nation and to confront their readers with the most contested social and political inequalities of the day. Students learn that the major political activists and social reformers of the nineteenth century were also some of its most significant literary voices and noted authors, including Lydia Maria Child, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Sarah Winnemucca. Over the past two years, I have assigned various combinations of the following texts and authors:

  • Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience, (1873)
  • William Wells Brown, Clotel: Or, the President’s Daughter, (1853)
  • Charles W Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition, (1901)
  • Lydia Maria Child, Hobomok, (1824)
  • Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, (1845)
  • Pauline Hopkins, Contending Forces A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South, (1900)
  • Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona, (1884)
  • Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, (1861)
  • Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, The Silent Partner, (1871)
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (1852)
  • Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods, (1849)
  • Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins (Northern Paiute), Life Among The Piutes: Their Wrongs And Claims, (1883)
  • Zitkala-Sa (Lakota), American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings

As you can see from this reading list, these novels grapple with issues such as American slavery and its Jim Crow legacies, women’s rights, American Indian rights, civil rights, anti-immigrant prejudice, and labor reform and worker’s rights. As I have written in a previous PALS blog post, I teach in the literature circle format that allows a class to read 3-4 novels at the same time. Although each individual student may read just 4-5 novels a semester, the class as a whole may be exposed to 12-20 different authors/texts collectively, including both traditionally taught and lesser-known, recovered writers. By writing daily, short literature circle research papers (supplemented by the occasional lecture) students learn the historical, cultural, and political contexts of each novel; the literary and artistic movements and literary history associated with each text; and how the literature influenced public attitudes, policy, and law—that is, how the literature changed the world.

We started working on the campus social justice walking tour assignment half-way through the semester, when students had a strong sense of the themes of the literature and its role in nineteenth-century social and political change. Below is the assignment prompt the students received:

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As a class, we will research and write a walking tour script of sites on campus that can help students, alumni, faculty, and staff think more deeply about the role of Austin College students and social justice—now and especially in the past. Essentially, our campus walking tour will re-narrate the traditional campus walking tour for prospective students through the lens of social justice.

Our walking tour of 10-12 stops will include sites that represent a history of social injustice on campus and in the community, as well as sites of justice and peace. Each student will be assigned 1-2 topics to research. You will write a concise, one-paragraph summary of the site and the social justice issue it represents. You should also connect each site to the themes of the course and the literature we have studied this semester.

The purpose of our tour is to educate and promote greater understanding, not to condemn. In the spirit of open inquiry and the Austin College mission, we want members of our community to come to their own conclusions about the issues we raise on the tour.

In a series of 3-4 brainstorming and planning sessions in class, the students identified the social justice issues and locations they wanted to include on the tour. The topics and sites included the following:

walking tour 3

  • Stained-glass portrait of Stephen F. Austin —The Austin family and slavery
  • Outdoor graduation court—First women and minority graduates
  • Presidential portraits in library—First woman president and faculty
  • Library archives—Student boycott of segregated local businesses
  • Texas Native Plants Lab—History of environmental activism on campus
  • Student center—History of early LBGTQ and HIV/AIDS student activism

The social justice campus walking tour included a total of 15 stops where participants could learn about and reflect on times the college lived up to or fell short of its mission to “foste[r] lively intellectual and social interaction among persons of different origins, experiences, beliefs, accomplishments, and goals.” Other locales and topics researched by the students included the dedication of two Peace Poles on campus, the reparation of Indigenous (Caddo) remains recently found in storage during a building renovation, and the magnolia trees planted by the first cohort of female students admitted to the college in 1918.

The students decided to also address two events that took place off campus at the county courthouse but that impacted the college nonetheless: The dedication of the first Confederate Monument in the state of Texas in 1897 and an infamous 1930 lynching (still not openly discussed in the community to this day). Students linked Charles Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition to these two off-campus incidents, especially the novel’s caution that “there’s time enough, but none to spare” in the quest for racial justice in our communities.

During the last two weeks of class, I gave students time in class to collaborate with each other and research their assigned topics. They also spent time outside class working on their tour research and writing. For their research sources, students referenced a history of the college written by one of our history professors and conducted oral history interviews with alumni. They also spent hours looking through yearbooks and honors theses in the library and college archives. Their dedication to the walking tour assignment was inspired by the literature we read and reinforced by their own experiences related to campus spaces, their commitments to various social justice causes, and their desire to serve the campus community.

Students compiled their research into a campus tour guidebook and invited their friends, professors from other classes, and college administrators to attend the social justice walking tour during our scheduled class final exam time. The tour was well attended and included campus dignitaries such as our college president, vice president for academic affairs, and board of trustees members who were on campus for a quarterly meeting. The students led the tour and explained the significance of each site from a social justice perspective and how it connected to the literature, authors, and themes of our course.

Because it had a public-facing audience and a placed-based purpose, the assignment—and, thereby, the course itself—contributed to students’ deeper thinking about literature and the power it has to influence our lives and the world. In their social justice walking tour reflection essays, students made the connection between American literary history, today’s social justice concerns, and their lived experiences:

walking tour 2Student 1: Years from now, I will never forget the spunk of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps through Perley Kelso, and the bravery of Zitkala-Sa, nor will I forget the women who came before me at Austin College.  Phelps and Zitkala-Sa were not silent, they had heard enough, spoke freely through their literature, and stood strong. The college women before me were not silent, with the founding of organizations, graduating at the top of their class, and the planting of a magnolia tree, they made their mark at the college. I learned from this project that I have a voice, and I can use it for good, and to help make the world a better place.

Student 2: The same Charles Chesnutt quote kept surfacing as we read and discussed texts, wrote responses, and prepared the social justice walking tour: “He realized, too, for a moment, the continuity of life, how inseparably the present is woven with the past, how certainly the future will be but the outcome of the present.” Overall, this class and specifically this project has helped me to simply stop and think about my surrounding places, people, feelings, etc. An extended meaning of the above quote is that everything I experience has already happened to people before me, and the way that they interacted with, learned from, and changed as a result of those experiences has a tangible effect on my life. I used to dislike thinking about the past, whether it was my own history or the history found in a textbook, but I have learned this semester that I have to, that I do it without even realizing.

This assignment can be adjusted for various American literature course topics, authors, and time periods, and the assignment could be scaled back or expanded in terms of scope and audience. I will continue this assignment with the next iteration of the class, and will ask students to add updated research and new campus social justice locales. We may also bring the tour online with the PocketSights app, similar to the Furman University campus tour created by Professor Brandon Inabinet and his students as part of their campus’s Task Force on Slavery and Justice. The local women’s alumni organization recently asked my students to repeat the social justice walking tour for their members, and the reputation of the course and the tour has spread around campus and the local community. Like the nineteenth-century American authors we study, students are raising awareness and making a difference in their own spheres of influence.


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.”