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.”

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Where do you get stuck?: Process-oriented planning and organizing for teaching

I wanted to finish this PALS post yesterday but here it is today, and I have had trouble focusing on a topic to write about. It’s not because I don’t have a lot of ideas swirling in my head. Rather, I have been using much of my teacher brain the last couple of weeks to focus on course planning and organizing, and I just can’t get those swirling ideas about actual teaching to settle. So I have decided to lean in and write about the process of planning, and some ways I have tried to be a little more reflective about how that process works for me, or more specifically, where my process often breaks down.

I will spare you the details of my current course prep because they aren’t that exciting (my brother on the other end of the phone this weekend as I talk about my planning: “Brie, I literally stopped listening.”) But I am probably doing the most planning/organizing/figuring things out/being confused about how things work that I have done since the first year I was a teacher — oh, blessed be those who have never written an assignment sheet before. My circumstances this year are unique to my situation: new job, new education system, newish country, etc. However, I think some of my reflections might be more universal.

First, this post is written in part to recognize all of the administrative/planning/organizing labor that we have to do as teachers. That labor is often not thought of as an important part of the job of teaching. I’m not specifically talking about the kind of planning that involves envisioning texts for a course or making sure the course assignments meet the learning objectives. Rather, I’m thinking of things like posting to learning management systems, keeping track of add/drop dates, getting your room changed because the assigned room isn’t big enough, and so many more. Of course, every job has these more mundane but time-consuming aspects. However, whenever I had an office job, that kind of work — scheduling meetings, updating calendars, communicating with team members effectively-— was considered part of the work that I did. Whereas, now I have trouble giving myself “credit” for that work. I will feel like I have not accomplished much that day if all I did was put up course content on the LMS and finish planning the schedule for the semester.

For me personally, feeling like I didn’t do enough work makes me feel kind of bad about myself, which leads me to other kinds of time wasting/unproductivity. I have to feel accomplished to stay in an accomplishing-stuff zone, so not acknowledging organizing tasks as work has negative effects on what I achieve generally. In a broader sense too, we need to acknowledge all of the work of teaching and talk about it too. We need to talk about it to each other and also to everyone else we know. I don’t think people know how much and how many kinds of WORK go into teaching, and maybe being just a little louder about it would help us value teaching more and show that value with things like higher pay.

The increase in my need to organize and plan this semester got me thinking about the process of completing those kinds of tasks. One of the reasons that I like writing about teaching is that I love process. I like to think about how I get from point A to point B. But I, honestly, except for buying a lot of paper planners, have not thought much about my own process for getting mundane things accomplished. I have thought about my process of writing, certainly, and researching, but I haven’t dissected the process of me writing an email to the class, for example.

When I did break down the process a bit, I started to notice a few places in the process where I routinely get stuck. I don’t really have any solutions for dealing with these places yet, but it has been helpful to pull back and just explore a bit where I get frustrated and think about why that is. What follows are a few of my “stuck places”:

  1. Too many ideas. I love to generate ideas. I have a lot of ideas. But often I start too many things at once and that doesn’t allow me to focus on finishing them. See number 4.
  2. Not understanding how long things take me. I regularly block on 25 minutes for things that take me 3 hours or a morning for things that take me all day. Over-estimating what I can accomplish makes me feel unaccomplished when I can’t get everything done.
  3. Not being able to vary the intensity of my work. I was never a very good skim reader. And I’m not very good at knowing what kind of focus I need to put into something. I’m either completely focused or metaphorically picking dandelions. Putting a lot of effort into everything I do work-wise might sound like a good thing, but I have found that it can make things take way longer than necessary. See number 2. Yes, I can beautifully format a table in Word, but what if I just didn’t?
  4. Getting over the finish line. I have a lot of things from drafts of assignment sheets to academic articles not just half done but more like 75-90% done. Part of the procrastination here is trying to do too many things at once. See number 1. But another issue is once things are finished then they have to go out into the world. That is super scary with academic articles, but it is also even a little scary with assignment sheets.

I don’t want to suggest that my goal here is to “fix” these things and become a more productive worker. I see you, capitalism. But recognizing them and learning to troubleshoot a bit might give me more peace as a worker. Or at least be just a tiny bit less hard on myself.

What are your process concerns when it comes to work? Where does your process work well, and where does it break down? Comment below or tweet us with thoughts!