History’s Inconsistent Characters

My students expect authors who make it onto the syllabus to be “good” people.  If these writers don’t have sound morals, why would we care about what they have to say?

Some of my students want the same thing from authors and historical figures as they want from fictional characters: consistency. Because of this, I see students lump both fictional characters and actual people into the overly general groups of “good” or “bad.”

Of course, this overgeneralizing is a problem that I try to tackle from the get-go each semester.

In nearly all of my literature courses, I introduce students to a chapter titled “Worth the Consideration of Those to Whom It May Prove Worth Considering” from Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1856).  In this chapter, the narrator directly addresses readers and their mounting concerns about the novel’s “inconsistent” characters.  The narrator first acknowledges that in fiction “there is nothing a sensible reader will more carefully look for, than that, in the depiction of any character, its consistency should be preserved” (75).  Next, despite this seemingly reasonable criterion for judging a character’s effectiveness, the narrator refutes:

while to all fiction is allowed some play of invention, yet, fiction based on fact should never be contradictory to it; and is it not a fact, that, in real life, a consistent character is a rara avis? Which being so, the distaste of readers to the contrary sort in books, can hardly arise from any sense of their untrueness. It may rather be from perplexity to understanding them. (75)

I find the narrator’s rationale here persuasive and so do my students.  People are, by nature, inconsistent and complex.  I frequently change my mind about things without any reasonable explanation, I listen sometimes to opera and sometimes to death metal, I donate to animal rights organizations even though I eat meat, but all of this is ok.  According to Melville’s narrator, my behavior is natural—it’s simply human—and I’m reminded of several lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (224)

While my students readily and enthusiastically agree that humans are inconsistent, they still struggle to apply it at times, especially with figures they’ve long-term internalized or romanticized as “good” or “bad”. They can’t conceive how I would allow a morally “bad” author to have a voice in the classroom. Such is the case when I teach James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

Last of the MohicansAlthough The Last of the Mohicans is set during the French and Indian War, Cooper writes, and subsequent editions appear, throughout the peak era of Indian Removal. I like to use the Broadview edition that includes relevant historical documents that provide context for the narrative, such as excerpts from the “Indian Removal Act” (1830) and excerpts from Andrew Jackson’s “Second State of the Union Address” (1830).

I initially ask my students, “So what do you think Cooper tries to accomplish in The Last of the Mohicans?”

Students generally respond that the text is explicitly sympathetic to indigenous plight not only because of how Uncas and his father Chingachgook, the heroic Mohicans, are depicted as wise and brave but also because even the villainous Magua only seems to be villainous because of white influence. The English manipulate Magua to act against his own nation and turn him into a drunk, resulting in his exile and fueling his desire for revenge.

However, based on everything scholarship knows about Cooper’s life and political ideologies, The Last of the Mohicans actually functions as a justification for Indian Removal, and Cooper himself was, in fact, pro-removal and pro-Jackson. By setting the novel in the context of the past and focusing on the extinction of a particular tribe, Cooper essentially argues, “It’s a shame about those Indians and their suffering, but it’s too late to do anything about it now. It’s ok though because as long as we remember them fondly, we don’t have to feel guilty about anything. Progress must continue.”

This typically comes as a surprise to students and forces them to reevaluate the connection between the novel and the section of the supplemental document, Jackson’s second “State of the Union Address,” in which he explains:

Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country, and Philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth.  To follow to the tomb the last of his race and to tread on the graves of extinct nations excite melancholy reflections.  But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another. (451-2)

Students realize that just as Jackson discusses indigenous groups in terms of “extinction” and suggests that philanthropy can “reconcile the mind” of white Americans struggling with guilt and “melancholy reflections”, Cooper like-mindedly believes that literature can further help to “reconcile the mind,” so Americans can move forward with progress. Rightly so, my students see this as a “bad” and brain-washy thing.

This is the point in discussion where my students outwardly mourn. I hear students say: “What Americans did to Native Americans was horrible,” “Native Americans were here first, and the land was rightfully theirs,” “Native Americans were treated so unjustly, so unfairly,” “Jackson and Cooper—they were both terrible people who made everything worse.” My students ask me why I would assign a novel that is basically, in their opinions, propaganda for the historically “bad” team.

I don’t see the novel’s value in the classroom as determined or affected by whether or not Cooper was a “good” or “bad” person.  I’m okay with understanding Cooper, as I understand many other early American authors, as inconsistent.  I teach Cooper’s novel because it reveals so much about American culture in the Jacksonian era. I also teach the novel because it reveals so much about my students in the contemporary era.  I say to my legitimately concerned group: “Well, this campus stands on what was once Iroquois territory. Why don’t you take action, right the wrongs of the past, and give it back? The Iroquois nation still exists—give it all back.”

As expected, I hear no enthusiastic “yes!” from the group. Instead, the following type of dialogue ensues:

Students: “Well, we can’t do that. That doesn’t make sense”

Me: “Why not? You clearly feel indigenous people have been wronged. You feel sorry for them.”

Students: “But we can’t just give land back. We’ve done so much and accomplished so much with this space over all these years.”

Me: “Ah, you’ve ‘cultivated’ the land—it’s now too late to make a change?”

Students: “If we just give everything back, where would the university go? Where would our cities go?”

Me: “That kind of large-scale displacement would cause a lot of chaos…”

Students: “And what would Native American groups with populations way smaller than ours even do with all of the space?”

Me: “So, the land would be ‘wasted’?”

In a nutshell, the student rationale for why we can’t give the land back today sounds a lot like the rationales provided by those “terrible people” Andrew Jackson and James Fenimore Cooper.  In his address, Jackson, like my students, explains how Americans have “accomplished so much” with the land:

What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion? (452)

The most common arguments for removal in the 18th and 19th centuries centered on the idea that indigenous peoples failed to cultivate land and use it to its full potential. As a result, what mattered was not who was there first but who was using the land most productively and efficiently.

I ask my students, “Does that mean you’re all ‘bad’ people?”, but this question only yielded silence.

To get students talking again, I ask, “Was Thomas Jefferson a ‘good’ person?” They respond with a definite “yes.” I ask them to explain why, and they, as expected, cite the “Declaration of Independence” and his role in the American Revolution. I then tell them that as president, Jefferson devised manipulative plans to trick Native Americans into debts that they would only be able to pay off by giving up lands. Jefferson was unquestionably pro-removal. I can point to specific letters Jefferson wrote which prove so.

Is Jefferson still a “good” person? Is the “Declaration of Independence” enough of a reason to forgive his problematic ideologies about other races? Even if my students aren’t familiar with Jefferson’s plans for indigenous peoples, they are aware that Jefferson was a slaveholder.

But why do people feel compelled to categorize Jefferson, anyone else for that matter, as “good” or “bad”? Why this drive to figure out in which group to place history’s characters? Why do we need to see Jefferson as a hero and Jackson as a villain instead of as what they are: flawed, contradictory humans?

I tell my students an overly simplistic story: Once upon a time, there was a boy who was orphaned because his family died helping others during a war.  Despite being an orphan, the boy worked hard and became a lawyer.  Now a man, he eventually fell in love, got married, and tried to have children, but his wife couldn’t conceive, so they adopted. One of the adoptees was a Creek Indian, orphaned when his parents were killed during a battle. The man claimed that he saw himself in that orphaned little boy and felt compassion for him.  About 40 years later, the man got a really important job, but before he could start, his beloved wife died on Christmas Eve. In her memory, and because he loved children and was once an orphan himself, every Christmas he would go to the city orphanage and bring all the children presents.

Can my students guess who this story is about? No. How could they possibly believe that Andrew Jackson, a “bad” man who readily exterminated indigenous populations could ever do something as inconsistent and “good” as identify with, adopt, and raise an indigenous child? Jon Meacham’s 2008 biography describes Jackson in the following way:

He was the most contradictory of men….A sentimental man who rescued an Indian orphan on a battlefield to raise in his home, Jackson was responsible for the removal of Indian tribes from their ancestral lands….Like us and our America, Jackson and his America achieved great things while committing grievous sins. (xix)

Does a story about bringing orphans Christmas presents justify or forgive Jackson of his policies or actions regarding Indian Removal? Absolutely not—those are things that can never be forgiven or forgotten, especially by those whose ancestral lines were directly impacted.

But the anecdote about Jackson does at least reveal that he, like Cooper, like all other humans, is inherently contradictory. My own students, certain of their own “goodness” shared sentiments quite reminiscent of Jackson’s and Cooper’s during our discussion of The Last of the Mohicans. Does that mean they’re secretly “bad”? I don’t know. Regardless, I think they will consider their own inherently contradictory natures before hastily applying labels like “good” or “bad” in the future.

Works Cited

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. Edited by Paul C. Gutjahr, Broadview,

Jackson, Andrew. “Second State of the Union Address.” Gutjahr, pp. 451-3.

Meacham, Jon. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Random House, 2008.

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Edited by Hershel Parker and Mark Niemeyer, Norton, 2006.

Spengemann, William C., and Jessica F. Roberts, editors. Nineteenth-Century American Poetry.  Penguin, 1996.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Spengemann and Roberts, pp. 165-225.

The Burst of The ITT Tech Bubble and Pedagogical Support

PALS Note: PALS welcomes this guest post from Darcy Mullen, a PhD student at University at Albany. In this post, Mullen explores the closing of the for-profit ITT Technical Institute and asks how non-profit college professors can support students coming into their classrooms from the for-profit sector. 

Things we don’t like: when students fall through the cracks of any given education system.

Things we REALLY don’t like: when predatory for-profit learning institutions take advantage of students, leaving them with piles of debt, wasted years, credits that won’t transfer, and questionable skills to show for all this.

Screenshot (75)
from http://itt-tech.info

When ITT Tech filed for bankruptcy in September of 2016, and shut its electronic doors to students in the July 2016 term, students were left in a lurch. ITT Tech offered some options. Many were offered a deal: ITT Tech will wipe out any of their loan debt, and they will lose the credits they earned, OR they can take the credits and keep the debt. Some have taken the first option, others have taken the second. I want to focus on the second group.

We don’t have concrete data on how many students have done which option. But many students have taken their credits and signed off on that option. They’ve taken their credits to local community colleges and found that many of these credits won’t transfer. Others, with the equivalent of an associate’s degree, are approaching four year colleges to find that there are major transferability issues as well. While some started this spring, another problem is that many have to wait for fall enrollments (due to major-sequencing).

The drive behind this essay is not to bash predatory for-profit institutions (although they make my blood boil). Instead, I’d like to propose some lessons to be learned from the case study of ITT Tech and its pedagogy for communication and writing in order to expand the pool of who we think  of as a non-traditional student and their pedagogical needs.

I have not yet encountered students in my first year writing classroom that have self-identified as ITT Tech transfers. My interest in this topic came from a friendly conversation with a former- ITT Tech student. I marveled over how the ITT Tech commercials were such an institution amongst all commercials ever! With other for-profit, distance-based institutions in recent news, I am hoping we start a conversation about these  students that have been discarded rather unceremoniously.

I was given access to course materials (such as syllabi, and the assignments I reference) and other information comes from a former ITT Tech student (who I am keeping anonymous here). We can still find a lot of course materials, like syllabi, online.

Non-traditional students take many forms with diverse subjectivities. However, when we consider the traditional “non-traditional” student, we don’t tend to consider the students that have been betrayed (financially, pedagogically, and so on) by a prior institution. This is a subjectivity that is important to consider in both comp/rhet and literature classrooms. Let’s take a look at some potential areas to focus on in, specifically in the case of the  American Literature classroom.

After reviewing a sample of curricula materials for the reading/writing requirements of what we would call the ITT Tech core requirements, I propose we spend some time thinking about 3 ideas. For these ideas I offer some hypothetical text-assignment-goals that might work for a classroom with either a high proportion of this type of nontraditional student, or (more generally) in a classroom where one might need to do a bit more work to build trust:

Never Underestimate Zombies

Assignments in lower-level composition courses were about procedural writing—one assignment I saw was on Surviving A Zombie Apocalypse. Zombies seem to be the thing that bring students together these days. From Colson Whitehead’s Zone One to Cormac McCarthy’s quasi-zombies in The Road, zombies get everyone’s blood flowing.

Beyond content, zombies are applicable here because these particular students have survived the closest, metaphorically hyperbolic, thing to a zombie apocalypse that American colleges have produced. These students may not have yet had the opportunity to build skills anticipated in first or second year literature and writing classes.

They are entering the American Literature classroom having experienced instability and disappointment at high levels. Regardless of one’s teaching methods for dealing with trigger warnings, this is a trigger worth noting. And like many students that have had challenging experiences, they have empathetic perspectives that should be framed as strengths for understanding complexity. Using a text such as McCarthy’s The Road, or Whitehead’s  Zone One to examine issues of identity in American culture is one way to bridge a discussion about identity issues while modeling close reading in a way that fits a variety of student literacy needs.

The Eye of The Tiger vs. Unsupervised Hours

Part of the ITT Tech curriculum included a large emphasis on independent learning that wasn’t always supervised or used as an opportunity for feedback. I saw one assignment, for example, focusing on a profile of Bruce Lee. The assignment was structured around independent learning. We know students tend to do better with mentoring and, well, teaching. The grade the student received was not great. Not a big surprise, and not cool either. The work seemed to come with very brief feedback or opportunities for revision, or many other elements of the writing process for that matter.

Some of these students, I’m sure, will be happy to have more supervision and hands-on feedback from conferences, face-to-face classes, workshops, requirements of revisions, and so on. But this will also be a new thing for many students coming into four year colleges as Juniors. What we would see as normalized classroom processes may  be perceived with resistance—“Why do I need to do this?” In other words, “This is not a process I’m used to.” I think first person, or a good old Bildungsroman, in combination with modeling the workshop process can help with this.

A text like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird or Karen Russell’s Swamplandia can demonstrate the need for community in critical thinking. Like any other transfer student, changes in expectation of the rhetorical situation is to be expected. Novels like these are great for writing assignments that identify the role of communication and rhetoric  within communities and the dangers of breakdowns in communication. The next tactic I would take with such a project is to do collaborative writing on these texts. Small writing groups could begin with the common ground granted in a template from They Say I Say, and to make decisions together about how to present an argument.

Apples and Oranges

In another assignment, a student compared the visual rhetoric of the company Apple with The Department of Homeland Security. One of the biggest issues that the instructor’s marginalia indicated was a lack of citations. If I had gotten that paper in my classroom, I would have reported it for plagiarism, period.

All institutions have different standards for what is a plagiarism offense or not, and the specifics of those standards are not my point. I’m trying to get at the idea that institutions do have standards and disciplinary procedures for plagiarism. But it is also a good reminder not to take both college-level skills and expectations for interaction and Welcome to Braggsvillesupervision in the American Literature classroom for granted. This was a skill that slipped through the cracks in a second-year level writing course, and the loss of this particular skill might be one that causes serious problems with irrevocable consequences.

For this, I’d prescribe Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Jackson, and maybe some exercises from, the not as popular textbook, Writing Analytically. The relationship between actions and consequences is pretty much what drives most American Literature. Using literature that takes that relationship seriously isn’t the worst way to deal with cause and effect in: argument structure, how to build a paper, close readings, and the role of procedures in college.

[Apples to Oranges: Appendix

Apples to Apples

When in doubt– or when there’s a problem in comprehending materials or re/building community in the classroom–my go to is having students make red and green cards for Apples to Apples. We play that, with small groups acting together as a single-player. It’s a pedagogical exercise that forces group decision-making, and the competition acts a solidification tactic. Working out concepts as a whole class, like “failure” in Welcome to Braggsville, through a discussion of hypothetical “red cards” like “college,” “performance art,” “America,” “adviser,” and/or “spring break” gives the opportunity for a discussion of how the narrative operates. I have not obtained rights to “copy” Apples to Apples in my classroom. This is my public mea culpa if I am violating intellectual property rights.]

 

We don’t have much data, yet, on the scope of students impacted by ITT Tech’s collapse. We won’t have that hard data for a while. Many students are still trying to decide if they should erase their debt or keep their credits and start in a new college in the fall. The shift in demographics of non-traditional students to include this demographic hasn’t happened yet.

Until we have more information with which to make better-informed decisions, I suggest we keep an eye on the fallout from ITT Tech and hope that students haven’t been put off from higher education by the whole process. It is worth keeping in mind that these students are not just transfer students. They were dropped by a school they trusted. When they end up in our classrooms, we can, and will, do better.

Contributor Bio:

FullSizeRenderDarcy Mullen is a PhD student at University at Albany, studying  Rhetoric, Food Studies and Protest Writing. Her most recent publications include articles exploring the use of “local” as a cartographic tool in the local food movement, one on the  politics of place and tourism in Myanmar, and a chapter on pedagogy and disability studies using “Beowulf” as a case study. Darcy blogs regularly about stories and soil, and tweets #bookselfies with her adorable #souphound @FarmsWatson.