The Single Author Course: A Harriet Beecher Stowe Case Study

Background
A few weeks ago, the PALS Twitter page, which you should all be following, had a brief flurry of discussion regarding the single author course. The discussion was kicked off by a retweet and the subsequent responses provided many fruitful exchanges. We also posted a follow up question inquiring about the single author courses our followers had taken as undergrad and graduate students. You can guess many of the usual suspects showed up. (Mostly white, old, and dead dudes aka canonical writers.) An interesting theme emerged from that follow up question: many of us teach versions of the single author courses we took as students, a cool nod to the legacy of our own teachers, but also a testament to the ways of canon formation.

We continued to watch as the contours of the discussion played out through our followers’ exchanges. Many of us behind the scenes at PALS have often thought about what would go into teaching a single author course. However, what we can offer on the subject of the single author course is speculative, given the fact that most folks at PALS will likely never have an opportunity to teach such a course.

Still, even with the limitations of our experiences regarding the topic of the single author course, folks on Twitter encouraged us to share our thoughts on the subject. Thanks to that encouragement, I opened up a document on the evening of Christmas and began to plan the post through a case study using Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I Thought the Post Would Be Easy, But…
Please allow me the indulgence of talking a little bit about myself in order to provide some context. I am a rare bird in the sense that I did a single author dissertation. I knew going into putting together my comprehensive exam reading list that I was going to do a dissertation on Harriet Beecher Stowe. In short, I am well-versed (I thought) in knowing what works by Stowe are/were readily available and how to get them. I also know which electronic versions of Stowe’s works would be a nightmare for students physically to read. I’ve thought a lot about the question of how I would teach Stowe and how I would teach my dissertation. I’ve long had a dream Stowe course in the back of my mind. I thought writing about this dream Stowe course for PALS would be cool because the post can illustrate how to come up with a single author course not influenced by taking a class on the author as a student. Just a note for anyone considering a single author dissertation: Be prepared for the job interview question about how you would teach your dissertation, but also be prepared with a response about why you would not teach your dissertation.

Reader, It Was Not Easy

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

Quickly I realized planning a single author course on Stowe would be more difficult than I thought—not because of any theoretical difficulty, nor because I hadn’t thought about such a course before. No, it was difficult because I soon learned the Stowe publishing landscape has changed drastically since I physically gathered books for my comps list or seriously thought about the question of teaching a single author course on Stowe. Much has changed between writing my dissertation and the subsequent years. Truthfully, it has been nearly five years since I’ve thought all that much about Stowe. In fact, this post is my first one on Stowe. What I learned in thinking about and preparing this post leaves me feeling the recovery of one America’s most important woman writers is in bad shape.

It became clear to me that I would not be doing a single post on the practice of designing the single author course, but I would be doing a series of posts. And, specifically, the first part of the series would need to be on the sorry state of access to published works by a major canonical American woman writer.

The List
Below you’ll find a survey of (maybe) available published books by and about Stowe. Some of these books are available, some are cost prohibitive, and some aren’t available in a scholarly edition any more—or at all. These books aren’t necessarily making the cut for my speculative single author course on Stowe. However, starting with a survey of what is available in print is an important starting point because availability shapes what we teach. Please Note: The information gathered below was compiled between December 2019 and early February 2020. Also, for reader convenience, I use Amazon as a touchstone for prices and availability. However, personally, I must point out that I try to avoid using Amazon at all in my own life.

 

The Usual Suspects
These works would likely form the backbone of a single author course devoted to Stowe. There was a time when I’d say they were readily available at affordable prices. I was shocked by what I discovered.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

  • There are many editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin available at a very wide range of price points. I initially left the novel off of this list because of its wide availability. You can pick what you want. The various editions have their merits, but many are subject to important criticisms. I’ll say more in my subsequent post.

The Minister’s Wooing (Penguin Classics)

  • There was one copy according to Amazon when I checked in late December
  • The Amazon site reports it as in stock as of 2/4/2020

Dred

  • A scholarly edition from Robert S. Levine
  • Listed on the UNC Press website for $39.95
  • Not coming up on Amazon or BN Dot Com

Harriet Beecher Stowe: Three Novels

  • From Library of America
  • Includes Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Minister’s Wooing, and Oldtown Folks
  • Available on the LOA website for $33.75

“Recently In Print” Books by Stowe

  • The books below were at one time in print or widely available used. Again, these books were often on my mind because availability informs what we teach. All but one of these books was published by a university press.

The American Woman’s Home

  • A scholarly edition from Nicole Tonkovich
  • Listed on the Rutgers UP website for $32.95
  • Not coming up on Amazon or BN Dot Com

Palmetto Leaves

  • Edition listed on the UP of Florida website for $19.95
  • I picked up a copy used
  • Not coming up on Amazon or BN Dot Com

Oldtown Folks

  • There was an edition published as part of the American Women Writers series from Rutgers University Press
  • I picked up a copy of it used
  • Good luck finding this edition used

The Pearl of Orr’s Island

  • Edition from Joan D. Hedrick
  • I picked up a used copy a long time ago; it hasn’t been available for many years
  • One is offered on Amazon for $1,000; yes, one thousand American dollars

Selected Books Offered Through Applewood Books

  • You have likely run into publications from Applewood Books if you’ve wandered around the gift shop of an historic site. Applewood Books focuses on publishing various works connected to the American past. Many of their offerings are relatively affordable reprints of original editions. I purchased several of their Stowe books in the past because the reprints provided a greater physical ease of reading compared to printing something off from Google Books or elsewhere.

Poganuc People

  • $24.95

Oldtown Folks

  • $29.95

Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands

  • Volume 1, $24.95
  • Volume 2, 24.95

The Pearl of Orr’s Island

  • $24.95

House and Home Papers

  • $21.95

A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin

  • $19.95

Two Primary Source Readers and a Collection of Criticism

  • Stowe is unusual in that she is a major American writer without a scholarly edited *and* published collection of her personal writings and letters available. There is a scholarly prepared edition of her letters on a computer at The Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut. However, the edition was never published because (according to the story I heard) Stowe wasn’t a major writer.

Stowe in Her Own Time

  • Edited by Susan Belasco
  • Belasco’s edited collection is an extensive gathering of various primary source documents on Stowe and the context of her life
  • Available on Amazon for $26.00

The Oxford Harriet Beecher Stowe Reader

  • Edited by Joan D. Hedrick
  • One available on Amazon for $43.90

The Cambridge Companion to Harriet Beecher Stowe

  • Edited by Cindy Weinstein
  • Available on Amazon for $34.00
  • This collection of scholarly essays on Stowe is now very old (I’m dying on the inside having written those words), but it contains accessible work by major scholars of Stowe and American literature.

The Verdict and Next Steps
In preparing this particular post I was I disturbed by end results of my survey. A single author course on Stowe isn’t only cost prohibitive, but the process of even considering such a course is a sad testament to the state of published works by Stowe, the work of Stowe’s recovery, and the ways canon formation is tied to available works by an author.

However, I’m ready for the challenge. I’ve watched many videos on building computers over the past few months. Often these videos are built around the premise of getting the most for your money by building a computer capable of outperforming its price. These build guides approach the process as a challenge in the spirit of creating the “$850 gaming PC that fells like a $1,000 gaming PC.” I’ll be taking my cue from that spirit of computer building in my next post on the single author course. (As an aside, thanks to those videos this is my first PALS post written using the computer I built. And a further aside, I’ll be working up a post on that build process and what it taught me about teaching.)

So, reader, prepare yourself for a Zero Dollar Single Author Course that Performs like a $375 Single Author Course.

Cookbooks Not Novels

I have kept a running list of things students have called novels: plays, essays, articles, both primary and secondary sources of all sorts, poems, textbooks, memoirs, and cookbooks. Given how often I teach cookbooks in the scope of the American Literary tradition I have perhaps encountered this term-swapping with “cookbooks” at a disproportionate rate.

Before I write another word, I want to scream “NO this is not another ‘arrogant teacher complaining that students can’t write’ vent piece.” (I also want to warn you dear readers that I take pictures of my dog with my reading material. It’s a thing.)

Yes, I need to hold myself accountable and admit that a few years ago I was at that haughty place. Looking back on my own processing of this phenomena, my reactions followed a pattern that happened to mirror the stages of grief.

Denial: These are honest mistakes, or typos. No one would call a cookbook a novel on purpose.

Anger: How can students not know the difference between a cookbook and a novel?? Why didn’t anyone warn me about this sooner!? This. Is. Annoying.

Bargaining: If y’all consistently call them cookbooks in your papers I will bring donuts!

Depression: I’m a failure of a teacher. The education system is yet again failing us. I am really bad at my job, what else am I messing up?

Acceptance: Ok, so from now on sometimes folks will call cookbooks novels. This is a part of the literary landscape. That’s how language is now.

It took me a while to transition from teaching the difference between the genres (and ‘marking mistakes’) to actually going to the source and asking my students *why* this was happening. My students told me and turns out there is a reason why.

Many had the experience in high school where books are divided into two categories: fictitious novels and nonfiction novels. I don’t take it to be the case that high school teachers (or librarians) used these categories. Yet for whatever reason, it has stuck with many students as their truth for how to discuss book-objects. Nonfiction novels are basically any book that isn’t fiction—and book is also loosely understood, too. For students coming out of this classification system, of course a cookbook is a novel. I get that. I also regret not asking years sooner.

Even if their genre is undefined, cookbooks are great sites for teaching theory. Ten examples in no order! They are unfamiliar enough as a genre that they make an interesting place to learn, or practice, close reading. The economy of language (and ingredients) is not the only reason why cookbooks are a Marxist field day for discussions of material conditions, production, and power. Heck, it is impossible to have a full discussion about spices without a Postcolonial lens. All waves of Feminism and Critical Race Theory emerge when we ask who is doing what, in domestic and public spheres. The questions of who does what, where, why, how also insist we engage with Queer Theory, debates on Authorship (and imagined communities of readers or eaters). And for die hard rhetoricians, cookbooks are all about Burkeian equipment for living, and proverbs.

In terms of their potential for assignments, I’ve used cookbooks as the catalyst text for all sorts of projects, such as: Poems from the point of view of an ingredient; Twine choose your own adventure games about the global movement of food (like potatoes); Infographics on the history of a food/food adjacent commodity (like horses); Traditional Papers doing literary analysis and/or close reading of cookbooks; Podcasts exploring an idea from a cookbook as the idea exists in our communities.

In teaching American protest literature, I favor including cookbooks on the syllabus for many reasons. A big reason is that cookbooks easily open the conversation for material conditions in texts to investigate biases we might bring to texts (see Greg Spector’s prior post). For example, the combination of Julia Turshen’s cookbook Feed the Resistance, John Lewis’ collaborative text March, and the cult-classic, genre bending book Foxfire. John Lewis’ graphic novel series, March, (in collaboration with Aydin and Powell) takes us through Lewis’s resistance in the American South through the violence and complexity of fear and hope in the civil rights movement. He also takes us through his food memories starting at a young age, and move into dangerous food spaces (like lunch counters), and spaces for food that hold hope and action (like the restaurants and homes that fed members of the resistance).

I am the kind of instructor who does the thing of bringing in food for the last day of class, and I tend to ask my students what kind of food they would like. In a semester where I taught the above-mentioned texts (in combination with Birth of a Nation—and a guest visits from speakers like, Akila McConnell, on history of the stereotypes around fried chicken), students wanted fried chicken for their last class. So, I brought enough fried chicken to feed 25 twenty-somethings—with at least 100 packets of hot sauce—to class. The chicken had cooled by the time it got to them—a consideration students hadn’t made and were not too pleased with. Despite our shared knowledge of frying being a way to preserve chicken, and that they weren’t eating spoiled food, many noted that they didn’t vote for cold fried chicken.

That led to a conversation about the temperature of fried chicken in many of the texts we were reading. During the freedom rides people didn’t bring thermal lunch boxes to keep their chicken warm. It was suggested putting hot sauce on the chicken—while some students laughed at the idea of NOT putting hot sauce on the as-is chicken. Unanimously, the class agreed that hot sauce greatly improves room temperature chicken. And voila, here is an opportunity for experiential knowledge to bring to March—as well as identifying how food traditions like fried chicken are weaponized in coded language for racial stereotypes. It is one thing to read the history about why certain food stereotypes developed. It is another thing to experience the food (the food that has become rhetorically weaponized) in a set of sensory conditions that are historically different from their daily sensory experience.

We have a pedagogical responsibility to encourage the use of terms with their corresponding objects. Yes. Then we shouldn’t abide calling cookbooks novels. However, is there anything we can do with a cookbook that we can’t do with a novel? Or the other way around?

When we juxtapose cookbooks with literature, we don’t have to use cookbooks as a historical guide to better understand the things happening in literature—anymore than we should use literature only to historically emplace cookbooks. We can study food as a cultural object, as we can with literature or film. Why not read cookbooks as the evidence of the storytelling that has literally fed us, mind, body, and soul? And from what I understand about the canon, “novels” end up there because they feed us in similar ways.

To recap (and reframe) some of the Pros and Cons for calling a cookbook a “novel,”:

Pros:
1) Who cares what students are calling the material as long as they’re reading it.
2) Calling a “cookbook” a “novel” allows broad understandings of reading.
3) Cookbooks-as-novels are great sites for doing theory. They can illustrate how to bridge the gap between doing theory in the classroom and in everyday life.
4) We can also benefit from cross-genre and interdisciplinary perspectives.
5) Cookbooks and novels both create imagined communities.
6) Cookbook-novels also let us introduce genre theory.
7) Is the term “cookbook” really that accurate anyway? When we say “cookbook” do we mean a collection of recipes, or a book about cooking? What about novels and non-fiction novels that have recipes in them and cookbooks filled with creative non-fiction or poetry-proper?

Cons:
1) Words matter, and the issue of calling objects by the noun they are matters.
2) Calling everything a “novel” is indicative of something learned before students get to my college classroom. In the way that many of us aim to have students “unlearn” the five-paragraph essay, we have a responsibility to teach students how different texts fit into different genres.
3) Moreover, we want to give students the benefit of knowing what to call texts in different classification systems so that they can better engage with the critical conversation about those genres.
4) When students use “novel” instead of “cookbook” when pointing to a cookbook, it makes me question their comprehension of the material.

Trying to look at the pros and cons from an objective point of view immediately shows me three things. First, one list clearly wins over the other. Next, the cons list is more about me. It indicates teacher-frustrations, whereas the pros list has an uncanny resemblance to many intended “learning outcomes” for literature classrooms.

With compassion fatigue as high as it is for students and faculty alike, it is important to give students aesthetic, critical and practical tools to manage that fatigue. Of course, that opens the can of worms about the role of emotional labor in the literature classroom and how those affective demands hit humanities departments where it hurts. Until we solve those big systemic questions, we all have the responsibility to ask ourselves what should be teaching in the American Literature classroom while the world literally burns. I suggest adding a cookbook. Feed The Resistance is a favorite of mine.

My classroom needs both cookbooks and literature. I think I am ok if “novel” sometimes slips from one to the other. I still want students to know the words specific to different genres. But I also want the flexibility to do work on cookbooks that we would do on novels. In Feed the Resistance, the recipes take budget, audience, and culture into account, and it also gives a step by step guide for ‘getting involved’—without overwhelming yourself. I like a text that teaches one of my intended learning outcomes: learn to use effective communication to take care of yourself and others, while maintaining a focus on community in critical thinking. Novels teach that learning outcome a good part of the time, but I trust cookbooks to do that consistently.

Bio:

Darcy Mullen is a Postdoctoral Marion L. Brittain Fellow, teaching about food and media literacy at Georgia Institute of Technology. Publications include articles exploring the use of “local” as a tool for mapping food movements, the politics of place in tourism, the Anthropocene, and pedagogy studies. She is currently teaching community engaged courses linking poetics and food systems in urban agriculture. She tweets pictures of what she reads (#bookselfies with #souphound: @FarmsWatson). For more about her, visit her website, www.storiesofsoil.com, where she blogs about dirt, books and art.