Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Recovering Literary Texts, One at a Time

· September 29th, 2015 · 2 Comments

In our third entry of our summer conference roundtable roundup, we look back to a workshop on teaching once-forgotten texts with Meredith Neuman. Neuman is Associate Professor of English at Clark University and author of Jeremiah’s Scribes: Creating Sermon Literature in Puritan New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

It may have been the first panel slot on the first day of the conference, but the “Just Teach One” (JTO) workshop was standing room only. Perhaps half of the attendees had “At Least Taught Once,” but many had “Not Taught Any.” The room was full of enthusiasm for the project—now in its third year—that makes available pdf transcriptions of little-known early American texts and asks instructors to set aside just one day in their syllabus to experiment in the classroom. Neither the workshop facilitators (Duncan Faherty, Andy Doolen, and Ed White) nor the handful of “Have Taught Many” participants in the room claimed any special expertise on the use of JTO texts in the classroom. Rather, the entire session was marked by a spirit of open exchange and the desire for collaborative approaches to implementing the project in the classroom.

The project website begins with the observation that “Recovery of neglected or forgotten texts is an integral part of teaching and writing in early American studies, and the current moment is in part defined by the strange blend of opportunities and obstacles for such work.” JTO workshop leaders (Duncan Faherty, Andy Doolen, and Ed White) began the conversation with the unfortunate fact that the work of editing is not adequately recognized or rewarded in tenure and promotion consideration, a situation that has serious implications for the crucial work of recovery and access to early American texts. Session leaders encouraged participants to read more of some of the writing that inspired the project, including Theresa Strouth Gaul’s essay on “Recovering Recovery” in the important special issue of Legacy 26.2 (2009), a key inspiration for the project. Related recommendations included Eric Gardner’s Unexpected Places: Relocating African American Literature (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2011) and Michelle Burnham’s recent review of both the JTO and Early American Reprints projects, “Literary Recovery in an Age of Austerity” in Legacy 32.1 (2015). For an hour and a half, conversation focused on the overlap between teaching and scholarship in acts of recovery and how best digital technologies and individual institutions (such as the American Antiquarian Society and the online journal Common-place) can support these kinds of collaborative endeavors.

To date, JTO has created free, easy to download transcriptions of seven “neglected or forgotten texts”  dating from the November 1786 issue of the Columbian Magazine to Sarah Savage’s 1814 novel The Factory Girl. As Ed White pointed out, a majority of the writing is anonymous (for example, the first two JTO short novels, Amelia or the Faithless Briton and The Story of Constantius and Pulchera), and a high percentage of texts reveal their denominational affiliation (such as St. Herbert—A Tale). These kinds of texts provide an important counterbalance in survey classrooms where the reading schedule can often become “greatest hits.” Beyond providing a more representative perspective on the range of what might be typical reading in early America (and here I note JTO’s emphasis on periodical publication), many in the workshop reported that JTO texts helped students better to identify and contextualize generic, thematic, and political issues in canonical readings as well.

Throughout the workshop, session leaders reiterated that they welcomed back-and-forth as the young project continues to grow. The project has received praise, but Faherty emphasized that they would invite “more pushback,” too. The greatest hesitation in the room was that most of us could not claim to be experts on the various texts, but those who “Had Taught at Least One” emphasized the productively exploratory nature of including a new text in class. Many had used the unfamiliarity of the text to advantage by shifting the burden of contextualization on the students. The JTO website includes a forum for each text where instructors can post their experience (an “under used blogging feature, according to one of the session leaders), but some expressed the desire for a more robust and interactive platforms, not just for sharing experiences but for generating ideas as well. As one participant suggested, we might think of setting up both public and private spaces for discussion in order to facilitate more open experimentation without the burden of modeling ideal practices. Some wished for more options for student-to-student collaboration that might use social media platforms, such as twitter, and I hear through the grapevine that some instructors are already experimenting with new formats for collaborative students work. (Stay tuned!)

“Loosely spinning off” from JTO, its sister project Just Teach One: Early African American Print initiative (convened by Nicole Aljoe, Louis Brown, John Ernest, Pier Gabrielle Foreman, Eric Gardner, and Joycelyn Moody) is already creating a new series of online texts to further “dialogic ways to benefit teaching, learning, and further scholarship.” JTO-EAAP will go later into the nineteenth century, last year offering up its inaugural text Theresa: A Haytien Tale (1827) and just this month adding the remarkable resource for visual and print culture An Afric-American Picture Gallery (1859).

Toward the end of the session, some mentioned the frustration of wanting to create similar projects but finding themselves stymied by lack of access to the necessary databases at their home institutions. And so the conversation swung back around to the broader implications of recovery and editing in the profession, this time with a particular emphasis on the economics of such ventures. Gaul offered a timely exhortation to support recovery and editing endeavors via course adoption. Broadview was mentioned as a press that uses more “popular” parts of their catalog to support important but lesser-known titles. Traditional print series (Broadview Press, the American Women Writers series out of Rutgers University Press, Early American Reprints) must work well alongside online initiatives such as JTO and JTO: EAAP in order to create thoughtful and sustainable access to early American texts for teaching and scholarship.

2 Responses

  1. Instructors leverage “the unfamiliarity of the text to advantage by shifting the burden of contextualization on the students.” Yes! I approached my JTO class yesterday, on a Rowson novel that I was myself still digesting — rather than prescribing what to think, I asked students to check out the website and ask: ‘Why does (or not) this text warrant recovery? What, critically or theoretically or historically, is at stake? In other words, precisely what English majors should be doing —

  2. Duncan Faherty says:

    Many thanks to Meredith for the review of the workshop, and double thanks to all the participants at SEA! Ed and I very much hope that the conversations and exchanges of ideas and practices can continue here and on the JTO website. . . .and Meredith suggests I highly suggest that you check out Theresa’s, Eric’s, and Michelle’s work on the state of recovery in the field if you are interested in these questions.

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