Nicole N. Aljoe, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of English
Northeastern University, Boston, MA
I taught Theresa during the Fall semester of 2014 in my Introduction to Literary Studies course. It was a class of 11 students, and the course was intended to provide, as the title suggests, an introduction to some of the components, practices, techniques, strategies, and goals of literary studies. I’d taught the course or one very like it, mostly successfully many times over my career. We turned to “Theresa” during the middle of the semester, after the students had read Gulliver’s Travels and had been introduced to several different schools of literary theory such as feminism, Marxism, Post-Structuralism, and New Criticism among others. I titled the unit “Literary History and the Archive” and my goal was to introduce students to debates about literary history and its relationship to our notions about the archive. In addition to reading “Theresa” and Foster’s essay about the story, the students also read three additional essays by scholars offering varying perspectives on early African American literary history and notions of the archive: Jackson “The Talking Book and the Talking Book Historian”; Brown “Death-Defying Testimony: Women’s Private Lives and the Politics of Public Documents;” Hartman “Venus in Two Acts.”
We spent two class periods, the first focused on the story and Foster’s essay, the second exploring the ramifications of the arguments by Brown, Jackson, and Hartman on our readings of the text. In initial reading responses students, as usual, expressed chagrin at their relative lack of exposure to African American literature. What was surprising was the number of students who focused on, for lack of a better word, the “Haitian-ness” of the narrative and how it exposed them to a more diverse representation of 19th century Black culture. As one student noted, “I was also pretty disappointed in realizing that in every discussion of African American literature I’d ever participated in, whether it be at home or in a classroom setting, I’d only really ever been given examples of African American literature. I’d never even really considered the highly nuanced versions of literature that would’ve been produced by any of the several other populations of African descent scattered around the globe.” And another asked, “What kind of literature did the world miss out on?”
Our initial conversation was wide ranging, moving from “noticing” the details of the story (building on our early semester introduction to Rabinowitz’s Before Reading), such as its vivid, often anthropomorphized descriptions of the landscape to considering the language of sentiment and its representations of republican femininity. We also talked about the various lenses/theories through which we could read the story and engaged in fun and interactive group exercise where the groups chose a particular theory and offered readings from that school/perspective. Although our discussions on the first day were wide-ranging, we did touch on some of the focused aspects of literary history, notions of the canon, and archives when we considered questions such as “how does this text help us reconsider African American literature? American literature, more generally? Black Atlantic literature?” On the second day, we focused our discussion much more closely on these questions. Because students tend to have difficulty “applying” or culling useful insights from essays not specifically written about the chosen primary text, I took the focused points they had made in their reading posts about the secondary essays and used them to craft the questions that formed the catalysts for the day’s class discussion. For example, drawing on the students’ notation of Hartman’s analysis of critical romanticism, I asked them “ what elements might a non-romantic recuperative reading of the story focus on?” Which elicited responses that focused on the nuanced characterization of Madame Pauline and her daughters as simultaneously passive and assertive, as well as the ways in which the writer explicitly embraces multiple rather than singular perspectives throughout the text.
Our discussions focused on literary history and the canon and the archive as a series of processes rather than an inert and stable object. The students were able to shift their thinking about the archive and the canon towards a more dynamic and “realistic” understanding of the archive/canon. This also led to an engaging discussion about print culture and how texts become part of the canon/literary archive. As another student noted, “I’ve never thought about the process and research needed in order to solve the mystery of historical text, before they even reach the reader. I often forget that what I’m holding in my hand is a finished product, and as I read I don’t think about the steps taken between an author completing the book and it landing on my desk.” This discussion also brought us back to Rabinowitz’s argument that in essence all reading is political in some way.
The students then used the class discussions and readings as the basis for an essay assignment that explored one of the four main questions/issues that we had dealt with in class: how the story alters our notions of literary history; how it relates to Black Atlantic culture; the details, strategies, and techniques employed by the writer; and the literariness of the text. Part of my thinking in highlighting these particular questions, in addition to helping the students focus their writing on making synthetic analyses as opposed to summarizing, was also intended to accommodate the different levels of comfort expressed by some of the students with the more speculative aspects of our discussion about the canon.
The story worked incredibly well in this environment. Because the students were new students to college and the major, they were not so jaded about literary studies and were willing to consider the text on its own terms. Unfortunately, in my experience working with more advanced classes with this text they are often more suspicious of the fact that the text is unsigned and doesn’t come pre-associated (at least to them) with some recognizeable framework. Indeed, hearing that scholars are currently engaged in debates about this and other texts, made them realism the dynamism of literary studies and held out the possibility that they could contribute to that discussion. All in all, it was an incredibly rewarding experience working with this text with this level class. Generally speaking, the students agreed that, “Overall I was really intrigued by ‘Theresa’ and the discussion it can inspire.”