Monday, March 21, 2005


Teaching texts

In a thought-provoking recent post, the Little Professor writes that "literary scholars ... study how texts work." Historians, on the other hand, "study how texts exist." These two scholarly endeavors, of course, overlap and complement each other. But as the post goes on to say, "it's very difficult to make the historian cohabit peacefully with the literary critic."

It is especially difficult to make them cohabit in the classroom.

Discussion-based history classes are usually organized around historical texts -- novels, autobiographies, slave narratives, and so on. We assign such texts to students partly as primary sources. Their existence tells historians something about the times in which they were produced. Yet we also want students to approach these texts like literary scholars, to think about how texts work. The difficulty, for teachers and students alike, is to approach texts in both ways at the same time.

Consider a syllabus favorite like Frederick Douglass' Narrative. On the one hand, the text serves well as a window onto the experience of enslavement in antebellum Maryland. On the other hand, the Narrative is clearly not mere reportage. Douglass is reporting events that actually happened, but he is also engaged in particular rhetorical projects, which are shaped by still other events in his life and other texts he has read. For instance, Douglass foregrounds gruesome examples of slave women being whipped partly because he knows that antislavery readers expect such examples as part of the genre. Douglass also addresses the Narrative to particular defenses of slavery being offered in the North, interjecting at several points that if slaves sometimes seem contented, they are only pretending to be so for their own safety. His examples are selected and presented not just as episodes in a memoir, but as evidence for an argument.

Yet many students are more comfortable thinking of a text like the Narrative as a report rather than as a rhetorical project. How, then, does a teacher help students analyze the rhetorical and argumentative structure of the text without undermining its value as a piece of reportage?

Often the surest way of helping students to read a text as rhetoric is to present it to them as fictional or false. If you posit some disconnection between actual events and a text, it is easier for students to address the question of how the text "works."

Suppose, for example, you are teaching another syllabus favorite: Olaudah Equiano's narrative. In an earlier comment thread, Timothy Burke and Jonathan Dresner had a brief exchange about Vincent Carretta's hypothesis that Equiano was not born in Africa, as his autobiography suggests, but in North America. This hypothesis is still hotly debated by scholars (I've been reading Adam Hochschild's Bury the Chains, which includes a thoughtful appendix on the debate). But from a pedagogical standpoint, Carretta's hypothesis is useful because it unsettles students' expectations about how the text came to be and where Equiano came from. Once we are open to the possibility that Equiano was not born in Africa, it becomes easier to think about how his representations of Africa work. What conventions of abolitionist literature do they follow? How do they reflect Equiano's views as a Christian? How do they address particular arguments being circulated in the Atlantic World about the "savagery" of native Africans? Raise a question about how the text came to exist, and students eagerly discuss how the text works.

For similar reasons, it is easier to ask students about how proslavery texts work than it is to ask how antislavery texts work, because students are (hopefully!) constitutionally skeptical about the former but inclined to trust the latter.

For example, Catherine Clinton's new biography of Harriet Tubman quotes from a Philadelphian, John Bell Robinson, who published a fierce attack on Tubman after she brought her parents to the North in 1857. His "invective became even more lethal when he launched into a diatribe about [Tubman's] removal of her aging parents from a slave state. Robinson's reasoning was that of a quintessential proslavery apologist: 'Now there are no old people of any color more caressed and better taken care of than the old worn-out slaves of the South ...'" (p. 143).

Here students are likely to have no problem seeing that Robinson's text is doing certain kinds of rhetorical "work." At the very least, Robinson's claims are unlikely to be taken as simple reportage about the treatment of elderly slaves, especially once students learn that Tubman's parents were already free when Tubman brought them North. So Robinson has his facts wrong in more than one way. But then Clinton goes on to point out that "it suited both proslavery and abolitionist camps to portray Harriet's parents as an elderly enslaved couple. One side claimed their dependence upon some fictive master's goodwill, while the other painted the harsh cruelties of whips and chains if they did not escape" (p. 144). Even though Tubman's father had been manumitted in 1840 and her mother had been free since 1855, abolitionists sometimes folded their story into Tubman's other heroic rescues of enslaved family members.

Clinton's point would probably help students see how abolitionist texts "worked." But the lesson learned may come at a high cost. For it would now be easy for students to wonder: "If Robinson was lying and had his facts wrong ... did abolitionists also have their facts wrong?" The realization that Robinson had a rhetorical argument to make helps students call into question his facts. But once you point out that abolitionists also had a rhetorical argument to make, students might wonder whether their facts were wrong too. That's certainly not necessarily bad, but it can be if students conclude from this discussion that abolitionists were "as wrong" as Robinson was -- and wrong in the same ways.

What I'm getting at here are old and familiar problems -- about the relationship between authors and audiences, rhetoric and reality, texts and facts. But I'm encountering these problems for the first time from the perspective of a teacher. And I'm worried about the potential pitfalls in the pedagogical methods I've been describing -- using the Caretta hypothesis, for instance, to discuss the rhetorical structure of Equiano's narrative, or pointing out that abolitionists and proslavery apologists alike overlooked the freedom of Tubman's parents because that fact did not serve their arguments.

My worry is that students will learn to associate the idea of "rhetoric" with dissemblance. The strategies I've outlined might reinforce a preexisting sense that rhetoric can be equated with bias, which has an almost universally negative connotation as antithetical to truthfulness.

I remember facing a similar pedagogical challenge when I worked as a tutor in symbolic logic. Any Introduction to Logic course begins by drawing a basic distinction between the validity of an argument and its soundness. An argument is formally valid if the premises entail the conclusion. But a sound argument is a valid argument whose premises are also true. I often found that students had a difficult time understanding the distinction between validity and soundness. The easiest way to help was to present an argument that was valid but clearly unsound. For example ...

If the moon is made of green cheese, then two plus two equals four.
The moon is made of green cheese.
Therefore, two plus two equals four.

Clearly, if the premises to this argument are true, then the conclusion is also true. But in this case, also clearly, the second premise is false. (It throws students for another loop to inform them that the first premise is true, but that's another issue ...) The argument is valid but unsound. Usually such examples help students distinguish between validity and soundness, but inevitably some students will start to think of valid arguments as always unsound. That is, they will associate validity with moons of green cheese.

The analogy isn't exact, but the pedagogical problems with teaching texts are similar. You can show students how Equiano's arguments worked by calling into question whether he was born in Africa. But then you risk encouraging them to associate rhetoric with falsehood. And that would be to fail in your original objective, which was to show how even a report that gets its facts right is structured according to certain rhetorical and narrative conventions.

I talk about this as if it is merely a pedagogical problem, but of course it isn't. There are thorny issues of textual representation and rhetoric here that befuddle all historians and literary scholars. But as a beginning teacher, I'm discovering for the first time how especially thorny these problems can be in the classroom. And although I think one goal of education is to model informed and thoughtful befuddlement, confusion does not always signify an appreciation of complexity. Advice from non-beginning teachers (or swifter beginners) would be very much appreciated.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

Collective Improvisation:
Fascinating post. Yes, learning to deal with ambiguity is a key point of dealing with history, but as you point out, confusion can easily result, and that is hardly desirable.

In dealing with the Douglass narrative in survey courses, I've found it rich enough to deal with on the basic level of "reportage," as you call it. With mostly freshmen and sophomore students -- most of whom aren't history majors -- I don't deal with the rhetorical devices associated with slave narratives for fear of confusing them. (I do confront the use of rhetoric when I use Paine's "Common Sense," but that lends itself to that type of discussion -- like with the proslavery arguments -- without totally blowing the students' minds.) I guess it would depend on your caliber of students and how much time you had to devote to the text.

I wasn't aware of the doubts about Equiano's origins, so I appreciated the insight to that debate. I did read a few years ago (perhaps in the New Yorker) about the doubts related to the Douglass narrative (which mainly question how many of the events he took part in personally). 

Posted by Jim E.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/21/2005 11:06:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for the comment, Jim E. If I were using Douglass' Narrative  in a survey course, I think I would probably approach it as you do -- with an emphasis on reportage. But the class I'm using it in this semester is a course on African American abolitionists, so I want to present narratives both as autobiographical accounts of abolitionists' lives and as briefs for abolition. That's the actual pedagogical situation operating in the background of this post. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/22/2005 08:55:00 PM : Permalink  

Knowing that your class is more narrowly focused than a survey, it certainly does make sense to deal with rhetoric and reliability of texts.

In the Cliopatria comment thread, you pointed out how this approach to (or problem with) text is inherent to autobiography. And yes, I've had an experience or two in which students didn't understand how one could dare question the narrator of their own autobiography. To them, an autobiography seemed the absolute gold standard of sources. It was truth !

I responded to them by pointing out that maybe the autobiography was trustworthty, maybe it wasn't, or maybe it was some mix of the two. It still didn't register with them. So, as I am want to do, I used an extreme example, and asked them if they would totally trust a self-serving autobiography penned by Hitler. That got them thinking about reliability since they agreed that Hitler might be motivated by something other than truth and that they would be reluctant to take anything he wrote at face value. Granted, the Hitler thing was pretty radical, but once the neurons fired, it was easier at that point to present more subtle examples. From their you can consider the author's audience, the author's intentions, the audience's expectations, and how one might go about weighing the text's reliability.

I apologize if this is pretty pedestrian and simpleminded. After previewing my comment, I realize it's not particularly helpful and that it merely allowed me to summarize one of my "teaching moments." Oh well, I'm posting it anyways. Once you get the conversation started, I do think students will engage. In my case, I tend to go with outlandish hypotheticals before opening more substantial cans of worms. And if you're running a discussion section, weirdo examples can get the students to, you know, actually talk, which is always cool. (Of course, if I'm underestimating the caliber of your students -- which may very well be the case -- then my advice of going outlandish to subtle might be downright insulting.)

Posted by Jim E.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/23/2005 01:15:00 AM : Permalink  

Jim E., your advice is not insulting or pedestrian at all! It helpfully highlights the problem I'm describing. I too find the outlandish examples useful for introducing students initially to the idea that the text has rhetorical content (just like using the moon of green cheese helps illustrate the concept of validity). But my worry is that sometimes students seem to latch on to these examples and associate the outlandish with the ordinary. I don't want them to think of green cheese moons every time I'm talking about a valid argument, and likewise, I don't want them to think of outrageously untrustworthy sources every time I suggest that an autobiography has a thematic structure. At the same time, the outrageous examples seem to work  ...

I sincerely appreciate your comments; I have more to chew on now, and it always helps to hear about the "teaching moments" of teachers more experienced than myself. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/23/2005 07:04:00 AM : Permalink  

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