Teaching the Transatlantic:
England and the New World / America and the Old World

 

Jennifer Frangos    jennifer.frangos@ttu.edu

Cristobal Silva c.silva@ttu.edu

English Department, Texas Tech University

 

From the colonization of Virginia in the 1580s to the American Revolutionary War, the North American colonies were a part of the British Empire; thus, to some degree, our separation of Early American and Eighteenth-Century British literatures is an arbitrary and anachronistic one. In order to explore the shared intellectual, cultural, and literary heritages of England and the United States, we combined our department’s standard offerings in Restoration and 18th-century British literature (ENGL 3307) and Early American literature (ENGL 3323) for one semester. One of our central aims was to think about how this dual approach to literary history changes our understanding of both Early America and Eighteenth-century Britain.

Focusing on what has come to be known as the Transatlantic World, we read canonical and non-canonical materials, literary and “non-literary” texts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We interrogate basic convergences and divergences between these closest of nations by examining the circulation of capital and print culture, the emergence of race and gender as modern categories of identity, the evolution of democratic rhetoric in the eighteenth-century, and the mutual impact that the Old and New Worlds had in shaping each other’s literary imaginations.

This course was designed to address two audiences: first, to provide students with an understanding of the long eighteenth century that displaces traditional academic boundaries by tracing the major migratory, literary, and intellectual movements that bound Old England to New; second, to provide professors not only with the practical framework to engage recent scholarly trends in eighteenth-century transatlantic studies, but also to create a laboratory for collaborative research.  Texas Tech’s registrar and course load structure are not set up to facilitate team-teaching, but the English department backed our efforts fully, and arranged to have the two courses listed at the same time.  We then made an informal arrangement with the students to combine the classes and meet in the same room. Students had permission to register for either English 3323 or English 3307 (but not both), and we compared rosters to make sure that there was no duplication among the 50-60 who enrolled.

We shared lecture, discussion, and grading duties equally. We also made sure that students understood the grading procedures: we discussed criteria and grade ranges for each set of assignments and exams, and read several examples together to ensure consistency. Each of us graded one written assignment and one exam per student, and the instructor of record filed the final grade.  The procedure for grade appeals was for students to approach the instructor who assigned the particular grade in question; if this did not resolve the issue, the student could then speak with the second instructor and we would both revisit the grade.

            Logistically, a group this large can be difficult to manage, but we were committed to providing students with an experience as close as possible to our department’s other third-year courses (capped at 30).  To achieve this, we met before every class period to discuss each day’s lesson or discussion plan and to strategize about presentation. We called on students to give brief informal presentations, relied on small-group work, and modeled discussions for students whenever possible. Often one or the other of us would take primary responsibility for discussion, with the other sitting among the students and participating in the discussion. Now that are both more familiar with the general trajectory of the course, our goal is to break further from models of professional expertise, and spend more time together at the front of the class.  Thus, we both want to avoid the expert/observer dynamic that can quickly emerge from team-taught courses.  We believe that these steps help students to reconsider their own nationalist assumptions about literary studies, and promote the course’s pedagogical goals.

            We had assumed that students would come into the class with a general sense of 18th-c British and early American literatures as traditionally taught/conceived, and that we could use those assumptions as a foil for the course content. However, this did not prove to be the case with most of the students who enrolled, in part because our department offers period-specific survey courses (for example, in Restoration and 18th-century British literature) that students may repeat when the topic or focus changes, rather than a general survey of the history of British or American literature.  In our case, this meant that students were taking the course in 18th-century British or Early American literature for the first time, and had little idea of what to expect. When we realized this, we made the effort to touch on the ways that a more traditionally conceived national literature course might talk about the materials and texts, and to mark where our class focus diverged from that more standard line as a way of further dramatizing the stakes of our discussion. We are each delighted to have several students from the Transatlantic course in our respective period surveys this semester, and are encouraging them to incorporate their perspectives into the material and narratives they encounter this semester.

            As a pedagogical practice, we tried to keep the focus on the Transatlantic connections between the readings, emphasizing the movement of populations and  circulation of ideas, rather than being driven by models of literary history that are shaped by static national boundaries. None of the reading passages we assigned was very long, except for the book-length works, which we discussed over the course of several class periods. We encouraged students to read with an eye toward connections to texts that had already been discussed, and usually prepared for subsequent discussions by offering questions or topics to bear in mind while reading at home.  Our general technique for facilitating class discussion was to begin with some brief context and overview of the important ideas and plot points for the day, usually through close readings of pertinent passages.  The rest of the period was designed to explore the Transatlantic ideas articulated in each text, and to tease out connections to other readings. While this meant that we didn’t necessarily discuss each reading in the kind of depth that might have been done in other contexts, our emphasis on developing ideas over the course of the semester ensured that texts discussed in the first week of class were still being referenced on the last day. We believe this allowed for a satisfying and relevant consideration of the readings.

            Our reading of John Locke serves as a good illustration. Locke is a figure that each of us regularly teaches as a part of our traditional period surveys. In the 18th-century literature course, the emphasis is on reading Locke in the context of the New Science, empiricism, and philosophical debates about reason and the social order, and as an exercise in more abstracted applications of Reason. In the American course, the discussion hinges on the resonances between the early colonial history of North American and Locke’s theories of natural and civil rights.  In the Transatlantic context, we merged these discussions, revisiting the Second Treatise at various points in the semester.  Rather than relying on a geographically specific context for Locke’s ideas, we consider how Locke’s contrast of the civil society with the “savages of America” resonates in both England and America, and helps to highlight the interconnectedness between the English focus on the individual in relation to society, and the theological justifications for migration written by Puritan colonists.  We reintroduce the Second Treatise at the end of the semester, as we consider Locke’s influence on late eighteenth-century revolutionary discourse. Thus, the Transatlantic focus rounds out each of our independent uses of this important text, lending a philosophical context to “American” readings of the text, and a practical application of the ideas to a more narrowly defined “British” treatment — but perhaps more importantly, it highlights of the trajectory of the Transatlantic movement of ideas.

In what follows, we’d like to run through our syllabus quickly, and provide some insights about the decision process we went through will designing the course.

 

The Syllabus

 

            We begin the first day with an excerpt from Thomas Harriot’s 1590 edition of A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, published with copper plate engravings by Theodore de Bry. We hand out the engravings of An Aged Man in his Winter Garment and the portrait of A Chief Lady of Pomeooic and ask the students to consider both the portraits and the accompanying text.  After discussing the descriptions of the Native Americans, the often contrasting depictions in the engravings, and the European perspectives imposed onto the American landscape, we show the students a slide of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (ca. 1485), and discuss the ramifications of the unmistakable similarities in posture, grouping, and detail between the Chief Lady and Venus.  This sets up what will be a fundamental theme of the first unit of the class: the importation of European ideas to the North American continent, the struggle to translate what early explorers and settlers find there into familiar terms, and the subsequent return of those ideas to England for circulation and consumption.

            This course follows a roughly chronological progression, but we conceive of it as less bound by this chronology, than by a number of smaller units designed to feed into one another. Thus, the unit on exploration and justification narratives that model ideal or utopian communities is followed by one that centers on the breakdown of community – represented in the Antinomian Controversy and the Civil Wars and Commonwealth Period in England:

These in turn are followed by texts that position community as a site where the boundaries between civilization and savagery are not so distinct as traditionally represented in the popular imagination; texts such as Mary Rowlandson’s True History, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, and Henry Neville’s The Isle of Pines raise issues of race, class, and gender that will become the foundation for discussions later in the semester.

The next unit investigates commerce and the English imagination, with a focus on England’s sense of its own centrality in world commerce, looking back on the colonial project and projecting its glorious future after the Treaty of Utrecht, as seen in the concluding gesture of Pope’s Windsor Forest.

This discussion sets up the prominent issues of the cluster of texts at the center of the course: Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Franklin’s Autobiography, and Equiano’s Interesting Narrative. Moll Flanders and Franklin’s Autobiography work well to establish an emphasis on commerce, mobility, and identity, and to dramatize the rise of the individual, private self in eighteenth-century thought. Equiano problematizes these very issues in the Interesting Narrative, by staking his claim to autonomous subjectivity even while struggling against the cultural and social dynamics that seek to exclude him.  Class discussion is geared toward situating The Interesting Narrative as the representative transatlantic text of the semester: unlike most other texts, which can be fairly easily categorized as either American or British, this one mostly takes place on the ocean, outside of such national boundaries, and therefore provides an exemplary model of what Transatlanticism could be. It also introduces the major concerns of the latter part of the eighteenth century, and of the course: slavery, colonialism, rights, and revolution.

The last few weeks of the semester identify the key terms of revolutionary discourse on both sides of the Atlantic and seek to complicate them through the lenses of race, gender, and nationality.  Rather than following older representations of the revolution as a foregone conclusion in American literature classes, our goal is to reintroduce the inherent tension between revolutionary and royalist voices at the end of the eighteenth-century on both sides of the Atlantic.  Thus, Paine’s call for the rights of man is counterbalanced by George III, and Johnson’s defense of taxation in the name of national security.  Continuing the course’s overall trajectory, we discuss the internal logic of revolutionary discourse in terms of inclusion and exclusion, holding it up to representations of gender and race.

The final texts of the semester bring back issues from the first units on exploration and popular imagination. Like Bradford and Bacon, who see European cultural identity reflected in uncharted wilderness, Edgar Huntly looks into the American interior and aestheticizes the wilderness as a representation of his own interiority. And as we began with visual and written text (DeBry and Harriot) celebrating the promise of “virgin territory”, so we end with Blake’s America: A Prophecy, written in England, after the French Revolution, and drawing on the popular imaginings of revolution and looking forward into the nineteenth-century and the central role to be assumed by the newly established democracy in America.

 

Conclusions

As much as we believe the Transatlantic model for seventeenth and eighteenth-century studies to be an important one, this course still has an institutional responsibility to prepare students for more traditional nationalist classes that are fundamental to the English major today.  Bearing this institutional responsibility in mind, we feel that our class does not simply dismantle nationalist paradigms, but asks students to consider how these paradigms are constructed, and what the political, ideological, and literary stakes of these constructions are.  In other words, we don’t necessarily see the class as a departure from an English major’s training, but rather as integral to it.  Ideally, this course fosters a spirit of inquiry that will carry over to other classes, helping students develop tools to think more critically about the relationship between nationalism and literary history.  We prepare our students for this work through a strong emphasis on close reading, and rigorous attention to thematic and formal analysis; at the end of the semester, the take-home portion of our final exam asks them to reflect on the questions that framed the course in the first day’s lecture and in the syllabus.

 

 

The remainder of the exam allows students to pull together the major themes of the course and reflect on the impact and value of a Transatlantic perspective. One section of the final requires students to juxtapose an “American” and a “British” text and write a short essay explicating the “conversations” that emerge from that combination:

The exam and final evaluations highlighted several useful points about the course.  While a few students were disoriented by having two professors at the front of the class (some believing it meant that the workload was doubled), the majority adjusted their expectation accordingly, and expressed an increasingly sophisticated awareness of the relation between narrative and the processes of literary historiography as the semester progressed; terms like “national literature,” “British,” and “American” were no longer deployed uncritically, but resonated along an axis defined as much by the circulation of ideas as by territorial boundaries. 

            Even with these practical applications, we would have considered the course only a partial success if it didn’t provide us with a workable platform for translating the classroom experience into broader conversations about our research.  While the long eighteenth-century may be an ideal period for examining Transatlantic issues, this teaching model made us rethink the ways in which decisions we make in our own work often reflect broader institutionalized practices.  The model further prompts collaborative work, and enriches individual research by continually challenging our relationship to the materials we tend to become familiar with in the day-to-day operation of our classes.  Finally, collaborative teaching serves as a reminder of the ways in which undergraduate teaching at the survey level can have deeply productive influences on our research.