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Mar 22, 2005 2:43 am


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 Mode for Caleb.)
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Jonathan Dresner - 3/23/2005

It's not easy, and I'm not sure I could claim dramatic success. But I pound on the question of sources and reliability all the time in my classes, and I try to assign pretty heavy quantities of primary (and primary-heavy secondary) stuff so that they do engage these issues steadily. Practice, practice, practice, as the old joke goes.

It's easier in more focused topical classes, where you have more overlapping sources and can use them to cross-check each other. The World surveys I just have to say it and move on, but most World students -- first years, anyway -- aren't cognitively ready for heavy doses of nuance yet. Complexity and interconnectedness is mostly what I'm aiming for there, though I do force them to read and write about documents, too.


Ralph E. Luker - 3/23/2005

No easy out for you over here, Rob. We're looking for something from you on Equiano and Kelly-Hawkins!


Caleb McDaniel - 3/23/2005

I guess there really is no way around using "egregiously distorted characters" to move students towards an appreciation of the nuance in texts. But I'm still bothered by the feeling that students will conclude from this that all rhetoric is "distortion," or that all "distortion" is equally "egregious." Even if we know this and stress it in class -- "Now, I'm not saying all autobiographies are fantastic" -- saying that again and again might be as convincing to some students as Nixon repeating again and again, "I'm not a crook."

Sigh. Maybe I'm making this more difficult than it is. I find this discussion very helpful though.


Jonathan Dresner - 3/23/2005

Funny, I find autobiography the easiest form of historical writing to problematize: pointing out that people rarely tell the whole truth about themselves usually moves my students pretty quickly towards the nuances I'm looking for. Of course, it helps if you use egregiously distorted characters: Musui's Story is a fantastic record of early 19c (late Tokugawa era) Japan, written by a blatant rogue who tells a great deal of truth about everyone but himself....


Caleb McDaniel - 3/23/2005

Sorry, Rob. I left you an opening, though, for the connection with the Kelly-Hawkins discussion. And I'm sure I speak for all of us in saying that we'd still be interested in your post! I agree entirely that in finding ourselves in agreement, I find myself in fine company.


Rob MacDougall - 3/23/2005

Great minds and all that: I was writing up a post for Cliopatria yesterday that connected the earlier discussion of Emma Dunham Kelly-Hawkins to the controversy around Olaudah Equiano. (Those of you who contribute more often to Cliopatria than I have the right to be skeptical about my claim, but I can produce primary documents if called on.) Equiano was on my mind because I just had the opportunity to meet Vincent Caretta and also Ira Berlin.

But then I dropped in to see what was new at Cliopatria and found your excellent and thought-provoking post, which runs along much the same lines as a point Prof. Berlin made in conversation (about the usefulness but also complexity of Caretta's hypothesis in a pedagogical setting).

So anyway, you are in fine company, while I am reduced to a weak "I agree!" comment propped up with a little academic name-dropping.


Joseph Duemer - 3/23/2005

Yes, you are right about students' response to autobiography. Students see such narratives as relatively unproblematic. But then they also usually see Marlow's account of his trip up the Congo River as unproblematic despite Conrad's efforts (conscious & unconscious?) to cause the reader uneasiness. When I teach that text -- usually to freshment -- most of my effort is focused on getting them to see how Heart of Darkness represents its subjects. The notion of representation is key here.


Jonathan Dresner - 3/23/2005

I don't remember when I started, because it was part of my religious training (the multi-layered readings and rereadings of Jewish history was really good training, actually, for this line of work), but it was Bloch's Historian's Craft that crystallized it for me.


Caleb McDaniel - 3/23/2005

Thanks for the reply!

The fact that you bring up two memoirs -- and the fact that most of the examples I've given are also first-person narratives -- makes me wonder whether part of the problem here is specific to autobiographies. That is, students often take autobiographies to be the most straightforward kind of reportage there is -- it merely requires representing what you see and feel. For that reason, maybe the difficulties inherent in teaching rhetoric are multiplied in the case of memoirs. The idea that an autobiography can have an argument is hard to get your head around you're first introduced to it.

Speaking of autobiography, I think part of the reason all of this strikes me as pedagogically challenging is because I can't remember how I learned to think about texts in the multi-sided way I'm describing here. I guess this is partly because there isn't one moment when the switch flips. It's the accumulated experience of many courses and books that attune us to think about texts as texts. So I'm probably making a mistake by trying to figure out one sure-fire method for communicating that to students in one particular class.


Joseph Duemer - 3/23/2005

This is a useful discussion. I'm a literature prof, but I teach a course called Understanding Vietnam in which my first task is to help students untangle Vietnam, the war from Vietnam the country & culture & then both of those from Vietnam the metaphor as deployed in the United States over the last 40 years. Despite the fact that I am not a historian, I necessarily wind up dealing with a lot of historical information.

This semester I have for the first time required a pair of texts that attempt to foreground some of the issues Jonathan Dresner raises above: Truong Nhu Tang's A Viet Cong Memoir & Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War. Both texts present historically accurate accounts of certain events, though from easily identifyable perspectives. And the author of each text is generally sympathetic, which leaves students with the problem of how officers on opposite sides of the American War in VN can both be telling the truth & can both be read as generally reliable.

Thanks for raising a number of very intersting issues that I will continue to chew on.


Caleb McDaniel - 3/22/2005

Thanks for the helpful reply! I like your father's advice very much. The ideal solution when teaching a text as a primary source would be to provide complementary primary sources -- other data points. But it's hard to do that in every case.

In the Harriet Tubman example, for instance, scholarly debates are still raging about the treatment of elderly slaves in the South, and when these debates conclude at all, it is usually to say that the evidence is geographically and chronologically diverse. To give my students enough data points to draw a line, even for a limited question like this, would require more time than I can usually spend in a one-class-period discussion on the book. As a result, it's probable that I'll end up just telling students that there are other data points to support a particular picture.

But this still strikes me as less than ideal. It still runs the risk of giving students the impression that abolitionists were just drawing circles in the air, that they were unconcerned with the connections between their curves and actual data points.


Jonathan Dresner - 3/22/2005

The problem of soundness and validity, or rhetoric and truth, is indeed a slippery one in the classroom. It's so easy for students to fall into the "all arguments are equally propagandistic" post-modernism when presented with these kinds of discussions. The concept of "mostly true" is a tough one; using flawed texts as historical sources is one of the trickiest balancing acts we manage as historians, and it represents a level of cognitive maturity to which most of our students have yet come.

They need to get there, obviously, and that's why this is so important. I don't have much to offer you in the way of abstract ideas: I make my students work with flawed texts all the time (deliberately, usually, though as with the Equiano stuff, I get caught sometimes), and we talk about reliability issues, but I've never thought about whether what I do has any consistency.

I talk about corroborating texts and the importance to scholars of having more than one source on an issue: As my father taught me, when you have only one data point, you can draw any line you want (and when you have two, you can still draw any curve in the world).

I tell my students to read texts "sideways": extracting information from perspectives and on issues other than the immediately obvious. For example, using the Egyptian magical story "Setne Khamwas and Naneferkapta" I had my students write about the economics of Egypt, and about the roles of women, and about the relationships between gods and humanity (that's more central to the text, but we talk explicitly about the fact that it's fiction, and intentionally dramatic, so it might not represent ideals on the surface). Sometimes I ask them what's not in a text, that you would need to answer a question about the society it represents, or what evidence you would need to corroborate the observations they make from the text.

Then there's the question, which you address, of reception: how did the audience recieve this? Was it entertaining? Persuasive? Why, and how does that affect how we read this as evidence?

That's all I can think of off the top of my head, but I'll meditate on it a bit.

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