In the English program in which I teach, majors are required to take one seminar in American literature before the Civil War, one option of which is Colonial American Literature. This course is not generally high on their list of priorities, and students grumble that the “early stuff” is inaccessible and boring—and, despite my love of the time period, I can see that Mary Rowlandson cannot quite compete, for sheer enjoyment, with writers they encounter elsewhere. However, I often find that what hooks students into an (occasionally begrudging) interest in colonial texts is the sense of the real people behind the words. In an effort to promote that interest in colonial people, and in the hope of encouraging them to think about themselves as budding scholars, I decided to make a recent Colonial American Literature class dive into the Early American Imprints collection.
The Assignment: We began the semester by sampling several colonial and early national texts in modern editions, and, in addition to studying these works as literature and as historical artifacts, we paid attention to the choices made by the modern editors. Then, I introduced students to Early American Imprints, Series I, and tasked them with creating their own modern editions. Each student selected a document of which no modern edition exists, transcribed the text (while making appropriate editorial choices), added useful footnotes, and wrote a note on the text and a brief critical introduction. The results were more exciting than I had hoped. Not only did students learn a great deal along the way, but they also produced some rather impressive editions of a wide variety of out-of-print works, including children’s tales, captivity narratives, plays, sermons, and even one pre-execution criminal confession.
What They Learned: Although the works with which we began the semester introduced students to the colonial period, they learned much more through the exploration of their own documents and through the comments and questions their peers brought to class. For example, they paid much closer attention to language than they typically do. It was one thing for me to explain, while reading texts together, that spelling was not standardized during the colonial period or that the meaning of words changes over time; it was quite another for them to decode the spelling and vocabulary they encountered on their own.
They also learned about interests and concerns of the period in a way that was more meaningful and probably more lasting than through more traditional teaching methods. Students brought questions to class about ideas and images they were encountering in their work: Why are educational texts so religious? Where did “eastern tales” come from, and why did Americans want to read them? Why were so many texts published anonymously? Why isn’t there much fiction? Sometimes I answered questions for students, sometimes I pointed them in the direction of useful resources, and sometimes we discussed the questions as a class, so other students could share insights from their research. By arriving at these questions on their own and exploring the answers alone or together, students learned more about what mattered to early Americans than they would likely have learned through a guided tour of an anthology.
A side benefit of this project was the development of students’ research skills. They quickly discovered that the “easy” research methods on which they often rely would not work for this project. Googling authors’ names or searching our library collection yielded very little, so they had to adjust research terms, reconsider research questions, and expand research methods. They became familiar with online resources such as the MLA database, the Oxford English Dictionary, and WorldCat; and they learned about the benefits of inter-library loan. Finally, they learned that scholarship is often collaborative: they sought help from librarians and faculty members in other disciplines, and they worked together, learning from—and teaching—each other about research and about the time period.
The extensive nature of this project did have one significant downside: it restricted the amount of material we could cover as a class, thus limiting the students’ exposure to colonial literature. However, comparing the wealth of texts and ideas that students in an earlier survey-type course encountered and the depth of the experience gained by the students in this experimental course, I think the trade-off was worth it. The knowledge gained by conducting original archival research is likely to stick with students much longer than the abundance of information I tried to convey in the survey course.
Reactions: Students’ reactions to this project were somewhat mixed. It required a significant amount of work and was very challenging, and some of them complained—to me and to each other, during the semester, and on their course evaluations at the end of the semester. But many students also commented that the project was rewarding, even enjoyable, that they felt like they were doing “real work,” and that they appreciated selecting texts that mattered to them. As one student wrote in his or her evaluation: “I had so much fun working with the text I chose. I felt like I was able to use all the skills I have learned as an English major in one project. Even though it was a lot of work and a lot of writing, I feel proud of myself for having accomplished something.” After reading the finished products, I, too, am proud of what these students accomplished—which is more than I can usually say after reading end-of-semester term papers or final exams.