Roger Whitson: Teaching Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Literature During a Trump Presidency

Dec. 13, 2016

In an interview before the recent election with Bill Maher, Barack Obama said that America needs to do a better job of teaching students “enough critical thinking to be able to sort out what is true and what is false, what is contestable and what is incontestable.” It’s a powerful admission from a president who once derided art history majors as lacking the skills necessary to make a good living. Even so, I’ve often worried that “critical thinking,” a word bandied about amongst many of my colleagues as the key purpose of a humanities education, does little work when dealing with the complexities of our current political climate. How can “critical thinking” be close to adequate when billions of likes and retweets from click farms in Singapore and Macedonia inundate our Facebook and Twitter feeds with one fake news story after another?

I can’t pretend that an English course will, by itself, combat the current technological complexities surrounding critical thinking after the Trump election. But I do think that nineteenth-century literature professors have a part to play in the ideological struggles of the next four years. As one humble example of a pedagogical intervention into these struggles, I offer my own Spring 2017 ENGL 372 course. The course is part of our Transatlantic Literature Sequence at Washington State University, titled “Nineteenth-Century Literature of the Americas and the British Empire.” The global scope of these courses, as well as the fact that they are mainly populated by English Education majors, mean that they provide a unique opportunity to intervene in the discussions future literature teachers might have with public school students. My reading list for the spring course is inspired by students who, in the wake of movements like #BlackLivesMatter and the investigation into sexual assault on University campuses by the Obama administration, have challenged me to look beyond the canons and narratives usually taught in a literature survey course. It is also indebted to discussions on Facebook with a number of colleagues in Victorian Studies and beyond: Andrea Wood, Jesse Oak Taylor, Benjamin Morgan, Erica Pittman, Rebecca Nesvet, Leeann Hunter, Ryan Fong, Caroline Levine, Aaron Ottinger, Chris Washington, Pamela Thoma, Donna Campbell, Meredith McGill, Kirk McAuley, and Devin Griffiths.

I organized the course around three contemporary issues that resonate with issues also found in the global literature of the nineteenth century. Each of the units have a renewed importance after the Trump election. The “Ecology and Environmental Catastrophe” section was inspired by Trump’s pledge to back away from the Paris Climate Agreement, a choice that scientists warn might cause warming to accelerate to over seven degrees or more by the end of the century. I ask students to consider how environmental writers like William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the feminist Margaret Fuller, and the Native American author Zitkala-Ša provide a historical narrative charting our changing understanding of the environment or otherwise inspire those of us dedicated to helping our planet. The unit ends with the 2011 film The Island President, about Maldives Republic President Mohamed Nasheed’s attempt to stop seawaters from destroying his country. Ecology clashes with politics in the film, since it depicts domestic political struggles making it increasingly difficult for Nasheed to create effective environmental policy.

The second section, “Slavery and Colonialism” is motivated by the BLM movement, but also reacts to Trump’s claim that he’ll start deporting undocumented immigrants as soon as he takes office. We explore Susan Buck-Morss’s important argument that while slavery came to signify all that was evil to eighteenth-century philosophers, it also provided the infrastructure for the entire global economy. This contradiction informs almost the entire history of slavery and colonialism in transatlantic literature. We look to the historical work surrounding the Haitian Revolution, and the fact that American authors like Leonora Sansay were extremely ambivalent about what happened there. I also have them investigate the abolition movement in Britian from figures like Robert Southey, the paradoxes of colonial writers like Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle, and the attempts of Indian writers like Toru Dutt and Sarojini Naidu to create their own voice from under the oppression of British and American writers. I end the unit with the Netflix film 13th, showing how incarcerated African-American men were used in the years after the Civil War to rebuild the Southern economy devastated by the loss of their free labor — a tradition that continues today with the practice of mass incarceration.

The final unit responds to the many allegations leveled against Trump of sexual assault, as well as the general sense of anxiety felt by millions of women due to the election. Lynn Higgins and Brenda Silver argue in their 1991 book Rape and Representation that sexual violence has largely been erased from literary history. And the majority of the readings in this unit bear out this erasure: from Thomas Hardy’s indirect reference to rape in “The Ruined Maid” to the veiled sexual assaults in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jane,” Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, and Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. The only direct reference to sexual assault in the unit appears in the powerful fin-de-siècle novel A Sunless Heart by Edith Johnstone. Johstone’s novel features the aptly named Lotus Grace, who suffers multiple violations by her sister’s fiancée when Lotus was only twelve years old. Lotus has dozens of female admirers at the Ladies’ College where she teaches, including the Trinidadian heiress Mona Lefcadio, but rejects them all because of trauma left over from the assault. I’m hoping that these readings coupled with Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground (2015), a more recent expose of rape crimes on college campuses, can inspire discussions of the invisible yet ongoing history of sexual assault.

My aim in ENGL 372 is to heighten student engagement with diverse nineteenth-century literature by contextualizing such stories through issues students may be confronting in their own lives. Presentism can be useful when we illustrate the relevance of nineteenth-century literature by appealing to contemporary issues, but as Devin Griffiths reminded me on one of those Facebook conversations, it can be even more powerful when we show how present and past may not align — underlining how strange the world can be if envisioned from that disjuncture. Such an alienation of our sense of the present can also model the displacement of normative modes of subjectivity, a crucial skill in a world filled with the violence we’ve seen in recent weeks. Apart from Obama’s call to teach students to disentangle fact from fiction, perhaps our most crucial role as teachers of critical thinking during a Trump presidency is to resist his isolationism and racism by encouraging our students to acknowledge the limits of all of our worlds and to celebrate the people and lives that are not like us.

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