- Female Relationships in Susanna Rowson's Sincerity:The Bechdel Test and American Literature Syllabi
Among the many obstacles to the recovery of women's writing that prevent it from effecting broad and lasting change in the field of literary studies and the wider culture is the problem of recovered texts coming into and going out of print over time, leading to a despairing sense among those who practice recovery that the work is never fully accomplished and may indeed have to be repeated from generation to generation.1 Just Teach One (jto), an original and inventive digital project and resource hosted by the American Antiquarian Society's website, Common-place, offers a response to this most persistent of problems posed by recovery: How do we make sure that recovered texts have a lasting influence on the field? jto's originators and editors, Duncan Faherty and Ed White, along with other early Americanists involved in the early discussions that led to jto, came to see pedagogy as a key factor—perhaps the key factor—in the problem and its solution. While scholarly activity such as conference papers, journal articles, book chapters, and biographies about the author of a recovered text can generate interest in the work, the timeline for disseminating the research is long and the potential audience of scholars is relatively small. But a more immediate and dramatic potential resides in the classroom.
How do we ensure the reading of recovered texts? How do we facilitate the production of new scholarship on these works? How do we use recovery to transform the canon and understandings of early America more generally? All of these results can be encouraged through the teaching of recovered texts in classrooms, Faherty and White recognized. More teachers and students will encounter the texts. Instructors who read and teach them may be more inclined to go on to publish scholarship on them. If a work is taught and published upon frequently enough, it may be able eventually to shift the canon and conception [End Page 141] of early American literature—as seems to have happened with Hannah Foster's The Coquette and Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple, both of which are currently available in multiple editions, show up frequently on American literature syllabi, and appear to have finally secured recognition as important early American novels. And the effects become cumulative, since accomplishing any of these results increases the likelihood that the text will be taught again.
While it may seem obvious that what we teach has the potential to change the field, actually creating that change through the classroom poses a number of challenges. Many instructors have developed a comfort level with a set of works they teach frequently; perhaps these are the works they studied in graduate school years earlier. Overburdened by increasing teaching loads, higher demands for service work, and other developments characterizing the modern university in the United States, many instructors find the idea of adding new works to a syllabus daunting. Keeping up with newly recovered texts and critical developments that facilitate their teaching can also seem overwhelming. If asked to teach a newly recovered text, instructors might make several valid protests, which would probably cluster around the following: (1) "I don't have time to find a new text to include"; (2) "Recovered texts aren't available in teachable form or are too expensive for classroom purchase"; and (3) "I won't know how to teach the new text or fit it into my existing syllabus."
The genius of jto is the way the creators addressed each of these inhibitions to teaching recovered texts. They delineated a manageable task with which to challenge oneself, namely, to "just teach one" recovered early American text in a semester. To address the fact that scholarly print publications of recovered works can be too costly for classroom purchase (ironically exacerbating the problem of poor sales) and that digital editions online often lack an editorial apparatus that renders early texts teachable, the project's editors produce and make available on the project's website an edition of each text, introduced and annotated, as a pdf that can be printed or read in a variety...