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Much of early American literature is intensely connected to its audience -- Native American creation myths, the Puritans’ thundering sermons to sinners in the pews, and enslaved Africans writing their lives to not only document their identity but also rally sympathetic readers. Thus, the relationship between speaker, subject and audience is a key discussion topic in early American literature classrooms. As Aristotle wrote in his 350 BCE “Treatise on Rhetoric,” it is the audience -- or as Aristotle called it, the hearer -- who must be either a judge or an observer, and who determines the speech's end and object.

Thinking about the rhetoric of early American texts made me realize just how quickly we can forget our audience when a viewpoint is one with which we already agree. Take the continuing national and strident calls to value the liberal arts. I realized that I had always assumed I knew who the audience was for the pleas to uphold liberal learning. And it was certainly not I, since my educational and professional bona fides as an English professor and chief academic officer at a liberal arts college clearly establish my commitments.

But what if I assumed that I, in fact, was the intended audience? What if I was the person who needed to hear that institutions of higher education should provide more than narrow vocational training and seek to enhance students’ capacities for lifelong learning? What if my own courses, not anonymous “colleges and universities,” need to be the sites of intended outcomes?

Asking myself those questions, I redesigned my early American literature survey. This is the literature of Native Americans, European explorers and colonists, enslaved Africans, and then, eventually, as the United States of America established itself, of writers many students recognize from high school: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass. I was interested in giving students the opportunity to see the relevance of studying early American literature, how it fosters intellectual inquiry about significant questions and issues confronting us now. Early American authors wrote profound ideas about issues of immigration, migration and family; borders, cultures and homelands; religious influences, commercial endeavors, race and ethnicity in American society, and political differences. They also tackled questions about the role of science and the presence of truth and falsehood. Those are, of course, issues we still think about today.

What I realized, however contradictory it sounds, is that I actually needed to redevelop my course to focus on “contemporary early American literature,” so that my current students could see themselves, their ideas and their world in readings that often seem so foreign and historically remote.

Making Connections

That happened in two ways. First, I assigned students to not only examine key concepts in the texts but also to make a connection to something else they were studying, reading or watching unfold in American life. Upon reflection, students saw the benefits to such an approach. One offered, “If you understand what you can about the past, you see how the present comes to be. Maybe you can even see the future.” Another student rhetorically asked, “What is 2018 without 1492, 1630, 1776 or 1865?”

Not surprisingly, connections to current news about immigration and migration dominated, as did seemingly inextricable connections between politics and religion at both the national and state level. My students were paying attention to the news, and they were seeing philosophical antecedents and approaches to current events in the literature of early America. We’d periodically interrupt our literature discussions to talk about the relationships they were seeing across the centuries and discuss how literature, and our theoretical approaches, offered a different perspective than history or political science.

My students were sometimes surprised that the antecedents of strongly held American opinions, including their own, were centuries old. They also appreciated hearing directly from the primary texts of “people who actually lived through the times,” noting that “It’s a lot easier to think of Ben Franklin as an actual person, rather than just a smart dude who owned a kite.”

The second opportunity students had to consider the relevance of early American literature was in a writing assignment that came near the end of the course. I asked them to write a “Dear American public …” manifesto. The prompt read, “We’ve spent a term studying American literature that was written by both U.S. citizens and non-U.S. citizens, texts that are hundreds of years old and generations removed from us today in terms of time and culture -- and perhaps even in philosophy and temperament. We’ve also spent our time reading literature, what many pundits (and maybe even people you know) these days point to as a worthless endeavor, a quaint and archaic education, a privilege that doesn’t pay off for the reader (you). Your task is to tell all of these pundits that they’re wrong. To do so, you’ll write a manifesto, your public declaration of why it’s relevant to study early American literature today.”

Someone did ask to write a manifesto arguing that early American literature was not relevant, and I said that was fine if they strongly held that opinion. I was interested, I told the class, in their strength of argument as they connected early American literature to contemporary responses. Ultimately, perhaps not surprisingly, no student did argue for irrelevancy.

What was surprising, in delightful and affirming ways, were the reasons students gave in advocating for the contemporary relevance of early American literature. They made the requisite jokes about trivia contests but really just to set up the far more substantive reasons they wrote about. Many students talked about the importance of knowing what’s come before, of seeing what each successive generation or period was responding to. One student argued that “our country is full of ghosts … before there even was an ‘America,’ [people] fought disease and an unforgiving landscape and one another. Now, we fight viewpoints and ideas, and processes ingrained deeply in our society and government -- processes and ideas and views that may have existed ever since they were fighting disease and the land and each other.”

Some students noted the clear ancestors of religious fervor in some political messages today; one even quoted a series of religio-political ads in her hometown that sounded remarkably similar to the messaging of Puritan sermons. Those students who were more widely read in 20th-century American literature saw how the Modernist period emerged from Hawthorne and Whitman. Others noted the introduction of industrial workers as mid-19th-century production developed. Many of my students were from towns and cities where certain factories had closed or production had moved elsewhere; they had family members affected by those economics and had stories of working conditions that were eerily familiar to their readings.

Power in the Grassroots

Like so many political movements -- and preserving and evolving the liberal arts is a vital political movement for higher education today -- there’s power in the grassroots and local. My examples come from my own discipline, but every discipline and institution can offer to:

  • Hear the national calls as speaking to us, not only them. Many of the challenges facing the liberal arts are governmental, economic and societal, so higher education institutions must deliver public statements at the national level that speak to the value of liberal learning. We need to share such missives widely and repeatedly. We also need to believe that such declarations are speaking to and challenging each of us -- and that our courses and curricula invite our responses to such calls. Some early American literature is hundreds of years old, and the style and substance of the narratives is foreign to today’s college students. Our goal should be to more persuasively demonstrate, through our own teaching practice, why it’s important to study these subjects today.
  • Use our own credibility to advance the vitality and relevance of the liberal arts at our institutions. The credibility that we academics have on our own campuses gives us great responsibility to respond to challenges to the liberal arts, and provides us the time and space to make substantive change. Rather than abdicate from our responsible position, we have great opportunity in our individual courses and programs to demonstrate the value and worth of our disciplines and the liberal arts.
  • More deeply reinforce that the liberal arts offers clear pathways for work and life after college. I used to think that you couldn’t have a college or university without an English department; faculty members in other humanities disciplines probably have felt similarly. That belief feels less sure these days, given the rapid changes in higher education, and so for all of our liberal arts disciplines, it’s important to believe in disciplinary evolution.

It’s not enough to passively continue with the same curriculum and hope that students, their families, politicians and the public at large re-recognize the value in what we do. It is time to actively demonstrate how our disciplines have evolved to connect our students to the world of today and to identify other curricular and co-curricular areas on the campus that they enrich. Despite its grim title, Eric Hayot offers several ideas in “Decline in the Humanities: The Sky Is Falling,” published in the Modern Language Association’s Profession.

Academic programs that can draw a solid line from their courses to knowledge, skills, competencies and other workforce measures now may be more indispensable than others. Likewise, academic departments that can draw a second solid line from their courses to knowledge, skills, competencies and other measures for lifelong learning and quality of intellectual and creative life also may now be more valuable than others. All liberal arts disciplines can rightfully claim these pathways, but some of us have not yet drawn the sharpest connections, and it’s the responsibility of both faculty members and academic administrators to do so.

National organizations have been actively assembling repositories of evidence in support of the liberal arts. The National Humanities Alliance, for example, has a tool kit, “Studying the Humanities: Making the Case,” that provides support for connections between the liberal arts and work and life. But in addition to this broader evidence, students should experience how the learning in our own courses transfers into their lives after college.

In lower-level courses that many students use to fulfill general education requirements, assignments should be relevant and contemporary. Podcasts, websites or grant proposals instead of an(other) essay of literary analysis, for example, offer students valuable experience with technological, visual, aural and written argument -- all skill areas they’ll need after they graduate. A project that applies course readings to a contemporary social issue that students feel passionately about broadens their critical perspective of the issue and reinforces the validity of the discipline’s voice. That makes the work for our courses applicable to something else in students’ lives, and they begin to see relevance instead of requirement.

If all of this seems like too much work or too much change -- if it seems like selling out, losing the purity of the liberal arts, diminishing the value of disciplines or capitulating to the whims of the marketplace -- then, clearly, other means of persuasion are needed. But to those of us who have heard the call to value the liberal arts and are energized by the responsibility to demonstrate that value to our students today, who are willing to consider that new relationships with our students can change the way we do our work in positive ways and who are willing to see possibility and promise ahead and have ideas about how we can connect at our local levels, I say let’s get to work.

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