[The best way I can think of to respond to the Penn State situation is to focus for this week’s blog posts on a few of the many very impressive voices and ideas my students have shared over the years, to exemplify some of the best about what both college and young people have to offer. This, on a very recent example, is the first in that series.]
My first conference paper, delivered in the long-ago summer of 2002 at the close of my second year in graduate school, focused (as did this not-quite-as-long-ago blog post) on Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s historical novel Hope Leslie (1827), and more exactly on Sedgwick’s complex and partial but also impressive and inspiring efforts to serve as a “historian or poet” for Native American peoples. She does so most fully, as I argued in both that paper and that post, through the extended Chapter IV story told by her character Magawisca—Magawisca is the daughter of a Pequot chief who has become an English ward after the brutal massacre of her tribe during the Pequot War, and she narrates “a very different picture” of that massacre to the English family’s young son (and her budding love interest) Everell. While Magawisca and Everell are fictional characters, the massacre was all too well, and Sedgwick both engages throughout the chapter with the existing (Puritan) accounts of the event and provides this powerfully alternative account in a fully realized Pequot voice.
I reiterate all of that to illustrate just how long and in how many different arenas (also including two different grad papers and three different courses I’ve taught) I’ve thought about and responded to Sedgwick’s novel, and to make clear the significance of the following statement: last week a student in my American Literature I course submitted a paper on Chapter IV of Sedgwick’s novel (which we had read by itself, in the Norton Anthology of American Literature) that added an entirely new, convincing, and impressively sophisticated reading to all those with which I’ve engaged (my own and those of other scholars) to date. The paper required them to pair any two of our readings thus far (in three-quarters of the class, from the arrival/exploration and Revolutionary units up to the Early Republic one), and she linked Sedgwick and Magawisca to one of the Cherokee Memorials (about which I blogged here), texts composed by the Cherokee Tribal Council (and especially by one of the Council’s and Early Republic’s most impressive writers, John Rollin Ridge) and sent to Congress in order to protest Jackson’s policy of Indian Removal.
The link might seem to be logical enough, but this is at least the fifth time I’ve used this assignment with this syllabus (meaning at least 130 students have written this paper for me), and she was the first to make the connection. (We discuss the Memorials on the same day as a piece by William Apess, and many students have worked and worked this time with that pairing, often interestingly but thus less strikingly.) But while a unique and compelling pairing is a great place to start, the key is where you go from there—and where she went was an impressively complex thesis and structure, one that moved between the two texts in unexpected and nuanced and entirely successful ways, working closely with moments and elements from both while making broader points about both the Removal period’s issues and questions of Native American self-expression; on the latter topic for example her points, while of course brief, were to my mind more appropriately complex than many expressed by the scholars I referenced in this post. The result was a paper that both exemplified the assignment’s possibilities and yet fully transcended them, which is about the best-case for any academic work and is the reason why I’ve asked the student if she’d be willing to present her ideas as part of FSU’s spring Undergraduate Research Conference (if she agrees an abstract will eventually be online and I’ll link to it here).
PS. Any unique and inspiring ideas you’ve encountered recently?
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