I am not what you would call technologically sufficient. In fact, my older brother laughed at me over the phone when I called to tell him that I was taking a digital humanities class in which I would end up learning how to build my own website.
“You have trouble changing the font on a Word document,” he told me, “How do you expect to build a website by yourself? Do you even know what HTML is?”
No. No, I did not.
To be perfectly honest, I was extremely conflicted when I was deciding whether or not to sign up for the Early Minority Literature class. I’m not a big fan of American literature to begin with (I adore Faulkner, but other than that I’m kinda just like “blegh!”), but I AM fascinated by work by minorities. I was always annoyed in high school by the lack of female and African American writers in our curriculum, and I actually wrote a few letters to the administration asking them to change that (they were, of course, ignored). However, I reasoned that maybe I didn’t actually dislike ALL American literature; my experience with the genre has been confined to the work of white males. This would be a good opportunity to expand my horizons.
I was also interested in the archival work that the class would do, and that ultimately is what convinced me to take the class (despite my skepticism about learning HTML (which I called HLM up until we had already been in the class for two weeks). When I pictured myself as a graduate student most of my mental images involved dusty old manuscripts and finding literary treasures in long abandoned boxes. Maybe not the kind of treasures that would rock the literary world (Jupiter Hammon’s missing poem, anyone?) but the kind of treasure that would rock my world.
Dealing with all the gross technology would be worth it, if I got to do that. At least, that’s what I thought in the beginning.
I was ultimately right about the archival work being my favorite aspect of the class. I spent my semester reading through the correspondence of Anna Raguet Irion, a remarkable woman who is known almost entirely as being “the girl Sam Houston had a huge crush on.” I’m hoping that perception of her will change; her letters prove that she was so much more than that.
The technology aspect of the class was simultaneously easier and harder than I expected. Coding was difficult, but it was almost a fun challenge. There was an assignment in the middle of the semester where we had a week to entirely code our own website; it was stressful and difficult, but that was the most fun I’ve had all semester. There was a certain thrill I got after solving a problem that had been stumping me for hours; I was proud of myself for accomplishing what I did in a way that I’m generally not with my studies. Like, I know I can write a good paper (sometimes in less than two hours), but I never in a million years expected to be able to make an entire website.
That was pretty amazing.
But… I didn’t really understand how all that really dealt with minority literature.
I really enjoyed the first half of the class, where we spent the majority of our time reading minority works and then discussing them in class. At that time, the technology felt more like a hinderance than a help; I spent way more time trying to figure out how to do my wiki edits than I did actually reading the documents, which was a shame. I was a bit bitter towards technology of all sorts at that point, because it felt like we were trying to force a lot of learning into a short amount of time, and it distracted from the amazing words that these people had written.
“THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH MINORITY LITERATURE!” I wailed quite often as I tried to figure out how I accidentally deleted everything on the Samuel Sewall wikipedia page (and later, when it took me and the Dream Host customer service people and my professor a week to figure out why my final project website was just not working). The sleepless, frantic weekend I spent trying to catch up on all the work I missed before the Monday deadline didn’t make things any clearer either. We were making our websites about minority figures, yes, but there was something important that I was missing that I didn’t figure out until I was done with my work.
After I finished my website, I posted a link to it on facebook with a short explanation of the assignment we had been given for class. A girl I went to high school with commented on the link, saying “women who code are awesome! good job!” It was something so simple, so basic, but… it really resonated with me.
After some research, I found out that in the IT/web design field, men outnumber women three to one, and that disparity is actually growing. Though the world has greatly advanced since women like Phillis Wheatley wrote, women and minorities are still the underdogs. In the field of web design, women are the minority.
There are around ten women in my Early Minority Lit class. Now all of us know at least the basics of coding, and we can all make fairly impressive WordPress websites in a pinch. Not only has this class given us the opportunity to read the work of minorities, but it has given us the abilities necessary to put those people’s words on the internet for everyone to see.
I’m not going to quit grad school to pursue a career in web design anytime ever, but it is really empowering to know that I have the ability to create a website now. Ultimately, that empowerment– knowing that I can successfully learn to do something I previously thought was impossible– was the best thing I got out of this class. It makes me wonder what other terrifying things I can accomplish.
I did a lot of work over this fall break. Unfortunately for my grades (but fortunately for my mental health), almost none of it was school work. I babysat my nephew and changed my first diaper with little to no drama (the second diaper? yeah, that’s a totally different story). I watched all the new shows that had been piling up in my DVR for months. I wrote letters to my friends teaching in Europe, cleaned out my car…
And then reality hit. But in the best possible way.
I graduated from my undergrad in May, so everything I did that semester- including my thesis- is still fresh in my mind. I wrote my thesis on A.S. Byatt’s Possession, and I’m not too ashamed to admit that I was obsessed with it. I re-read it every few days, even when I didn’t need to. Honestly, for the six months that I was working on my thesis, Possession was probably my best friend (#pathetic). I know it better than I know any other living person, probably.
As I was cleaning out my car, I found a box of books in my trunk that I had forgotten to unpack after I moved out of the apartment I had lived in my last year of college. The book on the very top my my copy of Possession; it’s a bit frightful looking at it now, with multi-colored Post-Its sticking out at almost every page and the pages themselves covered with almost more of my notes than actual text. But I was glad to see it, and pretty much started to re-read it immediately. I’ve found a lot of wisdom in that book, but I was surprised that it still had things left to tell me- things that put my current Early Minority Literature class into better perspective.
Let me give you a brief summary of what it’s about, and then I’ll tell you why this book written in the 1980s relates to Early Minority Lit. Because it does. Oh, it does.
The book starts off with a dude named Roland (the names in this book are the best, trust me) who is pretty down on his luck. He has his PhD but nobody wants to hire him because the job market sucks (hmmm, sounds like my future). He’s got a part-time job at the Ash factory, where a bunch of scholars are working on the biography of Randolph Henry Ash, a famous Victorian poet who is basically the book’s version of Wordsworth or Browning.
Anyways, poor timid Roland goes to a Special Collections Library at the beginning of the book (now we’re getting somewhere!) and as he’s digging through an old journal of Ash’s for his boss he ends up finding a secret compartment that has drafts of a love letter… but the letter isn’t to Ash’s wife.
Roland, of course, finally shows a backbone by committing a crime and stealing the letter (which I would NEVER DO, Dr. May, I PROMISE). He ends up going on a wild journey through the past to discover the truth, and ends up finding things out about his hero that he’d never, ever expected, and he himself is irrevocably changed in the process.
When we visited the Special Collections at UTA last Thursday I had Roland’s story imprinted in my mind the entire time. You see, it’s easy for us as readers so far separated from the subjects of our reading to view them as… well. Fictional. It’s hard to remember that these were people that lived and breathed and fought and struggled, just like we ourselves are doing now. Roland himself had that problem when he was studying Ash; he put him on a pedestal because he loved his work, and didn’t seem to remember that he was an actual person- at least, not until he found those love letters.
I’ll admit, it was easy to put William Apess, the Pequot man whose works we read this week, in the “fictional, and therefore not very important” box, at first. I was distracted when I first started reading A Son of the Forest; it had taken me forever to try to figure out how to buy the darn book (apparently I needed to update Google Chrome), and then I made the mistake of keeping the TV on as I started to read and got distracted by the newest episode of Modern Family.
Once I finally started to read for real, though, with no distractions, I was astounded at how much I had missed during my first half-hearted skim. I suppose the first time it hit me that Apess was a person, not just a distant fictional character, was when he was describing his grandparents who “were not the best people in the world.” He said that they “would drink to excess whenever they could procure rum” and that when intoxicated they would “at times turn upon their unoffending grandchildren and beat them in a most cruel manner.”
His talk of this abuse, which he “merely [relates]… without any embellishment or exaggeration, to show the reader how [they] were treated,” really hit home for me that this was a real person that had experienced these horrors (Apress 11). That was gut-wrenching, to be honest. It’s hard to be forcibly torn away from your safe distance from a text and have to deal with the reality of it.
Roland experienced the same thing in Possession; he comes face to face with the fact that his hero, who wrote the poems that he dedicated his life to studying, may not be as heroic as he once believed. While that’s hard, it is ultimately a good thing, both for us and for the historical figures that we are studying.
Apess’s work is fairly incredible; in fact, his autobiography A Son of the Forest “deserves attention as one of the earliest – if not the earliest – autobiographies written and published by a Native American.” That alone makes Apess a writer of sincere merit, but the struggles that he details over the course of his life and spiritual journey also make it a good read, all the more interesting and thrilling since it is an actual person’s story.
A few of my classmates and I have plans to go back to UTA’s Special Collections a bit later this week to do our own archival research. I will admit that I’m horribly excited about it, and that I plan to try to find some love letters; I may be done with Possession, having finished the book a hundred times already, but it is certainly not done with me. I very much doubt that I’ll find something as exciting as Roland did, which will change the course of academia forever, but if I keep in mind that I’m reading a real person’s work, like I remembered with Apess’s writings, then I will certainly continue to be thrilled.[Top]
LET ME TELL YOU A STORY ABOUT HOW MUCH I LOVE WOMEN WRITERS.
Women have gotten the short end of the straw in history, which, as a woman myself, is a huge disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, I love male writers- I love Faulkner and Hemingway and Shakespeare- but it was extremely discouraging for there to be very little female representation in the books I was assigned to read in high school. I wanted to be a writer, but history seemed to be telling me, “hey, there’s no place for you here unless you’re a man.”
You can imagine how that made a self-conscious, shy, impressionable sixteen-year-old feel.
Doing some research of my own, however (again- the internet is a magical place) I discovered that women DID have a place in the world of writing, even if that place wasn’t often talked about in my high school classes. For example, Mary Shelley was the writer of Frankenstein, which is widely considered to be the first (and one of the best) pieces of science fiction. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emma Orczy might very well be the first superhero story (an aside- every time I see people say that nobody would watch a Black Widow movie because she’s a woman I want to tell them this. Because there wouldn’t BE superhero movies without a women? Emma Orczy basically invented the superhero archetype that directly lead to the creation of comic book superheroes? Yeah.). Women in literature are extremely, profoundly important. They’re just rarely talked about.
Well, this is the perfect venue to begin talking about them
Elizabeth Ashbridge was born in 1713 and died in 1755. We only know what we know about her because of an autobiography she wrote, aptly titled Some Account of the Fore Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge…Written by her own Hand many years ago. Though it is fairly short (I got through it in less than half an hour), it is extremely powerful. The existence of this document shows a lot in just a few pages; it discusses religion, the difficulties a woman had to face in a time when she had very few rights, indentured servitude, and racial differences. The best thing about this document is that we learn all of these things through the viewpoint of a very intelligent, very strong woman, which a point of view that modern readers rarely get to see.
The first thing Ashbridge does in her autobiography is ask her readers to not make the mistakes that she did, and to “shun the evils into which [she’s] been drawn.” She then gives a brief history of her childhood, and how she was raised by a very religious mother. At this point, everything seems to be standard; she seems like any other young British girl in the 1700s.
That’s when things start to get wild. When she was fourteen she fell in love with a boy and, without the permission of her parents, ran away with him in the middle of the night to get married. She totally pulled a Lydia Bennet here, FYI.
Her parents, especially her father, where livid. When her husband ended up dying after only five months (that is SO SAD) her father refuses to take her back, leaving her instead to live with relatives in Dublin… who happened to be Quakers.
Do you know how in some movies and books there are those couples who hate each other right from the beginning? Like they’re complete opposites and they bicker and argue all the time? In movies like that the audience always knows what’s going to happen- they always know that at some point the couple will have a beautiful bonding moment and will end up falling in love. It’s magical. “Opposites attract,” we’ll say as we wipe our teary eyes as the credits begin to roll.
Well. That’s a lot like what happens when Elizabeth Ashbridge. From the very beginning she HATES the Quaker faith, even though she really doesn’t know anything about it. However, it’s the faith she keeps coming back to, despite her mocking tone.
Methinks the lady doth protest too much.
Ashbridge goes through a lot of religions in her search for the truth; she dabbles in Catholicism and Protestantism, but never seems happy with them. She seems the most comfortable with the Church of England, as that’s the religion she grew up with, but it’s obvious that it isn’t quite the right fit for her.
Over the course of her religious journey, she also deals with a lot of struggles in her personal life. She ends up traveling to America in hopes of meeting her family in Pennsylvania, but ends up being tricked into being an indentured servant. Her life in captivity is pretty awful; her master is described as being a horrible man, obviously abusive in some manner though it is not explicitly stated in what way. He is a religious man, and that makes it very difficult for her to also be religious at well; she can’t reconcile how a religious man could do such terrible things.
She eventually buys her freedom and gets married to a man she doesn’t actually love. He’s a schoolmaster, and she isn’t entirely happy with him.
Eventually, she does make it to Pennsylvania to visit her family… but it turns out, in the plot twist of all plot twists, that they’re Quakers. She is initially very perturbed by them, but slowly begins to realize that the Quaker faith is what she was looking for all along. Her husband is extremely unhappy with this, becoming physically and emotionally abusive. She continues, though, walking eight miles a day in order to make the meetings. She is eventually free to practice her faith without her husband’s scorn after he passes away. She becomes a Quaker minister until she dies.
Ashbridge’s story is intensely inspiring. She survives the kinds of struggles people of our age wouldn’t even be able to comprehend, and once she finds the faith she intensely believes in she fights for her right to practice it. That’s pretty awesome, and I’m glad that I got the chance to learn her story.
My education at a public Texas high school, as I’ve discovered in recent years, was severely lacking. For example, it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I learned a woman named Rosalind Franklin was heavily involved in the discovery of the structure of DNA- up until then, I’d only ever heard the names “Watson and Crick” over and over again. The funny thing about this discovery? I didn’t learn about it in class.
I read it on the internet.
That’s what annoys me so much about the education system; when it comes to the minorities of history- women, African Americans, Native Americans- we really aren’t taught anything except the basics. I’ve learned more about minority figures in American history scrolling through tumblr than I have in any of my AP History classes.
That’s why the Early Minority Literature class I’m taking right now is everything I’ve ever wanted in a class. The focus is on the people who played important roles in history but were inexplicably erased. To make it even better, this isn’t the kind of class where we have to write an essay every week and get graded more on our use of proper MLA format than content (don’t get me wrong- I’m a huge fan of MLA format. But still. It shouldn’t make up 60% of your grade.).
I’ve always joked about wishing I could blog about what I learned in class instead of writing an essay about it… and now I can.
The technology aspect of the class has been the biggest challenge for me (so far). It’s all fine and good for me to blog about things on social media platforms that I’m already familiar with (like tumblr, or twitter), but it’s a horse of a different color to do the things we’re going to have to do in class, like coding and building our own website. That’s some scary stuff. We’ve been starting out with what is ostensibly the basics, like creating Wikipedia pages and working on this blog, but it was a lot more difficult than I anticipated.
A looooot more difficult.
I’ll admit it; even though I was the biggest spokesperson of using technology in classes during my undergrad, I got a bit stuck in my ways. I know how to write a good paper at this point because that’s what I’m used to. That’s what I’m comfortable with. So using technology in class- especially a class where the stuff we’ve read predates the American Revolution- definitely threw me. I almost had a mental breakdown trying to figure out how to properly code the references during the first wiki page we had to edit (of course, it turned out that I had made a very simple mistake; I put my work behind the little squiggly line that symbolized the “out of bounds” area of the page. Once I realized that I was golden.). It felt like (especially when I was first learning to get a handle on things) I was focusing the majority of my time on trying to figure out the technology as opposed to the readings.
Once I got the hang of things, though, I realized just how valuable technology can be in a classroom environment. The phrase “digital humanities” has been thrown around a lot in my first month here in grad school, but I never really focused on what it meant until I was actively using it in class. Digital humanities is, to but it very basically, the combination of both digital technology and the study of humanities. Used together, they can be very effective; an example of this can be seen here, if you’d like more information.
Now that I’ve discussed the technology aspect of the class (I always seem to focus on that part first- probably because it scares me so much) I can talk about the actual class content. Like I said earlier, we’re focused on the work of early American minorities, which I was very excited about when starting the class. That’s probably why I was a bit confused when the first readings we had during class were written by well-off white men, Samuel Sewall and Cotton Mathers. Like… okay. There is no way we can pass these guys off as minorities, except maybe in some parallel universe.
Of course, that was my reaction before I read their works. I really should learn to trust my professors. They always know what they’re doing.
Sewall and Mather’s pieces were included in the class because they discuss slavery, a big topic in our class, and set the groundwork for us to understand different opinions and perspectives in the class. Sewall’s The Selling of Joseph was an anti-slavery pamphlet, widely regarded as the first piece of anti-slavery writing in the US; Sewall uses Puritan doctrine and biblical references to construct his argument. Mather also uses Christianity in order to make his argument; however, he uses Scripture to justify slavery, not go against it.
These two pieces reflect the major themes that we’ve discussed in class so far: religion and slavery.
The two writers we focused on next were Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, both of whom were poets as well as slaves. While the two were both religious, Wheatley was much more radical; this can be seen in her poetry, which you can read here. Wheatley was an amazingly intelligent woman; she references mythology a lot in her poetry, often mixing it together with religious elements. She also knew tons of different languages. Wheatley apparently had a tutor to help her learn, but I took eight years of French and still don’t know how to say anything except “My name is Jamie and I’m American” so that doesn’t really say much. All the evidence points to Wheatley being a genius, which is pretty cool. Wheatley was lucky, though; she was a slave, yes, but she had masters who encouraged her work as opposed to squashing it. Just imagine how many slaves had the potential to be amazing writers but had masters who refused to let them learn, or write.
It’s sad to think about.
Good ol’ Jupiter was the first known published African American writer, which is awesome. He didn’t have much of an education to speak of, which makes the depth of his work even more impressive. Hammon is exactly the kind of writer I wish that I’d learned about in any of my American lit classes; he’s obviously extremely important, but instead of reading his work during my undergrad I had to deal with reading every single Nathaniel Hawthorne short story known to man for a semester. I’m not bitter.
(I totally am.)
But I’m learning about him now, which is the important thing.
Hammon was perfectly content with being a slave, which may be in large part due to his deeply Calvinist religious beliefs. Calvinism has always been a bit confusing to me; I know they believe in predestination, but I never really get that. Some people are saved and some aren’t, but there’s no way for a person to actually change their fate? What about the concept of free will? It’s all very confusing to me. The best explanation I can find of Calvinism is at this website, which includes a handy little acronym that describes the five categories of Calvinism. It’s helpful, so if you were confused (like I was!) you should check it out.
Well, I think that about wraps it up for this first blog post. I hope this was helpful![Top]