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!