Over the past few semesters, I began my early American literature course with Thomas Jefferson. Starting with Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Notes from the State of Virginia, and letter to Benjamin Banneker was important considering the recent events in Charlottesville, VA. Typically, I start the first class with David Walker then back track to Jefferson, but after reading Ibram X. Kendi’s “What would Jefferson say about white supremacists descending upon his university?” I changed the order.
Along with altering the order, I also changed my mode of presentation. Usually, I see if students have any questions, answer those, then present a short lecture on the readings, interspersed with class discussion. This time, though, I did not lecture at all. Rather, I had students work in groups of four to read some supplemental texts that I brought into class and present what they read to their fellow classmates. Today, I want to talk about the assignment, the supplemental texts, and how students responded.
For this assignment, I collected six supplemental readings (about 2-3 pages each). Students had to read the text, write a paragraph summarizing the text, and write a paragraph discussing how the text relates to what they read from Jefferson, then they had to present their conclusions to their classmates. The goal of the exercise is to place the students at the center of the classroom and have them link new texts and ideas together with the texts they read for homework.
I separated the class up into about six groups of four. As for the supplemental texts, I chose other writings from Jefferson, readings that he would have read, or ones that would have been contemporaneous with him. The only contemporary text here is Kendi’s article because it presents what students eventually realize, Jefferson was ambiguous about race. I made sure to have texts that opposed slavery and racism alongside texts that relate racist ideas. I provided students with Thomas Paine’s African Slavery in America (1775); an excerpt from chapter 1 of Olaudah Equiano’s narrative; David Hume’s comments on “Negroes” in Essays, Moral and Political (1742); Immanuel Kant’s “The Difference Between the Races” from Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764); Thomas Jefferson’s letters to Benjamin Banneker (Aug. 30, 1791), the Marquis de Condorect (Aug. 31, 1791), and Joel Barlow (1809); Thomas Jefferson’s Query XIII from Notes on the State of Virginia (1785); and the entry for “Negro” from the 1798 Encyclopedia Britannica.
This assignment provides students with the opportunity to engage with the readings on a deeper level because they actively interrogate the text and look at it in relation to other texts. This process works better than a lecture type class or even a discussion class where a handful of students participate. Organizing students into groups of no more than four requires them to look at the material and discuss it in order to formulate a response that illuminates their understanding of the assigned text. As well, it puts them in a position of instructing their fellow classmates on the text that that they read in class because each group has a different text to summarize and relate to the reading for homework.
In the selection from Immanuel Kant, he presents a hierarchy of races with white Europeans at the top, Native Americans below them, and people of African descent at the bottom. Jefferson presents this hierarchical schema in his own writing, and the group that read Kant picked up on this noting that Jefferson, like Kant, viewed no “civilization” or artistic genius in people of African descent. Along with this connection, the group that looked at David Hume and the Encyclopedia Britannica noted that Jefferson’s language appears similar, especially in regards to Hume’s comment, “In Jamaica indeed they talk of one negro as a man of parts and learning; but ’tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.” Jefferson echoes this sentiment when he claims that Phyllis Wheatley’s poetry is not even worthy of criticism because she is imitation.
Having students read and respond to more texts by Jefferson also allowed students to contextualize the selections they read for homework. They read Benjamin Banneker’s 1791 letter to Jefferson and Jefferson’s reply for homework; however, they did not read the letter that Jefferson wrote to the Marquis de Condorcet or the letter Jefferson wrote to Joel Barlow in 1809. In his letter, Banneker calls upon Jefferson to consider the words he wrote in The Deceleration of Independence in relation to the institution of slavery. Jefferson only responds by thanking Banneker for the almanac he sent and telling him, “no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of [African American’s] body & mind to what it ought to be” as quickly as possible. Jefferson, essentially, presents Banneker with a platitude.
When students read Jefferson’s letter to the Marquis, whom Jefferson said he would send Banneker’s almanac, he discusses Banneker in a favorable manner, commenting on the work he is doing for the construction of Washington D.C. and commenting on his mathematical skills. He concludes the paragraph on Banneker with much the same sentiment that he presents in his reply: “I shall be delighted to see these instances of moral eminence so multiplied as to prove that the want of talents observed in them is merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intellect depends.” Students note that while Jefferson sees slavery as a “degraded condition,” he does not do anything to end it. They also see this in relation to his comments on the supposed inferiority of people of African descent in relation to whites.
The ideas of Hume come to the forefront in Jefferson’s 1809 letter to Joel Barlow. Eighteen years removed from his reply to Banneker and the letter to he Marquis, Jefferson addresses his thoughts on race. He tells Barlow about Henri Gregoire’s De la littérature des nègres (1808) and doubles down on his ideas about the superiority of whites over blacks that he espoused in Notes on the State of Virginia. In regard to Banneker, Jefferson tells Barlow, “I have a long letter from Banneker which shews him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed.” While he provides some semblance of recognition regarding Banneker’s intelligence in 1791, Jefferson dismisses it here by claiming Banneker only contains “a mind of very common stature.”
These are only a couple of examples pulled from he texts that I had students look at in class. The groups pointed these aspects out when reading the supplemental texts then showing how they relate to the readings they read by Jefferson for homework. One of my sections is in an active learning classroom. For that section, I had students write their summaries and connections on the boards around the room. Then, we walked around the room, as if in a museum, and talked about each response. This process worked well, and I plan to do it again. It got the students up and moving around and it provided a different sort of lecture/discussion environment.
If you would like to know more about the other texts I used in this assignment or how I constructed and implemented it, let me know in the comments below. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.