Just Teach One

Beyond Early American Literature: Teaching The Female Review and Contemporary Works

Gregory D. Specter
Duquesne University


For the purposes of this post, I want to comment first on the particular circumstances in which I taught The Female Review in my first year honors course. I think understanding the context will help those considering The Female Review in their own classes to see the versatility of this Just Teach One offering, it’s accessibility for students, and the possibility of using it beyond the American literature classroom. In short, while you should consider including The Female Review in your survey course or upper-division American literature course, I recommend thinking creatively about incorporating it in different courses.

Unlike many participants in this fall’s Just Teach One initiative, my course was not focused on early American literature, let alone American literature. The course was focused on the theme of history, memory, and revision—all themes that are prominent in The Female Review. This course featured a handful of contemporary texts: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, and Seth’s George Sprott: (1894-1975). Like the course theme, these readings were selected by a committee of instructors also teaching this particular honors course. My iteration of the course featured a substantial unit on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Indeed, it was only Hamilton, our engagement with primary sources, and several essays on the musical which provided students with any connection to early America. Additionally, a key component of my course involved students working with local archival collections in order to complete the semester’s major assignment. Working on a project involving archival work and telling a story about the past provided students a unique perspective on The Female Review– which is, of course, a text focused on a retelling of the past.

I share all of the above information for two reasons. First, even with the seemingly odd fit of The Female Review, my experience (and the students’ experience) in the classroom was very positive. As a class we had fruitful discussions of The Female Review over the course of two class periods. Second, I share my particular circumstances of teaching because they shaped how I prepared the students to read this work and how we discussed the work during class.

Because the focus of my class was not early American literature, I spent time preparing students to engage with themes about gender and the role of women during the early republic. While prior readings on Hamilton introduced students to the representation of women in history and the archive, I knew that engaging the topic of gender might be difficult for students. Since virtue and decorum were important thematic elements of The Female Review, I asked students to prepare for the class by reading a short piece by Karen Robbins on the connection between the “Pursuit of Happiness” and virtue. Robbins’ essay provided students an extra layer of context that they could rely on during their reading.

Secondly, I prepared a brief reading guide for students. I am a fan of preparing short reading guides for students. Reading guides can aid students significantly in preparing for engaging with a longer work. A reading guide is an opportunity to provide students with context, a sense of expectations, and allow for providing guiding questions. In The Female Review, it frequently feels like Deborah Sampson slips away from the narrative. Such quirks of the text could be problematic for students and I highlighted this factor for them in the reading guide, provided a way of understanding these gaps, and provided further guiding questions. I also identified some ways of thinking about how the text fit our course themes. Of course, I tried to walk as fine line between guiding students versus telling them how to read this particular work.

I want to close with addressing some ways of entering into discussion of this text in the classroom. I found it effective to begin with the title page and dedication page for The Female Review. These pieces of paratext provided a way of entering into the text and provided a robust way of jumpstarting a vibrant class discussion. In general, I find using title pages of works as a start to discussion is an effective pedagogical tool for the classroom, and in this case the title page for The Female Review is a great example of pole-vaulting into the rest of the text. With little prompting students took control of the discussion in thoughtful and engaging ways.

I encourage others to consider using The Female Review in other creative contexts. Hopefully my circumstances of using The Female Review show that the text has a great deal of potential. Yes, use The Female Review in an early American literature class—and—consider it for other courses, too!

Teaching The Female Review in a Course on the Literature of the U.S. Revolution

John C. Havard
Auburn University at Montgomery


I taught Herman Mann’s The Female Review in an upper-division course on the literature of the U.S. Revolution. This is a course I had taught previously. The course focuses on American literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with a focus on writing pertaining to the Revolution such as relevant public rhetoric, memoirs, and historical fiction. We also read works with less obvious connections to the Revolution but that touch on the era’s pressing social and cultural issues. I teach at Auburn University at Montgomery, a regional branch campus in Alabama that serves a diverse student population. The course is taken by traditional English majors, secondary education/language arts majors, and graduate students in our Master of Liberal Arts and Master of Teaching Writing programs.

As a scholar of the early United States who is always looking for interesting new material that might enliven his classes, I have long been interested in Just Teach One (JTO). However, JTO’s text selections had been good fits for the classes I was teaching at the time—until The Female Review, an obvious choice for a class on the Revolution. As a fictive memoir regarding a woman who cross-dressed to enlist in the Continental Army, the narrative drew my students’ interest for what it revealed about women’s roles in the war. These roles still receive too little air time in popular accounts of the conflict. My class also had conversations regarding connections between the memoir and other works we had read. Benjamin Franklin’s discussion of his religious coming of age in his Autobiography served as a reference point for Mann’s characterization of Deborah Sampson as holding rationalist religious views. Our coverage of Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette provided context for Mann’s narration of the seduction of Fatima as a cautionary tale regarding the dangers for women of what was considered deviant behavior. I also told students about my participation in the Just Teach One project as part of a description of the history of the recovery movement and the canon wars. These discussions helped students understand that the canon and course syllabi are mutable; the kind of scholarly work and institutions that make recovery possible; and the politics of literary study.

Many students were eager to discuss Mann’s historical inaccuracies. Their comments led to productive conversation. As Jodi Schorb explains in her introduction to the Just Teach One edition, The Female Review “is less a factual biography of Sampson than a fictive shaping of Sampson for early republican audiences” (1). As Schorb specifies, “Sustained by multiple periods of masculine presentation, an embrace of religious revivalism, church excommunication: the historical Sampson fits uncomfortably into Mann’s idealized portrait” (4). My students keyed onto this issue in part due to the efforts of Lindsay Guest, a talented graduate student in the class who is writing her master’s thesis on women in the American Revolution. Lindsay took an immediate interest in Mann’s account, chose to write her seminar paper on it, and prior to the class sessions devoted to Mann had begun reading Alfred F. Young’s Masquerade, which specifies inconsistencies between Mann’s account and what we know about the historical Sampson. Lindsay shared what she learned with the class, and I shared other related information. As English professors know, student interest in historical inaccuracies in literary works sometimes threatens to derail productive analysis, as students may deem the works less worthy of study. I steered students in a more positive direction by asking that they think of these inaccuracies in rhetorical terms: What were Mann’s goals, and how did his portrayal of Sampson help him achieve these goals? These questions helped students think about the purpose and function of the work. We discussed how Mann was collaborating with Sampson in an effort to win public applause that would be helpful in Sampson’s effort to obtain a federal pension for her war service. He thus praised her patriotic sacrifice but deemphasized and explained away her perceived gender deviancy to avoid offending his audience’s sensibilities. We also discussed Mann’s personal aims. Mann was a Deist and downplayed Sampson’s embrace of Baptist revivalism to promote rationalist religion. Moreover, he supported the ideals of Republican Motherhood and its emphasis on female education as requisite for women’s successful assumption of the duties of the private sphere. For this reason he portrayed Sampson’s enlistment as the consequences of her insufficient education, as opposed to the desire to escape marriage and make money it may have been. Sampson, he suggests, was interested in pursuing her interests as an amateur geographer and botanist. Without the opportunity to do so due to poor education for women, she enlisted in the army to see the world. This depiction enabled Mann to advocate Republican Motherhood while deemphasizing Sampson’s deviancy. Lastly, he was a pacificist who opposed U.S. involvement in ongoing conflict between England and revolutionary France. He thus depicted war as hell despite his aim of positively depicting Sampson’s patriotism. Discussing the inaccuracies in this light helped students understand the cultural and rhetorical contexts of post-Revolutionary America as well as to appreciate The Female Review as a dynamic engagement with those contexts.

Conversations regarding challenging passages in the memoir also provided valuable learning experiences. Teachers of early American literature know that the differences in vocabulary, syntax, and typography between then and now often make reading assignments difficult for students who have not previously been exposed to colonial and early national writing. I consequently make close reading of such passages a centerpiece of classroom activities. One way I do this is by assigning student-led discussions in which I ask students to pick at least three passages from the day’s assigned reading to discuss with the class. While I allow students to ask interpretative questions about passages, I tell them it is acceptable and even encouraged to choose passages simply because they are hard to understand. Conversations regarding these passages often help students understand the era’s rhetorical conventions and vocabulary connotations. In a student-led discussion on The Female Review, one student drew our attention to a passage in chapter 9 in which Mann writes, “I am perfectly enraptured with those females, who exhibit the most refined sensibility and skill in their sweet domestic round, and who can show a group of well bred boys and girls. But I must aver, I am also happy, if this rare female has filled that vacuity, more or less in every one’s bosom, by the execution of the worst propensities: For, by similitude, we may anticipate, that one half of the world in future are to have less goads in their consciences, and the other, faster accumulating a fund of more useful acquisition” (49). The student noted not only the elaborate clausal structures and unfamiliar vocabulary such as “vacuity” in the passage but also the uncertain tone. The author seems decisive in using language such as “I aver,” but the passage also comes across as confused because it contradicts the earlier assertion that “THUS, Females, whilst you see the avidity of a maid in her teens confronting dangers and made a veteran example in war, you need only half the assiduity in your proper, domestic sphere, to render your charms completely irresistible” (54). Via conversation regarding this passage, we concluded that some of the more challenging passages in Mann’s narrative exhibit not just differences in the usage of language between then and now but also Mann’s struggle to navigate a central challenge in writing this narrative: He seeks to portray Sampson in a good light to aid her effort to obtain a federal pension, but he also aims to promote conventional gender norms. As Schorb succinctly puts it, “The narrative’s richness lies in Mann’s attempt to make both an example and a warning of Sampson” (1). In these passages he thus encourages women to “render your charms completely irresistible” by devoting themselves to the domestic sphere, whereas he also gives Sampson backhanded praise for providing readers with negative examples regarding the dangers a woman faces in the masculine sphere of war. Such discussions helped my students understand that lingering on passages that are difficult to understand may yield much deeper understandings of an author’s stance and purpose in relation to audience expectations. These are valuable lessons for novice literary critics.

I also experimented with a new assignment while teaching The Female Review. Whereas in the past in this class I had assigned three conventional 4-6 page essays of literary analysis, I replaced one of these papers with an assignment for each student to contribute to an annotated edition of the work. I was inspired to give this assignment by my colleague, Seth Reno, who achieved impressive results using a similar assignment with Erasmus Darwin’s The Loves of Plants in a class on British Romanticism. Teaching The Female Review provided a good opportunity to try the assignment, as recovered works require the development of annotated editions to make them accessible to non-scholarly audiences. I divided the work by section to the students and set up a Google Doc in which they transcribed and annotated their sections. To provide for appropriate challenge, I asked students to write somewhat extensive explanatory annotations. I provided examples from teaching editions of other works we read that utilized this style of annotation, and I distinguished the style from more minimalist approaches such as that used by Ed White and Duncan Faherty in the JTO edition. The assignment was a success: In addition to providing for an appreciated respite from the typical round of essays, my students developed research skills; better understandings of the value of annotation and the rhetorical purposes of differing annotation styles; and an understanding and appreciation of the scholarly effort that goes into producing teaching editions. The quality of the students’ work differed, of course, but in many cases I was impressed by and learned a lot from the annotations. One memorable annotation was written by a thoughtful student named Kiarah Holloway. Kiarah discussed Sampson’s contemplation in Chapter 8 of committing suicide to avoid detection as a woman; the annotation discussed contemporaneous legal debates regarding suicide; cultural conversation that was spurred by the popularity of Goerthe’s Werther; and how Mann’s inclusion of the detail was meant to illustrate the stress placed upon Sampson as someone committing what was considered a deviant act.

Overall, teaching The Female Review was a success. The work fit seamlessly into my course, my students found the narrative engaging, and they learned a lot from the annotation assignment.

Revolutionary in many senses of the term

Christopher Apap
Oakland University

Perhaps the best part of working with the female review is the fact that it constantly surprises. It was the final reading of the semester for my fall 2016 Honors Seminar entitled “American Revolutions.” The course looked at a variety of different “revolutions,” from the military conflict to the ensuing political debates to race and slavery to, in the end, gender and the rise of the novel.  We questioned, as we read political speeches, pamphlets, newspaper accounts, natural histories, poems, and novels, what words like revolutionary and revolution meant.  Yet I found teaching the book revolutionary in many senses of the term.

I had deliberately delayed my own perusal of the book so that my impressions of it were fresh when we discussed it in class.  I was almost immediately glad that I had chosen to teach the book at the term’s end.  Certain elements of the early chapters struck students as incongruous, or at least unexpected.  They knew enough from the introduction to know that the narrative dealt with a cross-dressing woman who fought as a man in the revolutionary conflict, and thus early chapters focusing on the ways in which the protagonist was deeply interested in nature felt out of place.  Coming after discussions of natural history, though, the students could at least understand the kinds of cultural work the descriptions of Deborah Sampson’s youthful interest in the natural world  was meant to do. Our discussions of Sampson’s decision to enter the war—in particular the disturbing dream in which the serpent representing (students agreed) the British empire followed Sampson from the town square into the domestic sphere of the home—usefully engaged anxieties in Paine’s Crisis No. 1 about the safety of wives and daughters, and Paine’s own fantasies about a Jersey maid acting as a modern-day Joan of Arc. As we looked at Sampson’s letter to her mother (itself a complex performance of misleading double-entendres), we discussed the epistolary tradition that we had recently learned about in The Coquette.  The latter novel provided students with a really delightful point of discussion and debate.  How, students wondered, could Sampson deviate so widely from ideals of feminine behavior and virtue and be lauded for it?  Their answer was fascinating; they approached the issue through questions of ends and means.  Eliza’s ends, they claimed, were selfish and thus indefensible in The Coquette; Deborah’s intention was, at least as stated in the female review, entirely selfless, and thus laudable. While our continued discussion complicated such easy, broad distinctions, I was impressed by how a bunch of non-majors had opened up interesting and important interpretive avenues for the book.

The final surprise for me was that my students did not seem nearly as surprised by Sampson’s gender-bending behavior as I might have expected.  It made me question my own expectation as perhaps very much the product of a distinct generational gap.  My students were much more interested in the narrator’s incessant need to address his reader’s delicate sensibilities and their negative judgments than they were in Deborah Sampson’s decision to choose to live as a man.  I found the swiftness with which they accepted Deborah’s choice refreshing.  It made our discussion less about mere scandal and much more about how eighteenth-century readers expected gender to function, and how the deviation from gendered norms could be debated and even justified.

Teaching to Teach, with Skype, Willing Colleagues, and The Female Review

Laura M. Stevens
University of Tulsa

I taught The Female Review in a graduate seminar titled “Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Americas”. This course, which had ten masters and doctoral students, asked how the setting of the Americas and the Atlantic shaped early Anglophone novels published in both England and America. We began with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and concluded with Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok, while using Eve Tavor Bannet’s insightful study, Transatlantic Stories (2014), as our main scholarly reference point from beginning to end. The Female Review was not the ideal candidate for inclusion among the other narratives, which tended, like narratives including Aubin’s Life of Charlotta Dupont, the anonymously authored The Female American, and Charlotte Lennox’s Euphemia, to feature oceanic crossings or intensive treatments of landscape and physical setting. Billed as non-fiction, it also isn’t a great fit for a course on fiction. It did however end up resonating in interesting and productive ways with our other readings in its treatment of history as well as of sex and gender.

We read this text after devoting a class to the first volume of Susanna Rowson’s Reuben and Rachel, or Tales of Old Times (1798), which narrates a history of interaction between Europe and the Americas, from Columbus’s landfall through the mid-seventeenth century, through the fictional story of the primarily female descendants of Ferdinando Columbus (son of Christopher) and Orrabella, a Peruvian princess. Having just devoted a class to discussing how a history of contact and colonialism looks when told through a series of women, my students and I were nicely positioned to explore what happens to the history of the American Revolution when told through the story of a female soldier like Deborah Sampson.

Alongside The Female Review my students read Greta LeFleur’s article, “Precipitous Sensations: Herman Mann’s The Female Review (1797), Botanical Sexuality, and Queer Historiography” (Early American Literature 48 [2013], 93-123), which considers how the late eighteenth-century popularization of botanical taxonomy, seen in publications like Erasmus Darwin’s poem Love of the Plants (1789), made possible new ways thinking about sexuality. We also of course made use also of Jodi Schorb’s wonderfully informative preface to the JTO edition of Mann’s text. In spite of the prominence of relationships and sexualities we today would categorize as queer, my students were struck by the pains Mann took to stress Sampson’s heteronormativity through emphasis on heterosexual romance and Sampson’s status as a “lady”. Even more, though, they were interested in the degree to which this narrative dwelt on the mundane details of an infantry soldier’s existence, with more ordinary activities ranging from building fortifications to burying the dead, alongside the more exciting accounts of combat. The minutiae of these accounts, peppered with references to Washington, Lafayette, and other heroes of the war, along with Mann’s detailed descriptions of Sampson’s physical appearance, add up to a fascinating treatment of the question of veterans’ merit. That is, what do compensations and commendations do veterans deserve from their countries, how are their struggles and achievements documented, and what happens when they are overlooked? Given that part of Mann’s purpose was to win a pension for Sampson, this text can show us much about how early histories of the Revolution were inflected by discussions about the status and rights of a veteran – and more broadly, the place of the military — in a republic.

The most exciting part of this three-hour class, though, was the time we devoted to pedagogy. When Duncan and Ed sent out the first emails to the people who had volunteered to teach this particular JTO text, I realized that most of my colleagues would be teaching it to undergraduates, and I decided to see if I could draw on their experiences to teach my graduate students a bit about teaching. I asked over email if any of the other JTO participants might be willing to have a teleconference with my students about the approaches they had taken, and I was thrilled when Caroline Wigginton at the University of Mississippi and John Havard at Auburn University Montgomery quickly agreed. I moved my class into a room set up for big-screen teleconferencing and scheduled 30-minute Skype calls to both of them. Caroline and John each sent me a syllabus for their course and some supplementary materials, which I asked my students to read beforehand in order to prepare some questions for our remote guest speakers.

The conversations were immensely helpful for my students in their professional and pedagogical training. Caroline and John both spoke eloquently about the courses within which they were teaching The Female Review, and their sense of how this late eighteenth-century publication fit within and advanced the goals of these beautifully designed courses. This attention to the specifics of pedagogical context was, to my mind, hugely beneficial to my graduate students. They gained much from learning how both Caroline and John had developed entirely different approaches to this text as they integrated it into their courses, and how they pondered the abilities and needs of their own students. What most impressed me were the assignments both had developed. Caroline had designed highly structured “Context Reports”, which required that students analyze the day’s reading in dialogue with other primary and secondary readings, all connected in some way to the course’s topic of transatlantic bodies. John had required that his students develop their own edition of The Female Review, with explanatory notes and other annotations. This approach of course brought students into more actively engagement with the text while they also pondered the intricacies of editoral theory. The question of what to do with a text in a classroom seems obvious, but it’s actually tricky and crucial; it gets at the heart of a teacher’s ability to leverage texts in ways that actually build students’ interpretive and writing skills while also helping them learn complex material. My students learned a great deal not only from seeing what two professors at different institutions had done with this fairly obscure narrative in their classrooms, but also from listening to Caroline and John think out loud about the process of deciding what to do with a text in a pedagogical setting, essentially putting it to work for their students’ learning experiences.

I asked my students right after the Skype conversations what their biggest takeaways had been. Several of them expressed gratitude for the seriousness and detail with which Caroline and John had addressed questions about teaching a text that contains some sexually explicit material and invites queer readings. Were their students comfortable with this material? Did the narrative’s treatment of cross-dressing, sexuality, and gender, with arguably feminist and pro-queer rhetoric, provoke silence, discomfort, or vocal homophobia? What to do if two students in a class start arguing with each other or take offense at what a peer has said on these topics?  What to do if a student dismisses this material as not “real” literature? Caroline and John each had useful suggestions to offer about how they introduce their students to a topic or text that might challenge or upset them, how they model for their students ways of talking about sex and sexuality with scholarly detachment but sensitivity, and how they respond when students express discomfort with material that challenges their world view or even their sense of moral rectitude.

The Female Review did several things for my class that I had not predicted. It resonated in fascinating ways with the place of women amidst several other narratives dealing with nation-formation and war. As a non-fictional account it called attention to the mechanics of narratives, the nuances of truth claims, the texture of realism. It compelled deeper scrutiny of the various types of love and affection expressed between women, and between men and women, in other narratives from our syllabus. Most of all, though, this text introduced a vibrant and useful discussion for my graduate students about teaching, especially teaching a relatively obscure and historically embedded text.

A Poor Review

Caroline Wigginton

The University of Mississippi

I taught Deborah Sampson Gannett’s The Female Review this past fall as part of a senior research seminar for English majors. My students didn’t understand it, didn’t like it, and didn’t write on it: only two students featured it in their capstone papers. The only text they liked less was J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782), and they lobbied (pretty persuasively) for me to replace these two texts with full-length versions of the anonymous Narrative of Lucy Brewer (ca. 1815) and Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), both of which they had read excerpts from, in future iterations of the course.

I typically organize my upper-division seminars around a theme and then choose six major texts to focus on, adding supplementary primary and secondary readings for context. This particular course’s theme was “Transatlantic Bodies in the Long Eighteenth Century.”  After briefly introducing them to ideas of the body found in such sources as John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), Carl Linné’s Systema Naturae (1735, 1758), and William Blackstone’s Commentaries (his explanation of coverture in particular; 1765–1769), we began a sustained engagement with our core six texts. We read The Female Review fourth, and by then students had already explored eighteenth-century bodies in terms of colonization, religion, race, class, and sex in our discussions of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative (1682), Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688), and Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina (1724). Unlike with other texts, which had inspired students to offer their own enthusiastic readings and analyses, just as one would hope from confident, soon-to-be-graduating majors, The Female Review returned them to callow uncertainty. Rather than making statements or offering opinions, they asked me basic questions. What is going on? Where is Sampson? Why did Sampson do that? What is real and what is fiction? Did early Americans think this was good writing? The primary and secondary pairings I gave them for our third day of discussion didn’t enliven their approaches, though they did all agree that everyone must read Anne Fausto-Sterling’s “The Five Sexes, Revisited.” Admittedly, their opinion of The Female Review was somewhat buoyed once they read their fifth book, the loathed Crèvecoeur, but it was all but forgotten by the time they had read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). As mentioned above, only two students even mentioned The Female Review in their final papers, one (unpersuasively) understanding it to signal women’s empowerment through writing (Sampson didn’t write it) and the other using it to launch a comparative paper of other cross-dressing narratives. This last student identified a conservative message about gender in these tales of adventure that end in domesticity, and did offer a unique interpretation of Mann’s convoluted prose and plot. Such complete opacity makes gender transgression seem complicated. Why not adhere to the clarity and simplicity of patriarchal expectations.

The question becomes, then, would I recommend teaching The Female Review. Perhaps. Its biggest issue, at least in my classroom, is that suffers by comparison to other texts. Rowlandson’s wilderness images and biblical allusions provided more fodder for close reading. Oroonoko’s characters were more clearly drawn. The sex in Fantomina was easier to spot. Frankenstein is, well, Frankenstein. The way to teach The Female Review and to have students explore with more interest and discovery its themes of early American adventure, transgression, revolution, and performance might be to foreground comparison. The sole student in my class who had an interesting insight was the one who read other cross-dressing narratives. If I teach it again, that’s the kind of course I will assign it in: one where we can think about its prose and plot and confusions alongside other cross-dressing narratives, early American or otherwise.

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