The Shape of Things to Come

(Eighteenth-Century Studies and the Community College)

When I attended the “Eighteenth-Century Studies and the Future of the Profession” panel at MLA 2020 in Seattle, I felt compelled during the Q&A to point out the underrepresentation of faculty from community colleges and other teaching-intensive institutions among the panelists as well as in the audience. This mattered for the discussion then, and it matters now, because the eighteenth century and the role it might play in our professional activities—by which I will primarily, though not exclusively, mean our teaching—looks very different from the vantage point of community college faculty than it does for faculty at research institutions (R1) or small, liberal arts colleges (SLAC). As a result, I appreciate Jonathan Sachs’s invitation to contribute to this special issue of The Rambling. In what follows, I want to consider some of the original panel’s questions—whether there is a future for Eighteenth-Century Studies and how it might inform the future of literary or humanities studies more broadly—from the perspective of a teacher and scholar who is based at a community college.

The category “community college” covers an assortment of institutions serving a variety of student populations, which entails speaking to a wide range of students’ academic, professional, and personal needs as well as interests. Rather than try and cover it all, I will speak from the vantage point of my own college, GateWay Community College in Phoenix, with the assumption of sufficient overlap for my contribution to resonate with faculty at other kinds of community colleges and teaching-intensive institutions.

GateWay is part of the Maricopa County Community College District, a conglomerate of ten semi-autonomous colleges that serves about 110,000 students each semester in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Within that enormous system, GateWay is one of the smaller colleges, enrolling about 5,000 degree- and certificate-pursuing students each semester. (GateWay also runs the district’s clock-hour programs, which serve a group of students quite distinct from those in credit-hour courses.) GateWay is a majority-minority college as well as a Hispanic-Serving Institution. Close to half of our students identify as non-white Hispanic; just over 10% identify as Black (African American as well as significant populations of Rwandan and Somali refugees); and around 3% each identify as Asian and Native American. Close to 70% of our students are the first in their families to attend college, with an average student age of 27. Three quarters of all students are enrolled part-time (that is, taking fewer than 12 credit hours per semester—on average, students enroll in 8 credit hours per semester), and just under a quarter of them plan to transfer to a four-year college after earning their Associate Degree. Another 10% or so take courses as dual-enrolled high school students. Most students’ declared goal is to earn their degree and enter or advance in the job market.

I think this parade of data is necessary to understand something about who our students are and what goals they are pursuing in taking courses or working towards a degree with us. Our students’ backgrounds, their experiences, their expectations, and their goals shape what my literature and humanities courses are for them in ways that don’t apply in many other four-year institutions and definitely don’t resemble anything like the courses I took as an undergraduate or was trained to teach as a graduate student and post-doc at research universities. For example, GateWay students largely take my literature or humanities courses because they fulfill a general education requirement on their path towards a degree or certificate in a very different academic or professional area, most often in the health sciences or business, technology, and administration. Students working towards an Associate in Arts or General Studies with an emphasis in humanities fields are rare; specialized majors in English or Humanities do not exist at GateWay. Beyond ticking off a box in their degree progression, it is not always clear why students select the courses in which they enroll. Scheduling plays a significant part in their decision-making process, especially for students on the prerequisite-heavy pre-Nursing track; beyond that, personal and professional interests in a particular course may have some influence, though the boiler-plate course catalogue descriptions students see when they select courses for their next semester usually do not tell them much about a specific course’s content.

Once I meet the students in my courses, however, it is precisely through their professional and personal interests that I can engage and connect with them over the content I teach; when appropriate, I include some eighteenth-century materials. And students are receptive to it, too, though it takes a bit more convincing and more support structures than, say, a contemporary text or song or image does. More than anything else, though, my students need me to justify to them why this “old” material is there, why we should put in the extra work necessary to adequately deal with it at all, and how it might relate to the questions that interest them here and now. This need to justify eighteenth-century materials runs the risk of applying exclusively presentist lenses to texts, objects, or events from the 1700s, but if done selectively and with care, there is something liberating and productive in investigating the past through the concerns and insights of the present, at least some of the time. For my students, after all, the value in working with eighteenth-century materials does not lie so much in a deep understanding of another time, of another historical moment—though if they also come away from the work with a greater sensitivity to historical difference, then that is a bonus. Part of the justification for including a few of Phillis Wheatley’s poems, or a sermon by Samson Occom, or a few passages from Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity and Restoration (1682) in an Introduction to US Ethnic Literature course, for example, is to investigate some of the avenues that brought us to the present understanding of the relationship between culture, race, and nation.

Just as important as those questions of history and genealogy, though, is the role that eighteenth-century materials can play in shifting my students’ perspectives on the present by defamiliarizing and denaturalizing entrenched narratives as well as, by extension, the role of those materials in the imagination of new, different, possibly better futures. In a course on Medicine in Literature and Film that I am designing this summer, for example, I will include selected letters by Samuel Richardson and Ignatius Sancho in which the writers discuss the effects of illness on their daily lives as well as on their modes and facilities of communication. One of the stated goals will be to reflect on the openness with which the writers and their correspondents communicate about the physical and emotional challenges that illnesses present (together with their strategies for coping and living) in order to imagine ways in which such openness and emotional honesty might help build resilience in our own personal and/or professional lives. Some may think that studying anything from before 1900 for moral exemplars or guidance is passé (a view that Sancho, for one, would have strenuously opposed). Yet even for students who are as focused on the outcomes and the pay-off of course content in terms of immediate personal conditions and professional goals as mine tend to be, eighteenth-century materials can offer tools to alter or readjust to those conditions as well as to reimagine or clarify those goals.

Much of this may not actually be news to my readers; many of the same considerations also apply in designing even the most specialized courses on eighteenth-century history, art, or literature, and all are at play to some degree in surveys and genre- or topic-based courses that are meant to attract non-majors at research-focused as much as at teaching-intensive institutions. As humanities enrollment dwindles, however, and distribution requirements in history, literature, and art before 1800 are reduced or eliminated in many departments. Topical courses with broadly appealing themes and content applicable to the academic, professional, or personal interests of non-majors are becoming more common and more necessary to sustain the teaching of humanities fields.

In other words, the shape that eighteenth-century studies takes at community colleges like mine, where specialized courses on the eighteenth century or even more generally on pre-1800 literature have little chance of filling, will also likely be the shape that eighteenth-century studies increasingly takes at four-year institutions across the country. This can benefit our course designs and pedagogies; there is value in finding cross-period and cross-disciplinary connections in eighteenth-century materials, especially when their inclusion in courses has to be justified to students in terms of content, difficulty, and reward. Likewise, the need for contextualization, scaffolding, and explication is so much greater in courses that have to take into consideration the types of preparation, interest, and perspectives that students bring to our courses who are not majoring in a humanities discipline—let alone in our department’s major or area of specialization.

And scholars of eighteenth-century studies are, of course, prepared to do this work already. After all, most research in eighteenth-century studies assumes a cross-disciplinary perspective or connects in some significant way to contemporary socio-political or -economic concerns, so why should our teaching be more confined? The gradual disappearance in many quarters of opportunities to focus for an entire semester exclusively on eighteenth-century novels or satire or landscape paintings is a great loss, for sure, and should be resisted. But the need to contextualize our eighteenth-century selections as parts of broader topics and longer stretches of history, and to explain and justify those selections to students whose academic, intellectual, and emotional interests and needs are engrossed by the affordances, demands, and stresses of their personal and professional lives also represents considerable opportunities for growth in our profession. In the service of that growth, it will therefore be important for informed professional debates to be cognizant of the shape that eighteenth-century studies takes in community college courses and to draw on the expertise of faculty who design and teach these courses.

In addition to these immediate professional considerations, there is also another compelling reason for the field to pay closer attention to approaches and perspectives that emerge from community college teaching and research practices. Since community colleges provide education to 40% of all students nationwide and a majority of students in many states, including those who transfer to four-year institutions, the shape that eighteenth-century studies takes at community colleges is also the shape (or at least a first, provisional shape) that the eighteenth century takes in the minds of a majority of college graduates in the United States. This is an especially important consideration if we want to influence in any significant way and at any significant national scale the legacies and perceptions of eighteenth-century institutions like slavery, race, state organs of power and control, colonialism and capitalism, industrialization, climate change, and many others. By extension, teaching the eighteenth century in community college classrooms also contributes in a meaningful way, at scale, to the decolonization of eighteenth-century studies. Given the right scaffolding and contextualization, the study of eighteenth-century materials, institutions, ideas, and events in community colleges can solicit and include the voices and insights of communities whose members have systematically been excluded from reaping the benefits of such study and precluded from contributing to it, often as a direct result of the lingering legacies of the eighteenth century.

To make good on this promise, however, we need to ensure that our teaching be more thoroughly integrated as a central factor in the shaping of eighteenth-century studies and the study of the eighteenth century. Research is important and feeds into teaching by offering us new insights that we can further discuss with students, but it should not dominate how we talk about the material or understand the field. The trope of the “teacher-scholar” haunts job letters and annual-review reflections, but the scholarship that occurs while teaching—the scholarly work of students as much as of faculty—and the scholarship of course design and pedagogy constitute fundamental aspects of the present and future of eighteenth-century studies. The growing inclusion of panels, awards, and published forums reserved for pedagogy at ASECS and in some scholarly publications are first steps to recognizing the fundamental contributions that teaching makes to the field, and I look forward to the development of more new venues and formats.

This leads me, finally, to a call on faculty at community colleges and other teaching-intensive institutions to contribute their students’ and their own insights into eighteenth-century materials to the broader conversations within the field. Strategies for how and why eighteenth-century materials feature in teaching-faculty’s courses, and the collaborative discoveries about eighteenth-century materials that students and faculty develop through these courses, are crucial contributions to the discussion of eighteenth-century studies as a field and its place within the profession more broadly—as well as to the shape that “the eighteenth century” takes in the social imagination.

Sören Hammerschmidt is Residential Faculty in English at GateWay Community College, where he teaches composition and literature. When he can tear himself away from commenting on thesis statements and transitions, he also moonlights as a scholar of eighteenth-century media ecologies, portraiture, and epistolary culture in Britain and the Atlantic world.

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