Just Teach One

Theresa Lesson Plan

Nicole N. Aljoe, PhD

Associate Professor, Department of English

Northeastern University,Boston, MA

This assignment was the third formal essay the students had written in an “Introduction to Literary Studies” course. In addition to reading “Theresa” and the Foster essay, they also read three critical essays about early African American print culture. The students then used the class discussions and readings as the basis for an essay assignment that explored one of the four main questions/issues that we had dealt with in class: how the story alters our notions of literary history; how it relates to Black Atlantic culture; the details, strategies, and techniques employed by the writer; and the literariness of the text. Part of my thinking in highlighting these questions, in addition to helping the students focus their writing on making synthetic analyses as opposed to summarizing, was also intended to accommodate the different levels of comfort expressed by some of the students with some of the more speculative aspects of our discussion about the canon.


Although the assignment below is pretty standard, what was striking to me was that the eventual essays were some of the liveliest, most engagingly written essays that some of the students had produced. Certainly, this was facilitated by the obviously op-ed inspired style of the essay prompts, but even in the essays that focused on formal analysis of literary details or tropes the students seemed to have been more comfortable, producing lovely fluid writing, and frequently engaging insights.


English 1400: Introduction to Literary Studies

Fall 2014

Literary Analysis of “Theresa, A Haytien Tale”


Due date: 11.01.14 by 11:59pm on Blackboard

Page length:           3-5 pages typewritten, double-spaced, 12pt font


Choose one of the following topics:

  1. In her essay, “’How do you solve a problem like ‘Theresa’?” Francis Smith Foster discusses the benefits of finding the story for literary historians and archivists. As a student and an English major, what do you think about reading and sharing non-canonical stories like “Theresa” in college and/or high school literature classes?
  2. Discuss the ways in which the story “Theresa” either affirms or challenges the ideas suggested in the articles by Leon Jackson, Saidiya Hartman, or Lois Brown.
  3. Do a formal analysis of the plot, character, setting, point of view/narration, symbolism, or style of “Theresa.”
  4. Make an argument for the utility of reading “Theresa” through one or more of the specific literary theories we have discussed in class.




Theresa Reflection

Nicole N. Aljoe, PhD

Associate Professor, Department of English

Northeastern University, Boston, MA


I taught Theresa during the Fall semester of 2014 in my Introduction to Literary Studies course. It was a class of 11 students, and the course was intended to provide, as the title suggests, an introduction to some of the components, practices, techniques, strategies, and goals of literary studies. I’d taught the course or one very like it, mostly successfully many times over my career. We turned to “Theresa” during the middle of the semester, after the students had read Gulliver’s Travels and had been introduced to several different schools of literary theory such as feminism, Marxism, Post-Structuralism, and New Criticism among others. I titled the unit “Literary History and the Archive” and my goal was to introduce students to debates about literary history and its relationship to our notions about the archive. In addition to reading “Theresa” and Foster’s essay about the story, the students also read three additional essays by scholars offering varying perspectives on early African American literary history and notions of the archive: Jackson “The Talking Book and the Talking Book Historian”; Brown “Death-Defying Testimony: Women’s Private Lives and the Politics of Public Documents;” Hartman “Venus in Two Acts.”

We spent two class periods, the first focused on the story and Foster’s essay, the second exploring the ramifications of the arguments by Brown, Jackson, and Hartman on our readings of the text. In initial reading responses students, as usual, expressed chagrin at their relative lack of exposure to African American literature. What was surprising was the number of students who focused on, for lack of a better word, the “Haitian-ness” of the narrative and how it exposed them to a more diverse representation of 19th century Black culture. As one student noted, “I was also pretty disappointed in realizing that in every discussion of African American literature I’d ever participated in, whether it be at home or in a classroom setting, I’d only really ever been given examples of African American literature. I’d never even really considered the highly nuanced versions of literature that would’ve been produced by any of the several other populations of African descent scattered around the globe.” And another asked, “What kind of literature did the world miss out on?”

Our initial conversation was wide ranging, moving from “noticing” the details of the story (building on our early semester introduction to Rabinowitz’s Before Reading), such as its vivid, often anthropomorphized descriptions of the landscape to considering the language of sentiment and its representations of republican femininity. We also talked about the various lenses/theories through which we could read the story and engaged in fun and interactive group exercise where the groups chose a particular theory and offered readings from that school/perspective. Although our discussions on the first day were wide-ranging, we did touch on some of the focused aspects of literary history, notions of the canon, and archives when we considered questions such as “how does this text help us reconsider African American literature? American literature, more generally? Black Atlantic literature?” On the second day, we focused our discussion much more closely on these questions. Because students tend to have difficulty “applying” or culling useful insights from essays not specifically written about the chosen primary text, I took the focused points they had made in their reading posts about the secondary essays and used them to craft the questions that formed the catalysts for the day’s class discussion. For example, drawing on the students’ notation of Hartman’s analysis of critical romanticism, I asked them “ what elements might a non-romantic recuperative reading of the story focus on?” Which elicited responses that focused on the nuanced characterization of Madame Pauline and her daughters as simultaneously passive and assertive, as well as the ways in which the writer explicitly embraces multiple rather than singular perspectives throughout the text.

Our discussions focused on literary history and the canon and the archive as a series of processes rather than an inert and stable object. The students were able to shift their thinking about the archive and the canon towards a more dynamic and “realistic” understanding of the archive/canon. This also led to an engaging discussion about print culture and how texts become part of the canon/literary archive. As another student noted, “I’ve never thought about the process and research needed in order to solve the mystery of historical text, before they even reach the reader. I often forget that what I’m holding in my hand is a finished product, and as I read I don’t think about the steps taken between an author completing the book and it landing on my desk.” This discussion also brought us back to Rabinowitz’s argument that in essence all reading is political in some way.

The students then used the class discussions and readings as the basis for an essay assignment that explored one of the four main questions/issues that we had dealt with in class: how the story alters our notions of literary history; how it relates to Black Atlantic culture; the details, strategies, and techniques employed by the writer; and the literariness of the text. Part of my thinking in highlighting these particular questions, in addition to helping the students focus their writing on making synthetic analyses as opposed to summarizing, was also intended to accommodate the different levels of comfort expressed by some of the students with the more speculative aspects of our discussion about the canon.

The story worked incredibly well in this environment. Because the students were new students to college and the major, they were not so jaded about literary studies and were willing to consider the text on its own terms. Unfortunately, in my experience working with more advanced classes with this text they are often more suspicious of the fact that the text is unsigned and doesn’t come pre-associated (at least to them) with some recognizeable framework. Indeed, hearing that scholars are currently engaged in debates about this and other texts, made them realism the dynamism of literary studies and held out the possibility that they could contribute to that discussion. All in all, it was an incredibly rewarding experience working with this text with this level class. Generally speaking, the students agreed that, “Overall I was really intrigued by ‘Theresa’ and the discussion it can inspire.”

Teaching “Theresa—A Haytien Tale” and Literatures of Enslavement

Brigitte Fielder

Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Folklore Studies

University of Wisconsin-Madison


“Theresa—A Haytien Tale” brought to my course an opportunity for a combined discussion of perspectives on gender, revolution, and violence, showing the importance of this particular piece of literary storytelling for our broader discussion of slavery in the Atlantic world. I taught “Theresa” in my fall 2014 undergraduate seminar, “Literatures of Black Atlantic Enslavement.” This course incorporated a variety of transatlantic genres; most readings were primary texts in which slavery figures centrally, including Barbary captivity and African American slave narratives, abolitionist poetry and fiction, antislavery and proslavery political writing, stories of slave insurrection, plantation nostalgia and anti-nostalgia fiction, and contemporary discussions of slavery’s legacy. Although this was an intermediate-level undergraduate course, my students were not literature majors, but students with an interest in the course topic from a variety of departments inside and outside the humanities. The majority of our students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are white, and all my students in this class happened to be white this semester. Most students in my courses do not have much background in American literature or history before 1900, and most have not previously read any African American writers from this period.


Before reading “Teresa” toward the end of the semester, students had progressed through sections of the syllabus focusing on Barbary captivity, “classic” slave narratives by Douglass, Jacobs, and Northup, and had read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. They had also read antislavery writing by David Walker, Francis Trollope, Alexis de Toqueville, Harriet Martineau, and Theodore Weld, an array of antislavery poetry, a selection of antislavery writing for children, and a small smattering of proslavery writing. I situated “Theresa” in a unit that focused on slave rebellion and revolution, grouped with Martin Delany’s novel Blake, or the Huts of America, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Herman Melville’s novella, “Benito Cereno,” I placed our reading of “Teresa” in a week alongside Victor Hugo’s 1820 short story about the Haitian Revolution, “Bug-Jargal” and William Wordsworth’s 1802 poem, “To Toussaint L’Ouverture.”

I’d eagerly approached “Teresa” with the intention of upsetting an overly-masculine segment of my syllabus, and the text did prove useful for this endeavor. Rather than talking only about men’s revolutionary action in the other texts I’d chosen, “Teresa” allowed us to consider women’s experiences of and participation in rebellion and revolution and to make important connections between our discussions of rebellion and that of women’s experiences of and participation in enslavement. This text also presented an opportunity for an alternative representation of the Haitian Revolution to Hugo’s. My students had previously learned very little, if anything, about the Haitian Revolution, and this was no surprise. As we entered into this discussion, I gave them a very basic historical introduction, also asking them to consider how we tell stories about revolutions and from what perspectives of power we usually hear such stories. Our discussion of “Bug-Jargal” attended to the French perspective of Hugo’s story, the stakes of revolution, and how revolutionary violence was and was not described there.


We approached “Teresa” following a long series of conversations about violence. The violent content of antislavery literature was generally unfamiliar to students, and they were struck by the various kinds of violence depicted in our texts throughout the semester, from the graphic ending of Aphra Behn’s Oronooko to the threats of sexual violence recounted by Harriet Jacobs to the injured bodies documented by Theodore Weld to scenes of violence recounted by Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup or imagined in the fiction of Harriet Beecher Stowe or the poetry of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Our conversations about the violent content of literatures depicting enslavement also overlapped with the broader questions that framed our course: How do we tell stories about slavery? Why does this matter for us in the present? We had been discussing this question with relation to a variety of topics, ranging from how students might have learned about slavery in their pre-college educations, what texts were/were not commonly-assigned readings on literature syllabi, the effects of our readings on their original audiences and on us as modern readers, slavery’s aftermath in American history, and how writing about slavery can help us to better understand modern forms of oppression.


Most students were particularly keen to make these last connections, talking about their own educational histories and responses to the texts, connecting themes still relevant for the present such as the violence against enslaved women and modern-day “rape culture,” and, of course, making connections between state-sanctioned violence under slavery and recent police killings of unarmed African American people – especially Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri that past summer. Students had been following the protests against police violence in Ferguson throughout the semester, and we had discussed this a bit in class. We were in the midst of our discussion of rebellion and revolution when the National Guard was deployed in anticipation of the grand jury decision on whether to prosecute Wilson in this case. A few days after we discussed “Teresa,” the grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, and we took some time (before getting to Melville’s “Benito Cereno”) to discuss the significance of these events.


The context of this course and the national landscape collectively influenced our reading of “Teresa,” but what emerged from our discussion was a useful re-framing of my own perception of the text’s potential uses. My students’ discussion of “Teresa” turned to the question of how we tell stories about violence on a larger political and historical scale, turning from these women characters’ participation in revolution back to questions of genre: how do we tell such stories? Students compared Hugo’s lack of attention to the individuality of black revolutionaries (save his exceptional titular character) and the near absolute absence of women in this story to the contrasting representation and overlap of revolutionaries and women in “Teresa.” Having no real frame of reference for stories about Haiti, we turned instead to the American Revolution. Students gave a basic idea of the kinds of histories of our own national revolution with which they were familiar, and compared these to the two perspectives on the Haitian Revolution we’d read. They also noted this representation of “the cause of freedom” in “Teresa” with a sense not only of the two opposing sides but also to their imbalance of power (642).


In addition to this attention to “Teresa’s” historical and national context and relations to the various genres in which we’d been reading all semester, we also discussed “Teresa” with relation to the recovery of African American texts. As my students read “Teresa,” they were in the midst of an archival research project. We had visited the Wisconsin Historical Society to look at nineteenth-century newspapers – including some scans of Freedom’s Journal – and students worked in pairs to find a text to research and present to the rest of the class. Learning what they could about historical context, perspective, and audience from “Teresa,” my students were better able, I think, to deal with other anonymous texts they found. What they gleaned from researching newspapers and their editors and our discussions about political leanings and power relations transferred, in a small but noticeable way, into their discussions of slavery’s import for the present. Researching the hashtag #EconomistBookReviews, in reference to Ed Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism and watching a video depicting a white man’s denial of slavery’s impact on the present in Whitney Dow’s Whiteness Project website, my students made connections between these contemporary conversations about slavery and the antislavery and proslavery arguments they’d read all semester. With “Teresa,” they were able to add an important historical frame to their understanding of structural oppression and through their reading also came to recognize the importance of the recovery and inclusion of a story like “Teresa” in our literary collection.

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