86 Sucking the Meaning Out of The Black Vampyre (Group Anthology Contribution 2019)

Jessica Chretien and Sydney P.

When thinking about what to do for this anthology contribution, we feel like our opportunities as well as our responsibilities with regards to this text differ from the other groups in class. Because The Black Vampyre:  A Legend of St. Domingo by “Uriah Derick D’Arcy” is not considered a canonical text in American literature, because our professor was also relatively “new” to the text (having only read it twice since this summer), and because there is so little literary criticism and/or supplemental reading for it, we are left to wonder what we owe the text and future readers of this text in this (and other) course(s).

Working with such an unexplored text was both exciting and worrisome: the possibilities! But also: where in the world should we start? We talked about this text over the course of two class periods and in the first class, our professor had us look at key terms that she had taken as crucial to the text: the body, the human/non-human boundary, food + sustenance, ecology, vampirism, the supernatural, and the gothic. This activity gave us (and the whole class) a starting point in approaching the text, as well as in teaching it— we looked at some of the notes that our classmates wrote about the text, and we also started casually asking others in class about what interested them about the text. We found that many of the notes from the first class were very similar to each other—they followed the general boundaries set by our professor, but when we asked our peers what interested them, we found their responses to be rather idiosyncratic. There were students who were interested in some of the keywords/ ideas we talked about, but didn’t feel like they quite understood them, while others felt confident in their understanding and solid about what they found the most fascinating about the text and were adamant that we discuss it. 

While we thought of drawing on the keywords our professor had given us or the notes from the class that came out of that, we decided instead to give the class a chance to really explore this text without those bounds. Because this text is not canonized and because there is so little written about it, we found this kind of exploration to be particularly important and valuable. We ended up doing a modified fishbowl discussion in which each student wrote a theme/ keyword/ idea that they 1. thought represented the text, 2. were interested in/wanted to talk more about, or 3. were confused or wanted to know more about. After selecting this theme/keyword/idea, we asked them to then explain why it is that they chose this word, prompting them to use plot points and excerpts from the text to support their rationale. 

In the modified fishbowl discussion, we made the inner and outer circles more permeable. For the first round, people on the outside displayed their theme and nominated themselves or their classmates to enter the “hot seat” within the inner circle, prompting a redirection of the current discussion or steering it towards a related topic, which prompted the students to consider the interrelatedness of their seemingly disparate interests. During this ongoing discussion in the inner circle, the outside circle took note to help synthesize all the content the inner circle had approached. For the second round, the outer circle and the inner circle switched places, but this time the rules were a bit different. Instead of nominating themselves or their peers based on what their initial theme word/idea was,  the new members of the outer circle hid their words/ideas from one another. Students’ recommendations for the “hot seat” were based on the ways in which their peers had been instrumental to discussion and developed the class dynamic throughout the semester. 

While this approach might appear scattered or disjointed, we believe that it is quite the opposite. Due to the fact that (as previously mentioned) The Black Vampyre is not a canonical piece of literature, it lacks adequate scholarly analysis; there is much more work to be done to even begin to understand all that The Black Vampyre contains. In order to obtain the most innovative and holistic understanding of the text possible, given the short timespan that we had encountering it, we needed to find an approach that was proactive. We wanted to highlight all the possible readings, themes, and questions that emerge from this text as it potentially goes on to be taught by other professors in other classes (through the Just Teach One project). We wanted to work towards building a foundation for approaching this newly “rediscovered” text. In addition to this goal, we tried to develop an activity that not only encouraged collaborative exploration of this new text, but also engaged students in thinking about our long-term classroom dynamic as it has developed over the semester. We wanted to highlight that we knew each other as individual literary “scholars” who already have ideas, interests, and inclinations when analyzing our texts. This kind of meta-level activity encouraged students to think about both the text itself, and what it means to use our own and each other’s literary theories and interests to begin exploring a text and building a foundation for further scholarly discussions.

 

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