Instructor’s Teaching Experience
Given Jefferson’s relatively expository style, I typically just teach sections of Jefferson’s text at the very beginning of the semester (week 1 or 2) as relevant to the course theme, in order to provide a historical framing for issues of economy, race, gender, environment, etc. (Using the text search function to locate keywords like “women,” “negro,” “poor,” etc. can help you and students locate nexuses of these ideas.) Rather than focus on Jefferson’s style, we explicate what his ideas were. For instance, comparing Jefferson’s argument in Query XIX that “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God” with his racist physiognomy of Black enslaved persons in Query XIV allows us to reckon with racist and self-contradictory fundamental beliefs of the U.S. founders. Students are typically shocked (for good reason) at Jefferson’s ideology; while they are usually generally aware of the founders being slaveholders, the written ideas provide a historical document that helps ground courses in American literature in the longer history of systemic racism, patriarchy, and paternalism (among many other power structures).
I honestly don’t give Jefferson’s text much time in class except to make it clear the many problems with it and to observe with students the ways that his ideas have continuing legacies to this day. I always pair this text with one or two other short readings, depending on my course theme. You could pair it with a short early American text (such as Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America”) or a more contemporary text that addresses the systemic manifestations of Jefferson’s ideology. Depending on your level of comfort and students’ first impressions, you could have students free-write about ways they see the issues in Jefferson’s text playing out today, leading to a broader whole-class discussion about dominant strains of thought in the United States. If anything, the usefulness of Jefferson’s text outlives the single class period for which you assign it. When related ideological moments pop up in texts for the rest of the semester, referencing the similarities to Jefferson’s text can help students once again ground more contemporary ideas in a longer historical arc. In short, teach “Notes on Virginia” not as a model but as an example of a mode of originary thought that has lasting impacts today.
Full Text of Jefferson’s “Notes on Virginia” (text-searchable)