This Week in My Classes: Feminism and Fatality

richThis week in my section of Intro to Literature we’re starting a unit organized around women writers and feminism. We’re starting this week with some poetry — Adrienne Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” and “Diving Into the Wreck,” Margaret Atwood’s “You fit into me,” Marge Piercy’s “The Secretary Chant,” and Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” Next we’re working through A Room of One’s Own, and then we close out the unit — and the term — with Carol Shields’s Unless.

I decided to lead off yesterday with some introductory comments: a bit about the history of feminism, and a bit more about feminism and literature, with a focus on ways feminist critics have challenged and revised the literary ‘canon’ as well as on some of the ways feminist critics taught us to read differently. Am I alone in feeling an uncomfortable blend of diffidence and defensiveness when introducing these kinds of questions? I have had just enough comments over the years, on course evaluations and in class, from students who are offended by what they feel is an unnecessary or unwelcome emphasis on gender issues that I know there will be some resistance (whether or not it’s spoken aloud) to the idea that this is something we ought to talk about. The attitude I’ve heard expressed most often is that the time for all that is over and so it’s quaint but annoying to read a writer such as, say, Sara Paretsky (whom I teach often in Mystery and Detective Fiction) drawing overt attention to inequality and making openly polemical statements. (A variation of this is approval of Paretsky’s detective, V. I. Warshawski, because she’s a feminist but doesn’t make a really big deal about it — which isn’t true, actually. And there’s always a minority that enjoys V.I.’s outspoken politics and unapologetic attitude.) Once a student complained in an evaluation for a course on the 18th and 19th-century novel that the class was biased towards feminism, a bias clearly revealed by the preponderance of women writers on the syllabus: as it happened, that year the reading list for the course in question was split 50/50 between women and men, so I could only conclude that the bias was perceived because our male writers also raised pressing questions about women’s roles. In Intro a couple of years ago, a student (again, anonymously in his or her evaluation) protested that “the prof was such a feminist” — which struck me as odd because that year I honestly couldn’t think of what would have been the trigger for this complaint. It doesn’t take very many such remarks, however ill-founded or oddly calculated they seem, to make one aware that teaching feminism (or as a feminist) is a tricky business.

I believe (though I may be wrong about this, of course) that I do not approach gender issues or feminist interpretations in an aggressive or polemical way. However, it’s rare for these topics not to come up in my classes because they are so fundamental to my own critical apparatus — and, of course, for courses in Victorian literature, they are central to the material itself. One thing I don’t feel is apologetic, then. My guess is that just talking openly about gender issues and feminism simply comes across as polemical to people who aren’t used to, or are resistant to, having that conversation. (That probably explains the intro student’s comment above, as well as my own obliviousness to what exactly I’d done “wrong.”) Basically, these students just need to get over it!

roomHowever, I do want to make our class discussions productive and inclusive, especially for this class of (mostly) first-year students, many of whom may not have had explicit discussions about feminism and literature before, so I fretted quite a bit about exactly what to say and what tone to take on Monday. One thing I pointed out is that politics broadly understood have been part of our discussions all year: we just haven’t identified what we’re doing as political criticism. And I noted that we’ve already talked about the challenge of literary evaluation, and about canonicity. We’ve also already worked on texts that are all about women’s position in society: “The Yellow Wallpaper,” for example, and “A Jury of Her Peers.” So we’re doing more of the same. Now that we’re doing a whole cluster of works with this focus, though, it makes sense to create a more explicit framework, both for what the authors are doing and for what we are doing. I hope I hit the right note in my introductory remarks. We’ll see how it goes. One of the particular challenges (something I’m going to address specifically tomorrow) is that a lot of the works we’ll be reading are angry ones — including A Room of One’s Own, though the anger there is very, very carefully managed (but is it entirely hidden?). I think anger can be off-putting: it makes the reader a bit squirmy, as if they are being blamed or attacked. It’s hard to like an angry person! The tendency (which I have been unable, despite my efforts, to quell completely) to prefer speakers or characters who are “relatable” makes anger a problem for a lot of students. My hope is that we can make it a useful problem — because after all, what does it mean to tell someone not to be angry, or not to listen to someone who is angry — especially if they have good reason for it? Angry women, of course, always get a particularly hard time.

I’d be interested in hearing from other people about their classroom experiences with feminism. Some of you probably teach (or have taken) courses much more completely and explicitly dedicated to the topic: classes on feminist theory, for instance, or feminist philosophy. I expect the population of such classes is more self-selecting so perhaps the awkwardness I sense (or am I just projecting?) does not arise.

In 19th-Century Fiction we are finishing up The Mill on the Floss this week. Tomorrow we’ll discuss the ending. I’ve collected a string of quotations from various critics onto a handout which I hope will provoke plenty of discussion…some of it about feminism! Reading “Diving Into the Wreck” over today for class, I found myself thinking that it resonates uncannily with the ending of The Mill on the Floss — not just in being watery but in being difficult to explain.

12 Comments to This Week in My Classes: Feminism and Fatality

  1. March 6, 2013 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    I can’t help much with the feminist issue because the only place I’ve needed to engage with it has been when I’ve been teaching Children’s Literature, those classes have been almost exclusively female and no one has ever raised an objection to a suggestion that Enid Blyton’s ‘good’ girls new their place! However, I think your point about anger is interesting because when I’ve had adverse comments about similar political issues and haven’t been able to pin what it was I said it has usually come down to the fact that the particular student was angry about something, highly focussed on that issue and interpreting half a sentence in the light of that focus. Classroom conflicts always involve two people and it’s too easy to think that the problem is all yours.

    On a lighter note my ‘favourite’ misunderstanding of something I’d said came about when I was teaching seven year olds. The mother of one of the children came in one day to say that yes, she would send in a roast chicken but why did I want one? We never did find out what it was I’d said that provoked that particular response. And, I never did get the chicken.

  2. Min's Gravatar Min
    March 6, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    How very thought-provoking – and, at times, dispiriting (‘no need for all that …’), given we still don’t have equal pay, and regular instances of misogyny are constant reminders of how much we do need feminism.
    And I do think you raise interesting questions about anger in self-expression. Yes, it often is repellent – and often sufficiently so to stop the reader or listener from attending further. However, a coolly articulate variety of righteous indignation (that doesn’t descend into self-righteousness), backed up with verifiable claims, can prove compelling (eg Germaine Greer in ‘The Female Eunuch’).
    And sometimes, just sometimes, anger is probably the only proper response, to eg this sorry story http://www.varsity.co.uk/news/5749!
    Good luck with your course. Wish I could attend!

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      March 6, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Min, that link is indeed infuriating. And there are just so many examples! There’s a twitter hashtag #everydaysexism that reminds me regularly what a sheltered environment I work in (which is not to say there isn’t sexism around here too — but I think Jo’s right [below] that some of the student resistance comes from those who have so far been insulated from overt sexism).

  3. March 6, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    As you know, I am a sociologist, and back when I was still teaching, I taught courses on gender (and on feminist theory once). In my gender course I started using an exercise I learned about from an article (in Women’s Studies International Forum? mid 1990s) about teaching gender. The article example referred to doing a couple of lectures in a larger intro class so this might work for you, too.

    Basically in the first class where you formally broach this topic, you ask students to write something (anonymously, but indicating their own gender) about an occasion when they were reminded of their gender. It should be a recent event and can be mundane. You collect these and analyze them before the next class, when you can discuss the patterns.

    This helps connect the concerns of the feminists you are studying with their own lives. For example, I found over several years that many young women in the class experienced some form of gender discrimination in their part time job. Or that they had had people worry about them being out late at night (or they worried themselves) because they were women. They noticed that this was different for men and women even if they didn’t get angry and political about it.

    You could adapt the exercise to focus on their reading habits or similar literature related things but I suspect that since the content of the work you are looking at is about women’s lives, that focusing on their lives will be just as useful in helping them see the continuing relevance of feminism to them.

    My personal theory (untested) about their resistance is that feminism has been very successful at changing the experience of schooling. This generation have not experienced explicit bans on taking particular courses (as I did with Industrial Arts; girls took Home Economics), for example. Although there is still sexism in schools it is much more subtle. Those from relatively privileged backgrounds have probably not experienced much in the way of overt discrimination based on their gender. Many of them will be surprised when they leave university and get out into the working world.

    And, of course, it is uncomfortable to face these difficult facts. And easy to dismiss angry women as irrational, or exaggerating. Learning IS uncomfortable.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      March 6, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      That’s a great idea for an exercise, Jo. I remember one of my male friends describing the light-bulb experience he had during a conversation with his female friends, all of whom described the security measures they took when taking the bus home from campus at night (e.g. walking with their keys between their fingers, trying to travel in pairs and so on). He said it really hit him then that day to day, their experience was just different. Gender is not the only thing that affects people’s experience, of course: this is something I talked about today a bit.

      The main idea I tried to emphasize today is that feminist analysis is not an attack but an invitation not to take your own experience for granted or as universal: to be self-conscious when generalizing about “we” and “us” — or “you” and “them.” I brought up a couple of examples from recent public occasions, including “We Saw Your Boobs” from the Oscars and President Obama’s habit of talking about what “we” want for “our” wives and daughters and sisters…the assumptions about who “we” are telling (and tiresome) in both cases, though in Obama’s case I suspect it’s also strategic (e.g. he needs to get men on board with “women’s” issues).

  4. March 6, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    It makes me sad to think that students today believe that feminism is no longer relevant. Back when I was in college I took several classes about women’s literature or that had a definite feminist focus. This was in the late 80s and most of the classes generally ended up being women anyway, but there were usually a few men. Only one class had a man in it who was outright critical of everything and the professor told him in front of the class that everything was going to be approached from a feminist perspective and while respectful discussion and disagreement was welcome if he didn’t like it and was going to be disruptive he should drop the class because his behavior would not be tolerated. the professor was backed up with twenty pairs of eyes glaring at the guy. He got the message and decided to drop the class. This was an upper level elective class for English majors and I doubt you would want to take a similar approach, but it was effective 🙂

    I love Diving Into the Wreck and your linking it with Mill on the Floss is an intriguing connection!

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      March 6, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      You’re right that I wouldn’t want to take quite that approach, though I certainly stand by the insistence on respectful disagreement. Involving men in discussions of feminism, and getting them habituated to feminist analysis, seems to me really important, so one thing I’m quite aware of is that my classes too are usually overwhelmingly women. I really don’t want the three men in my intro class to feel they aren’t part of the conversation — or that because we’re talking about “feminism” that it’s not relevant for them too.

  5. March 6, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Ooh very intriguing and I do hope you’ll tell us how it goes. I have inevitably taught a lot of supervisions and seminars on feminism. With the undergrads, I used to do date rape – parts of Kathy Roiphe’s book, the Take Back the Night movement, umm I forget what else. With the grads, I gave a traditional lecture (Plath and Woolf) but we always ended up having really interesting discussions because someone brought the concerns into the present day. Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto used to get mentioned a lot (I’m not that fond of it as I find her writing obscure, but still), the performance artist Orlan was discussed as she was undergoing a series of plastic surgery operations on every part of her face to give her the eyes of Mona Lisa, the mouth of Botticelli’s Venus, etc, knowing the composite result would be awful. Eventually, though, her project ran out of steam because she couldn’t find a surgeon who would agree to give her the most bulbous nose her face would take (!). And then we’d often end up talking about the trend towards the pornographic in French cinema – Breillat’s Romance and Despentes’ Baise Moi being films that a lot of them had seen around that time.

    I suppose looking back what happened was that we fastened onto the more shocking and outrageous political representations at the time, to avoid that feeling that feminism happened ‘in the past’. I would get a lot of the younger students insisting that they would NEVER be feminists as if is were a dirty word. The beauty industry, the media and medicine are still happily producing reasons for us to keep paying attention to gender and power relations, however!

  6. Jim's Gravatar Jim
    March 7, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I was thinking along the same lines as Jo, “Learning IS uncomfortable.” Just because a student complains about something does not necessarily mean it is bad for them. It often takes new and uncomfortable ideas in order to grow. Not all students will grow but many of them will. I’m sure you can think of times in your education where you were resistant to something, that eventually won you over–or even became very important to you. I know I can. Often this process takes years rather than weeks but I don’t think that is a reason to be short-sighted and change to more comfortable and less challenging approach.

  7. Kath's Gravatar Kath
    March 7, 2013 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    I consider myself a feminist, but I did not enjoy my undergraduate women’s literature course, which was a requirement for all English majors at my university. I expected to enjoy the class since I’d loved my sociology of gender and women’s history courses. My women’s literature class read wonderful books like Persuasion and A Room of One’s Own, but I thought it was too focused on freudian type theory. I remember being frustrated because we were reading Persuasion and using it to discuss how the study of geography actually represented men’s fear of castration. Maybe I didn’t have enough prior exposure to or understanding of theory, but I felt like we were missing the really interesting discussion we could have been having about these books. I would be surprised if that is the case with your classes though, since the discussion of literature on your blog is really interesting and not at all overly theoretical.

    I would also agree with the idea that many students don’t understand gender discrimination until they enter the professional world. I think teaching gender issues and feminism is really important because even if students don’t understand why it’s relevant now, they will appreciate what they learned later. While I was writing this comment I just recieved an email addresed to four attorneys working on a case (myself included) which was addressed “Dear Gentlemen.” I would have preferred “Dear Counsel.” So, keep talking about gender issues because some day your students will be glad to have that knowledge.

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