Teaching “Intro to Women’s Literature” as a Romanticist

Last semester I got my first taste of teaching an “Introduction to Women’s Literature” course at CU Boulder. As winter break now comes to a close, I’ve been pondering the revisions I’ve made to my syllabus this month – revisions that have prompted me to analyze familiar questions: What is women’s literature? How does one teach a survey of women’s literature as a Romanticist? What are the desired outcomes of such a course?

Here’s the story of how things went last fall:

In August, I had basic teaching jitters; I was worried that my students wouldn’t want to talk in class, or that they wouldn’t do the reading. I had a nightmare that my syllabus was full of typos and my students laughed at me. Of course, I encountered some of these problems throughout the semester; certain students never wanted to talk, and in the middle of midterms there was one class period where only five of the students had finished the reading. (We all learned a lot about basic close-reading strategies that day.)

While these challenges were tough, there were other, more unexpected problems. From the beginning, there seemed to be an odd sort of malaise hovering around my class. During the first week, I realized some students had enrolled in the course because they were sure they already understood the intellectual premise; they walked in confident that they could wrangle an “A” if they could just find new opportunities to employ the phrase “the subjugation of women.”  Additionally, they wanted to be tested on clear “terms.” They wanted to memorize facts. They wanted literary history to be black and white and already coded for them to understand. And most of all, they wanted the history of female authorship to be a clear progress narrative.

Looking back on the semester, I think some of these problems arose from my own syllabus; I basically designed the course as a long nineteenth century survey of (mostly) British women writers. I taught each work chronologically around loose themes. My goal for the course was to position female authorship in relation to a set of “intersectional” concerns; I wanted to highlight how female authorship was enmeshed in a landscape of racial, social, colonial, and economic anxieties. When I wrote the syllabus, I thought the contemporary relevance of each text would manifest in class discussion. But I found that, because I spent so much time just helping them grasp a basic comprehension of the material, there was very little time to discuss the broader relevance of each work. Thus, rather than seeing the syllabus as a web of dynamic interconnectivity, my students tended to read and interpret each work discretely. Thankfully, I was able to push our conversations further through test questions and paper prompts that forced them to consider the works as relational, but at the end of the semester I felt like so many of the difficulties I encountered could have been avoided if I had just arranged the course differently. But how?

My current answer to this dilemma was partly inspired by a class I took with Jeff Cox on Romantic poetry and politics during the Regency Era. Though Dr. Cox arranged his syllabus chronologically, he chose works that were in direct conversation with one another. We read Wordsworth’s “Excursion” alongside Shelley’s “Alastor” and Keats’ “Endymion.” We considered Wordsworth’s “Peter Bell” alongside Reynolds and Shelley’s parodic revisions. Every work was  immediately grounded in an overarching historical and political conversation, and the design of the syllabus directly facilitated class conversation – it inspired us to make connections.

So, as I sat down to revise my own syllabus, I realized that I needed to be more deliberate about the works I chose if I wanted to change the class dynamic. Taking a cue from Dr. Cox, I decided to explore how “women’s literature” is conversational – how women authors from the Romantic period through the twentieth century have been engaged in an uneven, complex process of cultural revision. In my class this spring, I hope to highlight how this literary process is our cultural heritage – that these deliberate authorial negotiations still inform our contemporary cultural landscape. Accordingly, I’ve decided to teach certain literary works in pairs. For example, I’ve positioned Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest alongside Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and I’m pairing Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre with Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. (I should also mention that Talia’s wonderful post “How Far Feminism,” has inspired me to teach Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman alongside Barbauld’s poetry and contemporary NY Times op-ed pieces). The last section of my syllabus investigates queer and feminist revisions of fairy tales (I’ve paired traditional fairy tales with selections from Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Emma Donogue’s Kissing the Witch). My hope is that by choosing texts that are directly conversational, it will be easier for my students to think about “women’s literature” in broader, interconnected terms.

What I love about this process is how my role as “instructor” inflects my role as graduate scholar. These kinds of pedagogical decisions force me to confront my own scholarly methodology with broader questions. I have to step back and think about what literature is and how it works materially, culturally, and ideologically. And I hope that by the end of next semester, I will be thinking about these questions in new and even better ways.