I walk around campus, and almost all of the undergraduate women are dressed in identical athletic wear: short running shorts, oversized unisex cotton t-shirts, runners. I smile internally to myself, because there was a time where I never wore anything other than sweatpants to class and all of my shirts were oversized swimming shirts.
Just about every female student in my Introduction to Literature class this semester is dressed this way. They are 22 out of the 25 students in class. And I am in front of them, every class, in a dress.
And I don’t have a single woman author on the syllabus.
Almost exactly four years ago, I wrote a post on being a feminist role model in the classroom, thinking back on my first teaching experience, where women were in my literature class outnumbered the men at an even higher rate. Even at my last position, when I was teaching a literature class, the gender disparity wasn’t nearly as pronounced; the breakdown was close to the actual breakdown of attendance at the university – about 60/40.
What is it about introductory literature courses at elite R1 institutions?
And while I didn’t have any female authors on the syllabus this semester, I did have two who are people of color, and one who is queer.* And, any theory or criticism I was using was written by a female scholar. That next level of discourse is all women.
And so I introduce to them a digital pedagogy approach, and then I ask them to start thinking about how they can apply this approach to their favorite book or author. I show them Alice in Dataland, to show them not only them that there are no limits on what they can do, but also that there are no limits on what could be considered in a “scholarly” way. What sealed it was the author of Alice in Dataland telling the students that one of her primary sources was tumblr.
It’s ok to like what you like to read. It’s ok to be a superfan. It’s ok to take what you love and take it a step further. Not finding anything in the library is not an indication that you should abandon your chosen work; it’s an indication that there is a gap in the literature (or, we’re still learning how to do library searches).
Perhaps the most important first lesson, insofar as their tastes won’t often be reflected in what they are required to read. And being required to read things outside of what they usually love is important. But, never apologize for loving the books that you love.
Today as you read this, I will be going through their submissions for their first assignment, which asks them to devise a project around the book or author they love, incorporating a digital pedagogy approach, and that work to bring the conversation of the work to the next level. Last week, we work-shopped their proposals, and I was overwhelmed by what they came up with.
My role that day? On one hand, I kept asking, so what, pushing them in their thinking around form and content. But on the other hand, I found myself repeating, over and over again: yes, that’s a great idea; yes, you are getting it; yes, you are good at this; yes, you can do this.
Yes, you can do this.
*The authors I am teaching are Dany Laferriere, Thomas King, and Oscar Wilde. And, other than Oscar Wilde, who we are reading so the students can also see a performance of the play, the authors aren’t ones they will typically ever read, and will challenge them, big time. Also, all are legitimately great and some of my favorites.
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