On Teaching Gender, Sexuality, and Literature

By Sarah R. Creel

January 01, 2015

“If as students we wish to know, and if as teachers we wish our students to know, something about the workings of gender in society, then we need those early women’s voices.  They alone can teach us something of how it felt to live as a woman in a culture (so different from our own, yet sharing so much with it) in which the inferiority and subordination of women was utterly taken for granted.”

--Isobel Grundy[1]

This fall I had the opportunity to teach my own course, English 486W: Gender, Sexuality, and Literature.  As a PhD candidate in eighteenth-century British literature, I tailored the class to my own field and titled it “Women and the Rise of the Novel.”  As I worked to create the syllabus, I realized that I could teach many of the texts I had been reading and writing about for so long.  It was hard to resist giggling with glee (okay, I may have giggled): the thought of bringing these women writers and women characters out of the gloom of my dissertation cave and into the daylight of my classroom was a delightful thought.  And why shouldn’t it be?  Who doesn’t want to teach all their favourite texts?        

But a slightly more somber mood began to take over as I realized that I would be teaching texts that dealt with quite heavy themes.  Slavery is central to the plot of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688).  Pamela (1740), Anti-Pamela (1741), and Shamela (1741) all deal (in different ways) with women’s sexual agency and the preservation of virtue.  These three texts also present women who are continually threatened by sexual violence.  Shamela presents the problem of teaching parody when it also happens to contain many rape jokes.  I would also be teaching Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall (1762), which presents mid-eighteenth-century readers with a proto-feminist utopia that is also (problematically) framed by two male narrators. Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre present women who demonstrate some agency within the marriage market, but we still see their struggle for independence and worth in a culture that devalues women’s lives and experiences. For someone who had been teaching online for the past two years (and writing away in the aforementioned dissertation cave), it seemed like a lot to ask for me to come out of these “safe” spaces and teach these daunting topics to fourth year students, many of whom would be near my own age and, I assumed, feel as passionately as I do about contemporary issues of race, class, and sexuality.

So how does one teach these issues in our contemporary moment?  A moment fraught with necessary racialized tension, protests, and a call for the end of sexual violence against women?  I realized, after doing a lot of reading about pedagogical practices (and how to teach difficult topics), that the answer is that we talk about these issues.  It was a “duh” moment, but it seemed to me that the key to making eighteenth-century texts relevant was to talk about how, unfortunately, not much has changed in the almost 300 years since they had been written.  I must admit that part of me was nervous about initiating these kinds of dialogues in my classroom.  After all, it would be much easier to lecture about the historical contexts of the novels, talk about their key themes, and call it a day.  But I had fashioned the course around women writers and women writing, and the issue of agency is so clearly tied to both women writing and women’s bodies (for instance, the character Pamela in the epistolary novel of the same name actually sows her letters into the folds of her dress in order to keep them from the prying eyes/hands of her master/tormentor, Mr. B).  It felt necessary for me to tie these issues together and for us (students and teacher) to try not only to make sense of the texts in their historical moment, but to also bridge the gap between the eighteenth century and the twenty-first.

As bell hooks suggests, “there are the people who talk at us, who by refusing to converse, promote and maintain a hierarchy of domination wherein withholding gives one power over another person.  Conversation is always about giving.  Genuine conversation is about the sharing of power and knowledge; it is fundamentally a cooperative enterprise.”[2]  I set out to promote this kind of genuine dialogue in my classroom, and there were certainly moments of tension and moments that were difficult to navigate.  But overall, I was surprised and delighted by how mature the students were and how they were able to use dialogue to work through difficult topics and then make real life connections.  In short, the students did the hard work for me.  They never backed down from talking about these topics, and they were eager to hear more about the historical context of issues we read about.

In addition to open conversation, an element of the course that helped us negotiate these topics was to engage with them creatively.  The first creative project was part of the writing process for the first paper, which incorporated some contemporary media topics, such as Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’s contentious pop hit “Blurred Lines,” in which they sing about the blurred lines between how a woman dresses and how she is perceived (their conclusion is, by the way, that when a woman dresses seductively, she is definitely asking for it).  This topic asked students to reflect on the similarities between the lyrics of “Blurred Lines” and Eliza Haywood’s amatory fiction, Fantomina, which features a young woman who does not understand the implications of dressing as a prostitute and going to the theatre (simply because she wanted to engage in the free dialogue she saw occurring in the pit).  As a result, Fantomina is unable to negotiate the consequences of her actions and finds herself in a sexual situation she both wants and doesn’t understand. The results of creatively thinking about “Blurred Lines” and Fantomina were both poignant and hilarious and ranged from comics to collages to videos of students in various stages of writing distress.

Sarah Walker’s “Essay Writing, Or, How I got ‘Blurred Lines Stuck in My Head for Like a Week" (left) and Sally Lee’s time-lapse video of herself watching “Blurred Lines” and writing her essay show two of these creative negotiations. Students were delightfully creative with their projects, and it was fun (and telling) to view these submissions.  It was powerful for me, as the instructor, to actually watch them make the connections between Fantomina’s innocence and the “experience” of the women in the “Blurred Lines” music video.

Our final creative project was actually never a part of the syllabus or my plan out of the course—which is part of the reason that I enjoyed it so much.  I mentioned at the end of a class that I really appreciated their creative projects and wished that we could do one together as a class.  The idea grew from there.  A student suggested that we put together a talk show hosted by Samuel Richardson and featuring the characters we read during the semester.  I thought it was a great idea and one that would certainly help them review for their final exam, so I allowed them time at the end of the last two classes to put the project into action.  But what happened next was pretty amazing: the students started a Google doc and worked on the project outside of class.  They appointed a director, a camera woman, and writers for their show.  They made costumes, brought makeup, and edited the script tirelessly.  On the final night of class, they did a dress rehearsal and then a final run-through.  I acted a small part in the final sketch (as Mary Musgrove from Austen’s Persuasion) and edited (with some student help) the final video, but the idea from start to finish was entirely their own. The resulting video is silly but also deeply indicative of the hard work they put into the course.  It relays their knowledge of the history behind the novels, the material culture of the books, and their facility with the often-intricate plots of the novels. It also points to their ability to incorporate many of the conversations we’ve had about gender and sexuality.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the video, laughed, and been amazed at the detail and hard work they put into it.

The final project—not to mention the class in general—reminds me of the possibilities for creativity, for open dialogue, and for critical thinking in teaching literature and literary history.  It also reminds me that we, as teachers and students, shouldn’t back down from making these kinds of important connections in the classroom.

I’m thankful to the English department for the opportunity to grow and learn with my students and, most importantly, to my students for teaching me what it means to approach the lives and experiences of eighteenth-century women writers and characters with respect, good humour, and a willingness to apply these women’s lives and experience to their own. 

Reader, it’s been a good semester.

[1] Grundy, Isobel. “(Re)Discovering Women’s Texts.” Jones (2000): 179-96. 185.

[2] bell hooks. Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. New York and London: Routledge, 2010. 45.



Sarah R. Creel is PhD Candidate in eighteenth-century British literature. She specializes in female authorship with a particular emphasis on eighteenth-century author Eliza Haywood. Other areas of interest include amatory fiction, print culture, feminist historiography, gender studies, and the eighteenth-century theatre. Outside of academia, Sarah's roots are in Alabama and Georgia, where warmer climes and cornbread await her after grades are turned in. She also has a giant dog named Madison. Sarah tweets @writinghaywood.