I have an exercise that I like to do on the first day of the Brit Lit I survey. I give the students a handout with Caedmon's Hymn (in Old English and modern English translation), a snippet of the prologue to the Prioress's Tale (in Middle English with glosses), and a couple of stanzas of Mary Sidney's "Psalm 139." And I ask them to pair up and talk a bit about the differences between the three passages, both in language and content. I keep hoping this will keep them from telling me that Chaucer or Shakespeare wrote in Old English (although it usually doesn't). More importantly, I hope it will provide a glimpse of three different ways of looking at the world. I chose these three passages, out of all of the possible early English texts out there, because they share a similar theme -- praising God -- but the authors imagine God, and the speaker's relationship with God, in wildly different terms. Which means they imagine being human in different terms as well. We can get a lot of mileage out of those differences -- usually more than enough for a first day's discussion.
This year, I was somewhat thrown when a student asked, "Is Mary a girl?" (I didn't know, yet, that this particular student specializes in quirky and awkward questions; my favorite, so far, has been "Is the Wife of Bath a cougar?")
"What?" I said, and then, "Mary Sidney's a woman, yeah."
"Oh," she said. "I was just wondering, because there weren't very many woman writers back then?"
I said there were more than you might think, and moved on to something else.
I've been thinking of this exchange, on and off, as the semester wears on and I start planning the reading list for the second half of the survey. We're not reading many early women writers this semester. A day on Marie de France; another on Margery Kempe; about half a day of Queen Elizabeth I, since she kept getting crowded out by Wyatt; a few poems by Aemilia Lanyer and Katherine Philips, to be read alongside their more canonical contemporaries. That's about all there was time for. It's rather more than we read in any of my undergraduate medieval or early modern lit classes. Sometimes it feels like not enough, especially considering that Misnomer U. is historically a women's college, still has a majority-female student body, and pays lip service to promoting the study of women's issues in its mission statement. Sometimes it feels like too many -- The Second Shepherd's Play got the chop this semester in favor of retaining Kempe; Milton is represented only by two sonnets, and I find both of those tradeoffs uncomfortable. Maybe I should try "Lycidas" next semester and toss "A Description of Cooke-Ham"? Which one will serve them better on the GRE, when they have a boss who likes to quote poetry, when they have their own classes of high-school students to guide on the first halting steps toward interpretation? Which one will they remember when (if?) they have a little space in their lives for reflecting on poetry?
I don't know. On the one hand, I don't like tokenism; I think we should be teaching works because they're good and important, not because they happen to be written by women. On the other hand, who gets to decide what's good or important? And isn't it inherently important that students know that people named Mary are generally female, even if they happen to write poetry?
I don't feel nearly as conflicted about the reading list for the second semester; by the nineteenth century there are plenty of women writers who are genuinely canonical (four out of five of the ones I'm contemplating teaching in this post*, for example, including two of the hyper-canonical ones). One can have one's cake and eat it too. But by the beginning of April, when we get to Virginia Woolf (who is, of course, as canonical as it gets), even the ones who were in my class for the first-semester survey have forgotten that we spent a day with Kempe or twenty minutes with Lanyer, and are inclined to take her parable of Shakespeare's sister as historical fact. I don't know if there's any way to avoid that. Most people forget most of what they learn in their gen ed classes, I suspect, unless they happen upon something that particularly fascinates or amuses or startles them, so it may not matter what ends up on the syllabus anyway.
But I think the student who asked if Mary was a girl was startled (and perhaps her classmates were, too, after she asked the question). And that's all to the good.
* For those who are wondering (and thanks to everyone who weighed in and encouraged me to choose Door B), the winner is ... North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell! Good story, a heroine who's around the same age as most college students and whose shifts in world-view and questions about received wisdom should still resonate, and lots of interesting stuff about industrialization and gender roles and class conflict and (re-)education to talk about. The fact that it passes the Bechdel Test many times over is a very nice bonus.
The runners-up, besides Northanger Abbey, were Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I may get around to giving them all a try eventually; it was hard to choose.