Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Complicating Gender: Contrastive Rhetoric and Reader Response in Teaching Victorian Prose Works

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Complicating Gender: Contrastive Rhetoric and Reader Response in Teaching Victorian Prose Works

Article excerpt

This article outlines a pedagogical solution for students' misconceptions about Victorian constructions of gender: teaching prose works as contrastive rhetoric organized thematically around salient period issues and requiring sustained formalistically--and theoretically-grounded, guided writing.


Pedagogically speaking, how can one most effectively respond to the predictably routine comments students offer about the Victorians: that all were sexually repressed prudes; that Victorian women had no control over their lives; that Victorians were only concerned with appearances; that middle-and upper-class women were essentially the same; that Victorians married frightfully young and were much less "liberated" than we are today--women assuming traditional roles at home and men providing for wives and children? Those who teach courses in the Victorian Age can add their own examples to the brief litany I have offered, and perhaps share a similar sense of frustration that modern students are so dismissive and ignorant of an historical period and people only one century removed. Laconic rebuttals, tempting as they may be, are not always the most effective response to students' reductive understanding of the Victorians and the prose works they produced. This litany suggests a twofold problem to be overcome if students are to gain a more sophisticated and accurate understanding of the Victorians and their era. First, from where do their misconceptions and incomplete formulations arise; and second, how and in what ways can their ideas be reshaped and made more perspicacious? Before I map out my own response to this problem, I must delineate more particularly the actual teaching situation and student experience from which my pedagogy arises.

First, I teach in a large state university, one of whose primary missions is to produce well-prepared teachers for the secondary and elementary schools of the state. Second, most of the students are commuter, not residential, students; their average age is 28. Third, nearly all of my students have upper-division standing and are taking a senior-level course that deals with the Victorians. Fourth, my courses are capped at 35 students. Certainly, my situation--teaching at the upper-division end of a baccalaureate program--gives me an identifiably privileged position in terms of the students I teach. It also, however, illuminates several drawbacks of certain pedagogies applied at the lower end of the baccalaureate spectrum that have contributed to producing the students I teach.

To return to the first part of the two-fold problem that must be resolved to teach Victorian prose more effectively, it is clear to me that many of my upper-division students are merely repeating the kinds of statements they vaguely remember and incompletely understood as a result of sitting through large, survey-course lectures on the Victorian Age. The forum of the large lecture course by its very nature constrains professors to a deductive teaching approach that necessarily maximizes the effective manipulation of too much material to cover and too little time in which to do so. Unfortunately, it also produces students who come away from the course thinking they understand the Victorians and nineteenth-century constructions of gender simply because they can list three or four descriptive generalizations of the era. It is also clear that students have based their knowledge of Victorians on a very small body of reading, simply what could be affordably accessed and reasonably assigned in the survey course.

Certainly there are a host of other contributing factors giving rise to the proliferation of students' misconceptions and incomplete formulations: insufficient reading, television and movie productions of Victorian prose works, (1) the secularization of the literary repository in the general public, and others. My focus here, however, foregrounds pedagogically-produced and pedagogically-alterable understandings of Victorians and Victorian prose. …

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