Academic journal article English Journal

Women in or outside of the Canon: Helping High School Students Investigate the Role of Women in "Literature"

Academic journal article English Journal

Women in or outside of the Canon: Helping High School Students Investigate the Role of Women in "Literature"

Article excerpt

Earlier in our careers, we taught in a suburban school district in Pennsylvania that drew from a mixture of educated professional and traditional farming families. Our students reflected the swiftly changing socioeconomic status brought on by rapid commercial and housing development within the district. We were the two primary teachers responsible for the senior British survey course. Our main objective for senior year was to expand students' traditional ways of thinking. We wanted students to question rather than accept what was presented to them as fact, for our pedagogical stance relies on the idea that questioning leads to true discovery and learning. As educated women, we considered ourselves aware of gender issues in our daily lives. As feminists, we were proud to be strong female role models for our students in and outside of the classroom.

Susan was, however, appalled when she discovered through a graduate course that she knew little about women in literature. On further investigation, Susan realized that we taught very little about British women authors, mainly because we relied on the required course textbook. The textbook, published in 1991, was used for the honors curriculum since Colleen started at the high school in 1997 and is still being used as of 2016. Our curriculum follows trends shown in the 1990s when the Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature published a list of the most assigned texts in public schools: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Julius Caesar, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, Of Mice and Men, Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, and Lord of the Flies. When comparing the differences in assigned books from 1963 and 1988, Arthur N. Applebee found that only two books written by a female-The Diary of a Young Girl and The Outsiders-moved into the list of 27 titles required in 30 percent or more of the public schools (12). Our curriculum looked like the curriculum of 1963 and 1988. Our textbook contained works by 75 male authors, 14 female authors (all white women), and 6 anonymous authors. We needed to do something.

In response to this realization, Susan explored the names of British women authors to see how many we were omitting. Within a short search, Susan discovered more than 20 different British female authors whose names she didn't even recognize. During her coursework for a class regarding gender equity, Susan was enlightened and ashamed simultaneously: she was overwhelmed by the realization that she had been not only a victim of the gaps in education, but that she and Colleen were also perpetrators of these same gaps. Through awareness and education, however, we also became inspired to work on closing those gaps in education within the senior classrooms and hoped to inspire the young men and women of our future to use literature and its production and dissemination as a vehicle to examine gender disparity in and outside of the classroom.

Teaching British literature with a traditional curriculum does not offer students exposure to many females at all, either inside or outside of the text. There are female characters within many of the classic texts in the curriculum, but on further examination, we questioned the general picture of womanhood painted by them. In Beowulf, Grendel's monstrous mother and Welthow, Hrothgar's queen, are the only lead female characters.1 A strong female role in the Canterbury Tales is the "promiscuous" Wife of Bath, whom we used to investigate double standards connected to sexuality and gender. During our study of the Early Modern, we noted that Shakespeare exposes readers to a strong yet sometimes "evil" female character, Lady Macbeth, whom we used as a means to consider attitudes toward ambitious women.2 So we showed students that there are several strong female characters within the British canon, but did any women write? Of course they did, because a small part of the canon that can be taught in British literature classes includes works by the Brontë sisters, Christina Rossetti, and Jane Austen, though in our district none of these women found themselves on the prescribed reading list. …

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