Reflection ‘Is Gender Still Relevant?’ Part 2: Teaching Gender

genderA few months ago I was invited to organise a workshop on teaching gender in historical studies for the British Academy-sponsored event ‘Is Gender Still Relevant?’ hosted by the University of Bradford.  I found this event to be thought-provoking and highly stimulating. Some of my thoughts can be found here. What follows is really a shortened version of my paper which interweaves the points and the suggestions of the other panel members.

This conference encouraged its participants to explore the relevance of teaching gender modules. There have recently been concerns that the teaching of gender and women’s studies has waned in both America and Britain. The conference enabled various historically-orientated subject areas to consider how to bring gender to the fore in our teaching. The language of teaching in HE propels us to think about how we link and interweave our research with our teaching. When applying for jobs, phrases like ‘research-led’ and ‘research-informed’ were staples of covering letters and job presentations, but what happens when your research is not necessarily attractive to the students? Many historians seem to use or engage with gender, but teaching gender can be tricky.* It can be a struggle to sell this topic to students used to more traditional varieties of history, classics and archaeology. I’ve found it interesting that every so often my twitter feed will explode with tweets centred on how we go about making gender more appealing to our students or lamenting the disinterest of students in this topic. This was really brought home to me when last year my gender module did not recruit enough students to enable it to run. *Embarrassing*. Once inside the classroom, we often find that the students who have opted to study gender are often disproportionately female, reinforcing the very gender divides we hope to dismantle.

For the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about my gender module. I was naturally quite upset that students decided not to take this module. Reasons for not recruiting vary. This year I’ve been able to recruit a healthy 38 but I think this has been helped by the fact that our second year has been restructured so that students no longer have to take two compulsory modules. It might also have something to do with how I had decided to rebrand this module.

My module had been really popular amongst my students the first year I taught it. My ‘Facebooking the Past’ project still remains one of my favourite ever classroom activities. However, because of low numbers I was advised to rebrand. As a result I changed the title to ‘Love, Sex and the Victorian Family’. Discussing this with students I realised that this was an error. In removing ‘gender’ from the title, I had lost sight of the module’s intentions. ‘Love’ and ‘Sex’ where just, well, unsexy and ultimately off putting to students. With this in mind, I decided that my module would be renamed ‘Gendering the Past’. But there were other ways in which I decided to revise this module. A year of reflecting on this module made me realise that the way I was discussing ‘gender’ was problematic. As a cultural historian I had been too obsessed with selling this module as one that considered the social and cultural constructions of gender. The module looked too concept-led. Instead, this year I decided to think about how gender history modules enable us to bring the everyday and mundane aspects of life to the fore. Having listened to Maggie Andrews’s paper, I realised that I was returning to women’s history’s original intentions by reclaiming women in history. The same might now be said of reclaiming men in history.

My module now offers students the chance not only to think about what it meant to be a man or a woman in the nineteenth century, but the possibility to peer into areas sometimes overlooked in political or national history modules. I’m also really lucky being a British historian of the nineteenth century in that I have a number of amazing databases at my finger tips and this year I’ve decided to make the digital sphere an important part of the module. Together I hope to show them the rich tapestry of the digital past. My intentions are not necessarily honourable here. I’m hoping to tempt them to think about dissertations for next year that move beyond female suffrage. I’m able to do this because LJMU has a commitment to buying digital databases, good IT suites and offers iPads for the classroom. I also teach year-long modules which means that I have the time to build in student-led sessions. It’s not just digital resources I have at my disposal. I also have archive and museum trips planned; all of this was emphasised to students at module showcase.

I think this must have worked. When I asked students why they had chosen this module, their answers could be broken down into four responses.

  1. A different type of history
  2. Ordinary People
  3. The Module: Content and Assessments
  4. “Feminist” intentions.

It was interesting that point 4 was the marginal view. This, for me, raises an interesting way to understand feminist politics and its relationship with gender modules. When I asked how many of my students identified themselves as feminist, only two put their hands up. Yet, one of the concluding remarks of the conference was that we had a moral duty to teach our students about gender inequality. I still don’t know what to think about this point. Would being radical in the classroom suit my other students? Am I radical? Would I look like an out-of-date feminist? I’m not sure….but maybe simply by studying the past students can think about where and how we are now in our gendered society.

* I’m not the first to make these observations see also Joanne Bailey’s post on teaching gender. 

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