Teaching the Impossible Syllabus: “Women, Gender & U.S. Literature”

The Syllabus

When I was assigned “Women, Gender, and U.S. Literature,” a 5-week summer course that meets 4 days a week for 2 hours, I stared at my bookshelf ready to put 75% of its contents on the syllabus, then I went to Twitter and asked for suggestions, and then I went to colleagues for help who laughed at the course title because it was impossible. Yep, pretty much.

The first version of the syllabus covered four centuries of women’s writing. The second version covered more theory than literature, hitting all the big ideas from gender and race studies to LGBTQ theory to disability studies. With a bite of the lip, I limited myself to filling in the first 3 weeks and left the last 2 blank, carrying two overstuffed giant canvas bags into the first day of class, and I asked my students to fill in the rest.

Maybe you think that’s a cop-out, or dangerous, or maybe it occurred to one or two students that I wasn’t there to teach them at all. I never said, “I’m here to learn from you,” because when I was a college student I hated hearing that time and time again. What kind of education was I getting? But here’s the thing, if a professor had given me the choice to pick the readings for a class, I would have gone bonkers with excitement. Because I’m a nerd and my “to-read” list never stops growing. I’ll never catch up.

After introductions on the first day, we read Emily Dickinson’s poem “I’m wife–I’ve finished that” and then Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” and we talked about making it our responsibility to learn what we don’t know. They started adding summaries under the potential titles I listed in the shared Google Doc (the syllabus).

They quickly ruled out Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Chimamanda Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists.” They had read them too often in too many women’s studies courses and wanted something new. I said, Great! I was tired of teaching them.

The first three weeks looked like this: Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall, Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Sojournor Truth’s speech to the Women’s Rights ConventionJune Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights,” Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury” as well as her poem “Coal,” and Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

The next day, I piled 50+ options for books we could read in the last 2 weeks onto the desk at the front of the room and left, giving them minimal instructions to choose something for us to read and for each individual to give an oral presentation on. Here’s what they came up with:

Week 4

Day 1: Beyoncé’s “LEMONADE” & bell hooks’ “Moving beyond pain”

Day 2: Marianne Moore, “Marriage” & Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus,” “Daddy”

Day 3: Dorothy Parker, “Big Blonde”, “A Telephone Call”

Day 4: Susan Power, Sacred Wilderness (chapters 1, 2, and 9)

Week 5

Days 1-2: Una, Becoming Unbecoming

Days 3-4: Jessica Valenti, Sex Object

I couldn’t have asked for a better selection. My only addition that carried us over from Harriet Jacobs’ slave narrative to Beyoncé’s “LEMONADE” was the first 2 chapters of bell hooks’ book ain’t i a woman: black women and feminism. We also read Roxane Gay‘s recent piece in The New York Times. The summer session is wrapping up and I find myself both wishing I had more time and also satisfied that we covered sufficient ground, especially getting the coverage that students most wanted.

It led us to interesting places–discussions about periods, taboos, the devaluation of black womanhood, trauma, using tampons, breaking hymens, the awkwardness about finding out what a hymen even was, the pain of “having a reputation” that one was supposed to maintain, egalitarian marriages, the problem that patriarchy also oppresses men, and the daily fears of living in a world that hates women. I’ll miss this class and our conversations about womanhood. I had never spoken openly about periods and hymens in a class with college students before and it just fit perfectly.

I did learn from them how to be a better teacher by giving students more control over what they read and what direction the class discussions follow. Perhaps it seemed I wasn’t teaching so much as listening and telling stories, but the lack of structure in the beginning allowed for flexibility in the organization of the last 2 weeks and it sparked their creativity, passion for activism, and interest in the readings.

Those conversations and that initial lack of structure–especially because it meant they had to become accountable, honest leaders–prepares them better than anything for what they’ll face in the world they’re entering after college.

2 Replies to “Teaching the Impossible Syllabus: “Women, Gender & U.S. Literature”

  1. Hello!
    My name is Josie Friedman and I am a junior in high school at Cody High School in Cody, Wyoming (I recently moved here from Massachusetts, both my parents are Hunter College grads actually)!
    I have been given the opportunity to develop an independent study English class for myself for my next academic year. After searching for college syllabi to use as a base for my curriculum, I found this web page!! This course seems perfect for me, exactly what I have been looking for.
    I am commenting to ask if we could possibly get in touch as I have specific questions about the curriculum. It would be a HUGE help.
    Thank you so much,
    Josie Friedman

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