During June and July, I taught a class through Barnard’s Summer in the City Pre-College Program entitled “Gender, Race, and Jane Austen.” In addition to being my first opportunity to design and teach a syllabus consisting entirely of works in my own field of eighteenth-century British literature, this course represented my first attempt to theme an entire class around issues of race and gender, and my first time teaching high school students. As a result, I began this class with a few serious concerns: How was I supposed to engage such young students with challenging texts from a distant historical period? How could I responsibly use historical accounts related to race and gender to provoke discussion about contemporary social justice issues and movements—and what would I do if these discussions got out of hand? Would it be better just to avoid contemporary connections altogether and focus instead on the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century narratives, poems, and essays that I actually felt like an expert about? I won’t pretend to have definitive answers to the first two questions, but as for the third, I know now how foolish I was to prioritize—even if only for a moment—my own comfortable sense of “expertise” over my responsibility to equip my students with tools for discussing, analyzing, and ultimately dismantling misogyny and anti-Black racism in the present.
The premise of “Gender, Race, and Jane Austen” was to use a popular author to lure students into a class that was just as interested in early arguments for women’s rights and debates about the abolition of the slave trade as it was in Mansfield Park. My primary teaching goal for the class was to encourage my students to develop an intersectional understanding of race and gender, something that most of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts on my syllabus sorely lacked. At the same time, I wanted to give students the opportunity to read early narratives by women and people of African descent, and to understand that present-day feminist and antiracist endeavors are part of a long and occasionally checkered history.
The first week of the class went by fairly well, as far as I could tell. We had spirited discussions about Mary Wollstonecraft’s problematic denigration of stereotypical femininity in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the potential relevance of that work to Austen’s creation of Fanny Price, the timid and soft-spoken heroine of Mansfield Park. I set up the concept of intersectional feminism by showing my students a YouTube video by popular young
vloggers, and then asking them to rework Wollstonecraft’s arguments about the oppression of women through a more intersectional lens. I hadn’t sufficiently anticipated how difficult eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts would be for my students to read, but once we got over the hurdle of language and syntax, I was pleasantly surprised by their capacity for conceptual critique. It was even more pleasant not to have to be on the defensive about feminism. I had never been in an all-female classroom before, and I’d underestimated the impact this would have on the classroom dynamic, especially in a class about gender: it was a freeing experience from the start, for my students as well as for myself. Instead of devoting time and energy to patient explanations of misogyny and the need for feminist discourse and action, we could take our collective feminist intentions for granted and focus instead on developing a nuanced approach to the way race and class intersected with gender as categories of privilege and/or oppression.
And then, two days before my students and I were set to discuss the first narrative of slavery on our syllabus (The History of Mary Prince, first published 1831), Alton Sterling was murdered by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The following day, Philando Castile was murdered by a police officer outside of St. Paul, Minnesota. Both abuses of deadly force gained immediate media attention because both were caught on film; both Sterling and Castile became part of the national consciousness, not as individuals, but as the latest in a long line of black men and women killed as a result of contact with the police. I had already been planning to bring up the similarities between narratives like Mary Prince’s—which unflinchingly detailed the abuses of slavery out of a belief that widespread knowledge of these abuses would automatically lead to their cessation—and the video footage of police killings of black men and women, circulated not just as evidence of these deaths, but as though it would be impossible to see this reality and not act against it. I had also been re-reading Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts,” an essay too difficult to assign to my students in full, but which I knew I wanted them to encounter. Hartman describes the violence that marks enslaved men and women’s entry into the historical record and that simultaneously prevents their lives from being known “as they might have been ‘in a free state’” (Hartman 2). She writes, “the stories that exist are not about them, but rather about the violence, excess, mendacity, and reason that seized hold of their lives, transformed them into commodities and corpses, and identified them with names tossed-off as insults and crass jokes. The archive is, in this case, a death sentence” (Hartman 2). Alton Sterling, Philando Castile,
Mary Prince: men and women who only exist to the world at large because the violence done against them was recorded.
All of this seemed incredibly important, and at the same time incredibly frightening to bring up in class discussion. Feminism clearly wasn’t a tricky subject, but while my students were all women, they came from a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds, and we hadn’t really talked a lot about race yet except as something Wollstonecraft had essentially failed to consider. I had been planning to use our first class on The History of Mary Prince to test the waters, providing some additional frameworks to make sure my students could talk responsibly about racism, treading carefully to make sure that I—as a privileged white teacher—didn’t mess up, either by saying the wrong thing, or by failing to speak up if one of my students said the wrong thing. I had hoped we could ease into a discussion of #BlackLivesMatter and the long legacy of anti-Black racism slowly over the course of the following weeks. Such a slow pace now seemed irresponsible. But how to jump in?
It wasn’t until after this summer course was over that I came across the following passage by black feminist bell hooks, about the importance of shared vulnerability in the classroom:
Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks. [...] When professors bring narratives of their experiences into classroom discussions it eliminates the possibility that we can function as all-knowing, silent interrogators. It is often productive for professors to take the first risk, linking confessional narratives to academic discussions so as to show how experience can illuminate and enhance our understanding of academic material. But most professors must practice being vulnerable in the classroom, being wholly present in mind, body, and spirit. (hooks 21)
Before teaching “Gender, Race, and Jane Austen,” I don’t think I would have understood hooks’ equation between “being vulnerable in the classroom” and “being wholly present in mind, body, and spirit.” But this describes quite precisely the way I felt in the classroom once I allowed myself to admit that the work I was doing with these students was more challenging, but also more personal and more important, than simply teaching them how to perform a close reading or scan poetic meter. I allowed myself to see that in order to fulfill the real goals of this course, the objectives that seemed too personal to be assimilated to the language of “student learning
outcomes,” I would have to step out from behind the comforting barricade of my specialist knowledge and admit my own vulnerability, because it was the only way that my students would learn to embrace theirs, along with the potential for change and growth that it promises.
In preparation for class discussion of Mary Prince and institutional racism, I sent my students a fairly length email. It concluded with a list of online resources they could use to follow up on the I was planning to have us discuss in class. But it started like this:
I will not pretend to be an expert on race and racism in this country. I grew up as an upper-middle-class white girl surrounded by upper-middle-class white people; before I moved out of my suburban bubble to attend college, I had given little thought to race relations in this country because they simply didn’t seem to concern me at all. This insular, insulated ignorance didn’t just disappear overnight—it was slowly and painfully scraped away, layer by layer, as classmates and professors, and internet friends, and internet strangers told me I needed to check my privilege, to educate myself, to listen before I spoke (and sometimes not to speak at all).
It was difficult to share this with my students, not just because it is hard to remember the person I was at sixteen without cringing, but because it is difficult to admit the possibility that ten years from now I will look back at this current self with the same cringing sense of how much I still had to learn. But I firmly believe that this act—what hooks would call a “confession”—opened up the classroom. Several students thanked me before class even began for sending them the list of resources. More than one admitted that they hadn’t heard a word about Castile or Sterling until I emailed, and so we started a conversation about how easy it is not to see or to hear about violence that doesn’t affect you personally, and (turning to Mary Prince) how difficult it is to represent violence as a means toward ending violence rather than reproducing it. The atmosphere in the room was heavy, somber, at least a little uncomfortable. But we talked through it.
The discussion I had been afraid to have became a touchstone for the remaining three weeks of class, with students regularly referring back to ideas and concepts it had introduced. When I teach this class again, I will do many things differently. But this experience of shared vulnerability is one thing I hope I’ll have the courage to repeat.
WORKS CITED Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe, vol. 12, no. 2, 2008, pp. 1-14. Print.
hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.
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