Is it me? Teaching gender history …

I’ve been working on a second-year module this week that has a new title and upgrade: Culture, Community and Family in Britain 1660-1918. I’m pretty pleased with it as I’ve organised it to cover some of the topics I think are really exciting and which will help students think about the connections between the family and the community. I’ll cover disruption and violence, material culture and spaces, secrets, shame and emotions, private and public, and will run seminars tackling interracial children, objects concealed in houses, family members locked up in institutions, despairing parents and mothers’ breast milk. Then it struck me – isn’t something ‘missing’?

Masaccio Explusion from Garden of Eden 1450s

Not many years ago I would have had a session on gender. Why haven’t I got one now? So – with a modicum of self-reflexion – I’m sharing some of my thoughts on this shift in my practice. I’d love to hear what other teachers think about this – and I would be delighted if any students were to give me some ideas too!

I found gender history to be fascinating as an undergraduate and started teaching it as soon as I finished my PhD – about fourteen years ago. Obviously gender history was already well-established and a thriving field of academic interest with numerous research-led publications, specialist conferences, and a continuously developing research agenda. For all that, I immediately faced challenges when teaching gender history – and this was at a few different universities.

Perhaps most seared into my memory is the student who spent most of a (compulsory) tutorial on gender history with his head on the desk. Things are not usually as bad as that, thankfully. However, on the couple of occasions that I have tried to make gender the focus of a module – or to be more precise used the word ‘gender’ in the module title – I have not had much success. My impression was that it reduced potential student numbers, in particular, it seemed, male students. Indeed one of my mental games in ‘idle’ moments is to dream up the worst recruiting module titles – and in my current institution this would combine ‘gender’ and ‘family’, for the latter area doesn’t exactly stir up loads of interest either. Yet, the paradox is that students on a variety of other modules often select the assignment which focuses on gender or women.

I therefore spent a while ‘hiding’ gender and delivering it to students with subterfuge – not necessarily a conscious strategy at the time, though on reflection I think that was what I was doing. So I didn’t theorise gender, but used it as another category of analysis. This way I am able to get undergraduates to grasp the social experience of gender – exploring gender relations between spouses, say, or how gender inflects familial roles and relationships. I can draw their attention to the simplistic relationships between gender constructions in print culture and compare those with people’s expectations and behaviour. But I still find it difficult to draw out the ambiguities and nuances that are evident in practice.

First-year students enjoy, for example, challenging their gendered assumptions and I can stir lively if somewhat instinctual and therefore uninformed debates about the extent to which gender is socially or biologically constructed. But that is the problem. I don’t seem to get beyond this chatty thinking aloud to more in-depth analysis within time restrictions. Even more tricky, was getting students to think about how gender itself constitutes people’s lives – whether materially, spatially, bodily, psychologically. Nor did I feel I was helping students to move into investigating the broader ramifications of gender at a structural level.

Yet in the last couple of years I seem to have stopped worrying about this (perhaps the only thing I have stopped worrying about!). I no longer feel that I’m letting down ‘the side’ by not efficiently teaching gender history. Indeed I should confess that while gender continues to fascinate me I am more likely to apply the concept of identity and the approaches of material culture and emotions history. Obviously gender shapes all those factors, but now I seem to have assimilated it as another tool for investigation like class, race and so on. Perhaps this is best illustrated by my third-year module. For a couple of years I have taught a course on the ways in which men’s identity is formed through war, empire, work, clubs and pubs, leisure and sport. I don’t use the word ‘gender’ because instead I use the scholarly terminology of that area of gender history: masculinities. While I still don’t get equal numbers of male and female students, I am nearer to a third male, two-thirds female. I love teaching this module. Perhaps it is because I can apply all the interesting approaches and get the students to deploy gender as simply another determining structure to help them think issues through. I feel as if I have to do less ‘special pleading’ and justification.

Should I be pessimistic or optimistic about this? In the light of Michael Gove’s (bizarre) accusations about left-wing history teaching, should I be thinking about the political ramifications of this? Haven’t I failed myself and my students by not explicitly teaching gender in a more politicised way? Is it me, after all? There are several universities which have centres devoted to gender. How come they sustain student interest? Or am I teaching this way simply because gender is now taken for granted as an integrated component of scholarship? Is it me, or is it the way history evolves?

Let me know what you think!

(Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Masaccio, Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden)

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