The ‘gender seminar’

Tomorrow afternoon I’ll be doing the annual ‘Gender in/and/during the…’ seminar for my unit on early modern popular culture. Next semester, I’ve got another one for the English revolutionary thought of the mid-17th century. In my ‘Kingship and Crisis’ unit (Wars of the Roses), I’ve got a ‘Queenship’ seminar (at least I get to use a different word there). Then there’s the witchcraft unit: well, if I didn’t have a gender seminar there, I’d just be stark-raving bonkers. Four units on totally different things; four ‘gender in/and/during…’ seminars.

A very dapper man with cuckold horns - one device for the public shaming of early modern men not meeting social expectations of their gender/sex.

A very dapper man with cuckold horns – one device for the public shaming of early modern men not meeting social expectations of their gender/sex.

I’m interested to know whether this is something that other historians do and, more to the point, is it something they’ve given thought to? When did this become the norm and is it still something that is worthwhile – or is it just a horrid and patronising anachronism?

I suppose there are four main reasons why I still do it this way:

  1. Students expect and enjoy it. Its usually one of the highlights of any unit and often gets picked up on in unit evaluations. The worst fear I have is that, if its not placed on there as a separate topic, students might feel that its ‘not part of the course’. Furthermore, students who answer questions on gender in essays/exams tend to do very well, possibly a function of their enjoyment, but also…
  2. It forces us to be better historians. Gender is one of those topics that requires a great balancing act between the theory and the archives. It makes us address tricky methodological concerns front and centre: how do we access the thoughts and views of those who are often not present in the sources? Moreover, it brings to the fore something that I’m particularly interested in, namely, how changes to academic environments have influenced the historiography. This is something that’s frequently forgotten, as though historians are writing in a vacuum, but gender puts it on the agenda in a way that ‘the expansion of the British higher education system in the 1960s’ just doesn’t seem to nearly as well.
  3. The subject has a very clear and established secondary literature of its own. This sounds a bit glib, especially because we’re always talking about the need to make those connections across different historiographies. But clearly, unless some focus is put on gender specifically in class time, the risk is that huge amounts of valuable historical scholarship will gather dust in the library as essay deadlines approach.
  4. Early modern people (I’m an early modernist) were massively concerned about gender/sex/masculinity and femininity, and spent a huge amount of time writing about it. A breakdown in harmonious relations between the sexes could either be a cause or the result of wider disorder and anarchy – just ask those who railed against the Ranters in the 1650s! It was a topic on which a great deal of ink was spilt in the 15th-17th centuries.

That’s why I do it – a mixture of pedagogy, student demand, and the sense that early moderns themselves cared about this so much that its worthy of separate treatment. But is there a better way of organising courses – without reducing the attention given to gender and sex – that doesn’t just call upon ‘the gender seminar’? I’m intrigued to know what others do!

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2 thoughts on “The ‘gender seminar’

  1. I feel the same ambivalence and worry about it artificially separating out something that was central to all aspects of life, but I do a ‘gender and family’ one (of 20) in our first-year early modern Britain survey module. Like you, I find it is popular and tends to result in good coursework and exam answers. Of course we also talk about gender when we talk about the Tudor queens and some other ‘high politics’ stuff, but I think if we only did that students would miss out.

    I also do two classes on specifically gender (of 20) in each of my upper-level modules, but here it is easier to integrate it into the rest of the module as well. Indeed, I tend to put gender as an agenda item on nearly all my weekly seminar plans, because it is obviously relevant to discussions of, e.g., servants, guilds, poverty, theft, witchcraft, etc. etc. Upon reflection, I should try to do this more often in the first-year survey too, but it can be difficult when you are trying to give them broad outline of political and religious changes. Something to think about when I revise the module with my colleagues for the coming years.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Brodie. I think, especially in the early modern context, this approach works fairly well – we appear to have very similar approaches in terms of unit design. The key thing, as you say, is that it doesn’t get ‘sectioned off’ and forgotten in other weeks. Its interesting the way that the ‘gender seminar’ has become something of a hinge week in my unit – a way of moving from the political/religious backdrop to issues let witchcraft, rioting, etc. There’s a ‘big picture’ idea somewhere, about early modern England in the grand scheme of things…need to have a think about what it is!

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