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.
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:
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!