Change In Class

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Fresh perspectives and new scholarship enliven learning

By Pamela Wilson 

What does reading Beowulf reveal about race? How can the literature of the Middle Ages teach us about the modern era? Associate Professor Diane Cady and her students have been posing these questions—and others—in Survey of British Literature I, a course she recently redesigned as part of the College’s Curricular Transformation Initiative.  

“We still cover the period roughly from Beowulf to Milton,” Cady says of the reading list for her survey course, a curricular stalwart familiar to most English majors. “The biggest change I made was to help students make connections between the medieval era and today. Lectures and secondary readings provide a framework for students to see how colonialism, sexuality, and race figure in the primary texts from the Middle Ages.”  

Mills’ Curricular Transformation Initiative encourages faculty to design courses that introduce different ways of analyzing traditional material—an essential approach to educating students to think critically in a global, multicultural society. The initiative also incorporates into classroom learning an awareness of diversity and support for the principles of social justice, with a goal of making courses more accessible and relevant to students. 

Cady has seen positive results in the reactions of her students. “Reading medieval literature this way really helps draw students in. They start to think about where some of the ideas of our time—or the infrastructure for these ideas—come from,” she explains. “Some of these very old texts meditate on issues we’re still grappling with today.” 

Updating courses also helps students keep pace with the latest scholarship. “I was taught to read Beowulf through the lenses of heroism and epic form, but there are other ways to look at the poem,” says Cady. “In the past 15 years, a lot of interesting work has been done on gender and sexuality in the Middle Ages, which I’ve brought into the course through our readings of John Donne and others (see sidebar). With Beowulf, I also bring in race and ethnicity.” 

In the classroom, Cady’s students ask what, precisely, it is that makes Beowulf’s Grendel monstrous. “We can talk about Grendel as a kind of racial other,” Cady points out. “He is vilified as a ‘monster’ and the Geats and the Danes ostracize him, but, at the same time, the text underscores that they are very similar. They are all human, and they are all involved with revenge. Difference in this poem is constructed and deployed for particular political, economic, and cultural reasons. Race is constructed and deployed in the same way today.”

“The curriculum of a college or university is dynamic and evolving, changing with the times to meet the needs of students and of society,” says Provost and Dean of the Faculty Sandra Greer, who characterizes curricular transformation as “an intellectually exciting process that is essential for the future of our students and of Mills College.” The concept of “curricular transformation” has
its roots in the feminist and civil rights movements of the 1960s, when scholars began to recognize that the contributions and perspectives of women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups were overwhelmingly absent from the traditional curriculum. Since that time, numerous universities across the country have embraced curricular transformation and there are several centers devoted to studying research and best practices in the field.

Since its founding, Mills has sought to adapt its curriculum to the evolving educational needs of women. In the past two decades, several projects have helped to advance this goal. In 1997, Mills received a major three-year grant from the James Irvine Foundation to support multicultural curriculum transformation. The grant resulted in dozens of new or revised courses as well as conferences, special events, and a commitment to expand the process of change. “At Mills, we
have been working to be sure that our curriculum reflects the contribution and perspectives of all ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, and gender identifications,” says Greer.

In 2008, in response to a new strategic plan that emphasized the importance of diversity in and out of the classroom, the College launched the current Curricular Transformation Initiative. This has funded course development and brought guest speakers from other universities to share their own experience in making classrooms more inclusive and bringing courses up to date. In its first year, in addition to Cady’s British literature course, the initiative supported development of
Professor Elmaz Abinader’s course on poetry by people of color and a course on borderlands—where cultures meet and mix—by Professor Héctor Mario Cavallari. Furthermore, all Mills professors have been urged to redesign their core courses.

Associate Professor David Donahue teaches Curriculum and Instruction for Secondary Humanities Teachers, a required course for education students pursuing single subject credentials that guides them in considering what and how to teach—and for what reasons. These future teachers learn that the social norms established in the classroom have a strong effect
on secondary students. Donahue encourages them to recognize the diversity of learners and has incorporated an awareness of the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students.

“There has been a significant silence around LGBT issues in secondary curriculum,” says Donahue. “And this has taken on even greater import in light of recent suicides by young gay
people who have been bullied by their peers.” Instilling a sense of respect for students of all orientations can help young LGBT people in the same way that providing role models of different
ethnicities helps students of color or that including the achievements of women helps girls.

Donahue’s students put their knowledge into action. Last year, his Mills students developed curriculum guides that accompany two DVDs distributed by Frameline, an organization that supports and promotes a wide range of LGBT representation in film and provides free movies to schools in California. The films and accompanying curriculum guides help teachers bring the stories of LGBT people from diverse backgrounds into their classroom discussions.

This fall, Donahue introduced an entirely new course, Schools, Sexuality, and Gender (see sidebar), which has proven to be overwhelmingly popular. Originally conceived as a small
seminar for 15 students, Donahue ultimately admitted all 30 students who enrolled—a mix of undergraduates majoring in a wide range of disciplines and graduate students in the School
of Education.

The diverse ages, interests, and experiences of the students bring an added dimension to the class. “The more different perspectives people bring, the more we’re all going to learn,” Donahue says. “It’s great for the traditional-age undergraduates to study with graduate students, some of them much older and many of whom have been teachers, so each group gets to see the perspective on the other side of the desk.”

The process of developing this course inspired Donahue to rethink his own teaching process. “If we’re teaching students to question dichotomous categories that have been naturalized,” he notes, “I had to question the student/teacher dichotomy by creating a space where students can teach each other and where I get to learn from them.

“Since I’ve been at the College, I’ve seen faculty move away from an approach where we take one week in a given class and address diversity only then,” says Donahue, who came to Mills in 1992 and now holds the Lynn T. White Jr. Chair. “Today, we’re encouraged to think about what we teach from multiple perspectives, which leads us to understand that schools are also places of possibility, and young people, school teachers, and school leaders can all be agents of change.”

Colonialism and erotic conquest:
Diane Cady on the “virginal” New World

In our class, we discuss John Donne’s fame (some might say infamy) for deploying wildly creative
conceits in his poetry. Love is a pesky insect in “The Flea.” And in Elegy 19, a potential and perhaps reluctant lover is depicted as a conquered land:

License my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America, my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,

(l. 25-28).

We might read these lines as a product of Donne’s fertile imagination. However, in linking colonial enterprise with erotic pursuit, Donne is tapping into a broader cultural imagery: one in which the so-called “New World” is feminized and the act of colonization is seen as a masculine duty and pleasure.

A brief survey of other writings from Donne’s contemporaries makes clear that what gives these lands value is precisely the same commodity that gives a woman value in the marriage marketplace of the time: virginity. Walter Raleigh, for example, describes Guiana as “a country that hath yet her maidenhead, never sackt, turned nor wrought.” John Smith writes similarly about the New England coast. These lands are not, of course, virginal in the ways these writers imagine; they were populated well before Europeans set foot upon them. However, the trope of the virginal land sidesteps this rather inconvenient truth and justifies colonial invasion. Indeed, Thomas Morton writes that the New World is “Like a faire virgin, longing to be sped, / And meete
her lover in a Nuptiall bed.” The virginal land longs for the potent European explorer to penetrate its shores.

Returning to Donne’s poem, we can see that while the poem’s speaker seems to be asking for permission (“license my roving hands”), the lover’s status as a “new-found-land” marks her as a commodity available for conquering, regardless of her desires—just as the passive, feminized land of the New World renders colonialism into a project in which fallow ground needs to be made productive through the seed of European expansion. In these examples, we see how the
violence of colonial exploitation is turned into an erotic encounter with an eager mistress.

Challenging constructed categories:
David Donahue on Schools, Sexuality, and Gender

My Schools, Sexuality, and Gender course brings together history, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies to examine how schools shape identities and regulate social norms, particularly
those of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, generally termed as “queer.”

The goal of the Schools, Sexuality, and Gender course is to make schools inclusive for all students. An important piece of this work has to do with some of the categories we use when we think about schools—categories that are made to seem natural but which people have actually constructed. We think it’s natural that six-year-olds are in classrooms with other six-year-olds and that we call this “first grade.” But you could just as easily group kids based on their ability to read, or on their ability to sing or dance well. These are all human constructs, and they depend on what society values.

In this course, we question certain dichotomies—like male and female or heterosexual and homosexual. We also discover that some things that seem “natural” or normal are open to question and reconsideration. Gender and sexuality have been regulated in numerous ways, from formal dress codes and rules about who can be taken as a date to the prom to informal regulation through homophobic epithets in hallways and locker rooms and peer pressure to “walk like a man.”

These explorations are based in an understanding of queer theory and the multiple senses of the word “queer,” all of which have implications for what and how students are taught in secondary school. In addition to its umbrella use to signify LGBT people, “queer” can also mean anything not normative or anything that transgresses boundaries, especially simplified dichotomous ones like male and female or heterosexual and homosexual. Finally, “queer” can be a verb meaning to “trouble” or raise provocative questions about constructs that, through repeated regulation over time, seem “natural.” Queering can lead to deconstructing heterosexuality and homosexuality as well as phenomena and institutions—like schools, curriculum, and pedagogy—that are not directly related to sexuality.