Introduction: Teaching Jane Austen and the Scholarship of Teaching

Introduction: Teaching Jane Austen and the Scholarship of Teaching

Emily C. Friedman
Auburn University

Devoney Looser
Arizona State University

1.        “Is Jane Austen out of date for the classroom?” asked a British Council weblog entry in August 2013. The blogger, Chris Lima, answers immediately “no,” but her response follows an eye-catching photo of a woman holding up an exquisitely made teapot-shaped cookie, decorated with Austen’s supposed silhouette. The photo is captioned, “You don't have to bribe your students with Jane Austen tea cookies to get them to read her books.” At first glance, this short essay could be mistaken for a tongue-in-cheek article from The Onion.

2.        The questioning of Austen’s fashionability or relevance for the classroom, however, appears to be entirely in earnest. Lima argues that Austen’s language is not as inaccessible to students as we might think, that her themes are still relevant, and that using the film adaptations such as the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice to help with contextualization offers a useful classroom tool. Lima, who teaches Austen at the University of Leicester, concludes, “The novel [Pride and Prejudice] is so popular around the world that the vast majority [of students] are quite familiar with the story and the characters and by the end of the course I feel they have created a quite strong connection with the book.” One might be tempted to ask if this is true with or without the tea cookies.

3.        What is startling about this feature on the UK’s premier international cultural organization’s website goes far beyond the question of bribes and cookies. It seems strange that the teaching of Austen today would be framed in such a defensive way, particularly just after the announcement that her face would be featured on the £10 note. If Austen isn’t out of date for currency, shouldn’t we start with the assumption that she is also perfectly current for the college curriculum?

4.        Perhaps the question posed means to interrogate whether Austen has currency among younger people, those of traditional college age. If so, the answer is even clearer. The popular vlog, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, demonstrates Austen’s strong positioning among so-called classic authors in emerging new media and youth culture, at least among girls (Green and Su). Students may no longer know that Colin Firth played Mr. Darcy in the BBC Pride and Prejudice (1995), as Donna Parsons argues in her essay in this special issue, but many do know that Lizzie of the Emmy Award Winning series is a modern-day, updated version of Austen’s nineteenth-century heroine.

5.        What the British Council’s blog post may reveal is that our conversations about teaching Austen remain in a rather fledgling state, especially given how often she is included on college or postsecondary (and, to a lesser extent, high school or secondary) syllabi in the US, Canada, and the UK. Are we really still in the position of needing to educate fellow educators about whether Austen’s themes are relevant? That would seem to be “How to Teach Jane Austen” on training wheels. Scholarship on Austen has developed by leaps and bounds over the past forty years, but the scholarship of teaching Austen has merely inched forward during this period. We hope that our special issue will join an outpouring of new, more sophisticated scholarship of teaching Austen.

6.        The essays collected here describe curricular ideas, innovations, and practices that seek to move us beyond simple questions of Austen’s accessibility, relevance, and context. The contributors (whose essays began as presentations in two linked “Teaching Jane Austen” sessions at the Modern Language Association Convention in Boston in January 2013) ask how we might enrich the teaching of Austen’s fiction by seeing her in conversation with manuscript culture, children’s literature, Harry Potter, or Romantic poetry. Collectively, these essays look to what it means to teach Austen in many kinds of classes and classrooms, with differently-located learners, and with a variety of texts, tools, and assignments. Although all of us teach at the college level in North America, many of us also seek to explore what it means to teach Austen in a global context and in alternative educational contexts—both hers and our own—as her reach has become virtually worldwide (Dryden).

7.        Four substantial books and dozens of essays about teaching Austen have been published over the past fifty years. These are joined by copious web-based materials, many hosted by publishing companies. The four books remain valuable ones. Marcia McClintock Folsom’s three edited collections in the “MLA Approaches to Teaching” series, Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1993), Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Emma (2004), and Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Mansfield Park (2014) include valuable information about editions, criticism, and strategies for discussion. They feature essays that illuminate various approaches to the novel. Even so, only the new Mansfield Park volume benefits from the most up to date scholarship, film adaptations, and other popular phenomena: the Emma volume is now a decade old and her Pride and Prejudice volume is now more than twenty years old. One additional limitation to books in the series is that their focus must necessarily be on strategies for teaching a single Austen text, not on teaching an Austen-centered course or on teaching her other writings.

8.        As strong as they are, none of Folsom’s edited volumes sets out to do more than dip into the filmic, print, or stage adaptations and sequels for their potential uses in the Austen classroom. For those interested in such an approach, Louise Flavin’s Jane Austen in the Classroom: Viewing the Novel / Reading the Film (2004) offers an alternative place to begin. Flavin describes the possibilities for teaching Austen in an image-rich environment, in which issues of originality, adaptation, and interpretation are brought to the fore. Flavin’s book, too, is now a decade old. These three titles have been foundational to the scholarship of teaching Austen at the college level.

9.        Dozens of articles on the subject preceded these books. (NOTE TO THE READER: We have identified more than 60 print and online sources related to the teaching of Austen and have compiled an annotated bibliography that may be found in a separate section of this special issue.) Adding to the challenge of describing the scholarship of teaching on Austen is that many of these essays were published hither and yon—not in high-profile books or journals, and not necessarily in places we would look for them. What we can see from the scholarship we have been able to locate is that ruminating on the problems and possibilities of teaching Austen is not a recent phenomenon. Although it remains a comparatively underdeveloped area in the vibrant arena of Austen studies, the scholarship on teaching her is by no means new. Devoney Looser is now at work on a project documenting the teaching of Austen that dates to more than a century ago. To offer but one example, a short essay titled, “A Novel Course for Teachers: Jane Austen” appears in the Atlanta-based Southern Educational Journal in 1898. Ideas and advice on how (and why) to teach Austen have a long and as yet untold history.

10.        Most of these “teaching Austen” materials were not considered important enough to record in bibliographies of Austen scholarship. David Gilson’s invaluable A Bibliography of Jane Austen (Rev. ed., 1997) includes just three sources categorized in the index as related to “teaching,” all from the early 1970s. It is true that some essays about teaching Austen do not sport titles signaling that they are about teaching. In 1975, Lionel Trilling published “Why We Read Jane Austen,” an essay that deals extensively with his experiences teaching her fiction in the classroom. Trilling sets out to describe “the intensity of feeling which students at my university directed to Jane Austen when I gave a course in her novels two years ago” (517).

11.        Trilling reports that he ran the course in a discussion-centered format rather than a lecture, and that “the optimum number of students would seem to be twenty and a practicable maximum probably cannot be higher than thirty” (518). He was amazed and distressed, then, when “the number of students who attended the first meeting of the course was something like 150” (518). It being the mid-1970s and Trilling being Trilling, he told the students he wanted to stick to the original enrollment he’d envisioned for the course and that he would conduct interviews to determine which students would be allowed to take it. After conducting a day and a half of interviews, he grew uncomfortable with the process; he had no criteria to make the decisions and worried that the notes he was jotting were “in some sense discriminatory” (518), having more to do with his sense of a student’s “personal interestingness” (518).

12.        These experiences with Austen in the classroom lead Trilling to consider Austen’s reputation. He discusses her place among a population of readers without credentials, whom he imagines as having turned her into a “pet” and a “darling” (519). Trilling believes that scholars of the immediate past (the early 1970s) turned “Austen into a figure . . . probably in part by the contemporary demand for female figures, though certainly not for that reason alone” (519). Trilling describes his own discomfort with attempting to add to our knowledge of how and why Austen had become “a figure,” versus approaching her as “nothing more than a good read” (520). He did not want to be on either pole, seeing himself as recuperating the idea of “a good read” beyond “a descent into mere creature-comfort, into downright coziness,” wanting to be prepared to discuss “why and how it is that pleasure comes to us from stories’ (520).

13.        Trilling’s interviews with prospective students led him to despair. As he writes, “There was something [students] wanted, not from me, as was soon apparent, but from Jane Austen, something that was making for an intensity in their application for the course such as I had no preparation for in all my teaching career” (520). Teaching Austen, Trilling finds, is sui generis. In the end, he came up with his list of forty students, having revised his maximum number upward, but he writes that he wasn’t prepared for the appeals, the expressions of bitterness (521). Why, Trilling asks, did this course mean so much, did Austen mean so much? One of the reasons he considers is that students flocked to Austen to “in some way transcend our sad contemporary existence” (521).

14.        He recalls a different context, only a few years earlier, in 1968, when the figure who had stood in that place in the college curriculum was William Blake (521). Trilling considers what it means that college students might flock to Blake in 1968 and then, a handful of years later, to Austen:

The style phases of our culture are notoriously short; it was not to be thought anomalous that at one moment disgust with modern life should be expressed through devotion to a figure proposing impulse, excess, and the annihilation of authority [Blake], and then a scant five years later through devotion to the presiding genius of measure, decorum, and irony [Austen] (522)
He turns to the then recently published work by Clifford Geertz, to make sense of life, culture, and aesthetics, articulating aspects of the vision of the value of humanism for which his criticism is famed. From the perspective of teaching Austen, however, several things are important to note in his essay, particularly his sense of college students embracing “a figure” in waves of fashion. Reading Trilling on Austen might strike us today as both old hat and new business. What is new, thanks to Trilling, is the realization that Austen’s being “a figure” in the college classroom itself has a long, varied, and not yet well-mined history.

15.        If we fast-forward ten years from Trilling, we find Patricia Meyer Spacks considering similar questions. Spacks published “Emma’s Happiness” in the ADE Bulletin, commenting on her teaching of Austen and offering another anecdotal view of continuity and change. She writes that her students came to the classroom not only seeking in Austen a “figure” or a pet and a darling (in Trilling’s terms) but because they “interest themselves” in Austen’s female characters, suggesting a kind of identification with the heroines (17). Problems arise with Emma, then, as students are loathe to “interest themselves” in a character they see as “overprivileged” and a novel that “offends feminist sensibilities and disappoints romantic expectations” (17). Spacks writes that “Every time I teach Emma, the novel, I run into the same problem: students don’t like Emma, the character” (17). Spacks talks about the difficulties of getting students beyond thinking of characters as people to thinking of characters as characters, giving specific tactics for prompting other kinds of readings.

16.        She concludes that “Perhaps the best thing we can do for students of Emma is to confuse them: to make them realize how many questions Austen raises, how few she distinctly answers, how much they themselves may resemble Emma precisely in her mistakes, how difficult it is to acknowledge such resemblance” (18). By 1986, Spacks’s essay implies, students were coming to Austen’s novels with several kinds of desires and impulses, seeking an identification with the heroine, a ratification of feminist sensibilities, and the satisfaction of romantic expectations—all at once. How different is this—or is this different at all?—from Trilling’s students’ desires? How different is it from the desires of our respective students today?

17.        Both Spacks and Trilling were teaching Austen at tony institutions in classes presumably made up of majority-white, economically privileged young Americans. We need more accounts of what it means to teach Austen to other student populations and in many kinds of classrooms. Nora Nachumi’s "'I Am Elizabeth Bennet': Defining One's Self through Austen's Third Novel,” is a trailblazing essay in this vein, describing her experiences teaching Pride and Prejudice to Orthodox Jewish women students. As Nachumi writes, “As Orthodox Jews, my students live lives circumscribed by expectations of feminine conduct that resemble those that appear in the novel. Thus Pride and Prejudice is more obviously relevant to their own lives than it is to those of most students at secular institutions” (120).

18.        In this special issue of Romantic Circles Pedagogy Commons, we have tried to make sense of what it means to teach Austen beyond the elite college classroom, acknowledging that all Austen classrooms have changed over the past fifty years. In his essay in this issue, Michael Verderame describes his experiences and practices teaching Persuasion in a men’s prison. In hers, Donna S. Parsons describes what it means to teach Austen to Midwestern undergraduate students raised on the Harry Potter novels and films. Our collective experiences and anecdotes certainly add to the record, but there is little large-scale information about where Austen is being taught or to whom. Textbook publishers must have a good idea, as so many of them are now marketing competing editions, but one suspects that, for that very reason, they would be loathe to share the information. It would be fascinating to know how the gender, race, and class demographics of students enrolling in Jane Austen courses have changed over time. It would be interesting to know how many of the students who come to an Austen course (or to the reading of a particular Austen novel in a literature course) already consider themselves her fans. As Sarah Raff asks in her essay, what does it mean that her students imagine the stereotype of a student in a Jane Austen class to be a (straight) college girl who is desperate for a boyfriend?

19.        The nine essays that make up this special issue touch on what happens when students discuss issues of courtship and romance through Austen, but they also consider what happens when Austen is taught in less familiar contexts, whether of content or method. Those contexts and methods include digital media and manuscript facsimiles (Levy) and Austen in popular culture (Wells). They include considerations of teaching Austen in light of the nineteenth-century literature around her that is “not Austen,” allowing students to better to understand the literary marketplace that she joined (Friedman). They include Austen and Harry Potter (Parsons), Austen and nineteenth-century children’s literature, such as that by Maria Edgeworth (Rosings), and Austen and a wide range of Gothic novels (Eisner). They include Austen in conversation with the “bix six” male Romantic poets (Lau) and with serious and satirical advice literature on love (Raff). Collectively, these essays show that not only is the teaching of Austen alive and well, it is booming. If what is going on in these contributors’ classrooms is any indication, Austen is now at the forefront of vibrant, creative, and multivalent pedagogical practices in the undergraduate and graduate literature curriculum.

Works Cited

Flavin, Louise. Jane Austen in the Classroom: Viewing the Novel / Reading the Film. New York: Peter Lang, 2004. Print.

Folsom, Marcia McClintock, ed. Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Emma. New York: Modern Language Association, 2004. Print.

---. Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. New York: Modern Language Association, 1993. Print.

---. Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Mansfield Park. New York: Modern Language Association, 2014. Print.

Green, Hank and Bernie Su. "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries: A Modern Adaptation of Pride and Prejudice" (2012–13). Web. .

Gilson, David. A Bibliography of Jane Austen. New ed. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll, 1997. Print.

H., E. S. “A Novel Course for Teachers: Jane Austen.” Southern Educational Journal 12 (1898): 133–35. Print.

Lima, Chris. “Is Jane Austen out of date for the classroom?” British Council Voices. British Council. 13 August 2013. Web.

Nachumi, Nora. "’I Am Elizabeth Bennet’: Defining One's Self through Austen's Third Novel.” Pedagogy, 4.1 (2004): 119-124. Print.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. “Emma’s Happiness.” ADE Bulletin. 84 (1986): 16–18. Print.

Trilling, Lionel. The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Selected Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000. Print.