Thursday, March 17, 2011

Guest Post: The Count II, Numbers Close to Home

Inspired by Erin’s informative and thoughtful discussion of The Count, Vida’s not-to-be-argued-with graphs of the gender disparity in literary reviewing, I decided to do my own count. How many male and female writers are being taught in undergraduate English courses at my university today compared to when I first arrived 15 years ago? And how has the ratio of male to female faculty changed in that same period? Here’s the count:





Counting is such a simple thing to do. And, like the lists we should be keeping, we should be regularly counting. But what are these numbers telling us?

My reading needs to start with qualifications since it has inherent flaws: I relied on the course descriptions of English courses as advertised on our website (1996 stats came from an old-fashioned print pamphlet) and not actual course syllabi. The descriptions have limitations: what do you do with anonymous texts? how do you count authors studied when the text listed is an anthology (I used the gender of the editor)? what to do you with the disparity between those faculty who provide text lists and those that simply say “T.B.A.”? The figures, then, should be considered as ballpark. But even with all the provisos, they say a lot.

What they scream to me is: nothing much has changed in 15 years. The ratio of men to women taught remains fairly constant (it went from 1.6 men:1 woman to 1.5:1) and the change in the gender breakdown of faculty suggests women academics have not made as great inroads in hiring as we may like to think, especially given that I work in a department (English, UofA) that has a reputation as one of the most feminist in the country. Interestingly, the ratio of male to female writers being taught has remained constant though fewer specific courses on women’s writing are taught today than in 1996 (when a total of 6 courses were dedicated to women’s writing, as compared to 4 this year). I interpret this stat as suggesting women are better integrated into all courses and not just segregated into their own special place (this year’s descriptions, for example, did not include such common statements as the following 1996 one: “in addition to Famous Male, Famous Male and Famous Male we will be reading the lesser-known writing by Lesser-Known Woman and Lesser-Known Woman”). I take this integration to be a good sign. I also observed that the ratio of men’s to women’s writing being taught has remained the same even though fewer women’s writing anthologies are being used. As an example from my own area, a Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Drama course in 1996 that used a standard all-male anthology as well as an anthology of women playwrights, today lists one general anthology (which now includes many plays by women). What has happened to all those women’s writing anthologies? Are they still in print?

Now comes the real truth behind the numbers. Guess which course has one of the biggest disparities between men’s and women’s writing? Yep: shamefully, mine. My course in theories of cultural history has a ratio of 4 men to every woman writer. In my defense, the actual course reading includes more women and more discussion of gender than the course description shows. But it speaks to what prompted me to write this blog: while I am a feminist scholar who wrote a dissertation on women’s writing in the 1990s and worked as a post-doc on a collaborative large-scale women’s writing project, I no longer work in the field. After publishing a book on the cultural history of gender and sexuality that included both men and women writers, I’m ready to take a break and have recently shift to work on economics and literature. My work will always include women, but my primary questions have changed.

Thus, when I offer senior seminars on special topics or graduate courses, they are no longer focused on women’s writing. And I’ve begun to notice a fading interest in my colleagues in teaching such courses, as well as a fading interest in our students in taking them. Are we still committed to teaching women’s writing as a separate curriculum? If so, who is the ‘we’ that will teach them? Am I alone in my generation of scholars who came of age when dedicated courses on women writers were something we fought for and who no longer are interested in the field? Are there others like me out there? My gut is telling me ‘yes.’ Once there was a line up of faculty who requested to teach the course on Pre-1900 Women’s Writing in my department; next year, I am assigned to teach it even though it was at the bottom of my list of preferences. If we no longer hire in the field of women’s writing (or does someone closer to the market know otherwise about jobs offered in this field?), who will teach women’s writing courses in the future? Are such courses a thing of the past?

Katherine Binhammer
University of Alberta

3 comments:

  1. Great questions, Katherine. And no, you're not alone! After making the first part of my career on Canadian and Northern Ireland women writers (famous job letter line from the '90s: "All of my work is feminist."), I moved away to a project on terrorism and masculinity. I just sort of assumed someone (i.e., someone else!) would be minding the writing-by-women shop while I was away.

    An encouraging sign: the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory, which doesn't name women writers as its focus but is, in fact, a stealth feminist project under Susan Brown - who also leads Orlando.

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  2. Thanks for this post Katherine, these are critical questions. I have a really different experience from the ones you and Heather describe. I didn't come of age with the proliferation of the kinds of courses you're mentioning. In fact, my first all-women reading list was in a graduate class in 2003. I've been teaching (not only--but regularly) courses focused on women's writing and the registration is through the roof... partly (I suspect) because there are very few 'women's writing' (for lack of a more nuanced descriptor) courses being offered on the course calendar.

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  3. Great post! On the other hand, I have decided to come "back" to doing feminist work on gender (widely conceived) because my interests are changing. Originally, I decided not to work on women's writing in my field because so many other people did it! I do think that the paradigms are changing. Although the interest in women's writing as a separate category may be in decline, courses about gender theory are packing 'em out in our institution. This suggests to me that students (and professors) still want to think about these issues, but in a different way than they did when women's writing first became part of the curriculum as a way to make it (and women) visible.

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