Teaching British Women Writers 1750-1900 (review)
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Teaching British Women Writers 1750–1900, edited by Jeanne Moskal and Shannon R. Wooden; pp. vii + 235. Frankfurt and New York: Peter Lang, 2005, €26.00, $29.95.

While the representation of women writers in teaching anthologies has dramatically increased in recent years, the resources necessary for an informed approach to teaching women's texts are still forthcoming. Jeanne Moskal and Shannon R. Wooden's book expands upon the earlier efforts of Susanne Woods and Margaret P. Hannay, in Teaching Tudor and Stuart Women Writers (2001), and Stephen C. Behrendt and Harriet Kramer [End Page 528] Linkin, in Approaches to Teaching British Women Poets of the Romantic Period (1997). Moskal and Wooden's wide-ranging collection of essays offers us a welcome opportunity to step back and reflect upon our teaching practices and ideological assumptions as we embrace more women writers in our syllabi and evolving canon of literature. Recognizing the rewards and complications of canon expansion and recovery work, these essays, organized into two overlapping sections, present a variety of classroom practices that share what Moskal calls "the underlying commitment of feminist epistemologies." Critiquing essentialism, such epistemologies "seek to articulate our own situatedness and that of our students as part of understanding how we know" (3). While focused on writing from both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and weighted toward the latter, the essays offer strategies for teaching women writers that would also apply to other periods.

The book's acknowledgement of our situatedness is especially helpful: our classrooms seat different kinds of students at disparate institutions and the way we teach women's writing must vary accordingly. While Peaches Henry, in teaching "'Recovered' Victorian Female Intellectuals," must "make a frontal attack on students' facile acceptance of stereotypes and myths about women's writing" (165) and Elizabeth A. Dolan must invoke history and a canonical male poet to reach students who question the aesthetic value of Felicia Hemans's poetry, Elisabeth Rose Gruner addresses another population of students who come to their reading of nineteenth-century novels without the preconception that "sensationalism is cheap or less aesthetically valuable than, say, the suspense of a Dickens novel or the tragedy of an Eliot novel" (105). Teaching Saguna (1890) helps Kristine Swenson address female students' ambivalence about feminism, while James R. Simmons, Jr. grapples with smart, motivated technical students whose tenuous appreciation for the humanities makes the inclusion of noncanonical women writers on the syllabus a hard sell. We hear an echo of the strategy that underlies the pedagogy of all these essayists in Diane Chambers's explanation of how her students' understanding and appreciation of Christina Rossetti's poetry is enhanced when she incorporates their strong religious orientation into her approach: "the success in getting students to think carefully and critically about what they read happened because I recognized that students come to my classes not as blank slates or empty vessels but as people with cultural heritages and contexts that influence them as learners" (157). Chambers and others show how to enhance our teaching by capitalizing on the preconceptions of our particular students.

Meeting the students head on, then, these essayists share a variety of teaching strategies that are both subject specific and generally applicable, and that rigorously involve the students in the process of discovery. E. J. Clery makes her students "front-line researchers" (160) of forgotten texts in the Corvey Collection, while Henry sets students to research Victorian nonfiction prose writers in a way that makes them start from their biases and suspicions to educate them about canon formation. What binds the multifarious subjects of these essays—forgotten texts, Victorian women's nonfiction, short fiction, short multiplot fiction, poetry about women's friendship, recently published women's works just made available, drama—is their common commitment to helping students recognize how, as Henry asserts, "scholars are recovering the voices of writers whose work enhanced and helped create Western civilization as we know it and that by restoring these lost voices to the literary canon, scholars broaden and deepen the dimensions of human existence" (174). Toward this same goal, several of the essayists outline [End Page 529] their pairing of texts both...


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