- What We Talk around When We Talk about The Dick
Some years ago, I had my first opportunity to teach an undergraduate American Romanticism course, which meant I had a chance to teach Moby-Dick the way I thought it should be taught.1 In my first post-doc job, I had thus far taught a grab bag of courses that needed to be offered but none of the regular faculty wanted, like Chicano lit, postmodernism, and women’s literature. The department’s primary nineteenth-century Americanist was out on disability, which also gave me my first chance to teach a class considered essential rather than merely supplementary or exchangeable. Until this class came up, my colleagues identified my teaching qualifications with my scholarship rather than with my teaching experience or graduate training; because I was writing about contemporary and often experimental women poets, the faculty directed to me students who had interests in experimental poetry and women writers and often flattered me by making an effort to talk about marginalized modernists or contemporary literature I might like.
Perhaps this equation of teaching abilities with scholarship prompted the bizarre but funny harassment I received within the first few weeks of the semester I taught American Romanticism. Meeting two days a week, my course was set up so that students read about thirty pages of Moby-Dick for one class meeting a week paired with readings by another writer for the other meeting. For example, we might read Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” on Tuesday, followed by sections of Moby-Dick including “Cetology” on Thursday—or the other way around. Three weeks or fewer than one hundred pages in, colleagues, men and women both, cornered me in the copy room and hall to mock scold or interrogate me about this pretend aberration: “What? YOU teaching Moby Whale? Those poor kids. Nobody teaches Moby Whale,” or more revealingly, “I heard you were teaching Moby-Dick?? I thought you were a feminist.” As Charlene Avallone notes, “[T]he work that [Melville’s] texts have been made to perform in reinforcing an androcentric and misogynist American culture” (56) certainly explains the foundation of some of these remarks. Then and since, my defense for teaching a book that has all of two named women characters, both played for laughs, by an author who operates as [End Page 91] synecdoche for the white male canon has been insufficient.
This essay is an effort not only to defend myself but also to examine and to challenge some of the assumptions central to this anecdote: first, that nobody wants to read Moby-Dick anymore, even when one thinks she should read it, and that nobody likes it when it’s required. Second, that the teacher-scholar model, typically employed to defend increased publishing requirements by casting scholarship as prerequisite to teaching competence, means only that scholarship serves students rather than that our work with students often leads us to new specializations. Third, that Moby-Dick and other canonical keystones are inimical to feminism and feminism to Moby-Dick. Finally, that what we teach is always more important than how we teach it. In place of these assumptions, I want to make the case that all kinds of students want to read (and most at least believe they should read) Moby-Dick and like it (most of the time) when they do; that our current understanding of the teacher-scholar ideal subordinates teaching to scholarship (rather than recognizes the importance of teaching to scholarship) and perpetuates what a colleague calls “the logocentric classroom”; that Moby-Dick and traditional canonical works are not the enemy; and most importantly, that how we teach is at least as important as, and perhaps more important than, what we teach.
When asked how I can be a feminist and teach Moby-Dick, I have answered that, although the book doesn’t concern itself with many women, and although when Melville does write about women the results usually aren’t pretty, I teach Moby-Dick because it’s about everything: because it disturbs categories of gender and sexuality upon which patriarchy and the canon are built; because its considerations of reading, truth...