- Chick Lit in the Undergraduate Classroom
"Readers call a book good when they find it useful," asserts Charlotte Templin in her study of literary pedagogy and the canon, "The Male-Dominated Curriculum in English: How Did We Get Here and Where are We Going?" She continues, explaining the politics behind such value judgments, "Instead of asking 'How good is it?' we must ask 'Good for what?' or 'Good for whom?' Judgments about quality are not the objective property of texts, but are contingent: they are the political judgments of individuals and, as such, a function of their tastes, interests, and beliefs."1 The genre known as "chick lit," a category of contemporary women's fiction that emerged in the 1990s with works including Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, has been plagued by such judgments and has sparked much debate in the popular press. This debate tends to take issue with two aspects of the genre, its status as literature and its relationship to feminism, and the recent infiltration of the academy by chick lit has further intensified these concerns. Nonetheless, the genre has begun to make inroads with the publication of a handful of critical articles, Caroline Smith's Cosmopolitan Culture and Consumerism in Contemporary Women's Popular Fiction (2007), and Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young's critical anthology Chick Lit: The New Woman's Fiction (2006).2 The very questions concerning literature and feminism that make chick lit problematic for scholars and cultural critics, however, make the genre quite suitable for the undergraduate classroom, particularly for those instructors committed to feminist pedagogy both within and beyond women's studies classes. Indeed, as Brenda Bethman notes in "Chick Lit 101," where she lists a handful of faculty who use chick lit in their classrooms, along with their course titles, "Slowly, however, the study of chick lit is gaining popularity among Women's Studies scholars."3 The inherently interdisciplinary nature of the chick-lit genre and its connection to critical discussions about literature and feminism provide a variety of creative and interactive teaching opportunities, while also creating [End Page 83] the sense of "relevance" that bell hooks identifies as essential to the feminist classroom when she asserts that teachers need to be willing "to acknowledge a connection between ideas learned in university settings and those learned in life practices."4
bell hooks articulates her theory of feminist pedagogy in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom and acknowledges the difficulty of reaching students in a postfeminist world: "Right now teachers and students face new challenges in the feminist classroom. Our students are no longer necessarily already committed to or interested in feminist politics."5 hooks and many other theorists also emphasize the need for feminist classrooms in which student perspectives are validated, multiple approaches are employed, and patriarchal value systems are deconstructed.6 Ultimately, these writers argue, any classroom can be a feminist classroom. Chick lit, a genre characterized by "resiliency and adaptability," can certainly facilitate the creation of dynamic and interdisciplinary feminist spaces within an undergraduate curriculum. 7 With its primarily white, middle-class, heterosexual heroines, much chick lit, including the texts discussed here, Bridget Jones's Diary and Confessions of a Shopaholic, seems to jar with feminist pedagogy's commitment, as articulated by hooks, to "cultural diversity, a rethinking of ways of knowing, a deconstruction of old epistemologies, and the concomitant demand that there be a transformation in our classrooms."8 In addition, as Ferriss and Young point out in the Chronicle of Higher Education, chick lit embodies generational conflicts among women:
For some of us who identify ourselves as feminist professors, the concerns of young women represent a betrayal—not only of our academic work, but of our life's work. Why are they worrying about their appearance more than their education? Dressing for sex, not success? Understandably embittered at the rejection of their most cherished ideals, many professors prefer to ignore or dismiss students' concerns—and certainly prefer not to teach the literature they believe glorifies what they so strongly resent.9
However, for Brenda Bethman chick lit provides an opportunity to bridge that gender gap: "While we may...