- An Unexpected Resonance:Exploring Gender through Victorian Literature in the Middle East
In 2007, the University of Calgary opened a nursing branch campus in Doha, Qatar, offering the first accredited bachelor of nursing program in the country. Qatar is a tiny Islamic state on the Persian Gulf; the progressive educational policies of its hereditary emir have made it a leader in the fields of higher education and research in the Middle East. As the new nursing program matured, it became apparent that students both desired and required a breadth of educational opportunities parallel to their Canadian counterparts. In 2009, I was hired to teach literature “option” courses to ucq’s nursing students (“option” faculty members from other disciplines were also hired).
I arrived in the middle of a sweltering Doha summer with significant professional trepidation and more questions than anyone already on the ground was able to answer. I work in the areas of Victorian studies and gender theory. How, I wondered, could I interest my students in a time period and a literature so far removed from their own experiences and their chosen discipline? How could I approach gender issues in my classroom while respecting local taboos surrounding public discussions of gender and sexuality? Should I even try? How could I teach British literature in the Middle East, given the dangerous historical context of Orientalism and imperialism? And perhaps most basically, how could I convince students from a rich oral culture—many of whom had never studied English literature before, nor even read an English novel—the value of reading itself? My task, it seemed, was large.
I spent my first semester orienting myself, teaching general composition courses, and getting to know the students, while simultaneously considering and discarding endless ideas for themes for my first literature course the following semester. In the end, I alighted upon the idea of a nursing-in-literature course. The subject matter, I hoped, would appeal to our nursing students and since the professionalization of nursing occurred during the Victorian period, I would have a chance to teach some of the texts I love. Happily, I compiled a course book packed with text excerpts of every Victorian nurse I could think of (Dickens’s Mrs. Gamp is a favourite), as well as more contemporary examples. The course should start, I thought, with a unit on Florence Nightingale, the reformer of Victorian practices and undisputed mother of modern nursing—though I greatly feared that beginning the course with what I considered to be rather dry historical texts would put the students off. Our students are largely Arabic speakers with varying degrees of fluency in English, and I expected mid-Victorian medical diction to challenge and perhaps frustrate them. [End Page 9]
As it turned out, I need not have worried. I had hoped that students might be mildly interested in Nightingale’s then-revolutionary belief in evidence-based nursing practice, or her writings on power relations between doctors and nurses. To my great surprise, however, students responded immediately and viscerally to Nightingale’s life story, and her 1859 nursing textbook Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not was the unquestioned favourite of the entire semester. “Florence,” as they called her with affectionate familiarity, resonated profoundly with my students in ways that often surprised me. The discussions taught me much about my students’ lives—and also about a text I thought I had thoroughly understood. And fascinatingly, for me, our discussions about Nightingale’s life opened a safe space in the classroom for consideration of gender issues to which I, as a Western authority figure, might never otherwise have had access.
We began our Nightingale unit with a lecture on the historical and social context of the Victorian era and then moved on to read excerpts from several biographies. Students read about Nightingale’s life-long desire for education and her career ambition, as well as the dismay of her family when she announced her intention of becoming a nurse. In one biography, Gamaliel Bradford writes,
She had the battle with family prejudice which so many ardent reformers have to go through. Public nursing? The idea was horrible...