Busting stereotypes

George Mason University professor Jessie Matthews teaches an undergraduate literature course on romance novels. Half of the work in teaching the course is breaking through students’ (and other professors’) preconceived notions about romance novels.


How do you teach romance novels?

The most rewarding thing about teaching a course on the popular romance is getting to bust stereotypes. First, it’s my students. Again, I’ve told you, they come into the course with this pretty disparaging view of the romance novel, that it’s read by a bored housewife who is not smart enough to read real fiction. They see it in the way many people see the romance novel: as not real literature.

So, I spend the semester trying to show them that there’s actually a pretty complex act going on in a romance novel, a good romance novel, there’s coded language. I actually have them do an exercise where we take a sex scene in Lord of Scoundrels and then I ask them to paraphrase it without using all those verbs and adjectives and everything. And I want them to see the difference between the clinical description of it and what romance writers do, and that it’s not easy to move from one to the other. It’s easy to paraphrase it to the clinical way, but not back. I also want them to see the sort of mythic underpinnings of the plot, and they’re very surprised by that. When they begin to put these things together, then they have a greater appreciation for the genre itself. So that’s really rewarding, is watching them from the very beginning—I do survey them at the very beginning and then survey them at the end.

The other stereotypes I have to bust are those of my colleagues, who—when I tell them that I’m teaching a course on the romance novel—laugh. They don’t think it’s a real course; in fact they even say, “Is that a real course?” So I tell them, “Yes, it most certainly is.” I usually get—the next question is the “but is it any good” question. And I remind them that people in our field asked the same question about literature by women, literature by people of color, oh, maybe 20, 30 years ago they were asking that question, and look where we are today! So it bothers me that they ask that without knowing anything about the romance novel, so in part their stereotype comes out of ignorance, despite the fact that they’re very knowledgeable about literature; it’s just not this kind of literature. It’s also—I know that it’s an expanding field, but in my department there’s virtually no awareness that this is a field of scholarship. It’s an opportunity for me to enlighten them and I take every opportunity I can to do so.

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