Tyranny of choice

You’re teaching a class on romance novels, and only have time to cover a handful of books. Which do you choose? Professor Jessie Matthews has had practice answering this question for her undergraduate literature course in romance fiction.


How do you select which books to teach?

Choosing what to put in the course is probably the most difficult thing about that course. It is an exercise in the tyranny of choice, because there are literally thousands of romance novels out there and choosing the five—which is the most you can teach to general education students, freshmen and sophomores—is really tough. So I try to—I’ve learned over the three times that I’ve taught it to focus on a theme so that it gives students something to hook into, they’re familiar with the notion of theme in literature, and it helps me choose the books.

So for my last time teaching—the course I’m teaching right now—I focused on the Byronic hero because I could see—I could map out a sequence of books that would focus on different aspects of the Byronic hero over a period of time. I also wanted to teach Fifty Shades of Grey because I see it as a phenomenon book, and it seems—I think it would be unlikely for students to not want to know anything about that book given the enormous public conversation about it. That fit perfectly into a sort of Byronic hero arc. So, for this particular semester that’s how I chose to organize that course.

Now, like I said, my students are not all interested in reading romance novels. I would say that a good portion of them don’t read novels at all. They are not necessarily really capable readers yet so they need to be instructed in critical reading. They don’t understand that literature exists in context, so that’s another thing I need to teach them. But I do get a few romance novel readers. And they’re students who have read a great many romance novels, and they are great in class. And this particular course does an interesting thing for them: it gives them a chance to be subject matter experts about a type of literature that they never thought a professor would treat with respect. So it’s a great opportunity for them.

Who takes your class on romance?

The ratio of men to women in all of my romance novel sections has always been disproportionately women [. . .]

[. . .] I did have one student who told me that he specifically enrolled in the course because he wanted to see what women thought about relationships. And given the in-class discussions over the course of a semester, I feel he got what he came for. He actually wrote on his final exam a whole passage for me about what he learned about women. His comment was, “You know, you just need to listen to them talk. They just want you to talk to them.” He said, “That’s what I’ve learned.” So I thought, “Okay, you got something out of this course.” But it is overwhelmingly female.

What have you learned by teaching romance?

I initially learned that starting with Pamela is a bad idea, even though to me it makes perfect sense. But I can’t assign that entire novel. I try to assign excerpts. And it’s just—there’s just not enough time to contextualize that, and they don’t understand the whole plotline and the language, they would have needed to read the whole novel. So, I’ve learned that that’s not a good idea.

I’ve also learned that I have to be careful about the novels I teach. If there’s lots of film versions that are accessible to students out there, they’re going to look at the movie and they are not going to read the book [. . .]

[. . .] So I’ve learned that—to try to keep the focus on the close reading and looking at the literature in context.

The other thing I try to do in class is that I make each one of them accountable for a presentation where they have to get up and do a close reading [. . .]

[. . .] It’s not long, I only ask them to do a passage, I give them lots of help ahead of time, but they have to actually do it. And in that way, the preparatory work doesn’t involve so much writing—which scares them—but they still have to do the critical thinking and the analytic reading in order to produce the presentation.

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