In the two-year urban college where I teach, you would be hard-pressed to find a student whose eyes or ears can recognize Behn, Defoe, Richardson, Haywood, or Fielding. If I’m lucky, they may have read an abridged Gulliver’s Travels or Robinson Crusoe in their childhood. Centering on the learning needs of the community college student and the cultural diversity of the community, my pedagogy draws from Paolo Freire’s process of promoting conscientization and aims to bridge learner’s life experiences with instruction for meaning and relevance. Therefore, when teaching eighteenth-century texts, I rely on current-day pop culture references to promote knowledge processing of the unfamiliar material. I have found this strategy of transhistorical contextualization to be effective for boosting student engagement.
Traditionally, the eighteenth century can be a hard sell for undergraduate students, but this is even more so in the two-year college classroom. Informal surveys taken during the first week of classes reveal a student demographic that has neither read a single work in the period nor a long text. My institution, at this point, does not offer a course on the eighteenth century. Teaching anything in the period requires incorporating texts within a survey course. And within the context of the survey course for undergraduates, it would be too ambitious to effectively teach comprehensive and complex theories on the literary traditions of the early novel we’ve learned from Armstrong, McKeon, and Watt. Therefore, teaching theoretical material requires a bare-bones approach, selecting only the most relevant concepts to give students a deeper understanding of how the novel produces and is produced by the cultural impulses of its time.
I have had the most success with teaching Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey as a study on the novel and its dialogic relationships to its domestic fiction and gothic antecedents. Furthermore, I wanted students to understand that part of Austen’s project in writing Northanger Abbey is to engage in a dialogue with other novelists and novel readers on two fronts: cultural attitudes towards women writers and women’s reading habits, and the condition of women in the long eighteenth century. Essentially, I tap into students’ previous encounters with genre in their daily lives to help bridge connections between the more difficult and unfamiliar material of the eighteenth century and the novel with what they already know—in this case, a mega-hit pop song with almost 8 million views on YouTube.
On the first day we cover the novel, I introduce Ian Watt’s major ideas in The Rise of the Novel, emphasizing the “triple rise” theory and individualistic realism, giving some background on the literary material Austen draws and builds from, including Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. I then introduce the Bakhtinian concept of the dialogic, that novels refer to, mimic, question, parody, reinterpret, and revise earlier texts and engage them in a dialogue. Next, I ask my students to brainstorm features of the romance and the gothic that are familiar to them—from popular rom-coms or Twilight, as possible examples—and we create a kind of Venn diagram on the board, listing any overlap. For instance, “the erotic” may occupy both spaces for the romance and the gothic, but “the macabre” would be placed within the gothic. Ultimately, the point of this exercise is to demonstrate how the role and function of desire, from the early novel to contemporary narratives, is given expression through the female body, in its chastity and its conduct.
After, we view Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” video to examine the longstanding vestiges of eighteenth-century gothic romance conventions in popular culture. When Lady Gaga released the song in her 2009 album Fame Monster, it seemed destined to be taught alongside the eighteenth-century romance: “I want your love and/All your lovers revenge/You and me could write a bad romance.” First, we read the lyrics closely and discuss in which ways the song defines a “bad romance.” Then, we watch the music video, noting visual elements that speak to the conventions of romance and the gothic previously discussed in our conversations of Pamela and The Mysteries of Udolpho. For those that haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing Lady Gaga’s artistic vision for this song, the chaste heroine (Lady Gaga) is drugged and kidnapped by monstrous supermodels to be sold to the Russian mafia. In the unforgettable climax, Gaga, ostensibly preparing to please the highest bidder of her body, sets the bed on fire—the last frame of the video zooms out to a smoke-stained, cigarette-smoking Lady Gaga, reclining next to the smoldering, ash-covered skeleton of her John.
Most students pick up on the romance and gothic features, such as the abduction, the use of force and violence, the erotically-charged imagery, and the value of women as commodities. I then ask my students to consider the representations of these features—how does Lady Gaga position her own body? How are male and female forms of aggression expressed? How is the performance of gender and sex enacted? Finally, what is the role and function of desire and how does the female body embody it?
Basically, the purpose of this lesson is to illustrate how Lady Gaga, like Austen, evokes romance and gothic conventions, employing dialogic parody to reject and revise conventional and conservative notions of women’s passivity and, as G. J. Barker-Benfield claims, “inevitable victimization” (36; The Culture of Sensibility, U of Chicago P, 1996). For the rest of the unit in the weeks to follow, we note how Austen employs ironic reversals in her characterization of Catherine Morland (the opening chapter’s open mockery of romance and gothic literary conventions, for example), the portrayal of what Watt terms the “novel-reading girl,” and the marginalization of novels about women. By the end of the semester, students have tackled difficult material with more confidence and perseverance through a genre-based approach with one foot in the eighteenth century and the other in the present.
Kathleen Alves, Queensborough Community College, City University of New York