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An opinion piece by Dr. Susan Drain

george_eliot_640An article in yesterday’s Globe and Mail reports that a visiting professor at the University of Toronto has remarked that he doesn’t teach women writers because “he only teaches writers he truly loves, none of whom ‘happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf.’”

Not surprisingly for an institution dedicated to the advancement of women, we at the Mount have been teaching women writers as a intentional part of our program for well over thirty years. Not only do our courses foreground issues of gender, and seek to represent women writers even in historical periods when their voices were barely acknowledged, but we have taught courses focusing entirely on women writers, beginning in the early eighties with the “Women in Literature” course our then president, Margaret Fulton, taught in addition to her administrative responsibilities. That course has morphed over the years through “Women’s Literary Traditions” to its current “Themes in Women’s Writing.” Curiously, interest, as demonstrated by enrolments, has been steadily dropping over that period, but that may well be the result of the fact that our initiative to integrate women writers into our program has been so successful that few feel the need for an additional focus. But that’s another blog.

Questioned about his remarks, the professor in question, David Gilmour, said that he wasn’t saying that women writers couldn’t be or weren’t good writers, but that Alice Munro would never speak to him the way Thomas Pynchon could. (Perhaps he feels that he is a better teacher when he can be more passionate and enthusiastic about his subject.) The UofT department has subsequently gone on record to say that teachers have a responsibility to explore all sorts of areas of their field, rather than indulging their own tastes exclusively. Obviously there is flexibility in deciding set texts: I may want to teach Middlemarch one year, and Mill on the Floss another, but I wouldn’t, even if I disliked George Eliot, leave her off a Victorian novel course.

Part of the difficulty is that GIlmour’s stance is seen as privileging white heterosexual male experience, with the result that while he is supremely comfortable in his class, not having to deal with writers who don’t speak to him, his students may be less comfortable, having to deal with writers who don’t speak to them.

The word comfort always makes me uncomfortable when it comes to education. Part of our task is to push people out of their so-called comfort zones, to take them to the edge of their familiar territory and thereby gain a different perspective. On the other hand, anyone in a position of privilege and power, like a professor in a classroom, must be very careful about afflicting the comfortable, when there are populations in the classroom who are already not very comfortable in a traditional institution, rarely seeing their own experience reflected or even acknowledged in the curriculum or the conversation, or being marginalized for any number of reasons.

Any comments? How comfortable are our classrooms and our curriculum? And is that a good thing?

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