You know what essay question bores the pants off me?
Discuss the role of women in [Thing].
For [Thing] insert primary text, time period, historical event, whatever. This question annoys the hell out of me.
And yet I wrote that essay almost every time it came up, in my undergrad. And before, actually. I have a twenty-something-page folio which I compiled somewhere in early high school, entitled (in metallic gel pen) Women in the Middle Ages. It concludes with a one-thousand-word essay on The Role Of Women In The Middle Ages, laid out in more or less the same format as the one I’d keep re-using in uni (answer: SEXISM, BUT. Or sometimes, ARSE-KICKING, but SEXISM).
So this question annoys me. And yet I ate it up with a spoon as a student. I remember once going to Tutor Awesome and asking her for a Question About Women because I hadn’t done my biannual Essay About Women. Essays about women, I explained to her, were a nice sideline. A bit of a break from serious stuff. She sort of went cross-eyed, bit her tongue, and set me an essay on Ælfric’s construction of female heroism re: Judith. And I ended up wining a prize for it. And I had to deal with scholars who understand Judith Butler and Lacan, and basically Tutor Awesome kicked my arse from here to feminism. A thing which she only got to do because I wanted to write miscellaneous essays on women.
Also, there’s the part where my current thesis is based on an essay I wrote in honours on the Role Of Women In the Chevalier au Lion. And the part where some of the best tutorial papers I had last semester were students presenting on The Role Of Women in [Text].
It still annoys me, though. As a question.
One of the key problems with it is that, unless you happen upon a Tutor Awesome who wants to kick your arse, you don’t actually have to learn any new critical skills to answer The Role Of Women In The Middle Ages. You have to assimilate new information, yes, but you can usually answer that question with Sexism, But…
As a question, it doesn’t push you toward why answers. A clever student will find why answers themselves, but they actually have to move away from the ‘discuss the role of women’ purview a bit to do it. Compare that to, say, Discuss the development of the character of Guinevere across X-number of texts – that question is set up for comparisons, identification of key themes, and unless you’re very very silly, a why is this so conclusion.
The standard LadyQuestion also tends not to link in well with other key themes of the course. I’ve noticed this across history and literature units, and it’s ridiculous. If you’re talking about women in medieval literature, set genre questions about the Role of Women. Make people think about the difference between epic and romance!*
There’s also the habit of talking about chivalry and women and not masculinity and femininity, which leaves out the possibility of forcing students into comparing ideas of men’s and women’s honour, and various other fun things like that.
There’s also the fact that there are lots of kinds of women in medieval literature (and life), and smart students with an interest in LadyHistory often get screwed over by the necessity of covering them all. One could, horror of horrors, set several LadyQuestions each with narrower purviews!
And yet, students like the Standard LadyQuestion. And it does provide me with great opportunities to thwack them all over the head with Simon Gaunt and Katherine Gravdal and Joan M. Ferrante. I am torn!
* Someone did set me that question once. I have an essay on women in the Song of Roland which talks about emerging romance tropes in the treatment of women… which is bizarre, since it wasn’t like I had any earlier comparisons than Roland, but w/ever. I tried. Or the question-setter tried.