Can you teach Chrétien without talking about rape?

Going to hell in a bobsled cause it's faster than a basketThere must be a special hell for anyone who gives a lecture titled ‘Erec et Enide II: Rape, and structuralist theory’. And it is to this hell that I am going, in my specially designed handbasket.

Some time ago, I had a conversation in a comment thread somewhere with Magistra about how one might handle problematic and potentially triggering material in a classroom setting. I’ve also had long conversations with people in my LJ, and a couple of conversations with my boss, and I’ve read with care the ‘Teaching Dangerous Subjects’ chapter in Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature, and a similar chapter in a book of essays on history pedagogy.

Background: I have participated in feminist internet spaces for long enough that it is now second nature to me to provide trigger warnings before recommending material to people. I sometimes miss things, but still, if I lend you my Sara Douglass books I will give them to you with profuse recommendations and a cautionary note for graphic rape and general misogyny on the part of the characters (but not, I believe, the author). Even if I don’t think that will bother you in particular.

The Geek Feminism wiki explain it better than I can:

Trigger warnings are customary in some feminist and other spaces. They are designed to prevent people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response (for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves) to certain subjects from encountering them unaware. Having these responses is called “being triggered”.

They tend to look like this: Trigger warning for: academic discussion of rape in literary texts. (You may now consider yourselves warned for this post. You should probably consider yourselves warned for my blog at large and also any conversation you get into with me in a pub.)

There is often a lot of debate and wank about precisely how much warning is necessary, in what formats, and so on. I think we can skip over that, but one common point of contention to which the debate keeps coming back is the conflict between the desire of the creator of, say, a fanvid, to educate the audience about something (say, violence against women in TV shows), and the need of some audience members to protect themselves from just that material. Fear of censorship also runs pretty strongly there.

Personally, I wouldn’t like to work or learn in an institution where one wasn’t allowed to discuss problematic material. I would also be skeptical of any attempt to make broad policies on warnings in educational context, since it seems likely to me to swiftly become more about policing the curriculum and Thinking of The Children than extending courtesy to adults who just happen to be our students. I also see a significant difference between texts one reads for educational purposes and texts or blogs or whatever that one reads for fun. But it’s still a problem – how do you frame sexual violence in a literary classroom?

  • Do I have a responsibility to teach my students about sex and violence in 12th century literature? That’s not actually a straight forward question. They didn’t enrol in ‘Violence in Italy’ (one hopes students of Violence in Italy are prepared for, well, violence). They enrolled in a general medieval studies course.
  • Do I have a responsibility to discuss sex and violence in Erec et Enide, given that I didn’t chose the text (perhaps I would have chosen a less rape-tastic text… or perhaps not)? I’m pretty sure my boss got through last year’s lectures on same without talking for half an hour about rape. Am I banging my personal drum and potentially harming others in so doing?
  • But conversely, would it be negligent to leave out an intellectually challenging, infinitely fascinating area of study which I know a couple of students are particularly interested in, because it’s too problematic?
  • Would giving trigger warnings imply that one doesn’t need to read a text to pass the course/learn the content? And if one doesn’t need to, then shouldn’t a teacher use that class time on something more accessible and more valuable?
  • Would I handle this question differently if it were another issue, equally problematic but with less personal relevance to me? Would I handle a violently racist text differently? Would I discuss genocide differently?
  • One problem we don’t have in Chrétien studies, but I’m told we do have in other areas, especially the study of Sir Degarré, is how does one deal with secondary material which is itself problematic (a friend of mine has run into ‘but it wasn’t real rape’ type commentaries in Sir Degarré). Thus far, everyone I’ve found either handles the sexual violence in E&E fairly well, or doesn’t touch it at all: but it’s a point of pedagogical concern worth keeping in mind.

I am not speaking from a point of patronising concern here, either. The week I first read Cligés, I could do nothing and think of nothing else. My first reading of Gravdal’s Ravishing Maidens also chewed up a lot of my mental and emotional energy, in a way that, say, Donald Maddox’s Fictions of Identity never does (it saps my will to live with its dense prose, but isn’t actually traumatic). Now, I dealt with that by giving a paper on sex and submission in Cligés, but I’m an odd case and I don’t expect that your average undergrad deals with upsetting material by turning it into exciting academic work.

That raises another concern – I worry about my own vulnerability. I worry about acknowledging that this material is upsetting as well as academically challenging; I worry about what that says to students about me. Conversely, I worry about being seen as callous or perverse because I’m interested in rape as a literary trope. I worry that these perceptions might detract from the academic content of my work; I worry that students might find them too self-revealing, or threatening in some way.

This post is getting long, so I shall cut it here, and tomorrow talk about the judgement calls I make as a tutor with regard to set texts, and with regard to my lecture content, which did, in the end, talk about rape rather a lot.


3 Responses to “Can you teach Chrétien without talking about rape?”

  1. You might be able to teach Chrétien without talking about rape, but I shan’t « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] I talked about some ethical problems that bug me when it comes to teaching texts with a lot of sexual violence in them. As you may have gathered from that post, I don’t have a choice about what my texts are at […]

  2. Other things done in lectures, or, Highly should not be allowed to improvise « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] to teach Chrétien without talking about rape, but I shan’t « The Naked Philologist on Can you teach Chrétien without talking about rape?highlyeccentric on Ackdgm on […]

  3. Down Under Feminists’ Carnival XL: bigger, better, more punnage « Ideologically Impure Says:

    […] Naked Philologist deals in two parts with the subject of teaching problematic material – Can you teach Chrétien without talking about rape? and You might be able to teach Chrétien without talking about rape, but […]

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