Yesterday, 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 the moment, but I do get to make some judgement calls on how to introduce them in tutorials, and about what goes into the lectures when I’m scheduled to lecture. As I noted in that post, I made this judgement calls after talking to fellow bloggers and my boss, and having read a few chapters on teaching ‘dangerous subjects’.
Since we’re talking about warnings protocol, have a trigger warning for academic discussion of rape in literary texts.
I made my judgement call as a tutor last semester: I gave trigger warnings for the Conte du Graal and Chevalier de la Charette: I advised that there were attempted rape scenes, and suggested that those for whom that posed a problem, summaries online might help them navigate the text. This semester I did the same, with an added warning for blood and guts in the Chanson de Roland (less of a hot topic, but I do have at least one friend, a medieval studies student although not at my uni, who cannot handle descriptions of blood and guts, even in text).
Interestingly, I now know I’m not the only person doing something like this: a student mentioned to me that a tutor in a different course had emailed her personally to let her know that the following week’s content dealt with death and bereavement, which the tutor knew might be difficult for her. That was a one-to-one exchange, but nevertheless, the principle stands. The tutor in question was a formidable academic (not in my field at all) for whom I have great respect, so I took heart from this evidence that I’m not running around in circles here with a strange newbie idea all by myself.
Another judgement call was in order for the actual lecture content. In the end, I simply couldn’t talk about Erec et Enide without talking about rape, because rape – or more specifically, raptus (marriage-by-capture, which Magistra covered here) is so tied up in the marital politics of Chrétien’s romances. How do you talk about the Count of Limors and the deliberate (ironic?) contrast between him and Erec without talking about raptus? So that answered the ‘is it necessary’ question, and I gave the class a general warning last week that there was a ‘high probability of me talking about rape’.
When I sat down to structure the second lecture, though, I ended up talking about far more rape than I’d meant to. I ended up structuring the whole lecture around ‘the two most difficult topics – rape and structuralist theory’. They’re difficult for completely different reasons, but both are topics that I wanted to walk the class through personally. I wanted to give the class a run-down of Donald Maddox’s Fictions of Identity, so that those who needed to deal with him could go in armed with my lecture slides. He’s difficult because of his dense prose, which is, um, useful, but not exactly undergrad-friendly, shall we say? He’s also challenging because his ‘schema’ based structuralist approach looks for commonalities across a wide range of texts, which doesn’t easily account for unique features of particular narratives. That provides a great opportunity for creative students to start with the framework and poke at how it doesn’t quite fit the text; but given that it’s taken me a year and a half to feel I can do that comfortably myself, I thought second-years deserved a walk-through before we set them loose on the essays.
And I ended up approaching the whole topic of sexual violence in the same way. I had to conclude that it would be negligent of me to teach this text without talking about what the hell is with all the rape. What I said to them at the outset is that I wanted to give them some idea of an academic way of responding to this, in addition to the perfectly understandable readerly response of throwing the book across the room and declaring that they’re all shits. So that’s what we did: we walked through each of the attempted abduction and forced marriage scenes, tied them in to a reading which focuses on Enide progressively becoming more outspoken; and talked about masculinity, rape law, and so on. I gave two different but complementary readings on why all this rape, taken from Katherine Gravdal and Tracy Adams respectively, and I really hope that by the end of it the class could go away with something to say about sexual violence in 12th century romance other than “oh god they’re all bastards”.
I don’t know if this is a right answer, but right now, I would rather be the teacher who talked about rape too much than the teacher who pretended like it wasn’t there at all. I am going to trust that, with a heads-up in advance, anyone with really devastating triggers will make whatever decisions they need to, given that attendance is not marked in lectures; and that the remaining body of students benefit in some way from a content-heavy lecture on what the hell is with all the rape.
Also, I think I deserve a cookie for managing to get the I-read-this-so-you-don’t-have-to summary of Donald Maddox to flow smoothly into a discussion of all the rape, and close readings of Enide’s speeches. Now if only my thesis were this so coherent.
[Yeah, this post gives away quite a lot about me and my institution and my job. Given that my associate supervisor reads this – hi, Lawrence – and so do a number of my former students and my postgrad peers, the discretion ship has sailed.]