21.4.11

Mrs Dalloway, student interest and feminism


Several years ago, I taught Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway to my IB Diploma Higher Level English class on a whim. We had just finished TS Eliot, which they found challenging but rewarding, and I thought it would be interesting to head in the same direction with a novel. It was not an easy process. They found the style and content off-putting and the students were hostile. As we went through the reading and I gave them some concepts to anchor their reading, it got better, and the necessity of preparing for oral commentaries overtook them well enough, but I thought I would not teach it again.

But then I got a note from a student at graduation. She was a good student, but not a great one, having taken Higher Level A1 English because she needed the Higher level in something. Here is the relevant section:
I'm so glad you gave us Mrs Dalloway. I can't stop thinking about it. The ideas there are amazing. I feel like I see something now that I couldn't see before and nobody else sees, like I see how the world really works and how I can live. I feel like reading that book has been the most important thing that's happened to me.

So I decided to stick with it. And each year, most of my HL students hate it in the beginning and embrace by the end.

I've read a lot about how education should allow students to explore their passions, advocating for student-choice reading lists for instance. I can see the attraction, and I understand the argument. At the same time, the interests and passions of students are limited by their own experience and by the natural conservatism of most teenagers. If we allow students to focus on their own interests and never push them to explore other ideas and texts, we end up isolating them in their own prejudices and contexts. Not a single student ever would choose Mrs Dalloway, a stream of consciousness novel about a middle-aged woman having a party in 1923 London. And yet so many of the students who have endured the novel have broadened their perspectives and been introduced to ideas they had never considered. That is an essential element of learning that I cannot see abandoning.

Even so, I was not excited about doing Mrs D this year. My Higher Level class consists of six boys and one girl, an unusual reversal of the usual ratio. I've taught most of these boys since grade 9, and I know that they glaze over every time gender issues come up. But then I thought, these are very clever young men who will go off to do amazing things: they need to come to terms with feminism, not just laughing it off as someone else's issue. They should learn the vocabulary and be able to wade into the issues with some clarity. They may not become feminists because they read the novel, but they should be required to take the ideas seriously, even if it is against their interests and passions.

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