although high school teachers and university professors the world over include Jane Austen’s fiction in their courses, the body of scholarship on teaching Austen is surprisingly small. In comparison with the richness of critical approaches to Austen—or even with the wide varieties of popular adaptations of her work—relatively little has been published on pedagogy. Brief essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education or online study guides (by PBS and Penguin, for example) find ways to make Austen accessible in the classroom. A few full-length studies broach the subject of teaching Austen’s novels, many of them relating the novels to the films. In the last twenty years, the MLA’s Approaches to Teaching series has published two books on the teaching of Austen: one on Pride and Prejudice in 1993 and another on Emma ten years later; a volume on Mansfield Park is forthcoming this year. Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line have also published interesting essays on a variety of approaches to teaching Austen. In this forum we provide something more, including attention to the ways in which we might situate Austen’s work in relation to that of her contemporaries, as well as in regard to new technologies and pedagogical practices that expand the ways in which we can study and teach Austen.
The idea for this forum developed out of critical conversations on Austen’s work that began in 2012 with “Jane Austen and Her Contemporaries,” on the campus of the University of Missouri, a Summer Seminar for College and University Teachers sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. There a group of eighteen scholars, led by Devoney Looser, converged to contextualize Austen within a community of understudied female writers, Austen’s social world, and our own cultural moment. The seminar considered new ways of framing Austen, not as one unique genius but as one of many women novelists writing at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century. Conversations over the five weeks at the seminar considered how we study Austen in terms of sensibility, philanthropy, community, novel writing, and the digital humanities.
We begin with two essays that consider Austen’s relationship to her contemporaries. Misty Krueger’s essay, “Teaching Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey as a ‘Crossover’ Text,” asks questions about periodization through the teaching Austen’s Northanger Abbey as the culmination of the eighteenth-century novel, as the product of her Romantic counterparts, and as the first novel in an Austen seminar. Daniel Schierenbeck’s essay, “Teaching Two Janes: Austen and West in Dialogue,” places Austen’s work in dialogue with Jane West’s once popular and now almost forgotten novels, considering the benefits of pairing the two “Janes” in order to compare their stylistic and thematic concerns and to introduce students to the importance of recovering women writers of the period.
The next two essays bring Austen forward to our current social context as they address issues of social justice and alienation. In “Taking Emma to the Street: Toward a Civic Engagement Model of Austen Pedagogy,” Danielle Spratt connects themes of philanthropy in Austen’s novels with the civic engagement of undergraduates; she proposes a way of teaching Austen that asks students to connect social injustice in Austen’s writings with socio-political issues today. Olivera Jokic’s “Teaching to the Resistance: What to Do When Students Dislike Austen” tackles the difficulties of teaching Austen’s works to students who, for reasons of socio-economic and cultural difference, do not share what they see as Austen’s worldview.
Essays by Andrea Rehn and Bridget Draxler imagine students of Austen as digital readers and digital writers. Rehn’s essay, “‘Hastening Together to Perfect Felicity’: Teaching the British Gothic Tradition through Parody and Role-Playing,” promotes a collective experience of reading as her students collaboratively annotate Austen’s works. Draxler’s piece, “Teaching Jane Austen in Bits and Bytes: Digitizing Undergraduate Archival Research,” addresses ways in which digital tools give students wider access to archival materials and new ways of presenting primary research on Austen.
The forum’s final two essays focus on performances of Austen’s social world. Jodi L. Wyett’s “Jane Austen Then and Now: Teaching Georgian Jane in the Jane-Mania Media Age,” broaches the subject of adaptation as students’ first exposure to Austen, putting students’ familiarity with films into dialogue with the historical study of Austen’s novels and the cultural work Austen’s writing did and still does. In “Dancing with Jane Austen: History and Practice in the Classroom,” Cheryl Wilson explains how instructors can use, and teach, dance to help students intellectually and physically understand Austen’s social world.
Collectively, these articles see Austen not as a lone figure on a pedestal but as a professional writer engrossed in a rich network of diverse cultural roles and literary contexts. While Austen is often recycled in the classroom, taught and read again and again, we hope to reboot Austen in the classroom, by offering fresh perspectives on how the icon continues to adapt and change in new contexts.
We’d like to thank the contributors to this special issue, the members of the Editorial Board, who provided helpful and generous feedback on early versions of these essays, and JASNA’s Web Manager, Carol Moss, whose patience and ingenuity are becoming legendary.