PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.34, NO.2 (Spring 2014)

Teaching to the Resistance: What to Do When Students Dislike Austen

Olivera Jokic


Olivera Jokic (email: is Assistant Professor of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York.  She teaches and writes about British literature, historiography, colonialism, and gender.


“Whatever Austen inherited from her predecessors and peers, it was hardly mindless romance.”

—Marilyn Butler


“Critical reading is the pious labor of a historically unusual sort of person.”

—Michael Warner


For many instructoors, the opportunity to teach Austen is an occasion to share with students their love for a favorite author.  One might imagine that students in these classes are excited about reading Austen’s novels.  Many of them have seen film adaptations of the novels; some have even read an actual novel or two before taking the class.  Perhaps older family members’ affinity for Austen initiated these students into Austen fandom.  I have encountered a very different kind of teaching situation, however:  reading Austen with students who bring little or no excitement about Austen’s novels to their college literature classroom.


John Jay, the institution where I teach, is one of about two dozen colleges that make up City University of New York (CUNY), the only public university in New York City, attended by approximately 200,000 students.  Unique within CUNY as a federally registered “Hispanic-Serving Institution,” John Jay enrolls about 15,000 students drawn primarily from working-class populations that arrive in New York City from every corner of the world.  Women make up more than half of its undergraduate student body.


When I interviewed for the job on campus, I was asked about courses I envisioned teaching, and I suggested designing an upper-division course that would allow students to read Austen’s novels in the order they were first published.  Such a schedule, I proposed, would allow students both to appreciate the novelist’s peculiar experiments with style, and to think about various histories of the novel through Austen’s publication history.  A variety of undergraduate institutions offered versions of such a course on Austen.  My pedagogical vision was promptly corrected.  In a statement that made clear how the profile of the institution shaped the kinds of teaching possible there, an English department administrator told me, “Nobody here knows who [Austen] is.”  Despite my misconceptions about what went on in college-level literature classes, I was hired.


Whereas my students’ patterns of exposure to popular culture may appear odd in comparison with the experiences of students excited about Austen, their indifference is interesting and important because it persists after they become familiar with Austen’s work.  While I may never get to teach John Jay students a course structured around Austen’s exceptional status as a canonical author who suffuses popular culture, I have taught Austen as a writer whose work is relevant to courses with a particular thematic or historical focus.  In such courses, students have approached learning about Austen and learning from Austen as two vastly different, if not incompatible, goals.  While they are willing to learn about the writer, her novels, and their reputation, students do not find the experience of reading Austen enjoyable.  They insist that enjoyment of such reading would be at odds with their learning because Austen’s texts stand for political and social ideals students wish to repudiate through education.


Rather than treat students’ refusal of Austen as a failure of the uninitiated, I want to consider their reservations as an indication of the disparity between what counts as valuable knowledge for me as an academically trained teacher, and what counts as valuable for these students.  Their resistance makes explicit the way in which teaching literature could disregard students’ invaluable informal preparation for the college-level literature classroom at the risk of suppressing the kind of reading such preparation introduces into the academic discourse.  Because students explain their resistance to the conventional, affirmative reading of Austen as a means of preserving their excitement about interpretation, I would like to consider what kind of literary enjoyment makes worthwhile the great risk involved in the refusal of texts many experienced readers enjoy reading and professors enjoy teaching.




My students, much like other adolescents in the U.S., are avid consumers of popular culture.  The segment of popular culture they do consume, however, leaves them entirely unaware of Austen as a pervasive cultural phenomenon.  Because they were shielded from what may otherwise look like ubiquitous cultural references for any college-bound student, these students enter college with unorthodox preparation for the U.S. college curriculum.  They are a constituency shaped by experiences of transnational displacement and migration, low-wage labor, and non-conventional family forms.  Institutionally collected data suggest that 22% of all John Jay College students (and 58% of seniors) “spend 21 or more hours a week working for pay” (compared to 16% among peers nationally).  About 40% of our students (and 43% of seniors) spend six or more hours a week “caring for dependents” (compared to 20% among peers), and 74% of students spend “six or more hours a week commuting to class” (compared to 31% among peers).  The transition to college is also, for many students, a significant sociolinguistic obstacle.  Close to sixty percent of our undergraduates use English as a second language, and first-year students report a greater challenge finding their way around the College than their peers at the rest of the University or at comparable institutions in the nation.1


Most of these students come to college having heard of very few writers in English, and some with no familiarity with literature at all.  Their academic careers are tales of tremendous and tremendously risky personal transformation.  These students discover college literature classrooms (as well as other disciplines in the humanities) as spaces in which to become more competent thinkers about society and culture.  Their experience studying the humanities goes against the expectations cultivated by parents and teachers who warn them about the dangers of failing to follow cultural norms, acquire academic credentials, and pursue the economic and social benefits of higher education.  Often for the first time, students find that a college literature classroom legitimizes doubts and conversations about the threats and warnings that brought them to college in the first place.  At the cost of disrupting the safe, pragmatic plan they had presented to their parents and to themselves, they question committing to an occupation that would give them job security and social status.  They choose instead to use the little time they have in college to look directly at the ideologies, social norms, and historical patterns that shape the lives of individuals:  to question how they think, why they like what they like, why they do what they do.


Reading literature in this environment is both an extravagant luxury and a respite from the idea that education is a process designed to limit students’ interests and identities to one (preferably lucrative) professional field, and to provide the satisfaction of an expert’s social status.  In this safe space, students begin to think about their entitlement to the joy of reading and discussing works of literature.  They are motivated and emboldened by their enjoyment, and they wonder how some writers have managed to give time and shape to questions that would have gone unasked at home, in the popular culture, or among teacher-experts in college.


Students become interested in works from a range of historical periods, regardless of their idiosyncrasy, cultural specificity, or historical distance—from Homer’s Iliad and the poetry of William Blake to Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Many students change their major to English once they learn that English is a field they could choose to specialize in, often after taking a general education English course and while keeping the decision secret from their parents.  Studying literature for these students is a license to become more open about the possible pleasures and dangers of probing into their place in the world, using literary works as their primary instruments of examination.


From this constituency come the English majors who learn about the stature of Austen in various corners of U.S. popular culture, watch the films, read the novels, and still commonly refuse to develop a taste for them.  In a situation where students abandon the values and priorities that brought them to college in the name of the new pleasures they discover in literature, their unwillingness to appreciate a popular canonical writer such as Austen is instructive.  When they say they cannot enjoy Austen, students insist that Austen’s work is not a good instrument for the kind of corrosive examination they have learned to desire.


Their exposure to Austen in college is generally limited to a couple of novels.  Some will get to read Pride and Prejudice, either in a general education course, or in a course called “Gender and Literature.”  I usually assign Persuasion, which virtually all of them will read for the first time, in the context of a senior seminar focusing on the concept of the “modern family.”  This course is a series of discussions on the centrality of the family form to modern conceptions of affect, individuality, social identity, and self-determination.  Readings in the course range from Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality, William Godwin’s writing on marriage in Political Justice, Friedrich Engels’s theory of the joint origins of the family and the state, and Sigmund Freud’s discussions of the “family romance” and fantasies about children being beaten, to Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and short fiction by twentieth- and twenty-first-century authors such as Lydia Davis and Amy Hempel.  These readings establish connections between individual feelings and state and family economics; between government policy and family form; between architecture of family homes and the emergence of emotions among those living in close physical proximity.


Focusing on texts written over more than two centuries, the course draws students’ attention to an array of phenomena often dismissed, as Raymond Williams put it, as “the personal, or the private, or the natural or even as the metaphysical” (125).  Because the course treats these phenomena as historical, political, and social, over the course of the semester students learn how to think of motherhood, parenting, childhood, cohabitation, privacy, domestic service, and monogamy as changeable historical categories, rather than as natural or universal ones.  The interpretive tools students learn in the class allow them to make connections between the literary representations of families and their own definitions and experiences of the concept of family.  They are eager to join the long-running conversation about family because they understand how the writers give recognizable shape to political and social forces that determine how we imagine identity, intimacy, and emotion.2


Students’ exposure to Austen in this course is fated by my authority to decide on their behalf which texts are relevant to such a complicated conversation.  I introduce Austen as a writer whose canonical status has been renewed through decades-long scholarly effort across the humanities to make gender a “useful category of analysis” (Scott, “Gender” 1053).  While attention to the relationship between gender norms and literary canonicity has helped to rescue many women writers from complete anonymity, it has revised Austen’s position as the designated writer on the domestic and the provincial as the “feminine.”


Rectifying “one of the great anomalies of literary history” (Johnson xiii), feminist scholarship has re-configured Austen’s canonical position and given her texts new historical and biographical interpretive frameworks.  Such an intervention has produced, one the one hand, evidence of the author’s keen interest in (and knowledge of) the explicitly political matters readily recognized as relevant outside the domestic realm (e.g., wars, governments, professions, and geography).  At the same time, it has emphasized Austen’s consciousness of the role of gender in shaping her texts and her literary career.3  The novelist now enjoys the distinctive status of a female canonical figure deeply and deliberately immersed in the political matter of her day.


Persuasion has been treated as a particularly important piece of evidence that Austen had deserved this status, a testimony of Austen’s personal and artistic maturity.  It is praised for propelling the plot through an exploration of the “inner” life of Anne Elliot, Persuasion’s protagonist, whose suffering is a consequence of accepting “persuasion” from well-meaning friends and family concerned about the viability of her marriage to a man of lesser means and dubious social distinction.  The novel is said to study how the vacillation in the choice of a marriage partner reveals the indistinctness of “persuasion” from emotion, of sensible decisions from regrets, and of second chances from looming danger.4


Austen’s characters in Persuasion bother not only with the privileges of social status but also with the prospects and known avenues of social mobility.  Characters are shown drifting between the professional and the landed classes, and their volatility of status changes what the courtship plot can do for the narrative.  Once ineligible male partners get refurbished into plausible ones, women once comfortably married find themselves destitute widows.  Female characters in the novel could be read as ideological experiments testing the shape and currency of desirable masculinity and femininity in the setting Austen delineates.  The novel seems to ask, What does it mean for unmarried women to study, on their own empirical experience, the fluctuations of feeling and the significance of emotional hindsight?  Can there be “true love” outside the social norm that sanctions acceptable emotion and ties it to marriage, property, and the family?


Standing in resistance


I assign Persuasion because I share much of the enthusiasm of other professional critics about the novel as an important critical treatment of the politics of the modern family, gender norms, and affect.  I like to believe that I use Austen’s texts as instruments of social and cultural critique, because I like to think that my work in the classroom contributes to what Michael Warner has called the “heroic pedagogy.”5  Such pedagogy sets the horizon of literature teaching at an “open future of personal and collective liberation, of full citizenship and historical belonging” (Warner 14).  This is the kind of pedagogy that brings my students to the literature classroom because they are excited to treat reading literary texts as a way to engage with their own burning ideological concerns.


Students enthusiastically agree that it is crucial to think critically about the politics of gender, the politics of the “private” lives of women, about histories of emotion, and about the relationship among gender norms, private lives, and social institutions.  They hope for Austen’s novels to provide a model of social and cultural critique of this relationship.  Some also expect that reading Austen would revise their understanding of women’s writing (acquired in other literature courses) as texts concerned exclusively with “women’s issues” relevant to lives that are domestic, passive, and apolitical.6  They hope, as one student put it, that plots of Austen’s novels would “involve more than the occasional sister trio, and . . . onslaught of men those of good taste and those of poor taste according to the standards/morals of the period.”7


Neither my excitement about Persuasion, nor the critics’ sense of the novel’s edginess, however, transfers to my students.  They remain reluctant and unsympathetic readers of the novel.  They disagree with the many professional critical readers who argue that Austen’s novels critique societal norms and hierarchies.  Such critics offer interpretive strategies that “good” readers of the novel can use to develop an appreciation for the novelist’s work as critique.  They recommend, for instance, that readers consider Austen’s representation of a female character—say, Mrs. Croft—who is, according to Claudia Johnson, “a tour de force of characterization” at a time of stiffening gender norms, because “her manners are conspicuous by their lack of features usually construed as feminine, such as bashfulness, roundness, sweetness, and daintiness” (152).8  Anticipating readers’ dissatisfaction with the politics of Austen’s novels, Gary Kelly insists that present-day readers cannot expect to find their ideological and political concerns adequately represented in a nineteenth-century text.  He proposes that “if Austen were considered a feminist, it would be by her participating in a feminism of her time, and not of ours” (19).


Rather than aiming to turn students into “good” readers by positing authoritative readings as interpretive points of arrival, our class discussion has examined the grounds and implications of students’ defiance.  Their resistance is worth examining because it makes explicit and questionable the teacher’s expectation that students would become better critics of society and culture by appreciating Austen’s work in the way critics do.  Precisely because they believe in the goals of the “heroic pedagogy,” however, students disagree with the critics’ claim that Persuasion is a novel subversive of the gender or class order.


While excited new readers fantasize about the plotlines of Austen’s novels as possible narratives of their own lives, and imagine themselves in the protagonists, the students I teach refuse such identification.9  Their resistance is neither an inexplicable coincidence nor a failure of imagination:  the novel hardly represents their fantasies.  The ethical and emotional crises Austen’s characters face appear to my students trivial because they can envision no future in which the characters’ problems could become their own.  The ethical drama of Persuasion is the white middle-class female protagonist’s failure to make herself amenable to the preferred cultural norm.10 


The novel, my students think, is therefore hardly a model of critique.  It is instead a way to measure their flagging faith in social mobility, and a reminder about their freedom not to comply with the norm.  A student writes,


Contemporary thought and the writings of yesteryear are obviously on different wavelengths.  Persuasion exemplifies this notion as the protagonist, Anne, is the victim of an overbearing, socially obsessed family, and the proverbial damsel in distress that ultimately marries the man she is smitten with at the beginning of the novel.  Where is the tragedy?  Where is the struggle?  Essentially, the “struggles” of Anne are not necessarily viewed as struggles . . .


Because Austen’s characters are socially, not just historically, too far removed to inspire identification or sympathy, students refuse to be socialized into the critical discourse required to read the novel as critique.11


Instead, students speak as experts on exclusion from the alien world Austen stands for, unwilling to get inducted into reading about its problems as a form of pleasure and triumph, even if such pleasure comes institutionally recommended.  One student writes,


While Jane Austen’s writing, namely Persuasion, is not necessarily difficult from a technical standpoint, reading about the trifles of a vain, condescending upper class does little to garner remorse or sympathy—really any emotion aside from disgust—from college readers.  That said, it does much to challenge college readers because of its stance on social constructions, especially from those of the upper class.  For most students, including myself, it is far too easy for us to write off a piece of literature as boring simply because it is not wholly possible for us to identify with the characters and the expectations they must face by their contemporary society and their peers.


This student expresses a desire to engage in critical reading yet provides an insightful explanation of the limits of Austen’s appeal.


Although they appreciate the need for readers to see their own quandaries reflected in those undergone by the characters, even students who had read other Austen novels find it difficult to read Persuasion as a text whose politics can become the reader’s own.  One of them writes,


I’ve tried to like Jane Austen.  I really tried, but Austen is not my cup of tea.  For one, her writing is predictable.  The female protagonist is strange and doesn’t quite fit into her surroundings.  She meets the male protagonist and feels deep passion, that passion being either love or hate.  Then in the last chapter they magically get married.  Happy ending.  Hooray.  How did this plotline get written in all of her novels?


Female students in particular are alarmed that they are expected to enjoy a narrative in which the female characters’ perceivable depth, granted as a function of class status or mobility (that special point of critical praise for Persuasion), is subsumed (perhaps even sacrificed) to the institution of marriage.


While it may be true that marriage shields some women from impropriety, social exclusion, and economic duress, students find themselves betrayed by a novel that dissolves the social and political tensions established by meticulous character and plot development by settling the female protagonists in a conservative institution.  One student admits,


I understand that in the eighteenth century, the endings of Austen’s novels were realistic.  Women had to get married.  I get it, but Austen gives me hope in the beginning of her novels that maybe she won’t give me the traditional ending.  Of course, it’s a false hope and I end up feeling brutally lied to.


Students find it unacceptable that marriage could go uncontested as the only political vision for women, precisely because they know that obsessions with the pathology of family and marriage are hardly the exclusive domain of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century romance.  When Paul Poplawski explains that marriage, in Austen’s time, was “everything that disempowered [women] and could have made them dependent on men but at the same time offered them their only escape from profound material insecurity and an even more constrained and burdensome dependence on the family” (290), his assessment is a sobering reminder about the dark history of present-day conservative politicians’ and pundits’ prescriptions for eradicating the socio-economic inconvenience that are the unmarried, sexually active “urban poor.”12


Far from a transparent structural detail in the greater psycho-political scaffolding of the novel, marriage as the only desirable outcome of a narrative appears to students as frightening.  One of them writes,


I have tried to see the romanticism of Austen.  I see nothing romantic in female characters’ heartbreaking wait to find the one they love.  I don’t like it.  Yes, in the end you could say all the pain of waiting was worth it because the protagonists end up being married, but it isn’t worth it considering the reason for the wait was menial, even unnecessary.  The “wait” for the protagonists to wed makes me not want them to get married.  I beg for them not to be married because it is a cheap ending; an ending I knew about from the moment I picked up the book.  It is not original, and it isn’t a good idea.


Students are disappointed at the foreclosure of narrative alternatives because reading Persuasion asks them to face the possibility that social mobility results not from one’s improved ability to think critically about social conventions and become better able to resist them, but from learning how to embrace compliance with oppressive racialized class ideals, whether class-appropriate romantic love or the authenticity of women’s sensibility.


The points of students’ resistance to the novel—the insurmountable class difference of the characters, attended by unacceptable gender politics of the narrative—align their reading in illuminating ways with the readings of scholars such as Marilyn Butler.  Butler, for example, has described Austen’s plots as expressions of “a typical conservative middle-class ethic of the day” and marriage in Austen’s novels as a form of promise of “continued self-discipline, and a higher commitment than ever before to service to the community,” a way to “fortify middle-class life by arming it from within” (285).13  Similarly, my students do not presume that women’s authorship must be an effective counterpoint to masculinist canon’s ideological biases or omissions.  Their refusal to read Austen as a feminist writer is motivated by two sophisticated ideas about interpretation.  First, students assume that gender politics of a text need not be inferred from the writer’s gender; second, they allow their act of reading to determine whether the politics of a text can become their own.14


Reading Persuasion is an excellent occasion for students to examine what kind of political acumen distinguishes women’s writing from that of men, and to consider how women’s writing bespeaks women’s best political interests.  Students are disappointed to read about “women’s” engagement with crucial social, political, and philosophical questions about “women’s lives” as domestic and non-competitive, as lives of malaise, propriety, and discontent, and an occasional marriage.  Rather than a work about the possibilities of liberation through critique, Persuasion becomes for them a document of women’s self-oppression, either as a work by a woman, or as a work about women.  Students believe their own intersectional politics of gender, class, and race to be far ahead of what the novel offers.


Good uses for bad education


If the professed goal of education in literary interpretation is to teach students how to “read better,” and students bring to class “uncritical” kinds of interpretation, we might assume that instructors are there to correct or occasionally disqualify their reading, legitimated by their training as scholars and teachers of interpretation.  But what happens in such a classroom when students’ observations are motivated by the desire to produce a heroic reading—critical and enabling—and that reading conflicts with the teacher’s?  Can students get closer to the horizon of personal and social liberation through literature while generating knowledge inconsistent with the output of the critical machinery?


Michael Warner suggests that teaching students to abandon their resistance in order to acquire a taste for the critics’ ways of reading should raise suspicion, because such pedagogy favors “people who are properly socialized into a political culture, regardless of how (or whether) they read” (15).  If successful “critical” reading requires discrimination according to non-literary social and political norms, could such reading be, Warner asks,


not so much a reading practice as notional derivative from a prior, uncritical reading that it must posit in order to exist?  Is it a style of rereading, or discourse about reading rather than reading per se? . . . Or is it more like a discipline, seeking to replace the raw and untrained practices of the merely literate with a cultivated and habitual disposition to read by means of another set of practices? (15)


Warner brings to our pedagogical attention the apparent contradiction at the heart of literary pedagogy.  While literature classrooms aspire to partake in the heroic narrative of critical education for universal liberation, they often prioritize authoritative interpretation as a guide for students in need of “cultivation.”  My students’ responses to Persuasion make clear that the conventional literature curriculum and classroom were designed to habituate students to the reasoning of the scholarly authority, its selection of readings, and the kinds of interpretation consistent with a specific register of social norms.  Once they disrupt the usual academic and economic homogeneity of the student constituency, their unconventional preparation—their “bad” education—has to become a topic of interpretive education in its own right.


Where “regular” students, properly prepared for excitement about the correct phenomena of popular culture, want to make concessions to interpretive authority and established models of reasoning in the name of liberation, my students create friction.  They arrive in the classroom unburdened of the obligation to like or to enjoy Austen’s work, or to revere and protect her exceptional canonical status.  In the name of liberation, they refuse to cede their powers of interpretation to the institutional authority that had promised to set them free.  They are anomalous in that they believe that the very procedures of liberation are subject to examination.


Rather than a lack of reading sophistication, or an inability to engage with the “ideas” offered by the novel, students’ resistance to a privileged kind of interpretation can be read instead as a kind of insight into the benefits and pleasures of failing to see a novel’s critically-accepted “deeper meaning.”  Students like to say that Austen must be relevant “in society,” a phrase they use to acknowledge the reputation that Austen has in a world to which they have little access.  While important “in society,” Austen remains for them a writer whose work is used to document and, far more problematically, to glamorize the exclusions imposed on those who fail to observe the dominant social, gender, and aesthetic norms.


Teaching Austen’s work to students who do not enjoy reading her work is an opportunity to discuss the importance of assumptions that keep literature “in society.”  My course on the modern family explicitly addressed the intellectual and political motives that bring a writer such as Austen to students’ attention, and students were happy to discuss the patterns they had noticed in their reading assignments across multiple courses along with their patterns of resistance to the preconceived process of learning.


In this course, they got to think about the easy association of women’s writing with (family) romance, provincialism, or domesticity through a juxtaposition of Austen’s work with the work of other women writers, and particularly with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.15  Reading the two novels, students considered their relationship to female authorship and the different ways gender norms permeate the two texts.16  Students saw Brontë’s novel as a more politically effective model of gender representation because it places marriage in the context of other social institutions, explicitly treating marriage at the intersections of gender, race, and class.  Unlike Austen, Brontë appeared to students less insistent on the idea that marriage could be an unequivocal answer to women’s questions about their place in a world shaped by social convention.  Even while isolated from “society,” characters in Wuthering Heights suffer harsh and unmerited changes of status, and female characters show little compunction about treating marriage as an economic institution.  Characters shift about their obligations to middle-class life and propriety (Heathcliff leaves, like Wentworth, to a kind of career, whose exact content is unexplained, but which allows him to return to a position of relative economic and social independence); the promise of marriage secures both affective compromise and disappointment.


Students did not perceive Wuthering Heights to be an expression of pessimism about societal oppression but rather a kind of critique that insists, through its narrative form and character development, that social institutions and human (emphatically, women’s and men’s) desires are misaligned.  They perceived that Brontë, more radically so than Austen, represented marriage as a dangerous proposition for women.  Through marriage women could attain an acceptable social position, but potentially also pay an enormous price for choosing what Austen had called “persuasion”—the “sensible” values and opinions held by most in their social class.  The seemingly transgressive desire women suppressed in the interest of convention threatened to alienate them from the only support system they knew; their self-determination was desirable and punishable.  Students preferred Brontë’s novel because, unlike Persuasion, it provided a way to imagine the torment of “choosing” between two unbearable options.  Odd to think at first, yet pretty clear to read:  Wuthering Heights, more so than Persuasion, seemed to reflect my students’ notion of “society.”


Students’ questions about Austen and Brontë interrogated the shape of the literary imagination as historical and political.  What the novels could imagine students took as instruction on the available ways of reading, and, by reading, on the ways of abiding by one’s own desires in order to become or remain “in society.”17  They were interested in questions about the origin and shape of desire as well as its confinement, a phenomenon Nancy Armstrong has explained as a function of novels’ timing and narrative structure, such that “when one discovers what one wants in an Austen novel . . . the story is almost over.  But when one discovers what one wants in the Brontës’ novels, the story has just gotten underway” (193).  What is there to act on in a world where the force of persuasion can only be discussed in secret or not at all?  Because Wuthering Heights holds out no promise of redemption for characters who choose persuasion, reading it in the same course as Persuasion created an opportunity to study how novels have used narrative structure and characters to cultivate our imagination about the space in which we can operate both as individuals and as members of society.18


A class that allows such questions about the relationship between reading and history makes clear how cultural capital differs from, but often lives very close to, social and financial capital, and makes it possible to discuss the historical ties among literary reading, social status, and the university.19  Pierre Bayard has discussed one way to understand these connections as “talking about books you haven’t read” (10), a name for the activity designed to forestall the sense of shame reserved for those who fail to understand (in their lack of preparation for a certain kind of class membership) that knowledge of books has more to do with the books’ place in the cultural and social universe, and less with books’ content or the number of books one has read.


Studying Austen with students such as mine offers an opportunity to talk about literary education by talking about its discomforts, an invitation to discuss as genuinely strange our current ideas about critical reading:  the “pious labor of a historically unusual kind of person,” in the words of Michael Warner (36).  The most recent label for this kind of discussion—“critical university studies”—names the kind of inquiry that relates students’ concerns about the plots and characters of Austen’s novels directly to the political imagination that shapes the class and gender politics of the literary curriculum.  Perhaps teaching Austen is a good way to “teach the university,” as Jeffrey J. Williams calls the classroom practice—that is, to make the university itself the matter, rather than the invisible and inert container of our critical, critical, and pedagogical work.


To contribute to this serious and complex project, teachers of literature can propose arguments about the relationship between the teaching of cultural capital and knowing the significance of a writer such as Austen “in society.”  In my teaching situation, I can expect to explain, rather than assume, how Austen works in the curriculum as an instrument of critique for readers whose habits of mind, patterns of consumption, and emotional economy find little support in the social and textual conventions of the novel, its surrounding critical discourse, or dominant popular culture.  More important, I can expect to enjoy an exercise in interpretation that relieves students from the threat of embarrassment of being the odd sort who dislike Austen.





Please see the syllabus for the course discussed in this essay.





1. Institutional Research at John Jay College provides demographic data in its Quick Facts (2012) and Fact Book (2011).  For more information see  Information about the students’ language practice and their proficiency in multiple languages is available at


2. Reading “Problem,” a short piece by Lydia Davis, was a particularly effective exercise in making this transition.  The piece takes less than ten full lines to describe how child care duties and financial and emotional obligations were distributed among seven individuals—T, U, V, W, X, Y, and Z—following the dissolution of a marriage.  The text strips those involved in the fallout—the mothers, fathers, former and current partners and lovers, and children—of common names, and thereby of their claims to individual or emotional specificity.  It “reduces” them (in my students’ words) to “functions of each other” and “roles.”  One student observed that it made “all people look the same.”  We drew schematic representations of these relationships on the board to get a clearer picture of the characters’ symbolic and material debts to one another.


3. Even when the scholarship remembered Austen as a writer of undesirable politics, as when Edward Said’s Orientalism discussed Mansfield Park as a text whose ethics are shaped by colonialism and slavery, the critical attention gave Austen a new critical life.  For a clear and compelling overview of the ways in which Austen has been described as a “feminist,” see Devoney Looser (4-6).


4. Claudia Johnson argues that Persuasion is treated as “above all else the last novel, the apparent conclusion that determines the shape of everything that has come before,” the work “made to bear the imprint of Austen’s entire career” (144).  Persuasion offers a compelling model of early nineteenth-century “epistemology of emotion,” which acknowledges “persuasion” as a way of thinking about how feelings are generated in the social and cultural realms, rather than in some ineffable, authentic inner sanctum of the self.  See especially “Lost in a Book: Jane Austen’s Persuasion” (137-162) and “Coda: Quotation and the Circulation of Feeling in Early Nineteenth-Century England” (164-93).


5. In our particular institutional circumstances, this conflict takes the form of corporate-style rebranding in the shadow of racialized discourses about the family, self-discipline, and the state.  A brand management company decorated the College with the self-congratulating slogan “Fierce advocates for justice,” a vague reference to the historical relationship between the college and the criminal justice system, and to its new aspiration to “educate for justice.”  Recognized by the federal government as an institution that predominantly serves the minority populations, the college simultaneously takes part in programs and discourses that solidify identity politics from historical accounts of oppression (e.g., the “Urban Male Initiative”).


6. I realized that students in the senior seminar already perceive Austen’s work to be a part of the “feminine” portion of the curriculum when one of them told me that he had “thought about gender in Austen before our time together” when he “read The Awakening in Prof. X’s class.”  It became clear not only that the student had Austen confused with Kate Chopin, but that women writers were being clustered in the students’ idea of the curriculum as a particular focal point designed to bring their attention to “women’s issues.”


7. All quotations from students’ work come from their weekly responses, papers they wrote in the course, and end-of-semester evaluations of the work we did as a class.


8. Claudia Johnson argues that though Mrs. Croft “may not repudiate some of the comforts of gentility, she does repudiate the system of sexually differentiated manners ladies and gentlemen depend upon” (152).


9. In a recent BBC report by Jon Kelly about Austen’s “cult following in the US,” Myretta Robens, manager of one of the most popular websites trafficking in Austen texts and lore, The Republic of Pemberley, explains that intense enthusiasm for the writer finds its renewal in a particular kind of reading that wants to register only “the elegance of the time.”  Popular reading has no use for Austen’s work as critique; rather, it works because “it’s an escape.”  Danielle Spratt’s essay in this issue, offering a critique of escapism in Austen, is a relevant contribution to the discussion about the contradictions of writer’s appeal.  For academic and popular accounts of readers’ abiding interest in Austen’s novels, see Janeites (ed. Deidre Lynch), Claudia L. Johnson’s Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, Juliette Wells’s Everybody’s Jane, and Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites: A Journey through the World of Jane Austen Fandom.


10. A tragedy in that world could be the story of a character like Mrs. Smith, barely identifiable by a name so indistinctive that she is abjection epitomized—widowed, disabled and impoverished, and socially delegitimized.  Yet even she “works,” but only to help the poor, not to alleviate her own destitution.


11. They refuse to take on the roles Nancy Armstrong ascribes to middle-class women and their “authority” in the matters of romantic love and management of emotion.  See Introduction to Desire and Domestic Fiction (3-27).


12. The professional critical discourse offers complex arguments about the marriage plot as constitutive of the feminist potential of the novel.  Wendy Jones argues that bourgeois ideas about marriage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are bound up in the liberal imagination of contract and consent.  Since marriage requires women’s “contractual subjectivity,” a concept logically incompatible with subjection, women’s consent to marriage implies women’s autonomy.  Laura Mooneyham White proposes that novels demonstrate Austen’s “flexibility” with the marriage plot, while the accusations against the conventional denouement wrongly assume that “romantic love exerted no influence upon the social systems of the nineteenth century” (75).  White does not, however, explain how marriage becomes synonymous with “romantic love,” or what degree of “flexibility” constitutes freedom from involvement in arguably oppressive social norms and institutions.  Claudia Stein argues against scholarship that sees Anne Elliot, Persuasion’s protagonist, as akin to Cinderella, emphasizing that “the novel goes far beyond the fairy tale to present a woman and a man with human foibles who grow and mature, actively make choices, decide they are soulmates and move toward a future that has chance—though not an assurance—of being happy” (145).

More recently, Ari Fleischer, former Press Secretary in the administration of George W. Bush, published a piece in the Wall Street Journal titled, “How To Fight Income Inequality: Get Married.”  The article met with a swift response from the liberal media, e.g., Michelle Goldberg’s “Why Marriage Won’t Solve Inequality” in The Nation, and coincided with a report from The Center for American Progress directing public attention from the common rhetoric about a surge of women’s empowerment to the data about ongoing economic disparities between men and women in the United States.


13. Accounting for the efforts to represent Austen as a writer who espoused a certain strain of liberal ideas about gender, Marilyn Butler points out that the “comparison Jane Austen makes between an idle, useless ‘gentleman’ proud of his rank, and the eminently useful sailors, has been seen as a notable example of Jane Austen’s willingness to be radical” (284).


14. Austen has been amenable to the inclusionary liberal politics in criticism that equates female authorship with feminist politics, and presumes that readers’ understanding of the history of gender will be transformed by the knowledge about women’s access to the literary market.  Such an approach to scholarship relies on women’s texts to serve as documents of women’s critical consciousness about their own social positions, a form of self-critique, and often as “evidence of experience” for women’s history.  About the political and ideological risks of fronting “evidence of experience” as central to the history of gender, and the dangers of the concomitant identity politics, see Joan W. Scott’s “The Evidence of Experience.”


15. Marilyn Butler has suggested that the work of Maria Edgeworth, a “genuine enough intellectual,” who examined her own politics as she was setting her novels against them, would offer another such counterpoint to Austen, who is in Butler’s mind a political conservative, who “never allows the inward life of a character, growing under her hand, seriously to challenge the doctrinaire preconceptions on which all her fiction is based” (Butler 294).  Edgeworth’s novels demonstrate, according to Butler, that it was conceivable for women to have knowledge other than institutional and conventional, and interests and pleasures other than domestic.  Edgeworth, in Butler’s reckoning, was a model experimentalist around the gender norms of the period, who “drops the almost obligatory heterosexual ‘love interest,’ to focus instead on the relationships between women” (xxxviii).  In the parlance of the Internet-savvy generation, Edgeworth’s texts pass the “Bechdel test”:  her female characters speak to each other and not always about men.  More recently, Jeanne M. Britton has offered a similar argument about Maria Edgeworth as a writer who, in her novel Belinda, uses the ambiguities and multiplicities of the meaning of “character” (moral character, literary character, etc.) to “emphasize . . . the artificiality of the social and fictional contrivance that the marriage plot requires” (447).


16. We discussed how gender, race, and class inform the representation of characters, the landscape, and the domestic spaces characters occupy, and gave attention to the strangeness of the world Brontë built.  In the words of one student’s final paper, “Throughout Brontë’s work we can see how marriage and family play a big part in society.”


17. Armstrong argues that the Brontës’ understanding of the uses of literature for this kind of politics emerged from their marginal relationship to the literary tradition, which gave them access to the kind of knowledge that disrupts the primacy of “the life of the parlor” in the visions of women’s lives (190).  Armstrong’s broader argument is that the Brontës’ fiction sought to create a new kind of subjectivity which allowed a new space for women’s desire.  In order to dismantle the “language” of Austen, whose marriages “make statements that are at once perfectly personal and perfectly political,” the Brontës “designated certain forms of female desire as outside the culture,” in order to make these forms “represent a new basis in nature for the self, thus a new human nature” (192).


18. Secondary literature on Brontë’s novel such as Carolyn Steedman’s chapter in Master and Servant on Nelly Dean, a domestic servant narrator in the novel, offers students additional insight into the relevance of a literary text as a kind of document for the history of thinking about women and gender beyond the bounds of middle-class proprieties.


19. For the discussion of the relationship between cultural capital, literature classroom, and the university, I draw on the work of John Guillory in Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation.



Works Cited


Armstrong, Nancy.  Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel.  New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Bayard, Pierre.  How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.  New York: Bloomsbury, 2009.

Bechdel, Alison.  “The Rule.”  DTWOF: The Blog.  16 Aug. 2005.

Britton, Jeanne M.  “Theorizing Character in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda.”  Nineteenth-Century Literature 67.4 (2013): 433-56.

Butler, Marilyn.  Jane Austen and the War of Ideas.  New York: Clarendon, 1987.

Davis, Lydia.  “Problem.”  The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.  New York: Farrar, 2009.  124.

Fleischer, Ari.  “How to Fight Income Inequality: Get Married.”  The Wall Street Journal 12 Jan. 2014.

Goldberg, Michelle.  “Why Marriage Won’t Solve Poverty.”  The Nation 15 Jan. 2014.

Guillory, John.  Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Johnson, Claudia L.  Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

_____.  Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures.  Chicago: U Chicago P, 2012.

Jones, Wendy S.  Consensual Fictions: Women, Liberalism, and the English Novel.  Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2005.

Kelly, Gary.  “Jane Austen, Romantic Feminism, and Civil Society.”  Jane Austen and the Discourses of Feminism.  Ed. Devoney Looser.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.  17-34.

Kelly, Jon.  “Janeites: The Curious American Cult of Jane Austen.”  BBC News Magazine, 28 Jan. 2013.

Looser, Devoney.  “Introduction: Jane Austen and the Discourses of Feminism.”  Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism.  Ed. Devoney Looser.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.  1-17.

Lynch, Deidre, ed.  Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees.  Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.

Pinch, Adela.  Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen.  Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 1996.

Poplawski, Paul.  A Jane Austen Encyclopedia.  Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1998.

Said, Edward W.  Orientalism.  New York: Random, 1979.

Scott, Joan W.  “Gender: a Useful Category of Historical Analysis.”  The American Historical Review 91.5 (1986): 1053-75.

_____.  “The Evidence of Experience.”  Critical Inquiry 17.4 (1991): 773-97.

Shriver, Maria, and The Center for American Progress.  “A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink.”  Shriver Report.  12 Jan. 2014.

Steedman, Carolyn.  Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age.  Cambridge: CUP, 2007.

Stein, Claudia.  “Persuasion’s Box of Contradictions.”  A Companion to Jane Austen Studies.  Ed. Laura Cooner Lambdin and Robert Thomas Lambdin.  Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 2000.  145-58.

Warner, Michael.  “Uncritical Reading.”  Polemic: Critical or Uncritical.  Ed. Jane Gallop.  New York: Routledge, 2004.  13-38.

Wells, Juliette.  Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination.  New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

White, Laura Mooneyham.  “Jane Austen and the Marriage Plot: Questions of Persistence.”  Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism.  Ed. Devoney Looser.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.  71-86.

Williams, Jeffrey J.  “Deconstructing Academe: The Birth of Critical University Studies.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education 19 Feb. 2012.

Williams, Raymond.  “Dominant, Residual, and Emergent.”  Marxism and Literature.  Oxford: OUP, 1977. 121-27.

Yaffe, Deborah.  Among the Janeites: A Journey through the World of Jane Austen Fandom.  New York: Mariner, 2013.


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