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Teaching POC Adaptations of Pride and Prejudice at a PWI in 2020

It is common for literature instructors to bemoan our students’ desires for “relatability” in fiction.  Literature is about more than finding characters relatable.  What about understanding people who are not relatable?  What about form?  Aesthetics?  Historical significance?  Relating, it seems, signifies a superficial reading, the work of a novice rather than an expert (North).  In addition to privileging more “academic” readings—which alienates students and makes them believe they are incapable of enjoying or understanding literature—the dismissal of students’ desire to relate, “to identify or feel a connection with” (OED), does not take into account that relating is an entirely valid and developmentally appropriate way for undergraduates to approach an unfamiliar text.  Many undergraduates are still undergoing adolescent development and the exciting but sometimes painful individuation process (Kroger et al.).  Students’ desires to “relate” to literary texts and characters are a natural extension of identification and individuation in their psychological development.  For students starting university during the fall 2020 semester, both the pandemic and the summer’s outbreak of white supremacist violence disrupted individuation.  Some students were alone, away from their families for the first time in a historical moment they recognized as frightening and isolating.  Other students worked through the processes of individuation while residing in their childhood homes—a circumstance that comes with its own set of challenges.  During the fall 2020 semester, I taught “Writing as Inquiry: Adapting Austen,” a course that asked students to consider diverse identities through a series of writing assignments in response to adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by contemporary persons of color (POC).  I argue that students’ engagement with Pride and Prejudice adaptations moves through relatability to ethical consideration of diverse identities.

Undoubtedly, identification risks the collapsing of difference.  Students will naturally look for similarities with characters, working out their individuality by recognizing it in others.  When we assign works by authors of color to promote diverse reading, we should take care not to tokenize or reduce these texts and their authors, ticking off boxes on a multicultural to-do list.  We should ask students to question whether characters they identify with are really “just like” them (Schneider).  My experiences in the classroom, however, suggest that students do not necessarily conflate identification with a similarity of identity or background.  Instead, identification with characters or situations in the novels and films we studied prompted my students to consider differences both historical and cultural, reflect on social relations in their own lives, and examine their ethical responsibilities when seeking to understand identities different from their own.  In this essay, I detail how I adapted this course to the exigencies of teaching online during a global pandemic before explaining the overall course structure.  I then discuss how students in this course moved through and beyond the process of relating, using a variety of writing assignments to consider how they can ethically orient themselves in a world that often encourages conflict between communities. 

Many notable scholars, such as Patricia A. Matthew, Devoney Looser, and Robert Eggleston, have published essays about Austen in the university classroom.  They provide nuanced and thoughtful discussions of pedagogical approaches to her writing.  When, at the beginning of 2020, I proposed a lower-level writing course centered around adaptations of Jane Austen, I did not imagine that it would be an online course during a compressed semester.1  Just eight months before, none of us would have predicted that we would start the fall semester scattered across the country, isolated in our homes, and brought together for the first time with only the tenuous and unfamiliar connection of a virtual room.  As the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic set in, so did the magnitude of state-sanctioned police brutality and the systemic racism of the American criminal justice system, as well as the force of Black Lives Matter protests which swept the world in the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other Black Americans.  Responding to these overwhelming events, my syllabus changed considerably from its initial conception.  By August, Austen was an important but by no means central figure in my course.  Instead of using Austen as a focal point for thinking about adaptation and authorship, I restructured the class exclusively around adaptations of Pride and Prejudice by writers of color. 

On the first day of class, after reassuring my students that I recognized that we were in a stressful and unexpected situation, I laid out the central question that we would explore over the semester:  how do people from historically marginalized communities adapt a canonical work of literature to explore intersectional identities?  TCU, where I teach, is a predominantly white institution (PWI).  White students make up 68.2% of the student body (Texas Christian University).  My class reflected these percentages.  I initially expected students to be somewhat familiar with Austen as a cultural touchstone, perhaps reflecting my own early exposure to Austen through film adaptations such as the BBC Pride and Prejudice and the 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman.  When I asked my students how many of them were familiar with Pride and Prejudice or Jane Austen, I was shocked that only one of the twenty people in the little squares neatly arrayed on my computer screen raised a hand.  I quickly realized that I could not move directly into discussions of intersectional identities as explored in the adaptations we would be reading or watching throughout the semester.  Before considering the ways in which adaptations of Pride and Prejudice by writers of color remixed Austen’s original novel to explore race, post-colonial identity, and global tensions, students needed to understand how and, more importantly, why Austen was still culturally relevant to their lives. 

To reduce the risk of COVID-19, my institution, like many others, compressed the fall semester into fourteen weeks with none of the regular breaks.  To accommodate this shorter schedule, I reduced the number of novels assigned in this course.  Students contended with challenges such as a pandemic, the high possibility of illness, family health issues and even deaths, and a contentious election, to name only a few.  I felt an ethical responsibility to ensure that my students’ workload was manageable and that I scaffolded the course in such a way as to maximize their learning opportunities.  The first significant change to my syllabus was that I did not include Austen’s original novel in the course readings.  For first-year students, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels often feel unfamiliar and daunting.  While they are more than capable of reading, analyzing, and even enjoying these novels, I find that they benefit from reading them over a few weeks with plenty of class time for questions and discussion.  Including the original novel would leave less time for the texts I wanted to focus on:  Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin, Gurinder Chadha’s film Bride and Prejudice, and Pride by Ibi Zoboi.  Since I needed to quickly familiarize students with the general outlines of Pride and Prejudice so that we could focus on the POC adaptations, I decided to begin the semester with Joe Wright’s 2005 film adaptation of Pride & Prejudice.  Needless to say, the students were pleased that their first homework assignment was to watch a movie.  Beginning with discussions about historical differences between Austen’s characters and students’ experiences facilitated considerations of diverse identities throughout the semester. 

I built “Adapting Austen” around three major assignments, each of which prompted students to approach the adaptations we studied in narrative, research, and adaptive modes.  After watching the 2005 Pride & Prejudice film, students wrote letters to a recipient of their choice detailing their experience of watching the movie and how they connected to Austen’s story.  Since the students were unfamiliar with Austen’s work, they appeared skeptical when I explained the assignment to them at the beginning of the semester.  What could writing someone a letter about watching a movie possibly teach them?  By the second week of class, students were making connections between their own lives and the film’s themes and honing their rhetorical choices, tailoring their writing to their selected audience.  Even some of the more reluctant students who had claimed that they did not really like romantic movies, much less period pieces, came to class with poignant analyses of specific scenes from the film. 

I was particularly struck by students’ responses to the Bennet family.  Elizabeth and Jane were immediately sympathetic characters.  More interestingly, students looked past Mrs. Bennet’s general ridiculousness, describing her instead as a mother who was annoying, yes, but also deeply concerned for her daughters’ futures.  The sisterly affection among the Bennet sisters was also a reference point for many students, but their most moving connection was to Mr. Bennet.  One student described his reaction to the scene where Mr. Bennet gives Elizabeth his blessing to marry Mr. Darcy:  “You could just see the happiness in his face.  He was just happy that Lizzy was happy, but he was sad that she was going to leave him.”  His classmates nodded enthusiastically, especially when he elaborated, “It made me think about what my parents felt when I was leaving home to come to TCU.”  The pandemic exacerbated the pain of students’ separation from their families, but at that moment, they were able to connect and offer mutual support. 

After familiarizing themselves with Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen, students read Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last, a modern retelling of Austen’s novel set among the Muslim community in Toronto.  Ayesha, the Lizzy Bennet character, is a poet and a teacher.  She falls in love with Khalid, a religiously conservative software developer, despite their initial animosity.  Ayesha and Khalid must come to terms with their growing attachment, differences, and the fact that Khalid is being pressured into an arranged marriage with Ayesha’s cousin.  Students found many of the details in the novel unfamiliar and even surprising. Most notably, many students were shocked to discover that arranged marriages were still a part of several cultures.  They shared the same fascination with arranged marriages that fueled the popularity of the Netflix series Indian Matchmaking released that summer.  During this second unit, we watched the 2005 Bollywood film Bride and Prejudice, which also deals with arranged marriage in Indian culture.  My students, most of whom had never watched a Bollywood film, were delighted by the cinematic style, the bright colors, light humor, and music and dancing.  They also had a lot to say about the legacies of British colonialism and American economic imperialism that the movie addresses.  Many of them cheered during Lalita’s takedown of hotel magnate Darcy, whose trip to India included scouting locations for a luxury resort.  In this unit’s assignment, students selected a cultural artifact from either Ayesha at Last or Bride and Prejudice and wrote a short research paper exploring this artifact’s significance within the text.  The purpose of this assignment was to have students practice scholarly writing and citation while familiarizing themselves with cultural practices very different from their own. 

For many students who were used to writing typical five-paragraph essays responding to an assigned prompt, developing a research question was initially daunting.  I asked them to look back at the letters they had written at the beginning of the semester.  What were they most interested by in the Pride & Prejudice movie?  What did they get excited about or want to tell their friends about in Ayesha at Last or Bride and Prejudice?  Their interests became the jumping-off point for short research papers on various topics. 

While many students did choose to write about arranged marriage, I was encouraged by the range of research topics and thoughtful applications to real-world issues.  For example, one student was interested in Ayesha’s experiences as a Muslim teacher in Canada.  This student wrote her research paper on the challenges Muslim teachers face in North American and the effects of discrimination on their mental health.  Explaining why she selected this topic, the student said, “I had a Muslim teacher in high school.  Reading Ayesha at Last made me think about what sorts of challenges this teacher had.”  Although this student’s interest in the topic did originate in her personal experiences, she immediately moved beyond her own perspective to consider another’s experiences and then investigated the social impact of anti-Muslim sentiment in North America.  Another student, enchanted by the costumes in Bride and Prejudice, wrote a paper about costuming in Bollywood film.  This student used interviews with the film’s costumer and scholarly articles from fashion history journals to discuss the artistic decisions behind Bollywood costuming alongside the importance of textile production in India, both historically and in the present.  Other students wrote essays about the abandoned plans to dismantle the Taj Mahal during the British Raj, the significance of Khalid’s traditional attire in Ayesha at Last, and the connections between neuroscience research on choice and the happiness of characters in Bride and Prejudice.  Overall, this project demonstrated that students were more than capable of moving from their own experiences to examine how forces such as colonialism, religious discrimination, or even cutting-edge scientific research have material effects on individuals. 

The final unit of the course focused on the young adult novel Pride by Ibi Zoboi.  Set in Brooklyn, Pride tells the story of Zuri Benitez, an Afro-Latinx teen troubled by the gentrification taking over her neighborhood.  Students were excited to read a young adult novel about an American teen, and throughout the unit, they said that they enjoyed reading about characters they found relatable.  Zuri’s conflicting feelings about leaving her home to go to college the next year was an experience with which students quickly identified.  Again, they did not stop at mere identification with the characters in the novel. Instead, they wanted to discuss the aspects of the story with which they were less familiar.  Every week, students shared their responses to a detail of their choice from the week’s reading on an online discussion board.  This individual assignment was popular with students, as we used their responses to guide our class discussions.  Usually, students submitted a wide array of posts, but one week at the end of the semester, I was surprised to find most of the students had shared images of Caribbean art, saying that Zuri’s description of the brightly colored paintings in her godmother’s apartment prompted them to spend some time reading about Caribbean art.  This discussion was an unprompted communal exercise in research and sharing knowledge made possible because the students felt supported to pursue their interests and share them with an eager audience of peers.  Similarly, students wanted to discuss the theme of gentrification in the novel, noting that although they were familiar with the concept, the book helped them understand the emotional toll of gentrification on tight-knit communities.  Reading about the changes to her neighborhood that Zuri had no control over made students think about how they were implicated in gentrification. 

The final project for the course was a creative adaptation of a scene from Pride and Prejudice.  Each student selected a moment from the story to adapt.  Projects included short stories, short graphic novels, and even a series of TikTok videos.  Many students drew from their personal experiences when creating their adaptations, translating Lizzy and Darcy into young adults who faced many of the pressures with which my students were intimately familiar.  However, students were eager to use their adaptations to examine the story’s central themes—family, societal pressure, expectations, coming to know someone whose experiences are wildly different from your own.  One student set an adaptation in Fort Worth, with the two main characters coming from neighborhoods with stark socio-economic differences to explore TCU’s disparity from the surrounding community.  Another student created a graphic novel that included aspects of her Latinx heritage, translating the assembly ball at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice into a Dia de Los Muertos celebration. 

Jessica Frias, Texas Christian University.
(To view the slides in Full Screen mode, click on the three vertical dots to access the menu option.)

What was most striking was that by the end of the semester, my students were confidently taking apart a much-revered work of literature to make it their own.  They discussed different narrative techniques, deciding how to structure the dialogue in their stories to convey tone and emotion.  They switched the characters’ genders or social positions to explore what differences this would make to the original story.  They offered feedback on each other’s drafts with precision and care, stating that they wanted to help each other write the best adaptations they could.  Students invoked Linda Hutcheon’s theory of adaptation, which we discussed together at the beginning of the semester, when describing their authorial choices.  They weighed fidelity and innovation consciously, making sophisticated rhetorical choices and evaluating their writing using Hutcheon’s terms:  “adapters relate stories in their different ways.  They use the same tools that storytellers have always used:  they actualize or concretize ideas; they make simplifying selections, but also amplify and extrapolate; they make analogies; they critique or show their respect, and so on” (3).  These students embraced their urge to relate to the course texts as part of analysis and authorship, not its end goal.  They did so without self-consciousness, reassured that they had as much authority over a classic like Pride and Prejudice as anyone else.  With this authority, they engaged with Austen’s novel as a tool for exploring their identities and identities that were very different from their own. 

One student chose to challenge himself by writing his adaptation from a perspective with which he did not personally identify.  In the Statement of Goals and Choices he submitted with his final project, this student wrote, “writers definitely have a responsibility to accurately depict worldviews that aren’t their own.  Research is essential in developing different characters.”  During the final presentations where students shared their evaluations of their learning over the semester, this student urged his peers to consider the ethical responsibilities of authorship and literary analysis, particularly when discussing those with different experiences of the world.  Throughout the semester, all the students grappled with difference, discrimination, and the histories of colonialism and white supremacy that Jalaluddin, Chadha, and Zoboi tackle in their adaptations of Pride and Prejudice.  By creating their own adaptations, students who were intimidated at first by the thought of analyzing a “classic” took Pride and Prejudice right off its cultural pedestal, and, by studying adaptations by people of color who made Austen’s work their own, they better understood both themselves and their responsibilities as members of a diverse global community. 

Postscript:  My students went from being unacquainted with Austen to eager fans.  The last Zoom class of the semester ended with heartfelt goodbyes, and several students asserted that their plans for the winter break included reading Austen’s original novel.  I wish them happy reading.



The inspiration for this course was the “BWWC in the Classroom” session at the British Women Writers Conference in March 2020.  Donelle Ruwe, Roxanne Eberle, and Elizabeth A. Dolan presented their inspiring pedagogical approaches to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women writers.  I thank them for planting the seed for “Adapting Austen” in my mind.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.
  • Chada, Gurindar, dir.  Bride and Prejudice.  Miramax, 2005.
  • Eggleston, Robert.  “Emma, the Movies, and First-year Literature Classes.”  Persuasions On-Line Occasional Papers 3 (1999). 
  • Hutcheon, Linda, with Siobhan O’Flynn.  A Theory of Adaptation.  Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.
  • Jalaluddin, Uzma.  Ayesha at Last.  New York: Berkley, 2019.
  • Kroger, Jane, et al.  “Identity Status Change during Adolescence and Young Adulthood: A Meta-Analysis.”  Journal of Adolescence 33.5 (2010): 683–98.
  • Looser, Devoney.  “Discovering Jane Austen in Today’s College Classroom.”  Persuasions On-Line 34.2 (2014).
  • Matthew, Patricia A.  “On Teaching, but Not Loving, Jane Austen.”  The Atlantic 23 July 2017.  www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/07/on-teaching-but-not-loving-jane-austen/534012/
  • Mundhra, Smriti, creator.  Indian Matchmaking.  Netflix, 2020.  www.netflix.com/title/80244565
  • North, Anna.  “Should Literature Be ‘Relatable’?”  New York Times 5 Aug. 2014.
  • “relate, v.”  OED Online.  Oxford: OUP, March 2021.
  • Schneider, Barbara L.  “Uncommon Ground: Narcissistic Reading and Material Racism.”  Pedagogy 5.2 (2005): 195–212.
  • Texas Christian University.  “Data & Reports.”  TCU Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, 2019.  www.inclusion.tcu.edu/data-reports/
  • Wright, Joe, dir.  Pride & Prejudice.  StudioCanal, 2005.
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